Unionists – listen to the Professor of Consociation and Confederation

Brendan O’Leary is an extraordinary man.  Born in Cork and brought up in Nigeria and unionist County Antrim, he was a professor of politics at the London School of Economics and for the past 18 years has been Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a political adviser to both the British and Irish governments, to Tony Blair’s British Labour Party in the years up to the Good Friday Agreement, to the United Nations (notably on the Darfur peace process in Sudan) and to the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq. He spends a  part of every year in Northern Ireland where he is ‘World Leading Researcher Visiting Professor of Political Science’ (he wouldn’t want that title to go to his head!) at Queen’s University Belfast.

All this means that he is a one-man brains trust when it comes to the deep political and historical divisions of the North. This is impressively apparent from his magisterial A Treatise on Northern Ireland, of which the third volume, ‘Consociation and Confederation’ was published last year. The fact that he has spent the great bulk of his distinguished professional life outside Ireland is probably the reason he is not better known here.

O’Leary knows his own worth. He is one of the world’s foremost proponents of ‘consociation’: the academic term for the kind of power-sharing system that has just about managed to run Northern Ireland (and, more importantly, keep it largely peaceful) for the past 22 years. He argues that the work of expert political advisers in negotiations – whether in support of governments or rebel parties – is important because “it’s easier to have good bridges and good hospitals if you have decent government”.

In the preface to the last volume of A Treatise on Northern Ireland he looks forward to the day when “an Ireland that has prepared its constitution and its institutions with proper, prudent and consultative foresight may be able to reunify with its lost counties with minimal threat to any human life. Though other malign vistas cannot be excluded – including those that start with premises based on Albion’s record of treaty-breaking – the one just briefly sketched seems far likelier than at any previous time in this author’s life.” In a recent interview he said that if it comes to a Border Poll-type vote: “I hope to contribute to clarifying the terms of any possible Irish unification.”

With such words O’Leary, despite his stated commitment to objectivity, sets out his stall as an unashamed nationalist. However, it would be a pity if intelligent unionists were to use this to dismiss what he writes about possible ways forward for Ireland. Because he puts forward some very interesting ideas, in particular about confederation, which should be of interest to thoughtful unionists who realise that the unequal and unstable status quo of the past 100 years cannot be a basis for a peaceful and cooperative future on the island.

O’Leary defines confederation as follows: “Confederal relations exist when political units voluntarily delegate powers and functions [my italics] to bodies that can exercise power across their jurisdictions.” This is somewhat different from federalism: “Federal relationships exist when there are least two separate tiers of government over the same territory and neither tier can unilaterally alter the constitutional capacities of the other.”

The North South Ministerial Council set up under the Belfast Agreement is a good example of a confederal relationship, says O’Leary. It works on an equal North-South basis in areas where there is a “mutual cross-border and all-island benefit.” The NSMC cannot function without the Northern Ireland Assembly (which had a unionist majority when it was set up) and vice versa, and the Irish constitution was changed by referendum to ensure that the NSMC and its delegated implementation bodies “would be able to exercise island-wide jurisdiction in those functional activities where unionists were willing to cooperate.” The NSMC functions like the EU Council of Ministers, with Ministers having considerable discretion to reach decisions but remaining ultimately accountable to their respective legislatures.¹

O’Leary writes: “If the implementation of the (Belfast) Agreement succeeded, currently a moot point, economic and sociological developments apparent in the 2000s would have underpinned the NSMC as the potential vanguard of a new constitutional confederal tendency. The Republic’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy meant that Northern Ireland’s ministers and citizens, of whatever background, saw increasing benefits from North-South cooperation. And, had the EU continued to integrate, there would have been pressure for both parts of Ireland to enhance their cooperation, given their shared peripheral geographical position, and similar interests in functional activities such as agriculture and tourism.”As we know, Brexit put paid to that benign scenario that for the present.

He goes on: “A second, currently weaker, possible confederal relationship was established by the Agreement, affecting all the islands of Britain and Ireland. In the new British-Irish Council (BIC), the two governments of the sovereign states and all the devolved governments of the UK, and the neighbouring insular dependent territories of the UK, can meet and agree to delegate functions, and may agree common policies. This proposal met unionists’ concerns for reciprocity in linkages, and provided a mechanism through which they might in future be linked to the UK, even if Northern Ireland became part of the Republic.” It is a great pity that the potential of the British-Irish Council to provide a framework for close constitutional and other relations among these islands has remained almost totally neglected and unexplored.

O’Leary continues: “The development of the BIC into a possible confederal relationship institution has been stunted by an Irish reluctance to engage in a forum where it is outnumbered by seven other UK-based governments – Westminster,  Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man – and by a British reluctance to delegate any authority to bodies not controlled by Westminster.” He concludes: “But perhaps the real significance of the BIC lies in the future: in its potential role in a model of double protection [i.e for the unionists – AP] if Ireland ever reunifies.”²

Elsewhere in the book he outlines the federal and confederal possibilities enabled by the Good Friday Agreement. “A confederation is a union of states that delegate their revocable sovereignty to shared confederal institutions, and that retain the right of secession. The North South Ministerial Council, though it has not been the site of major initiatives and activities, could still prove a stepping stone towards a confederal Ireland. The British-Irish Council…could still become the vehicle to  provide unionists with institutional links to the entire Isles in the event of Irish reunification.”

O’Leary advocates two Border Polls: a first vote in the North, and if this results in a majority for reunification, a second vote in the South, with an interval for preliminary negotiations (he doesn’t go into what violent response there might be from elements of loyalism during the interregnum!). He then asks: “Does the Dublin government negotiate the details of reunification with the Northern executive before or after the people of the existing Republic vote to endorse reunification?”

He goes on: “If the key negotiations occur before the Southern referendum, then that may increase the likelihood of an Irish confederation – namely, the formation of a new political system in which two sovereign states are joined together in a common state, jointly establishing a confederal government with delegated authority over both of them for specific functions. This process would necessarily involve the recognition of Northern Ireland as a state  proper. The confederation would represent Ireland in the EU and internationally; it would have  all-island institutions, which would certainly include a common court, but could also include an army with constituent territorial units, and, probably, a confederal police, devoted to serious crime, although its powers could be delegated to a joint body. All such institutions would have to be negotiated, and some presumably could build on the NSMC.”

O’Leary says such a confederation could be both incremental and reversible, through granting Northern Ireland the status of a state. “The confederal treaty could include the right of secession after a specified interval – enabling a majority in Northern Ireland to leave the confederation if the experience proved negative – and it might also be a mechanism to provide British dimensions for unionists and loyalists – for example, membership of the Commonwealth.”

He notes that confederations bringing together two states have a poor track record of survival. He foresees that “the confederal waystation” may therefore be brief, “facilitating the negotiation of deeper reunification” or “a fairly rapid reversal” to an independent Northern Ireland. This is where I would part company with him: believing that the only (outside) chance of persuading a significant element of unionism to follow this path is to reassure them that confederation, with continuing strong British links, would be the final destination.

“Voices within the Dublin and Belfast governments may well prefer con/federal paths,” he goes on. “Northern Ireland and the Republic’s core forms, territories, institutions and buildings will have existed for a century or more; and institutional formats of all kinds have their own inertia. Unionists are deeply attached to Northern Ireland…and there are those with a Northern Irish identity who are neither unionists nor Protestants.”

O’Leary gives the example of confederal, two-community Belgium as a relative success story. “It is tough for formerly dominant groups to grant parity to a group that was once inferior. Belgium is a rare case in which two constituent peoples have traded places in relative size, wealth and status and yet have managed to stay together, so far. They have developed parity, while the proportions of Flemish and Walloons have changed.”³

I know most of this is completely unpalatable to the great majority of unionists. But is there not even a little food for thought for them here? If I were a thoughtful unionist, I would be quietly developing a negotiating position in the realisation that a Border Poll is only a matter of time away: a negotiating position that would emphasise the importance of maintaining a strong British dimension in the 50/50 British-Irish society that is Northern Ireland – perhaps through the recognition of a separate state in the North; perhaps through the establishment of a new Irish confederation; perhaps through a much beefed-up British-Irish Council – or perhaps through all three.

The real challenge may be persuading the British government to re-engage in a post-Brexit world where it will have multiple other problems. As Seamus Mallon said in his 2019 memoir, A Shared Home Place:”one can only hope that the British can be persuaded to commit to another complex, long drawn-out diplomatic process in Ireland in the interest of the stability of these islands.” Prime ministers as different as Edward Health, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have engaged imaginatively with Ireland over the past 50 years. Is it too much to hope that another leader might emerge in London in the next 30 to put the final benign piece in the fiendishly complex jigsaw that is the 800-year-old British-Irish relationship?

PS  I probably owe Professor O’Leary an apology for selectively quoting from his multi-faceted book to highlight the passages on confederalism. However, I am unapologetic about using his insights to try to persuade at least some unionists to reconsider their position.

  1. A Treatise on Northern Ireland: Volume 3, Consociation and Confederation, p. 207
  2. Ibid. ps. 209-210
  3. Ibid. ps. 312-315 and 329

 

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland | Leave a comment

An Open Letter to Micheál Martin

Dear Taoiseach

Congratulations on your election last Saturday. We have known each other for 23 years, since you were the rookie Fianna Fail education spokesman (soon to become Minister for Education) and I was the rookie Irish Times education correspondent. I know you as somebody with pragmatic social democratic values, who believes in social justice, fairness and as much equality as a free market capitalist society will allow, with a strong sense of politics as public service.

I know you as a courageous man, who as Fianna Fail leader went against the conservatism of many – perhaps most – in your party to support same sex marriage and the Repeal the Eighth campaign for abortion reform.  I know you as an extremely hard-working government minister who introduced important reforms in education (in early childhood education, skills shortages and the use of IT); overcame powerful vested interests to introduce the smoking ban as health minister; and correctly prioritised research and innovation as enterprise minister. When you were Minister for Foreign Affairs you were a strong advocate of practical North-South cooperation for mutual benefit as a crucial tool in helping to bring about reconciliation on this island, which was the core philosophy of my work at the Centre for Cross Border Studies.

I know you share my deep suspicion of Sinn Fein’s attempts to rewrite history to try to make people believe that the Provisional IRA’s murderous campaign was the inevitable extension of the 1960s movement for civil and human rights in Northern Ireland. In the Dail you have strongly criticised that party for its absolute lack of contrition for the nearly 1,800 deaths – many of them of innocent people – at the hands of its paramilitary ‘sister’ organisation. You have resisted efforts, led by people like Eamon Ó Cuív and Senator Mark Daly, to line the party up alongside Sinn Fein in a new, pan-nationalist coalition to drive towards a deeply destabilising form of Irish ‘unity’ through a narrow victory in an early Border Poll.

So I am glad to see you elected as Taoiseach of this country. You probably face a more difficult task than any leader since William T. Cosgrave led the fledgeling Irish Free State out of civil war. You face the reality of 900,000 people left unemployed in the aftermath of the corona virus crisis; a probable €30 billion budget deficit this year; many companies, big and small, facing collapse; the safety valve of emigration cut off by even deeper crises in the UK and the US; and a Sinn Fein-led opposition baying for blood at the slightest sign of cutting back on generous pandemic unemployment payments and wage subsidies, which they will inevitably and opportunistically condemn as ‘austerity’ (without putting forward any realistic alternative).

One key thing that worries me greatly is the weakness of the housing section in the Programme for Government, and the choice of the inexperienced Darragh O’Brien (totally overshadowed in opposition by Sinn Fein’s impressive Eoin Ó Broin) as housing minister. If there was a single issue which did for Fine Gael in the February election, it was its timid, unfeeling and ineffective housing policy. When out canvassing for the Green Party, this was the issue that came up endlessly on the doorsteps: the inability of young people and people of modest means to access social and affordable housing, and the inability (or unwillingness – because of its ideological reliance on the private sector) of the last government to do anything significant to deal with this.

In a recent opinion piece UCD housing expert, Professor Orla Hegarty, was extremely  critical of the outgoing government’s policy of buying “half a million euro” social homes on the market, at a time when a two-bedroomed apartment could be developed by local authorities for less than €250,000. And she said there was no sign in the Programme for Government of the kind of “visionary housing programme” that “could give citizens a realistic aspiration of owning their own homes in sustainable communities.”¹

I am not surprised that one of your first actions this week is to visit Northern Ireland. You are one of the Republic’s very few senior politicians with a serious interest in and knowledge of the North. I have heard you on several occasions condemn the Fine Gael-led governments of the past  nine years for their neglect of North-South cooperation, in particular. I welcome some of the innovations in the Programme for Government in this area: notably the setting up of a unit in the Department of the Taoiseach “to work towards consensus on a shared island” and to “examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions  are mutually respected.”

This is very far from a Sinn Fein-led headlong rush towards an early Border Poll. It needs to be handled with the utmost care and sensitivity, and focus in the first instance on those areas of clear mutual benefit that are least threatening to unionists (and which are in the Programme for Government):  the all-island economy; North-South cooperation on infrastructure, the environment, energy and climate change; combatting crime together; working with young people; joint research projects between the universities; promoting cross-border initiatives in civil society and the arts; and so on. These are all areas which promised great things in the early years after the Good Friday Agreement, but which, since Fine Gael came into power in 2011, have often dropped way down policy agendas, and since the UK Brexit referendum in 2016 have fallen away to almost nothing.

This practical North-South agenda needs to to be completely re-energised, in the first place by an early high-level meeting between the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive through the convening of the North South Ministerial Council, which has not met for three and a half years. No better man than you to lead this initiative.

However there is something else the new ‘shared island’ unit needs to begin working on. Now that the two major constitutional parties in the Republic have come together in government, they must start seriously thinking about an alternative to Sinn Fein’s policy of driving on to Irish unity in the near future regardless of the consequences for peace and social harmony on the island. For far too long Fianna Fail and Fine Gael’s policies in this area have been watered down versions of Sinn Fein’s: a kind of vague, unworked out aspiration to see a united Ireland one day. But has anyone come up with any new ideas about how the 800-900,000 unionists who remain bitterly opposed to this outcome are to be accommodated in it? Not a bit of it – and that includes Sinn Fein.

As former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt (a man at the most liberal end of the unionist spectrum) has put it: “What I haven’t really heard from nationalists is: ‘We want you in this new dispensation and here’s why’. Most unionists are Brits. So somebody has to explain to me why we’ve gone from ‘Brits out’ to ‘Brits in.”

Trevor Ringland, the former rugby international and another very liberal unionist who has won prizes for his work in reconcilation through sport, says that to him Sinn Fein’s message to unionists appears to be “assimilate or leave. While they talk of inclusion for those of a British-Irish identity, there is little evidence of them or the greener wing of political nationalism being able to create an Ireland that genuinely includes us. So I say ‘there is no space in Sinn Fein’s Ireland for me’. ‘Me’ is the British-Irish tradition as well as me personally. A significant group of people who murdered people such as me and still feel such actions were right, justified and necessary is a problem going forward, but one we will just have to work through. I will work with them on the basis that ‘we can disagree on the past as long as you are prepared to work together for the benefit of all the people of this island in the future’  – which is what I said to Martin McGuinness when I first met him.”

Ringland believes “there are plenty of others on the island whom I can build a constructive relationship with, and they are prepared to focus on building relationships first and foremost and leave the constitutional question to future generations.”

I suggest the new Taoiseach should start to put out feelers to open-minded unionists like Nesbitt and Ringland – and when you start looking, their numbers are not insignificant – about what they might look for in return for closer constitutional relationships on this island (and what continuing links with Britain they would demand). As the Belfast unionist columnist Alex Kane has pointed out, the English nationalist ‘exceptionalism’ which has driven the UK to leave the European Union, and which may still lead to a hugely damaging ‘crash out’ with no trade agreement at the end of this transition year, is convincing at least some unionists to re-consider their relations with their closest EU neighbour on the island.

One idea might be some kind of Irish confederation with continuing strong British aspects in the North. One of Ireland’s most eminent political scientists, Professor Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania – while no lover of unionism – has outlined some possible confederal futures in his magisterial 2019 book, A Treatise on Northern Ireland (Volume 3): Consociation and Confederation. These pages (notably 207-214 and 290-316) should be required reading for officials in the Taoiseach’s new unit. I will return to some of O’Leary’s ideas in my next blog.

¹ ‘Programme for government wrong to put faith in private builders’, Irish Times, 24th June

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 7 Comments

Is the future green (saving the planet) or green (driving on to Irish unity)?

We in the Republic of Ireland have two prospects when it comes to the colour of the next government (and indeed the one after that), I would suggest. Those prospects have little to do with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. They are all about the policies being offered by the Green Party and Sinn Fein, and both are, in their strikingly different ways, revolutionary. And both are, in their strikingly different ways, green.¹

In an excellent long article on 16th May the Irish Times environment editor Kevin O’Sullivan explained in 20 ways how Greens in government would radically change Irish life and society. The Green Party wants a 7% cut in annual carbon emissions averaged over the next decade. This is in line with the global requirement laid down by the 2015 Paris Agreement, which Ireland and 196 other countries signed up to. If Ireland under the joint stewardship of the Greens were to reach this 7% target, we would move from being the second worst carbon reduction offender in Europe (after coal-producing Poland) to the top table of Sweden, Portugal and France.

The Green Party’s 17 demands, which the party published prior to entering inter-party talks, would require a real revolution in how we in Ireland live our lives (whether Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, the big farmers, the fossil fuel industries and other powerful corporate interests will allow that to happen is another issue!). Here are some of them:

  • The government would make an unambiguous declaration that Ireland was getting out of fossil fuels (with the possible exception of natural gas) and focusing almost entirely on renewable gases, biofuels, hydrogen, sustainable biomass and carbon capture and storage to power heating and transport.
  • The carbon tax on on fossil fuels (currently €26 per tonne) would rise to €80 per tonne.
  • Most new road-building schemes would be scrapped in favour of funding public transport, cycling and walking in urban areas in order to move away from choked-up car commuting routes.
  • Farmers would be offered incentives to move away from beef and dairy towards cereals, family farm supports and environmental actions aligned to CAP reform (how the bigger farmers and food co-ops will react will be key here). Policy makers will remember the head of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Robert Watt’s suggestion that a 5% reduction in herd numbers would deliver more greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade than delivery of the entire energy efficiency component of the government’s 2019 climate plan.
  • That energy efficiency plan under the Greens would be far more ambitious, involving the deep retrofitting of 700,000 houses that are poorly heated and rely on fossil fuels at a cost of around €2 billion a year over the next decade.
  • There would be a massive programme of building public housing on public land, along with innovations like Austrian-style cost-rental housing, with tenants paying rent at a level which covers the cost of constructing and maintaining the properties. These last two policies together would provide employment for large numbers of construction, electrical and plumbing workers and help the country emerge from the post-Covid-19 economic recession.

Compare this far-reaching and society-changing programme (apart from housing) with the climate action offering in the Sinn Fein election manifesto. Of course they had to include more than the tiny, derisory mention of climate change in their 2016 manifesto. They wouldn’t be a populist party desperate to get into power if they hadn’t.

However, the most striking absence is still the refusal to support a decent carbon tax, internationally recognised as the way to make carbon too costly to exploit and a key means of making people understand that they have to pay more taxes if they want to save the planet (and much of the humanity that lives on it). The manifesto says bluntly: “The carbon tax will make people poorer, but it will not make the state greener or cleaner. It is a regressive tax, the sole purpose of which is to raise funds.”

The other Sinn Fein manifesto commitments are vague, standard left-of-centre stuff. After describing climate justice as “synonymous with justice for workers and working class enclaves”, it goes on to list binding emissions targets for “specific industries” (none specified); defending workers’ rights during the ‘just transition’ to a green workforce; divestment from the fossil fuel sector; the ESB and Bord na Mona to take the lead in developing renewable energies; expansion of the state-owned offshore wind network; more (unspecified) retro-fitting of houses, and so on.

I would suggest that Sinn Fein are simply not very interested in serious climate action (except to the extent that it doesn’t affect ordinary people’s pockets). Who has ever heard of Brian Stanley, the party’s spokesperson on climate action and the environment? When was the last time he made a significant intervention on climate change? The last time I can find is January 2013, when Sinn Fein introduced a climate change bill in the Dail, which disappeared soon afterwards when the Fine Gael-led government introduced its own extremely weak legislation.

What Sinn Fein is really interested in is not the environmental greening of the planet, but the political ‘greening’ of the island through Irish unity. That is overwhelmingly their fundamental core value: they are Irish republicans from the physical force tradition now using politics as the main plank in their strategy to gain that 100-year-old goal. If and when they get into government, that is what they will expend their energy on – pressuring the British government into an early Border Poll – rather than anything to do with the catastrophic threat to the planet (and the island of Ireland as part of it).

This is important because I believe they will probably get into government no later than 2025. Indeed, Sinn Fein are now well-placed to lead the government after next, in five years time, if not sooner. The next government – most likely a rickety coalition of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Greens – is going to have to take some appallingly difficult decisions as Ireland and the world goes into deep recession, or even depression, after the Corona virus pandemic. None of these are going to be popular with the Irish electorate, and particularly those younger and poorer sections who voted strongly for Sinn Fein in February. As Una Mullally said rather cruelly in the Irish Times last week: it is “looking like one of the most unpopular governments in memory before it’s even formed.”² My belief is that Sinn Fein will happily snipe from the Opposition benches for several years in preparation for moving into power as the largest party after the next election.

They will then, in their relentless way, focus on getting a Border Poll ASAP in order to gain the narrowest of narrow majorities for unity. If they do not win in the first such poll, they will be relying on demographic change in the North to ensure victory in the second or third poll seven or 14 years later. Then the old Irish republican drive for victory over the ancient British and unionist enemy will be complete. And the 900,000 unionists who will remain bitterly opposed to this outcome? Well, they will soon be the ‘national minority’ on the island (as they have always been in republican eyes), so they’ll just have to suck it up – a case of tháinig ár lá or “now, after nine centuries of oppression, the boot is on the other foot”. I believe that will be ‘revolutionary’ in the worst possible way, because it will re-ignite the age-old conflict that is never far from the surface in the North.

2025 will also be five years away from 2030, which the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned will be the tipping point beyond which global warming (if it is allowed to go above 1.5C) will lead to greatly increased droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people worldwide . Will we as a nation want to spend that five year period driving on to what I believe will be a deeply destabilising form of Irish ‘unity’? Or will we want to concentrate on doing our best, through a combination of decarbonisation, renewable energies and mass retrofitting, both to kick-start a ‘Green New Deal’ economy and to do our bit to help save the planet?

¹ I must declare an interest here – I recently became a Green Party member.

² ‘Young people will rebuild Ireland from ashes – again’, Irish Times, 25 May

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein, The island environment | 2 Comments

How Covid-19 brought solidarity and kindness to Northern Ireland

This latest blog consists largely of a letter from my good friend Paul Nolan, the prominent Belfast social researcher, who portrays a Northern Ireland working hard to overcome its divisions in order to defeat the Corona virus, a picture one rarely sees in the media here in the Republic. Nolan writes:

“There are masked faces on the wall murals in Belfast, but they are not the usual paramilitaries. Instead they are the front line workers of the National Health Service, and their images have become the new popular icons in the current crisis. They first went up in Protestant areas, sometimes with a discreet or not so discreet union flag in the background – evidence of an understandable pride in the British National Health Service.

“More surprising has been the appearance of very similar murals in strongly republican areas, most particularly the Free Derry wall in the Bogside and the famous International Wall on the Falls Road, where the murals have traditionally been of national liberation movements around the world. There are of course no union flags in the nationalist areas, and that slightly problematic word ‘National’ is not used, just the letters NHS and the slogan ‘Supporting our front line workers.”

“There is no doubt though that it is the same message and no doubt that the social solidarity on display has managed to eclipse any community division. Elsewhere, that might be taken for granted. In a crisis it is only to be expected that people will come together. But Northern Ireland is, famously or infamously, a divided community. There is no occasion in Northern Ireland when people stand together to salute one flag, or experience themselves as one people.

“Until now, that is. Each Thursday night people come out to their front
doors, open their windows or stand on their balconies to clap their hands or bang saucepans to show their appreciation for front line workers. There are no orange and green versions of the rainbows the children post up in their windows, no Protestant or Catholic way to wrap coloured wool around a tree, no sectarian way to hand paint a message of hope on a pebble. It’s a strange thing to say, but Northern Ireland is experiencing an outbreak of kindness.

“Take the scene in Holy Cross School in Ardoyne in north Belfast. Back in 2001 this small primary school achieved notoriety when children as young as four, accompanied by their frightened parents, had to face a gauntlet from loyalists as they made their way to class every morning, and it required a highly militarised police escort to hold back the inflamed mob. The images were thought to be redolent of Alabama in the 1960s. Last week more than 500 volunteers from the cross community North Belfast Food Bank were using the empty school building to get food parcels out to both communities.

“The Orange Order has cancelled its 12th July procession and its members are busy raising funds to supply hospitals with PPE kit. In Larne the Craigy Hill Bonfire Committee has scrapped its bonfire plans and is using the money saved to send out food and toiletries to those in need.

“A metric to gauge this new mood came last week with the publication of a new report by Amnesty International. It showed that two thirds of people across Northern Ireland have taken part in the ‘Clap for Carers’ which takes place every Thursday evening. It showed that people were often talking to neighbours and helping strangers for the first time. Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland
director, said: “This is us at our very best…In the midst of difficult times, people here are responding with huge compassion and solidarity towards their neighbours and to those on the front line.”

“By a coincidence the Amnesty report appeared at the same time as a book called Humankind: A Hopeful History, by the Dutch author Rutger Bregman. The book, which has attracted much media attention, argues that despite the evidence of increased ethnic tensions and the rise of aggressive nationalist movements across the world, people are basically good and we should remain optimistic that Enlightenment ideals will triumph. Northern Ireland does not feature in the book, but in its current mood it could be taken as an illustration of that core thesis.

“How long can it last? A mood that was born out of a crisis may dissipate quickly when the crisis passes. It may even collapse before that. The cohesion at community level is not reflected within the power-sharing Executive. There are regular reports of tension around the Executive table. This in itself is not surprising; in fact it would be surprising if there were not tensions.

“The complex constitutional engineering of the Good Friday Agreement means that five parties have somehow to find agreement on all key policy issues. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are united in the view that it would be impossible to share power with Sinn Fein, but that is what four northern parties actually do on a daily basis. As in every other country dealing with Covid-19, there is a split between conservative parties which wish to see the economy protected and left-of-centre parties which want to put people first. The difference is that in Northern Ireland they are yoked together in government.

“On top of that is layered another divide. Unionist parties do not want to break with the overall direction of government in the UK (particularly when that government will be asked to support the North’s devastated economy). Nationalists feel that the island of Ireland is clearly one epidemiological unit and want public health policies aligned on an all-island basis.The magnetic pulls of London and Dublin are always in danger of reopening the historic divide. Despite that, this week all five political parties united behind a plan for ending the lockdown. This meant the DUP breaking with Boris Johnson, and the nationalist parties accepting less of an alignment with the South than they would have liked. For this perhaps brief moment, the politicians and people of Northern Ireland want to face this existential threat together.”

There is a terribly lazy tendency here in the Republic to portray everything in the North as going wrong, and Northerners as difficult people incapable of running their affairs in any coherent and equitable way. But it is sometimes we in the South who get things wrong. A classic example was the ‘Irish Times’ front page lead story on 28th April, headlined ‘Covid-19 cases soar in Border areas.’  Despite the assertion from the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, that it was unlikely this was due to a ‘spillover’ of infection from Northern Ireland, the article went on to quote the eminent British public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally (who is originally from Newry) contradicting him by saying that the “most reasonable explanation” for this growth “has to be the fact they are Border counties.” Scally said he believed the incidence of the disease was higher in the North and condemned the North’s official data as “very limited.”.

What this story left out was that while Cavan had passed out Dublin as the Southern county with the most Covid-19 cases relative to population, neighbouring Fermanagh had the lowest incidence of any county in Northern Ireland (and far below the level in Cavan). And, as I pointed out in a letter to the ‘Irish Times’ on the same day, according to my calculations (not contradicted in any subsequent letter or report), the number of deaths in the North at that point was actually slightly lower than in the Republic.

We in the Republic always need to be wary of the nationalist ‘confirmation bias’ (the tendency for people to interpret new evidence as confirmation of their existing beliefs) that is never very far from the surface in our view of and dealings with Northern Ireland.

P.S. Further to my blog earlier this month on the Irish language, I have been reading a book called Protestants and the Irish Language,¹ by Ian Malcolm, who is that rare and wonderful person: a passionate Irish speaker who is also a unionist. He writes about a Gael-Linn ‘enrichment programme in Gaelic studies’ which was put on in 19 state (i.e. majority Protestant) and integrated secondary schools in the late 1990s and early 2000s (that benign moment in our history). In 1998-99 nearly 700 16-17 year olds, the great majority of them Protestants, took this course – which included an introduction to the Irish language – and evaluations showed that most of them enjoyed it.

However, in the inevitable way of things in Northern Ireland, changing British regulations soon put a stop to this fascinating experiment. A new examination, AS Level, was introduced in 2000 for this age group, and the optional Gaelic Studies course was inevitably dropped by most schools as the extra exam pressure took its toll. But it shows what can be done with goodwill and innovative and unsectarian thinking.

¹ Towards Inclusion: Protestants and the Irish Language, Blackstaff Press, 2009

Posted in General, Northern Ireland | Leave a comment

Could the Irish language be a tool for reconciliation in Northern Ireland?

Tá beagán Gaeilge agam. Tá me ag foghlaim. Is teanga an-deachair í ach tá rún daingean agam leanúint ar aghaidh. I have been learning Irish for two and a half years, and finding it tough going at my relatively advanced age, but I am discovering a new appreciation of its beauty and expressiveness (“elegant and copious”, the 17th century Church of Ireland Primate and scholar Archbishop Ussher, called it).

Inevitably, because I am a Northern Protestant by background, it makes me think about the role of the language in our centuries-old political, religious and cultural conflicts. And I have been listening to and reading Northerners from different traditions – Linda Ervine, Aodán Mac Póilin, Roger Blaney and Jim Stothers – who have wrestled with this conundrum: how can something that is so central to the identity of Irish-Irish people be made attractive to those of the British-Irish tradition, many (perhaps most) of whom see it as just another weapon in the arsenal of an Irish republicanism intent on their absorption into an alien nation and culture?

Linda Ervine, sister-in-law of the Progressive Unionist Party leader, the late David Ervine, is a remarkable woman. In the past seven years she has brought the teaching of the language into the heart of loyalist Belfast, the Methodist East Belfast Mission (the Skainos Centre) on the Newtownards Road. An early school-leaver and thus a late starter in education, she began learning Irish after curiosity had impelled her to try a six week ‘taster’ course. She found her reaction was: “I want to have that, I want to say it’s mine. I felt I’d been denied the language because of the tradition I come from.”

When she started to organise classes, she was surprised at the level of interest. People would approach her and and say: “I’m a Protestant, I’m a unionist. The Orange Order says I can’t learn Irish. What time does your class begin?” Some loyalist paramilitary members were attracted because they saw it as “Ulster Gaelic.” The Turas group she founded proclaims its belief that “the language belongs to everyone and can be a mechanism of reconciliation,” and its website has as its first aim “promoting the languages, culture and heritage of Ulster” (ag cur Gaeilige, cultúr agus oidhreacht Chúige Uladh chun tosaigh). Turas now runs Irish classes for over 200 people.

Ervine believes strongly that the Irish language can build bridges between the divided communities, emphasising that it is part of the shared history and heritage of both unionists and nationalists. Personally she doesn’t go out of her way to identify as a political unionist (her father was a communist), but goes on:”I wouldn’t lose sleep over a united Ireland, but I would lose sleep over losing links with the rest of the UK – that would be an issue for me.”

She believes the key to attracting Northern unionists to the language is to emphasise that it is part of a family of languages throughout the British Isles, along with Scots Gaelic, Manx (both of which emerged out of Old Irish) and Welsh. She tells of the Scottish Labour MP – a unionist, Presbyterian, Gaelic speaker and Rangers supporter – who pointed out to her that the British passport featured wording in Welsh and Scots Gaelic. Many speakers of Gaelic are Presbyterians from the Hebrides, and many of the mainly Presbyterian Scots who came to settle in Ulster in the 17th century spoke Gaelic.

“There is an onus on the Irish language community in Northern Ireland to talk more to unionists,” she says, “to show them that this is not about politics. It’s bigger than Sinn Fein and nationalism; it’s about ordinary people who love their language and are passionate about protecting and developing this minority language surrounded, as it is, by the tsunami of English.”

Linda Ervine is an idealist. She wants to see an Irish medium integrated primary and secondary school in east Belfast. She would like to see the day when the children going to those schools would not be identifiable by their families’ politics or religion.  She is also an idealist politically, with a vision for Ireland and Britain which is based on reconciliation: “If I had a magic wand, I would create a federation of the islands, with London no longer in charge (because the union is no longer working for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland). Thus we would be both separating a little from the UK – whether as Northern Ireland or a united Ireland – but also bringing the rest of Ireland into a relationship of closer ties with Britain. That’s what I’d like to see: some mutually respectful integration of these islands.”

Aodán Mac Póilin was a passionate Irish language activist and one of the wisest and most generous people I met in my years in Belfast. He became one of the leaders of a remarkable group of people who set up Ireland’s first successful urban Gaeltacht, Pobal Feirste,  in the Shaw’s Road in west Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s (followed by Northern Ireland’s first Irish medium primary school). As Director of the ULTACH Trust he laid much of the groundwork for cross-community engagement with Irish in the 1990s. His early death in 2016 was a tragic loss to the causes of both the Irish language and inter-community reconciliation.

Mac Póilin represented that open-minded section of the language movement who never gave up on the idea – however unlikely – of Irish becoming a healing element between the North’s divided communities. He was thus at the opposite end of the spectrum from Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, then head of Sinn Fein’s Cultural Department, who in 1984 said: “We see the armed struggle as the highest point of the cultural revival…I see no difference between fighting imperialist political control with guns on the street, and fighting imperialist cultural control through this department.” In fairness, I imagine the Máirtín Ó Muilleoir who became Lord Mayor of Belfast and Stormont Finance Minister in a power-sharing government, would probably now regret that youthful statement.

In his brilliant posthumously-published  book of essays, Our Tangled Speech,¹ Mac Póilin asked the question: “Now that the language movement appears set for a period of intense politicisation, where is the space for those of us engaged with the language and genuinely committed to making it available to the entire community?” There is no point, he stressed, “in engaging in denial, or playing the game that [Douglas] Hyde condemned – and of which he himself was to an extent guilty: ‘that obliquity of vision, amounting almost to a disease, a kink of the mind’, the tendency to claim that the language movement is non-political, while at the same time pursuing what is really a political agenda. This will not be believed. Nor is there any point in trying to use Irish culture, or arguments for adopting an Irish cultural identity, to sugar the pill of Irish nationalism.  Political antennae in Northern Ireland are too acute. On the other hand, cries to ‘depoliticise’ the language are usually disguised (political) attacks on nationalism, and a nationalist perspective on the language is just as valid as a unionist one.”

Mac Póilin went on: “It would be foolish to underestimate the difficulties of creating a neutral space for the language in our ideology-ridden society, and it is unrealistic to expect that the entire Irish language movement will break the mould that has now been established for the best part of a century. The challenge facing the Irish-speaking community is whether or not enough people can be found within it with the generosity, the courage and the restraint to allow those of the unionist tradition to engage in the language on their own terms, as unionists. I believe, however, that there are enough Irish-speakers with the breadth of vision that would make such a development possible,and that there are enough unionists with a similar generosity of spirit to make it meaningful.”

Maybe what Mac Póilin says is the “surprisingly large minority” of unionists who today show an interest in the Irish language, is rooted in the crisis of identity which is now affecting that community in the aftermath of  30 years of violent ‘troubles’, the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit and Boris Johnson’s agreement with the EU to put a customs and regulatory barrier down the Irish Sea. Some of them, rather than denying their Irishness, are looking towards the 19th century “when it was both possible and fashionable for unionists to be interested in the language.”

There was no shortage of passionate unionist Irish speakers in Belfast in the mid-19th century (when, of course, the union was not under threat). Probably the best-known of them was Robert McAdam, iron foundry owner, who collected, compiled and translated songs, folktales and manuscripts throughout the north and west of Ireland; wrote an Irish grammar for use in the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (then, as now, one of the city’s leading Protestant schools); devised banners and slogans in Irish for Queen Victoria’s visit to Belfast in 1849; put together a 1400 page English-Irish dictionary; and was co-secretary or secretary of the Ulster Gaelic Society from its foundation in 1828 until not long before his death in 1895. In his dictionary’s foreword he wrote in Irish that his reason for undertaking it was ‘my great love for my native country and my passion for the language’.

There is a long list of distinguished Irish-speaking Presbyterians in Roger Blaney’s 1996 book Presbyterians and the Irish Language.²  In the 20th century these included Sir William McArthur, a distinguished and much-decorated doctor, who founded the Queen’s University Gaelic Society in 1906 and went on to become Director-General of the British Army’s Medical Services; Charles Dickson, who became Chief Medical Officer to the Irish civil service in 1923; Rose Young (Róis Ní Ógáin), editor of a celebrated three-volume collection of Irish poetry, who came from a staunchly unionist family near Ballymena; Robert Lynd, the nationalist journalist and essayist; the Sinn Fein leader and Cumann na nGael government minister Ernest Blythe; the social justice activist and Trinity College Dublin academic Rev Terence McCaughey; and my favourite (because my mother was a Gaston), Hugh Walter Gaston MacMillan, who specialised in stories from Rathlin Island and wrote under the name Aoidhmín Mac Gréagóir.

Last Sunday I listened on RTE to a service in Irish and English from Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast’s university area, conducted by Rev. Jim Stothers, who as Deputy Clerk of the General Assembly is one of the leading figures in Presbyterianism on this island. The sermon in Irish was given by Rev. Patricia McBride of Scarva and Loughbrickland, a famously unionist area  in County Down.  Stothers recalled times in the 17th and 18th century when large numbers of Presbyterians spoke either Irish or Scots Gaelic and “people were at ease with the language.” He remembered Rev. William Neilson, who in 1808 published a celebrated Introduction to the Irish Language (based on the version spoken in his native County Down), and who, when he was appointed minister in Dundalk 20 years earlier, had to fulfil the essential requirement of being able to preach in Irish. He spoke of the 19th century when Presbyterian ministers learned Irish in order (often controversially) to ‘evangelise’ Irish-speaking areas (‘proselytise’ was the word used by the Catholic inhabitants of those areas). And he said: “Nationalists who claim the Irish language as their own property have no right to do so, and unionists who label Irish a foreign language don’t know their own history.”

Knowing the unionist community as I do, I am always a hard-headed realist when it comes to the possibility of any kind of political or cultural change in Northern Ireland. Reconciliation between the divided communities there must remain the priority for the foreseeable future. Could the unlikely proposition that the Irish language might play a part here be a surprising element in this? I hope and pray it may be so.

¹ Our Tangled Speech, Ulster Historical Foundation/ULTACH Trust, 2018

² Presbyterians and the Irish Language,  Ulster Historical Foundatin/ULTACH Trust, 1996

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 3 Comments

Why we need to fight the Corona virus on an all-island basis

This is an updated and expanded version of an article published in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ on 2 April.

I find I have a little more to add to the Covid-19 reflections of my last blog: specifically about North-South cooperation in Ireland, and its role in helping to prevent this devastating virus from harming the health and well-being of the people of the island.

After a teleconference meeting a week ago between the Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill and the two health ministers, it was announced that the Chief Medical Officers in Belfast and Dublin would sign a memorandum of understanding to formalise cross-border cooperation to combat Covid-19 later in the week.

The previous day one of Britain’s leading public health experts, Dr Gabriel Scally, who is originally from Northern Ireland, writing in the Irish Times and the Irish News, had called for the Northern Ireland Executive to “decouple themselves” from the British government’s approach to tackling the virus and “with every possible urgency, harmonise their strategies and actions” with those of the Irish government.

He said in this pandemic, Ireland’s geographical advantage as an offshore island able to control movement to and from the island, “is being squandered by the adoption of very different approaches to dealing with the disease.”

He pointed out that the Republic is attempting to limit the spread and thus terminate the outbreak as rapidly as possible through widespread and intensive community testing and contact tracing, a practice which was abandoned in Northern Ireland on 13th March. Testing in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, was being reserved largely for hospital inpatients and health service staff. The result was that while the aim in the South was to reach 100,000 tests per week by the end of April (although they are currently lagging well behind that target), the North’s goal was under 8,000 tests.

Dr Scally warned that without common restrictions on travel to and from the island, there was a real possibility of another mass outbreak in the future. “Two different approaches to testing and contact tracing are just not compatible with achieving the level of control needed to win the battle.”

He also pointed to the absurdity of the Irish government strongly advising people in Lifford in County Donegal to self-isolate for a minimum of 14 days, while a stone’s throw away in Strabane the government advice is isolation for only seven days.

On the same day, the Republic’s top expert on international health, Professor Sam McConkey of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, was on RTE radio and Ulster Television calling for similar all-island measures. He repeated that the pandemic would not stop at the Irish border (which he knows well as a Monaghan man) and called for “a joined-up, unified approach” in areas like the provision of vital personal protection equipment and diagnostic reagents (both in short supply internationally), staff exchanges and the cross-border care of patients.

There is a precedent here in animal health. In the spring of 2001 foot-and-mouth disease, which had originated in an abattoir in Essex and quickly spread throughout Britain, was detected in sheep on a farm in south Armagh. Four more cases were detected in Louth, Tyrone (two) and north Antrim. However both Departments of Agriculture in Dublin and Belfast moved quickly to ban the import of animals and animal products from Britain and to crack down on animal movements on the island. Within a couple of months the spread of the disease had been halted by determined cross-border action by the two Departments and their agents. In a follow-up study by the Centre for Cross Border Studies, senior civil servants and farming representatives from both jurisdictions agreed that high levels of cross-border cooperation had played a significant role in containing it to the four infected areas.

There are also important precedents for successful cross-border cooperation in human health. As I said in my last blog, the Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT) network of health professionals in the border region has shown what can be achieved when health administrators, doctors, nurses and other health workers work together to achieve better services and reduced waiting times in areas like cardiology, radiotherapy and ear, nose and throat (ENT). An all-island paediatric heart surgery service in Crumlin hospital in Dublin has significantly reduced the need for Northern Irish children to be sent to Britain.

In my last blog I quoted a senior Northern Ireland civil servant telling me a few years ago that – with the health services in both parts of Ireland in poor shape – health had been a major missed opportunity for north-south inter-governmental cooperation. I also quoted a 2012 study for the two Departments of Health which concluded: “Through working together to address major health issues, significant additional benefits to the population of each jurisdiction can be achieved, which could not be achieved by each system working in isolation.”

At a press conference after the announcement of the imminent cross-border memorandum of understanding, it was obvious that Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill were still disagreeing over the level of testing needed. We will have to wait and see how significant this memorandum will be given continuing disagreements in the Executive along ‘Britain is right’ versus ‘Ireland is right’ lines.

Last Thursday’s daily press conference with Foster, O’Neill, Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy and Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann, gave a glimmer of hope. In the words of Alex Kane, the best-informed of the North’s commentators: “There seemed to be a determined and coordinated effort to present unity…It was a first name event. They spoke in collective terms and acknowledged the scale of the challenges they faced…they sounded serious and sincere this time.”¹

On the other hand, earlier last week Irish Times Northern editor Gerry Moriarty, a very reliable reporter, was quoting unionist and Alliance sources as saying it was “now Sinn Fein against the rest” in Executive meetings, with that party “throwing their weight around,” and with Michelle O’Neill targeting Alliance leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long in particular, who gave as good as she got. One unionist added: “If Sinn Fein ever gets into government in the South, you are welcome to them, is all I can say.”²

Whatever the state of relations within the Executive, I believe it will take more than a mere memorandum of understanding between the two Chief Medical Officers formalising what limited cooperation already exists to tackle the pandemic on this island.The vehicle waiting to bring the Northern and Southern administrative systems together to tackle this crisis has surely been there for more than 20 years: the civil servants from both jurisdictions working together in the North South Ministerial Council in Armagh.

I am hoping against hope that the two governments – and the Northern Executive in particular – have the wisdom to scale up that secretariat to work jointly to combat this pandemic. As Dr Scally and Professor McConkey have stressed, it makes enormous sense to work as one island to keep the effects of this death-dealing plague to an absolute minimum in order to gain precious time for the development of an effective vaccine.

Is it possible, in particular, that Arlene Foster could go against her deepest unionist instincts and admit that on this vital issue the British government has got it wrong? Could she bring herself to admit that on this issue the Irish government (along with the Chinese, South Korean and Singapore governments), the World Health Organisation and the EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control have got it right, and that widespread community testing and tracing (along with social isolation) are the only way to slow down and ultimately defeat this threat? For the sake of the health and well-being of the people of Northern Ireland – and Ireland as a whole – I hope (against hope, once again) that she is able to do both these things.

This is absolutely different from Sinn Fein’s agenda to drive unionists towards Irish unity using every means available.  Nobody would ever accuse me of being anything but an extremely pragmatic nationalist with a very small ‘n’: everything I did during my 14 years running the Centre for Cross Border Studies was aimed at cross-border cooperation for mutual benefit. If it did not bring practical benefits to the people of the two Irish jurisdictions, we simply did not do it.

Unfortunately Europe is not setting a good example to the world when it comes to cooperation between EU nations to combat Covid-19. From Madrid to Paris, Berlin to Warsaw, the nation-state seems to be experiencing a striking renaissance. Borders are back, and with them national selfishness. Each national government is focusing on its own people, and each claims to be better prepared to fight the crisis than its neighbours. Virtually overnight, national capitals have effectively reclaimed sovereignty from the European Union without asking either their own people or Brussels for permission, ” wrote Professor Jan Zielonka, a professor of European politics at the University of Venice and Oxford University in the online journal Social Europe.³ Most starkly, Germany and France banned the export of protective masks to a stricken Italy, which is dependent on importing them.

However, if the Cubans and Chinese can send doctors and medical supplies to help people in Covid-cursed Spain and Italy, surely we in this small, English-speaking island can help each other at this dark time? It would be a very depressing outlook for the future peace and harmony of the country if we can’t muster the solidarity even to do that together.

¹  ‘A final chance to show we’re together in this,’ Belfast Telegraph, 4 April

²  ‘Tensions mount in Northern Executive over how to tackle Covid-19 outbreak’, 2 April

³  https://www.socialeurope.eu/has-the-coronavirus-brought-back-the-nation-state

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, The island environment | 1 Comment

Two reflections on the Corona virus crisis: one Irish, one international

What more can one ignorant retired journalist add to the trillions of words written about the Corona virus? Not much, except perhaps two points that readers will have seen before from me ad nauseam on a range of topics: 1) the importance of North-South cooperation in Ireland (in this case for disease prevention); and 2) the necessity for a strong social democratic state to play a central role in any civilised modern society.

It is often said that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is made up of two characters signifying ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’, which is taken to mean that every crisis is also an opportunity. In Ireland today, I believe the Covid-19 crisis is a great opportunity for people on this island to come together to combat a common external danger. I don’t have any illusions that the toxic two century old sectarian divisions will disappear in a few months because of the need to fight a disease. But history does tell us that when divided peoples have to combine to fight a common external enemy (military or medical), ancient divisions start to appear less important. To take just one example: the way the people of the Netherlands, historically divided between Protestants and Catholics, united against the Nazi occupiers in the Second World War, led to a much more harmonious postwar society there.

More practically, I believe a systematic overhaul of our inadequate health services, North and South, to make them more integrated and eventually islandwide, would make sense in terms of improving those services to patients everywhere. This would particularly benefit people in the Republic, who have long suffered from the inequity and inefficiency of a two-tier system: a superior insurance-based tier for the minority who can pay, an inferior public tier for those who can’t. Now that the Irish government has moved to bring the 19 private hospitals under public control for the duration of the present crisis, we effectively have two public systems on the island for the first time. This, rather than the proposed Sláintecare scheme (to which all the South’s parties play lip service, but is so far stillborn), should be the first step in setting up a National Health Service, first for the Republic and then – let’s be really daring – for the whole island.

Because frankly, Northern Ireland’s NHS-based public system –  however reduced by Tory cuts in recent years – is still far better than the Republic’s odd conflation. Firstly the North, in common with the rest of the UK, has free universal access to health care. It has a common waiting list for treatment in public hospitals. Nine years ago I wrote an article comparing the 82% of Northern patients either treated, discharged, or admitted to a ward within four hours of their arrival in Accident and Emergency, with the large numbers of patients in the Republic (up to 45% in Cork) who had to wait 12-24 hours for admittance through A&E.¹ I wonder if that has changed significantly in the interim – I doubt it.

Secondly, primary care is better organised and funded in the North, with the provision of teams of GPs and allied health professionals (nurses, physiotherapists, chiropodists etc.) who offer free and lifelong care to people in local areas. In the South the nearly 70% of people who don’t have medical cards have to pay €50-75 before they even darken their local GP’s door.

Similarly, public health is a much higher priority in the North. The all-island Institute of Public Health used to consistently show in its reports that there was a greater understanding of the relationship between social inequality and health in the Northern system. This was particularly so under former Ulster Unionist health minister Michael McGimpsey, who made overcoming health inequalities a top priority.

I know much of this goes against the received wisdom in the Republic, which likes to think everything is done better here, a belief that has only been reinforced by an incoherent  British government’s stop-go response to the looming Covid-19 catastrophe. Wise and careful crisis leadership in Dublin has seen everybody from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar through health minister Simon Harris to the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, singing off the same World Health Organisation hymn sheet of handwashing, social isolation and physical distancing. We have one of the highest testing and tracing rates in Europe. Schools, non-essential shops and other public facilities were closed down quickly and comprehensively. But these crisis steps (we always seem to perform well in crises) are tending to paper over the deep faults that continue to exist in the system. An early danger sign is this week’s report from the European Centre for Disease Control that Ireland has the lowest level of intensive care facilities in the EU, and thus our hospitals could be the quickest to be overwhelmed if there is a major surge in the virus.

The long-term political point here is that a successful joint tackling of Covid-19 could start to convince Northerners – and Unionists in particular – that the two jurisdictions growing closer together through sharing essential services such as health is not some Trojan horse leading inevitably to political unity, but a sensible way of greatly improving people’s lives on this small island.

The cross-border health network, Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT), now nearly 30 years old, has shown what can be achieved by health professionals coming together in the border region: better joint services and reduced waiting times in cardiology, radiotherapy and ear, nose and throat (ENT). But the lessons of CAWT have not been learned elsewhere. A senior Northern civil servant told me in 2015: “Neither health system is in good shape but some rationalisation could have been done together. The cross-border justification could have been used: ‘this has to happen on a cross-border basis – otherwise it won’t happen’. 60 per cent of people on the island live in the Dublin-Belfast corridor, yet there is no sense of coordinated services or activities.” 10 years earlier a study for the two Departments of Health had concluded: “Through working together to address major health issues, significant additional benefits to the population of each jurisdiction can be achieved, which could not be achieved by each system working in isolation.”

It is good to see Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill at last working closely together to combat this crisis. According to Newton Emerson, the former “appears truly changed and chastened by the events of the past three years”, while the latter “has shown herself to be non-confrontational in her dealings with the DUP and to have a genuine,likeable personal style.” I don’t so far see any equivalent major coming together of the two governments on the island, although we are told the two Chief Medical Officers are in touch on a daily basis. Let us hope that cooperation deepens over the coming weeks. It makes enormous sense to work as one island to keep the effects of this death-dealing plague to an absolute minimum.

My second point is a more general and international one about the post-Corona virus realisation that a powerful social democratic state, despite its many right-wing detractors in Europe and the Americas, is as vital an underpinning to a civilised society as it ever was. Can anyone imagine what chaos would ensue if dealing with a mega-crisis like this was left to the tender capitalist mercies and ‘bottom line’ priorities of the private sector?

Calls to galvanise nations as if to fight a war are heard from right and left these days. From the sensible right, Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley says: “Wartime mobilisation and central planning smoothed the path to nationalisation and the Welfare State, a fact not lost on some on today’s left who see the scope to recharge some of their policy positions. Narratives will be built around this crisis and few will be about over-funded services or an overactive state.”

He goes on: “What will not be easily shifted will be the sense of the state as a force for good. Free market liberals seeking to cut government and bureaucracy will face a fight to hold onto the gains of recent decades…The crisis strengthens those who want policy to think of the less fortunate.”²

Or as the editor of the French left-wing newspaper Liberation, Laurent Joffrin, puts it: “This will perhaps be the great lesson of this unforeseen crisis, comparable to the shock of the last war, when European societies mobilised by conflict experienced the importance of solidarity and collective strength, and decided, once peace was won, to create the Welfare State, democratically charged with the protection of ordinary people against the hazards of solitary lives of intolerable harshness. On the rise will be the values of sharing, good citizenship, cooperation and collective action. On the decline will be the ‘everyone for himself’ philosophy of materialist societies.”³

Let me leave the last word to the much-maligned Jeremy Corbyn, in his last speech to the House of Commons as leader of the Labour Party: “We’ll only come through this as a society through a huge collective effort. At a time of crisis, no one is an island, no one is self-made. The well-being of the wealthiest corporate chief executive officer depends on the outsourced worker cleaning their office. At times like this, we have to recognise the value of each other and the strength of a society that cares for each other and cares for all.”

PS: I loved the tweet from BBC Northern Ireland journalist Mark Simpson after Leo Varadkar’s powerful St Patrick’s Day message to the Irish people: “Bumped into a Unionist today. Not a fan of the Irish government. Never has been. But said, through gritted teeth: “I watched the Taoiseach speak last night. Afterwards, I must admit…I felt like he was my Taoiseach.”

¹ https://sluggerotoole.com/2011/01/31/why-is-the-republic’s-health-system-so-poor/

² ‘Boris Johnston’s agenda is over – a new politics will emerge’, 23 March

³ ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres?’ 17 March

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, The island environment, Views from abroad | 2 Comments

Three things Sinn Fein need to do before I can trust them

I have been working hard to overcome my hostility to Sinn Fein, recognising that after last month’s election they are now the party with the largest popular vote in the republic (although still only 24.5% of first preferences). I take the point, voiced by unionists as well as nationalists, that it is complete hypocrisy for the Southern constitutional parties to insist that the unionist parties share power with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, while they refuse even to talk to them. However, before I can have any real trust in them I need Sinn Fein to do three things.

Firstly, I know the IRA army council has existed for nearly a hundred years and arrogates to itself (for many years claiming absurdly and obscenely to speak for the Irish people) the right to declare war or peace (usually with the help of a so-called ‘general army convention’). We know from both the PSNI and the Garda Siochana that this army council still exists. What is its role? Does it oversee and dictate to Sinn Fein? We don’t know. I notice, disturbingly, that one of the members of Sinn Fein’s delegation for inter-party talks is Belfast man Martin Lynch, who is widely believed in the North to be the current chief of staff of the IRA. What is he doing there among all those elected politicians?

Wouldn’t it be timely for Mary Lou McDonald to announce that the IRA army council has abolished itself, on the grounds that the need for any kind of republican ‘army’ has gone, now that Sinn Fein, in obedience to the new Article 3 of the Irish Constitution (supported by over 94% of voters in this republic in 1998), has dedicated itself to peaceful methods to achieve Irish unification – now and for ever more?

Secondly, I need to know before Sinn Fein become part of the government of this country, that they explicitly recognise and respect our Constitution, including that new Article 3: that Irish unity will come about “in harmony and friendship” and “only by peaceful means”.

Recognising the Constitution also involves recognising the name of the country: Ireland (in the English language). It would be grotesque if we were to be represented abroad by a government which could not bring itself to use the internationally recognised name of the state, insisting on meaningless appellations like the ‘South of Ireland’. Why can’t Sinn Fein end this misuse of language once and for all by announcing that their central aim is to bring about, by peaceful means, the unity of the two acknowledged jurisdictions that are currently called ‘Ireland’ and ‘Northern Ireland’?

Thirdly, and most importantly, I need to hear the leaders of Sinn Fein express some genuine regret for the 3,600 deaths during the 1969-1998 Northern Ireland ‘troubles’. In an Irish Times podcast before the election Micheál Martin pointed to the party’s absolute lack of contrition: “Sinn Féin’s justification for the IRA’s war is a continuing one. There never has really been any contrition, and also to a large extent they want to shove down the throats of a new generation a narrative about the atrocities that were carried out which in my view serves to poison future generations.”¹

In a Dail speech on 20 February the Fianna Fail leader illustrated the Sinn Fein leadership’s ambivalence to IRA violence by citing the case of the current Northern Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, who was in the pub in the Belfast Markets area in 2005 when Robert McCartney was stabbed and beaten to death by a group of IRA men. She claimed “not to have noticed”: apparently she was one of the 70 people who saw nothing because they were in the toilet at the time!

The nearest Mary Lou McDonald comes to contrition is to say “the war is over.” I suspect there is little or no contrition or regret in Sinn Fein for the Provisional IRA’s ‘armed struggle’. I suspect Waterford TD David Cullinane’s triumphant election night shout of ‘Up the RA!” and his election agent’s claim that “we broke the bastards; we broke the Free State” are more likely to be the common, although now politically incorrect, sentiments in private party meetings up and down the country. When you’re winning electorally, under a skilled and attractive leader like McDonald (already universally and warmly known as Mary Lou), you don’t need the bloody militarism of the past any more.

My fear is the republican version of the North’s recent history – that all those deaths were unfortunate but necessary collateral damage in a ‘just war’ for a united Ireland – will over the years, as Sinn Fein moves into government and we move towards unity, become the accepted version. It is, after all, the winners of wars who write their history. It will be only too easy for republicans (as they have done for the past hundred years) to write unionists out of Irish history, and to claim that what happened in the North – where the IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British Army, the RUC and the UDR combined – was only the final episode in the age-old struggle between oppressed little Ireland and the bullying imperialist overlord next door.

This will not be helped by Brexit and the growth of English nationalism, which has fuelled a movement whose ultimate end will, I believe, be the break-up of the UK and a sharp move to the right in our neighbouring country. Nationalism always needs somebody to hate. The highly regarded left-wing English writer Paul Mason has warned that after Brexit “what [Boris] Johnson intends to deliver…is an intensified culture war, in which the EU and its institutions are depicted as the external, and migrants the internal, threat.”²

The external threat will presumably include Ireland. This is territory Sinn Fein feels comfortable in, and will return like with like. The belief that all the evil in Ireland comes from England (or Britain) has a long history, and the response over the past 150 years and more has often been “to burn everything English except its coal.”

However, this is not just about the past. If we are to manage the continuing problem that is the deeply divided North, we are going to have to work with the British, not against them. The most benign time in Anglo-Irish relations since independence was the 1998-2016 period – between the Good Friday Agreement and the Brexit referendum – when the two governments worked hand-in-hand to deal with the many problems thrown up by the difficult ‘stop-start’ implementation of that historic accord. That seeped down through the devolved institutions to the ordinary people. We had the Queen’s hugely successful visit to Ireland; the ‘chuckle brothers’ relationship between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness; north-south cooperation at unprecedented levels; and the beginning of a slow thaw in the great iceberg of sectarianism that is community relations in the North. All that was brought to a halt by the tragedy of Brexit and the return of the Northern parties to their tribal trenches.

We are still going to have to work with the British if we want any kind of slow, civilised, peaceful movement towards unity. One of the lessons of the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s is that when there is mutual mistrust and suspicion between Dublin and London, the poison deepens in the North. The alternative – not unattractive to more unthinking elements in the republican movement – would be a unilateral British withdrawal, with the deeply untrustworthy Johnson in the role of De Gaulle in Algeria in the early 1960s, and a return to widescale violence leading to a pied noirs-type flight of hundreds of thousands of bitter and abandoned Northern unionists to England and Scotland. Given the constitutional uncertainty now in prospect on the other side of the Irish Sea – notably the probable growth in post-Brexit support for Scottish independence – this is not necessarily a dystopian fantasy.

I have noticed among some Dublin friends a new hard-edged nationalism caused by successive British governments’ twists and turns over Brexit, culminating in the coming to power of the perfidious Boris. This, I believe, will only increase if Sinn Fein gets into power and such sentiments get official blessing.

For there is a xenophobic element in Irish republicanism too. I only hope the generous spirit of Leitrim TD Martin Kenny – who bravely stood out against protests at the impending arrival of a small number of asylum seekers in Ballinamore – will prevail over the weird ultra-nationalism of new Kildare TD, Réada Cronin, who had to apologise for a re-tweet echoing the old anti-Semitic canard that Hitler was a pawn of the Rothschild banking clan. Fintan O’Toole’s revelation that one of Mary Lou McDonald’s first outings as a Sinn Fein speaker was at a 2003 commemoration for Sean Russell, the 1940 IRA chief of staff and Nazi collaborator, wasn’t exactly reassuring in this context.³

I have to say I share the deep doubts about Sinn Fein voiced by Micheál Martin, a politician in an almost impossible position (if he wants to be Taoiseach), faced with the Hobson’s choice of the former party of the IRA or a discredited Fine Gael as his government partner. As an avid student of (and former participant in) Northern politics and history, he will remember several examples of bad faith by Sinn Fein (and the IRA) at key points in the peace process: notably at the end of 1999 when they totally undermined David Trimble by giving Senator George Mitchell the impression that the start of IRA arms decommissioning was imminent, when in fact it did not begin for another 21 months.

However, I have also met some generous, open-minded republicans in recent years: Martin McGuinness, a person with extraordinary human qualities of empathy and consideration for others; the former NI education minister John O’Dowd, now sidelined after challenging Michelle O’Neill for the Northern leadership; the former Belfast Lord Mayor Tom Hartley and the Donegal TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn. As I said, I am trying my best to be less hostile to Sinn Fein…trying hard if not always succeeding.

¹ https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/sinn-fein-s-rhetoric-is-dangerous-and-its-exclusion-from-power-is-justified-1.4164037

² ‘With the UK’s European door closed, it’s open season for xenophobia’, Social Europe, 24 February 2020

³ ‘The enigma of Mary Lou McDonald’, Irish Times, 15 February 2020

Posted in General, Sinn Fein | 7 Comments

My plea to Irish voters: don’t put Sinn Fein close to power

We in the Republic have a general election in two days, and it looks as though Sinn Fein are going to do exceptionally well. The unhappiness of people – particularly young and poor people – with the shortcomings of Fine Gael, often supported by Fianna Fail, over the past four years, is plain to see. An appalling housing and homelessness crisis, exacerbated by Fine Gael’s ideological objections to the large-scale building of public housing, and a chronically under-providing and unfair two-tier health service, are the main grievances. The left-wing populists of Sinn Fein, with their skilful leader Mary Lou McDonald (also skilful at avoiding difficult questions to do with the ugly militarism of the past) and their extravagant promises, look as if they will be the beneficiaries.

I want to sound a warning. Sinn Fein are not a normal democratic party. They have still not cast off the habits ingrained by decades of slavishly supporting a violent secret army, the Provisional IRA and its all-powerful ‘army council’. I have read that McDonald has apologised for the ‘hurt’ caused to Northern Protestants by the IRA. But I have also been at a hunger strike commemoration where she has been the keynote speaker and watched as other speakers shamelessly glorified that IRA violence. Nobody in Sinn Fein has denied Belfast journalist Sam McBride’s account in his brilliant book on the RHI ‘cash for ash’ scandal of how NI Finance Minister, Sinn Fein’s Mairtín Ó Muilleoir, asked for instructions in 2017 from very senior former IRA figures before he closed that crazy scheme down.

There are still serious questions about Sinn Fein’s rationalisation of the horrific beating to death of young Paul Quinn by an IRA gang in south Armagh in 2007, despite local Sinn Fein MLA (and Stormont Finance Minister) Conor Murphy’s unconscionably late apology for having called him a criminal. A cynic would say that apology was forced out of him to minimise the damage to the party’s vote south of the border, after the campaigning Quinn family again raised their son’s murder very publicly in the past few days.

There is also a question about who in July 2018 forced McDonald back into line after her extremely brief conversion to postponing a Border Poll on unity until Brexit was resolved. Ex-Sinn Fein TD, Aontú leader Peadar Toibín, has talked about how the party’s TDs were constantly dictated to by unelected party officials, and observers have noted the culture of bullying which has led to the departure of many local councillors.

One of the architects of the Northern peace process, Martin Mansergh, has spoken of “the perception that all the important decisions are taken by a kind of politburo”, a civilian version of the old IRA army council, so that Sinn Fein ministers sitting at the cabinet table  “wouldn’t actually have the power to make definitive and in principle irreversible decisions.”¹ This all adds up to a kind of communist-style ‘democratic centralism.’ At the 1917 Bolshevik party congress, one of the definitions of this Leninist term was “that all decisions of higher bodies shall be absolutely binding on lower bodies and all Party members.”

Sinn Fein is also full of fantastical thinking. Their demand for a Border Poll in the next five years is utterly unrealistic, since there has not been a scintilla of discussion about how that process might be carried out, what would be the question put to the people, and what would happen in the highly unlikely event of Irish unity coming out of such a deeply divisive exercise (since the vote for nationalist parties in the North is currently running at less than 40%).

Even if there is a 50%+1 vote for unity in some future poll, there has not been the slightest consideration of how to cope with the 49.9%, made up of unionists who will remain bitterly opposed to that outcome. This is the key roadblock to unity (one ignored by Sinn Fein) that we have to find a way across if we are not to consign the next century in the North to a re-run of the last: with the two sides simply changing positions – nationalists in a majority in a ‘united’ Ireland and unionists the sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority.

More immediately, Rory Montgomery, the senior Irish diplomat who was a key player in the the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, has pointed out that it is not up to the Irish government to decide the timing of a Border Poll – that is a matter for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Montgomery warns that any pre-Border Poll discussion must be “low-key, non-partisan, deliberate, respectful and open-minded”.² If Sinn Fein leads that discussion, will it be any of those things?

Similarly on economics, the government’s Fiscal Advisory Council has estimated that there is around €11 billion of uncommitted resources available to the next government, but about half of that will be needed to fund demographic pressures and essential capital spending. What is Sinn Fein proposing to spend?An unbelievable and fantastically costed €22 billion.

Similarly on the environment, Micheál Martin was right to point out in the leaders debate this week that Sinn Fein’s opposition to an increased carbon tax – universally accepted as a key means of triggering behavioural change – is only the most startling element in a very thin and unoriginal policy on global warming (it’s an improvement on its 2016 manifesto, which contained just one tiny, passing mention of climate change).

Don’t all these considerations make Sinn Fein deeply untrustworthy? Apparently not. Certainly concerns about the party’s enthusiastic support for three decades of violence in the North seem to be ‘old hat’ for anyone under 40. “What is the political statute of limitations on atrocities?” asks Fintan O’Toole. “For those of us whose memories at are still scarred by La Mon and Claudy, by Birmingham and Enniskillen, there is none. But younger people are already giving their answer: it has expired.”³

To quote Rory Montgomery again: “I write as someone who very much wishes to see a united Ireland achieved one day, in the words of Article 3 of our Constitution, ‘in harmony and friendship'”. And, like Montgomery, I am unusual in this Republic in being a nationalist from a Northern Protestant background.

All this leaves me and many others with a serious dilemma. At what point do you allow a less than democratic party with a significant electoral mandate, and a recent history of political violence (many would call it terrorism), to enter a democratic government?

My left-wing instincts incline me to O’Toole’s view, that the parties of change – Sinn Fein, the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and People Before Profit – will end up with close to 40% of the vote. “That’s a huge and potentially historic shift towards a democratic system that offers a genuine alternative to the centre-right. There is for the first time the possibility of a government that has social democratic and ecologically responsible policies at its core. Realising that possibility does not mean voting for Sinn Fein. But it does mean recognising the democratic legitimacy of those who do.”

On the other side is the warning by the renowned Austrian Jewish novelist, Stefan Zweig. Writing in the 1940s, Zweig looked back with bitter regret at his reaction to the explosion of support for the Nazis in the 1930 German election. Still oblivious at that point to what this popular upsurge might portend, Zweig had applauded the enthusiastic passion expressed in the elections. He had blamed the stuffiness of the country’s old-fashioned democrats for the Nazi victory, calling the results at the time “a perhaps unwise but fundamentally sound and approvable revolt of youth against the slowness and irresolution of ‘high politics.’” [I should make clear that I am not at all comparing Sinn Fein with the Nazis – only pointing to how people can come to regret a youthful vote for a radical party with a violent past.]

My deepest instinct – maybe too influenced by my knowledge of Northern unionism  – is that the ruthless machine which is Sinn Fein, driving on to unity whatever the cost for the peace and harmony of this country, will lead us back to division and hatred and violence. So I’m asking people – and particularly young people – to think very hard before they tick the Sinn Fein box on the ballot paper, and then to vote for somebody else.

I will be voting for the Greens, acutely conscious that the endangered future of the planet – and the humans who live on it – is by a country mile the most important existential issue of the age. It makes our ‘narcissism of small differences’ on this island look lilliputian and idiotic.

And I will be hoping that Micheál Martin will lead the next government (although I don’t like a lot of the people in his party). He is simply the most thoughtful and knowledgeable Southern leader when it comes to the North, and one who has bravely and correctly resisted the pressures to join with Sinn Fein or to take Fianna Fail’s traditionally aggressive line on the ‘national question.’ I only hope he can continue to resist that pressure in the post-election negotiations to form a government.

¹ In Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Fein, Deaglán de Breadún (2015)

² ‘Border Poll is not in Dublin’s gift’, Letters to the Editor, Irish Times, 5 February

³ ‘Time for Sinn Fein to come in from the cold’, Irish Times, 4 February

Posted in General, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein | 4 Comments

The Seamus Mallon I knew: a brave and generous Irish chieftain

My much-admired friend Seamus Mallon was buried yesterday. This was my tribute to him in yesterday’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’.

Courage and generosity: those are the two words that come to mind when I think of Seamus Mallon. Courage because for 25 years between the 1970s and 1990s he spoke out ceaselessly against violence from whatever quarter it came, republican or loyalist or state forces. As a result he suffered constant threats (including death threats); physical attacks on him, his family and his home; intimidation and vilification.

He vowed that he would attend every funeral in his Armagh and Newry constituency, whether the victim was civilian, IRA or security force member, and frequently took face-to-face abuse from victims’ families for that brave stand. He felt passionately that the least he could do as a public representative in the middle of the bitter conflict which blighted County Armagh in those years was to stand alongside his neighbours – all his neighbours – in the face of the terror and counter-terror that threatened them.

He publicly condemned every IRA and loyalist killing in the harshest terms. At the same time he denounced collusion, harassment and sectarian bias by the RUC and UDR, and demanded their reform or abolition. In the face of government and unionist hostility, he demanded justice and equality in the actions of the security forces and the courts for the nationalist people of Northern Ireland, who had long been treated as second-class citizens at best and dangerous subversives at worst in their home place.

Generosity because he was always sensitive to the fears and needs of the unionist community among whom he grew up. I used to go for coffee with him in a Protestant-owned cafe in his native village of Markethill (a 90% Protestant village), where he sat comfortably surrounded by evangelical pamphlets and biblical verses on the wall. This made him unique among nationalist politicians, with the possible exception of Gerry Fitt (who never called himself a nationalist anyway). Seamus was always a proud nationalist who believed in the long run that only Irish unity could solve the deep historical divisions that have cursed Northern Ireland.

But he also believed that his unionist friends and neighbours around Markethill, personified by the farmer and murdered police reservist whom he called ‘Jack Adams’, had as much right to live in peace and without fear in Ireland as the community he led with such distinction over the years. And he believed his nationalist community, as they were moving into the ascendant, had to show the generosity to unionists that was sadly absent from the way in which they were treated by the unionists during 50 years of one-party rule at Stormont.

He lived through terrible times when County Armagh seemed on the brink of actual civil war. He wrote in his 2019 memoir, A Shared Home Place: “Neighbour killing neighbour has a putrid smell of evil that seeps into an entire community. Each murderous act begot its counterpart, until revenge almost became a duty to be fulfilled. It enveloped every crevice of life, spreading anger, suspicion, fear, hatred and ultimately despair. It left a dark cloud of deep suffering and loss that will endure for many decades.”

He was left with some haunting memories. The murder in January 1976 in their home of the three Reavey brothers, innocent young Catholics with absolutely no connection to any paramilitary group, by a UVF gang which included rogue policemen, hit him particularly hard. The Reavey family, ordinary hard-working country people, were good friends, and he called their mother Sadie “a saintly woman”.

The day after the Reaveys were killed the IRA shot dead 10 innocent Protestant workers at nearby Kingsmill. Seamus said he would never forget walking up a wintry street in Bessbrook to attend the funeral of one of those men. “I felt desperately alone as a nationalist politician among those grieving unionists; I could hear my own footsteps.”

He witnessed the death of a young policeman, Snowdon Corkey, another neighbour, who was shot in the middle of Markethill where Seamus was waiting for his 13 year old daughter Orla to come out of the chemists. He ran to the cattle truck under which Corkey had rolled and where the effluent from the cows was seeping down on top of him. “So there I was on my knees and the young policeman dying beside me. ‘Seamie’, he said. ‘Tell them all I love them”.

And then after all the heartache came the miracle of the peace process. Seamus was the SDLP’s lead negotiator in the 22 months of extremely difficult negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement. My favourite story was from the early hours of that Good Friday morning, when he and John Hume went down triumphantly to the Irish government’s room at Stormont to tell Bertie Ahern they had finally reached agreement with David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists.

As he was speaking, what appeared to be a sleep-walking Mo Mowlam came in, shoeless as usual, looking like Lady Macbeth. “She sat down beside me, put her head on my shoulder and went to sleep. I let her rest there and carried on speaking. A few minutes later she lifted her head and in pure schoolgirl English exclaimed “Fucking brill, Seamus’ and went back to sleep. I think I may have been in tears at that point.”

Seamus Mallon was quite simply a great Irishman – a “great Irish chieftain”, in the words of the eulogy by his close friend, the former Irish diplomat and first Southern Joint Secretary of the North South Ministerial Council, Tim O’Connor, at his funeral. He was a doughty fighter for peace, reconciliation and justice in the most harrowing of circumstances.

Despite his sometimes dour self-presentation, it was difficult to find a Northern politician of any stripe to say a bad word about him. John Taylor called him “a good friend who will work for the good of Northern Ireland.” For Rita O’Hare of Sinn Fein, he was “a tough negotiator, a formidable opponent, but always honest and honourable.” The surgeon and senator John Robb said his main strength was “his simple, absolute, complete integrity”.“I would trust Seamus Mallon with my life. I wouldn’t say that about many other politicians on my side or the other side,” said Ken Maginnis.

Above all, he was a genuinely good man. Sean Ó hUiginn, the senior Irish diplomat who was one of the architects of the peace process, said: “He personified the decent, put-upon strand of Northern nationalism in a wonderfully attractive way. People in the Republic would say that if this good, honourable man is complaining, there must be something to his complaints. He thus had a very important and under-appreciated role in keeping the benign elements in the South engaged to some extent with the North during the Troubles, rather than falling back into the easy distancing mechanism that all Northerners were as bad as each other and were impossible people who could not be talked to or reasoned with.” In 2001 he gave up the possibility of leading his beloved SDLP in order to stand down as deputy first minister to care for his even more beloved wife Gertrude, who was seriously ill with dementia.

They do not make politicians like Seamus Mallon these days. Northern Ireland will be lucky to see his like again.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland | 4 Comments