The tragic breakdown of relations between Dublin and London and a 1998 Agreement that was not the last word

The most tragic element of Brexit and its aftermath – for me as a Northern Irish person who is also a happy citizen of the Republic of Ireland – is the total breakdown in relations between the Irish and British governments. One of the most hopeful lessons of the ‘peace process’ period – running roughly from the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 to the return of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Executive in 2010 – was that Dublin and London, so long mutually suspicious adversaries, became friends and partners in two noble undertakings: the end of conflict in the North, and the construction of a peaceful and prosperous Europe.

All that has gone now, with Boris Johnson in Downing Street, the NI Executive and Assembly suspended and – depending on your point of view – the ‘scrap the protocol’ legislation and/or the Irish Sea trade ‘border’ poisoning relations between Dublin and London. And the future for those crucial relations looks bleak. I simply don’t know how we are going to move towards any real kind of partnership on this island – let alone unity – when in a few short years those almost certainly heading the Irish government will hold as an article of faith that the source of all evil in Ireland is Britain, and those in power in London are hard-line right-wingers who dismiss Ireland’s concerns with indifference and contempt.

I have been reading the submissions last month to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement of three former senior Department of Foreign Affairs officials who were key players in the negotiation of that agreement: Rory Montgomery, David Donoghue and Tim O’Connor. These are wise, fair-minded and hugely knowledgeable men and their thoughts are worth pondering in our present difficult circumstances. They were talking about what transpired in the months, weeks and days running up to the Good Friday Agreement, described in an article in the current issue of the Belfast magazine Fortnight by Montgomery as “a towering achievement of Irish diplomacy and statecraft”.1

In his submission to the Good Friday Agreement Committee Montgomery (who went on to become Second Secretary General in the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs, and a key figure in the post-Brexit negotiations) was more circumspect. He recalled the “near chaos” of the final week of negotiations in April 1998 (which is “entirely typical of negotiating endgames, and indeed usually necessary to achieve the fluidity required for final compromises. Stress, exhaustion and adrenaline all play their part”). He admitted the nettles of arms decommissioning, criminal justice, human rights and issues of symbolism were not firmly grasped (and couldn’t have been if the negotiations were to be concluded before Senator George Mitchell’s deadline). And he warned against the Agreement “being treated as if it were handed down graven in tablets of stone.”

He noted that “huge attention” was paid to North-South structures (Strand Two), and much less to internal Northern Ireland governance (Strand One). “Yet aspects including the consequences of d’Hondt, how the institutions secure cross-community consensus, the treatment of ‘others’, and their functionality have turned out to be much more critical to the working of the Agreement as a whole”.

“It is also striking how little of any substance was said about legacy issues, reconciliation or combatting sectarianism. The sense may have been that progress would follow the development of mutual understanding and cooperation at the political level, but I have heard others (including Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition members) lament that these were seen as ‘soft’, second-order issues.”

Of course there was no need in 1998 “to say anything about the place of the UK and Ireland, and thus of the two parts of the island, in the European Union. No mention was made of the border, nor of the integration of Northern Ireland into the UK’s internal market.”

Decommissioning was a real bugbear. This was particularly so for the Ulster Unionists, who at all times were struggling to bring their constituency, bitterly hostile to the IRA, on board the Agreement. “The UUP eventually agreed to let the institutions go live, on the basis of a clear expectation, confirmed by Senator Mitchell after his second stint as a facilitator in late 1999, that decommissioning would begin almost instantaneously. This expectation was not met, and the frustrating and protracted stalemate seriously compromised the Agreement’s implementation in its early years, and contributed decisively to the loss of unionist confidence in [David] Trimble and the rise of the DUP. By focussing attention on the republican movement, it may also have helped to weaken the SDLP.”

“The internal reasons for republicans’ extreme caution can be understood, and, far from damaging Sinn Fein’s electoral prospects, the focus on decommissioning probably enhanced them. For the two governments, the maintenance of peace was paramount, and this meant keeping Sinn Fein on board. Nevertheless, I personally regard the failure to fulfil what Mitchell understood to be firm promises of a start to [IRA] decommissioning in early 2000 as a huge missed opportunity, with the consequence that the Executive never gained the momentum required to realise its potential.”

Montgomery had high praise for David Trimble. “His strategic insight was that that unionism had to engage with change if it was to manage it. He displayed consistent determination and political courage in dragging his party and just enough members of the public along with him. Without his agonising decision on the afternoon of 10 April to go ahead without Jeffrey Donaldson and others of the brightest younger members of his party, including Arlene Foster, there would have been no Agreement. During the early years of its implementation, he consistently just about managed to maintain a wafer-thin majority within the Ulster Unionist Council, notwithstanding his opponents’ determined efforts to stop him. Neither the [Irish] government, nor any of the other party leaders, faced anything like the same challenges, although the personal risks to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were real.”

Montgomery’s conclusion, looking back at the Good Friday Agreement, was that “at times the narrative of its creation may be too simple. It emerged from a complex and imperfect, and ultimately very rushed, negotiation…in some instances ambiguity may eventually have turned out to be an enemy, not a friend. So the Agreement is not, and was never intended to be, the last word. It will be for the current and next generations of politicians, officials and civil society leaders to decide if, how and when it could or should be revised.”

David Donoghue (who went on to become Irish Ambassador in Moscow and to the UN) began his submission by emphasising that “we would not have achieved the Good Friday Agreement without the close cooperation between the Irish and British governments which was inaugurated by the Anglo-Irish  Agreement in 1985. While the road we travelled together was often bumpy, Dublin and London together provided the motor for the peace process. We kept very tight control behind the scenes of the negotiations which delivered the GFA, even if Senator George Mitchell and his fellow chairmen were formally in charge.”

Donoghue’s conclusion was that the 1998 Agreement is “not perfect. Some believed that Sunningdale, if it had been implemented, would have been a better deal for Nationalists. Some complain, from a different perspective, about the rigidity of the Strand One safeguards which are intended to protect a Nationalist minority from abuses by a Unionist majority. They argue that these have the effect of perpetuating the traditional polarities. My own view is that, while changing demographics and political tastes may eventually make these protections unnecessary, that day is still a long way off.”

He stressed that “over the past 24 years nobody has suggested that the institutions it [the GFA] set up were the wrong ones. Even the [North/South] implementation bodies, the object of much unionist angst at the time, have been quietly working away without political controversy. The GFA has certainly not delivered all the benefits we had hoped for. There have been long periods of atrophy when the institutions were suspended. But, for all that, it is a better guarantor of peace and stability on this island than anything which preceded it.”

Tim O’Connor (who went on to become Joint Secretary of the North South Ministerial Council and Secretary General to President Mary McAleese) also highlighted the huge importance of the two governments working closely together. “I cannot stress enough how critical that was, with the two Heads of Government, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, leading by example. Most of the engagement by the two governments with the parties occurred jointly, with Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern sitting side by side in discussions, emphasising both the closeness of the relationship and the singularity of purpose between them…That did not mean that we were aligned every day on every issue – there were certainly differences of view and emphases between London and Dublin from time to time – but both sides knew, at political and official levels, that it was only by the tightest partnership together that the hugely difficult issues involved could be addressed and resolved.”

One result of this closeness of the two governments – representing close partner nations in the European Union – was an associated thaw in North-South relations on the island of Ireland. The then Northern Ireland First Minister, Peter Robinson, told me in an interview in 2009: “I don’t think the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has ever been better than it is at the present time.”

Now, 13 years later, we are back to the bad old days of broken off contacts, boycotted meetings, mutual hostility and misunderstanding, and megaphone diplomacy. For those of us who also played a tiny part in lowering the barriers in these islands and on this island, this is profoundly depressing.

PS My grateful thanks to those readers who have helped to sponsor my all-Ireland cycle for Concern Worldwide’s girls’ education projects in Afghanistan. I leave from Mizen Head in west Cork this Friday, 1st July, and plan to reach Fair Head in north Antrim on 11th July. I have so far raised €6,900 and hope to reach a new target of €8,000. If anyone still wants to support this worthy cause, please donate (in any major currency) at https://fundraise.concern.net/andy-pollak

1 ‘Reforming the Agreement: A Dublin View, Fortnight@51

Posted in British-Irish relations, General, Northern Ireland | Leave a comment

The NI Protocol is a mess but Boris’s bill to scrap it is a divisive disaster

The Northern Ireland protocol is a problem and it is back with a vengeance. As Taoiseach Micheál Martin, a man who is extremely careful with his words, put it, the British government’s new bill to unilaterally scrap large parts of an agreement agreed with the EU two and a half years ago marks a “historic low point, signalling a disregard for essential principles of laws which are the foundation of international relations.” The DUP’s fanatical opposition to it, and boycott of the institutions until it is radically overhauled (if not scrapped), mean that the power-sharing politics which is fundamental to any half-decent functioning of Northern Ireland is suspended.

However, on the other hand it is not enough any more to say, as Sinn Fein leader Mary-Lou McDonald does, that all that needs to happen is “smoothing out its application.” Officials in Brussels admit privately that it is a flawed agreement and needs to be changed. Last October the EU moved unilaterally to scrap much of the Irish Sea ‘border’ for medicines, belatedly realising that it would be a PR catastrophe if Northern Irish people died for lack of access to drugs freely available in Britain.

Now it is pondering proposals to soften the Irish Sea ‘border’ for goods containing plant or animal material. The barriers to such goods entering Northern Ireland sometimes border on the absurd. The excellent Irish Times reporter Simon Carswell last month quoted a Lisburn-based wholesaler of food products complaining that an English supplier of beef-flavoured crisps had recently refused to send him a consignment of 28 boxes on the grounds that he would have to pay a vet to certify them because the beef flavouring was an an ingredient of animal origin. The crisps were intended for the Northern Irish market only.1

Until now most people in the North have only seen modest changes in their access to goods from Britain and some British online retailers refusing to sell to Northern Ireland. This is partly because the protocol has never been properly implemented. The British government put in place unilateral “grace periods” — effectively phasing in the Irish Sea ‘border’ — which have become semi-permanent. Other changes, such as banning plants with British soil entering the North, were reversed after a few months.

Last month the Belfast Telegraph‘s political editor, Sam McBride (another fine journalist), quoted a senior industry figure who moves millions of pounds of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland saying: “If you remove the unilateral action [the grace periods], we’re bust”, and added that if the protocol had been fully implemented on day one, “there would have been no day two”.2

One of the Protocol’s central problems is that it involves EU rules mostly written for containers or entire ships coming from China or Brazil. In those scenarios of goods travelling across the globe, such rules are there for good reason. But they are inoperable when applied to a tiny regional economy buying goods from the rest of its own country.

The EU had imposed 4,000 new laws on Northern Ireland in the past 18 months, the British government claimed as it unveiled its new bill. In a briefing note it said this “continues to undermine political stability, with a fundamental sense of unfairness and feeling of separation from the rest of the UK in Northern Ireland.”

So things need to change, but the British government’s radical and reckless legislation is not the way to do it. This bill gives ministers powers in domestic law to unilaterally override the Brexit treaty with the EU in four main areas: setting up a check-free ‘green lane’ for British goods destined for the North; ending the role of the European Court of Justice in enforcing the protocol; removing EU control over state aid and VAT in the region; and creating a dual regulatory regime, giving businesses a choice of whether to place goods on the NI market under British or EU rules. In addition, it gives ministers sweeping powers to rip up other parts of the protocol if they believe societal or economic damage is bring caused.

From an Irish viewpoint, it looks suspiciously as though Boris Johnson is pandering to the hard-line Brexiteers of the European Research Group in order to keep them on board as he struggles to maintain control of the Conservative Party, 40% of whose MPs have expressed no confidence in his leadership. This weakness will seriously undermine the British position in the negotiations which must eventually resume in order to amend the protocol. As Irish Times London Editor Denis Staunton points out, the EU now has no incentive to soften its position in these negotiations: “The European Commission and the member states know that Johnson’s domestic position is too weak to allow him to make the necessary compromises, so they will not squander concessions on what they see as a regime in its dying days.”3

Within Northern Ireland, Johnson hopes that by legislating to rewrite the protocol he can persuade the DUP to rejoin the power-sharing Executive. But as the Financial Times’ political editor George Parker writes: “The problem is that the DUP does not trust Johnson – the prime minister double-crossed Unionists when he signed up to the original protocol. It is waiting to see if Johnson delivers the legislation.”4

Even from a British standpoint, the legislation looks doomed to failure. In an editorial on the day after its publication, that pillar of Conservative Britain, the Times, opined that “at best the government’s actions set the stage for years of acrimonious legal disputes, at worst they risk a ruinous trade war. Far better even now that both sides return to the negotiating table and reach an agreed solution.”5

The editorial says some very sensible things. It warns: “The prime minister is seeking powers that would allow ministers to repudiate a deal that the government not only agreed with the European Union, supposedly in good faith, but then presented to the British public in a general election as a ‘great deal’ that was ‘oven ready’ and would ‘get Brexit done’…at the very least, the government’s moves risk damaging Britain’s reputation internationally while creating fresh uncertainty for business at a time of unprecedented economic challenges.”

It points out that many Northern Ireland businesses are benefitting from the opportunities provided by the protocol in terms of dual access to the EU and British markets, as reflected in NI’s current status as the UK’s second best performing region after London.

It suggests (and I strongly agree) that some variation on the British government’s plan for a green and red lane approach for checks on goods destined for the Northern Ireland market and those to be exported to the Republic (and thus the EU) “could form the basis of a solution.” It dismisses Johnson and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s claims that the EU has not sufficiently engaged with British offers, pointing out that “the EU has already shown flexibility on medicines and made further proposals last year [last October EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic promised an 80% reduction in spot checks on British goods going to Northern Ireland, and a 50% reduction in customs paperwork]. It is the British government that has refused to participate in formal negotiations since February.”

“In reality, the biggest stumbling block to a deal is not the EU’s intransigence over customs checks, but the government’s need to solve a different problem: the Democratic Unionist Party’s refusal to serve on the Northern Ireland Executive until the protocol has been effectively removed entirely…The result is that the bill contains sweeping provisions that would allow the government to override the protocol in such areas as taxation, state aid and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, where Northern Ireland is currently treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom.”

But all is not yet lost, even in the paranoid chambers of the DUP (I hope this is not the eternal optimist in me speaking!). Writing before the publication of the latest legislation, Sam McBride, who has excellent sources in that party, quoted a senior figure at its harder end saying: “We know the whole protocol won’t be removed.” McBride says the challenge for the DUP will be calculating how much protocol to accept. “Too hard-line a position will mean it’s never back in government, risking punishment by voters in the long run, while too weak a stance could see the party collapse in the short term as unionism’s mood hardens.”

He believed that behind the belligerent rhetoric, there was the chance of a UK-EU compromise emerging that the DUP might back. “The argument is no longer about whether the protocol is implemented, but about how much of it is ditched and how that is done. The EU may deny this. It says it will not alter the text of the protocol; just its implementation. But this is a semantic denial. On medicines, the EU left the bit of the protocol that says EU medicines regulations must apply, but then altered those regulations.”

The main problem, as always under the present regime in London, is the deep dishonesty and untrustworthiness of Boris Johnson and his government. It is clear that most senior officials in Belfast and Dublin, London and Brussels, now believe the transparently imperfect deal that is the protocol can be amended to make the Irish Sea ‘border’ much lower and easier to navigate: finding a mutually acceptable “landing zone” is how Micheál Martin and Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney put it.

But does anybody trust Boris Johnson to deliver anything these days? Brussels will hope that this bill is another manifestation of Johnson’s ‘madman’ or ‘King Kong’ strategy: his belief that the way to get the EU to negotiate is through threats. Sick and tired of the endless Brexit psychodrama, EU capitals see the legislation as another example of the Conservative party negotiating with itself rather than with Brussels, and hope that wiser heads (perhaps in the form of a new prime minister) will eventually prevail in London.

In Ireland, Johnson’s careless (of the well-being of Northern Ireland), reckless and mendacious actions have led to even more division: within the North (not difficult!) and between the governments in Dublin and London (who remain the crucial joint guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, now barely speaking to each other). I will come back to the tragic loss of an agreed British-Irish policy to manage the problems of Northern Ireland in a future blog.

PS In the first eleven days of July I will be cycling from Mizen Head in County Cork to Fair Head in County Antrim (over 600 kms) to raise money for Concern Worldwide’s education programmes for girls in Afghanistan. Given the takeover of that country by the Taliban last August, there is a particularly urgent need to support this vital work by the Irish development agency. I am also worried that the people of Afghanistan – living under brutal Taliban rule, with repressive laws governing women, and often facing extreme poverty and starvation – are in danger of being forgotten because of the war in Ukraine.

My aim is to raise €6,000. I will be leaving Mizen Head on 1st July, and cycling (with one friend) via Bantry, Macroom, Mitchelstown, Templemore, Tullamore, Mullingar, Cavan, Armagh, Ballymena and Ballycastle, arriving (all being well) at Fair Head on 11th July. I am aged 74, so this will be a bit of an undertaking for me!

I would be really grateful if any reader of this blog felt able to send me a donation, however small. Please go to my fund-raising page on https://fundraise.concern.net/andy-pollak to donate in any major currency – it couldn’t be simpler. Míle buíochas.

1‘ A sledgehammer to crack a nut: NI traders bemoan protocol problems’, Irish Times, 21 May

2‘ NI Protocol’s flaws there for all to see as both sides eye up compromise’, Belfast Telegraph, 22 May

3 ‘Bill is more far-reaching than anticipated’, Irish Times, 14 June

4 ‘Law and border: Northern Ireland protocol bill prompts ire’, Financial Times, 14 June

5‘ Brexit Undone’, The Times, 14 June

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland | 1 Comment

British legislation in the North is not always deceptive, oppressive or persecuting – it can be made better

Despite what Sinn Fein and other ‘advanced’ nationalists would have us believe, British government policy in Northern Ireland (and towards Ireland) is not always motivated by the wish to deceive and oppress and persecute. One benign effect of the peace process period (from the mid-1980s to 2016) was that this was increasingly recognised by senior Irish government officials charged with building relationships of mutual trust with London. Since Brexit those levels of trust have nose-dived, not helped by the fact that the government in London is currently headed by a prime minister for whom lying and deception often seem to be second nature.

However, those of us who are not republicans or ‘advanced’ nationalists must continue to believe that the British government is still capable of listening to Irish people of goodwill and acting in good faith to amend its legislation in response. I believe they have listened to Irish people, north and south, in formulating their latest effort to deal with the toxic issue of the legacy of the Northern conflict: the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. What they have produced, in the words of my ex-colleague and friend Padraig Yeates, distinguished former journalist and historian, is “a substantial piece of legislation” which “deserves serious examination.”1 [Yeates now heads a small cross-border group of former politicians, journalists, academics, trade unionists, peace activists and former combatants (of which I am a member) who are campaigning for a “Truth Recovery Process” in the North along the lines of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which emphasised uncovering information from both victims and perpetrators about past human rights violations rather than prosecuting individuals for past crimes, and introduced the concept of ‘conditional amnesty’ for those who cooperated with it.]

You would not think the new legislation was substantial and serious from the furious reactions to it from Sinn Fein and campaigning groups. Mary-Lou McDonald called it “outrageous”, “despicable…it would make a despot blush”.  I have been told by usually reliable sources that the British Labour Party leadership had decided not to oppose the legislation, but were persuaded to do so by Sinn Fein. As readers will know, Sinn Fein’s abstentionist MPs don’t bother even to go into the parliamentary chamber to oppose legislation like Brexit that is clearly against Ireland’s interests – clearly on this occasion that didn’t stop them brazenly trying to influence votes from outside. Sinn Fein’s mind-bending hypocrisy is on full show here, with not a scintilla of recognition that among the main beneficiaries of this Bill will be former practitioners of violence belonging to the IRA and other republican paramilitaries.

Relatives for Justice chief executive Mark Thompson came out with a remarkably quick statement branding the legislation, which is nearly 100 pages long, a “blanket amnesty” which was “anti-victim.” Thompson is perhaps a year out of date, thinking he is still reacting to the British government’s now abandoned 2021 proposals for a total amnesty for soldiers, police and paramilitaries, and for the abandonment of all future investigations, prosecutions and trials, criminal and civil.

In contrast, the centrepiece of this legislation is an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), headed by a British government-appointed judicial figure as chief commissioner. The ICRIR will be obliged to grant the perpetrator of a killing or other attack immunity from prosecution if conditions set out in the legislation are met. The most significant among these is that the perpetrator reveals all information about the attack “true to the best of [his/her] knowledge and belief.”

This new version of the legislation allows victims and their families to initiate investigations through the ICRIR, which would henceforth deal with all outstanding legacy cases. “It creates the potential to put victims and their families in the driving seat if they avail of it,” says Yeates. Northern Ireland Office officials say in this respect the legislation is similar to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and believe it adheres to international human rights obligations.

However Yeates also points to major flaws. The most damaging are the proposal that “no criminal investigation of any Troubles-related offence may be continued or begun” after this Act comes into force, and the proposal that “a relevant Troubles-related civil action” brought on or after 17th May may not be continued after this Act comes into force.

Yeates points out that this gross denial of justice to victims and their families is certain to be challenged in the courts. He suggests instead making “the proposed route of redress in the Bill an option for victims and survivors, while leaving the rapidly closing window of court proceedings also open to them. Everyone acknowledges that very few of the 1,400 or more outstanding murder investigations in Northern Ireland can be brought to finality, led alone thousands more involving people who suffered life-changing injuries.”

Another major flaw is that because it has been introduced unilaterally by the British government, the Bill does not cover victims and survivors in the Republic of Ireland (notably those whose family members died in the May 1974 loyalist bombings in Dublin and Monaghan). The British will no doubt blame the Irish government for not engaging with it seriously on the issues of legacy and amnesty. And they would have a point: Dublin has been immovable on legacy issues since the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, even though the legacy institutions of that agreement (notably an independent Historical Investigations Unit to investigate outstanding killings and alleged police misconduct, and an Oral History Archive to allow those involved to share their experience of the Troubles) have been stillborn.

A third huge weakness, says Yeates, is that there is no reference in the Bill to how far perpetrators/ex- combatants must go in order to “earn” their immunity. If they are required to implicate others, then it will be seen as an ‘informers charter’ and few if any former combatants will come forward.

Yeates wants the work of the new Commission to be based on mediation and reconciliation rather than legal and police procedures, thus following the example of ‘conditional amnesty’ for ex-combatants/perpetrators adopted by the South African Truth Commission. He writes: “It would be far better if former combatants on all sides could earn their immunity by agreeing to engage fully with victims and survivors (assuming the latter so wish), acknowledging the pain and suffering they have inflicted and offering what amends they can”. Compensation would remain a matter for the British government because few if any former combatants would have the means to compensate their victims financially.

“Such a process can at least lead to reconciliation on the facts of what happened: on who was responsible and why it happened. Without reconciliation on the facts, there can be no possibility of reconciliation on anything else, at either an individual or societal level.”

In a recent Liverpool University/Irish News opinion poll, around half those polled (53.5% of nationalists and 48.6% of unionists) agreed with the proposition that “we can only get truth for victims and survivors if we offer conditional amnesties to those who offer up the truth.” The people of Northern Ireland, if not its politicians, are starting to recognise that recourse to the courts is just not feasible as a way of getting justice when most of the incidents in which people were killed and injured occurred over 40 years ago and many of those responsible are now themselves dead. In another 15 or 20 years they will all be dead and the chances of justice for the victims and survivors and their families will be zero. It is time to move on and try something new.

A ‘conditional amnesty’ provision of this type would also do away with the random and selective nature of the very few prosecutions for Troubles-related crimes, and even fewer convictions, that have happened to date. At least the relatives of those who died in Derry and Ballymurphy have a remote chance of getting some recompense from the British government. But what about the much larger number of people who were murdered by paramilitaries of all stripes, republican and loyalist? What chance have their families of getting any truth recovery or recompense? Until now, none.

If even some perpetrators/former combatants, who have been living with a bad conscience for up to 50 years, were prepared to come forward and engage with their victims and their families in return for a ‘conditional amnesty’, the Truth Recovery Process proposed by Yeates and his group would offer those families some hope of coming to terms with the horrors of the past.

1 ‘Troubles Bill won’t address the deep divisions that persist’, Irish Times, 30 May

PS In a striking example of confirmation bias at work, the sub-editor who put the headline on Yeates’ article in the Irish Times got it completely wrong. It is not the proposed Bill that “won’t address the deep divisions that persist”, but the “judicial and police investigatory procedures” that have failed repeatedly in recent years. Not for the first time in Northern Ireland, it is time to try reconciliation.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland | Leave a comment

Sinn Fein’s stunning victory does not signal any kind of unlocking of the Northern deadlock

It was a stunning and historic victory for Sinn Fein. In the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election commentators had made a lot of noise about Sinn Fein being 1,200 votes behind the DUP. This time the party of the IRA were over 66,000 votes ahead of the party of Ian Paisley. Compare the proportion of seats held by the Unionists in the first Northern Ireland Parliament in 1921 (77%), with the number in the new NI Assembly (41%). And remember that parliament was set up to rule over a statelet in which Unionists were meant to have a majority in perpetuity.

So Sinn Fein have every reason to feel triumphant. They fought an extraordinarily disciplined campaign, focussing on the bread-and-butter issues of the cost of living and health, and playing the equality and democracy cards for all they were worth: notably the absolute right of the nationalist community, led by Michelle O’Neill (whose poster was everywhere),to take the First Minister’s post in the event of a majority for their chosen party. Former minister John O’Dowd said those (i.e. in the DUP and Traditional Unionist Voice) who did not recognise this right were sending out “the wrong message.” There was barely a mention of a Border Poll and no sign of Gerry Adams anywhere. Their main spokespeople, led by John Finucane and Gerry Kelly, were superb, clearly of a superior calibre to their DUP opponents. In politics the quality of leadership really matters. In the words of the Irish News’ Sinn Fein-friendly columnist Chris Donnelly, their message was one of “unrelenting positivity,” representing a successful “move to the middle”.

And in another impressive show of discipline, they restrained their triumphalism. The only one who broke ranks was party president Mary Lou McDonald, who swept regally into the Belfast counting centre, surrounded by her entourage, mouthing platitudes about a “new Ireland” and telling the BBC she believed an impossibly divisive Border Poll would happen within five years (this was despite a Liverpool University/Irish News poll last month showing that only 30% of people in Northern Ireland would vote for unity ‘tomorrow’ and only 33.4% in 10-15 years time).

For somebody like me, a ‘soft’ nationalist who oscillates between supporting the SDLP and Alliance, there was good and bad news. The bad news was the woeful performance by John Hume’s party, which was squeezed into fifth place as nationalists backed Sinn Fein in order to overturn 101 years of unionism as ‘top dog’. The good news was Alliance’s extraordinary breakthrough: more than doubling their seat share under Naomi Long’s strong leadership, and for the first time giving real political weight to the rapidly growing number of ‘others’- particularly young people – who have little or no time for the stale old verities of unionism and nationalism. It is only a pity that two of Alliance’s victories were at the expense of the small Green Party: not for the first time, Northern Ireland goes against the zeitgeist in this fundamental space.

One cheering development was the record number of women – 32 – returned to the 90-strong Assembly (53% of Sinn Fein’s candidates were women). The political editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Suzanne Breen, said the influx of “young, socially liberal women would be a real force for change.” This was personified by the vivid young Alliance candidate, Patricia O’Lynn, who grabbed the last seat from a longstanding DUP stalwart in the bedrock unionist constituency of North Antrim. O’Lynn, a Catholic from the fiercely Protestant stronghold of Larne, has a PhD in education and a Master’s degree in criminology.

With leader Doug Beattie scraping back on the fourth count in Upper Bann, the Ulster Unionists discovered yet again that the constituency for liberal unionism – outside Alliance, which is now agnostic on the constitutional question – is a narrow, stony ground. Unionist leaders from Terence O’Neill to David Trimble to Mike Nesbitt have found themselves outcast on this little desert before.

The DUP was once again caught in a trap of its own making: hung up on the negativity and divisiveness of insisting that the NI Protocol would have to be removed before they took their seats in any new Executive. It is difficult to credit how many mistakes the party of hard-line unionism and anti-Irishness has made since the departure of Peter Robinson and the advent of an existentially undermining Brexit. It was almost unbelievable how they allowed the party committed to the destruction of Northern Ireland to present itself credibly as the one that – in Michelle O’Neill’s words – “irrespective of religious, political or social backgrounds” wants to “make politics work” in the North. Time will tell if this is a sincere promise, or just an electoral gambit. In stark contrast, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson threatened that if Boris Johnson did not deal with the Protocol issue to the DUP’s satisfaction, there would be “perpetual political instability” in NI. The BBC’s Mark Carruthers pointed out that “if you want the Union to be secure, you need to make Northern Ireland work.” Wiser heads on the unionist side must have lifted their despairing eyes to heaven.

But what has actually changed in the North? We are back into a wearily extended negotiation among the parties that could take six months and result in another election. Changes in the Protocol depend on outside actors in London and Brussels who have little patience with the phobias of the lilliputian Ulster Unionists. Former Irish Times Northern editor Gerry Moriarty suggested that the Irish government now has a responsibility to help move the EU towards “a bit of pragmatism and movement on the Protocol.” Taoiseach Micheál Martin seemed to be open to this, insisting that so far intractable issues can be resolved. “The landing zone is there”, he said. He believed if it was a question of “making trade as seamless as possible”, compromises could be reached that should be acceptable to the DUP: the problem, he said, lies as always in the nature of Northern Irish politics (shorthand for the DUP and loyalism’s political constituency, always paranoid about any perceived weakening of the constitutional link with Britain). In London, of course, there is the additional problem of a Prime Minister who is a liar and a scoundrel and probably wants to keep the Protocol pot boiling for his own internal party reasons.

In terms of the longer-term and a possible Border Poll, little or nothing has changed. As both Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney pointed out, the balance between the unionist and nationalist votes in the North has not altered significantly. Asked whether it was time to set out the conditions for a Border Poll, Lewis told the BBC that the overall unionist vote “is still larger…Sinn Fein have not gained seats; we haven’t seen a growth in the nationalist vote.” 35 Assembly seats are held by Nationalists (perhaps 36 if you include the Trotskyist People Before Profit), and 37 by Unionists (including the two independent unionists): almost total deadlock, in fact. SDLP-friendly Irish News commentator Tom Kelly said that when John Hume won his last European Parliament election in 1999, his share of the vote stood at over 45%; in last week’s election the nationalist share was 38% (more rigorous analysts have put this at 41%). The combined unionist share was 42%.

One thing that may be up for discussion will be the Good Friday/St Andrews Agreements’ near- incomprehensible system of MLAs ‘designating’ themselves as unionist, nationalist or ‘other’, and then the First and Deputy First Minister being nominated by the largest party within the largest sectarian designation and the largest party within the second largest sectarian designation respectively. Alliance object particularly strongly to this, pointing out it meant that if they had come second in this election (instead of a good third), Naomi Long would not have been allowed to take up the post of Deputy First Minister. Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said this system had to be changed because it gave the two largest parties a veto over government formation: Sinn Fein had blocked any government formation from 2017 to 2020, and the DUP were threatening to do so now.

If all this sounds difficult and ultra-complicated, that’s because it is. Let us leave the last word to Tom McTague, the London-based staff writer with the US magazine The Atlantic, who is one of the very few foreign journalists who understands (or rather admits he fails to understand) how the strange place that is Northern Ireland works.

In the magazine’s current issue, he writes: “The truth of [last] Thursday’s elections is surely that the reunification of Ireland is now more likely, and that Northern Ireland will finally be able to put to bed the divisions over Brexit and move on. Right? Wrong.

“The reality remains that Northern Ireland remains as stuck as ever, a Gordian knot without an Alexander to slice it open. In fact, in Northern Ireland there can be no Alexander – and that is the point. The knottiness of Northern Ireland is by design. Remaining stuck is the only way the place works.

“Two inescapable truths continue to govern Northern Ireland. The first is that while Sinn Fein emerged ahead of all other parties in Thursday’s election, a sizable majority of the electorate is still in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom rather than joining the Republic of Ireland. The second is that the Northern Ireland that exists is a strange, unfair and largely dysfunctional place that works only when both its nationalist and unionist communities consent to the system governing it. While more people are now voting for the third-way Alliance Party, which argues that other bread-and-butter issues matter more than unionism or nationalism, for now, Northern Ireland’s political and constitutional reality remains unchanged.”

McTague concludes: “In many ways it [Northern Ireland], is also a deeply unreal place, where the politics of make-believe is the only thing that works: where democracy is real, but not really; where peace settlements rule, but do not settle anything; and where sectarian division is lamented, but entrenched by the system lauded by all. It is a place where Irish nationalists win but are no closer to Irish unity; where unionists lose but are no less powerful; and where clean, rational solutions that look good on paper need to become dirty, irrational compromises that look terrible on inspection if they are to stand a chance of working.” [The only bit of this I disagree with is that unionists “are no less powerful”].

Posted in General, Northern Ireland | 1 Comment

Poverty in Northern Ireland is not an election issue: society just ‘shrugs’

Last month I sat in on a webinar organised by the Glencree Peace and Reconciliation Centre in which we listened to two very impressive youth workers from the most deprived areas of nationalist West Belfast. They told a shocking story of working against the odds to help young people in an environment of continuing poverty, family breakdown, crime and paramilitary intimidation that feels a million miles away from us in the comfortable South (and I dare say in comfortable middle-class areas in the North).

One told of having to deal with the continuing existence of no fewer than five paramilitary-cum-criminal gangs in his area (the most significant being the INLA). “There is nothing political about these gangs”, he stressed. “This is pure criminal gangsterism and drug dealing”. There has also been an increase in paramilitary-style punishment attacks. He said four young people had been shot directly outside his youth club in recent times, and on one occasion he counted 14 masked men standing on the street outside.

This “legacy of trauma” was largely ignored by the authorities, both policing and welfare. He could not get the police or ambulance service even to come out to deal with one of the shootings outside his club. “There is a real lack of inter-connectedness between the government bodies responsible for safeguarding children in impoverished areas like West Belfast”, he said, as young people were attracted into and then brutalised by criminal gangs.

Poverty was the “number one issue” in areas like these. In his area more than 90% of children were born to unmarried mothers and the suicide rate was twice that of Northern Ireland as a whole. There was little support for people like him trying to work with equivalent youth workers in neighbouring loyalist areas. In his most cynical moments he wondered if it was “in the interests of people in power to keep people here poor and hating.” He thought “tribalist fears” in Protestant working-class areas of Belfast that the Catholic community was growing and expanding at their expense (which would deepen after the 2021 Census results probably showed this happening throughout Northern Ireland) meant there was significant potential for future inter-communal violence. “Sectarianism is rife and continues to grow”, he said.

He did not think the efforts of youth workers to provide a safe environment for young people that would prevent them becoming radicalised into paramilitary gangs were at all appreciated by the authorities. He quoted the many millions of pounds spent by the PSNI on policing summer bonfires in both loyalist and republican areas of West Belfast. Yet a 2021 summer employment scheme for young people run by youth workers at a cost of £30,000 had seen its funding halved this year.

He also said the large amounts of EU Peace Programme funding rarely reached the most impoverished and Troubles-affected areas like the Lower Falls and Lower Shankill. He and his colleagues in the Catholic areas focussed in particular on keeping young people in education, and had seen educational achievement rise significantly as a result (although there was a widening gap between achievers and non-achievers). This was more difficult in Protestant areas, where there had been a tradition in the past of young men going straight into jobs in Belfast’s heavy industries. “The Protestant areas are 25 years behind”, he said.

What they really needed was longer-term, 10-year funding programmes to tackle the huge social problems these areas continued to face. He complained that most of the funding for cross-community work had disappeared, leaving only small grants from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs’ Reconciliation Fund.

His colleague said cross-community engagement was more vital than ever, as people retreated into their sectarian ghettoes. “It’s now Catholic areas all the way from the Lower Falls to Lisburn – the ‘peace walls’ keep it like that.” He said that when it came to poverty and sectarianism in poor working-class areas like these, the mainstream attitude in Northern Ireland was a “societal shrug”.

For a long time Northern Ireland has been one of the UK’s poorest regions. But it rarely if ever surfaces as a significant issue at election time (Does it in the Republic?). A December 2020 report for the NI Department of Communities by an expert panel of sociologists, childrens’ and anti-poverty activists1 concluded that, despite the commitment in the 1998 Northern Ireland Act to develop a strategy “to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need”, 22 years on no such strategy existed. “People are living in poverty if their income and other resources are so low that they are unable to meet their basic needs [e.g. for food, clothing, housing and home heating], including participation in society”, was the working definition of their study.

Their report focussed, in particular, on the need to tackle child poverty, since “the majority of those living in poverty are families with children.” 27% of all children in the North (121,000) were living in poverty, it found (the 2021 figure for the Republic was a comparable 26.1% according to Social Justice Ireland – so we in the South have no reason to be smug). Child poverty rates have worsened since the mid-2010s, with the extreme poverty of destitution (notably homelessness) a growing problem, and the inadequacy of benefits, particularly Child Benefit, becoming “a significant driver of poverty.”

“If we took action to raise the position of households with children above the poverty line, this would improve the living standards of the majority of all those in poverty,” the report concluded. They quoted a leading British expert, Professor David Gordon of the University of Bristol: “”Redistribution [of resources] is the only solution to child poverty – the economics are very simple and are entirely concerned with redistribution.” The report’s authors suggested that it would cost £306 million per year to lift all Northern Irish children out of poverty, and £708 million per year to lift all 370,000 people currently below the poverty line above it. This is about 3.5% of total NI public expenditure, which doesn’t seem like a huge amount of money. However I am dubious about these figures, which (if my arithmetic is not mistaken), suggest that poverty could be eliminated in Northern Ireland at a cost of less than £2,000 per person per year.

The main underlying problem, the authors point out, is 12 years of Conservative rule in London. Whereas under Labour, which made it a priority, child poverty in the UK fell from 45% to 28% between 1999 and 2009, under the Tories it fell by a miserable two per cent more in the following decade. “The idea that social security benefits should provide an adequate minimum income below which no one should fall is now broken and historic commitments to an inclusive welfare state increasingly undermined,” the authors said. Successive Conservative governments had decided, pre-Covid pandemic, to run a low tax, low spending economy, and this had had a knock-on effect for a poor region like Northern Ireland.

They were fiercely critical of such UK government measures – duplicated in Northern Ireland – as the Universal Credit single monthly payment system (“widely regarded as a failure”); the “morally odious” two child policy, under which no benefits are paid to the poorest families for a third child or more; and the ‘benefit cap’ (a limit on the total amount of benefits any household can receive in a year). Three of the four authors of this report are well-known left-wingers, and they occasionally overstate their case: for example, talking about “the growing threat of mass unemployment” (this was in the middle of the pandemic), when in fact Northern Ireland unemployment has been at its lowest ever recorded levels in recent years – a pre-pandemic 2.3% at the end of 2019; a post-pandemic 2.5% in early 2022. (How often does one read about that in the media in the Republic, where the current unemployment rate is 5.5%?). But even with their occasionally dodgy statistics, their conclusions are powerful and persuasive ones.

They propose a number of measures to deal with this deep and recurrent societal problem: notably that the Executive and Assembly should draft an Anti-Poverty Act with specific targets to 2030 and beyond; introduce a weekly Child Payment for all 0-4 year olds and for 5-15 years olds in receipt of means-tested Free School Meals by 2024; and set up a Scottish-style Anti-Poverty Commission made up of people who have experienced poverty, people who work with them and experienced poverty researchers and policy-makers to advise the Executive. If a left-wing party like Sinn Fein are returned as the largest in the Assembly, they must surely agree that such a programme to lift the most underprivileged and often traumatised people (because their areas were hardest hit by the ‘Troubles’) out of poverty is shamefully long overdue.

P.S. I read an illuminating article in last week’s Belfast Telegraph by my former colleague Paul Burgess2 (we worked together in the early 1990s on the independent Opsahl Commission into ways forward for Northern Ireland at that deadlocked time). Burgess is about as open-minded, liberal and pro-Irish a unionist as one could meet: a talented working class man from the Shankill Road who went on to lead the UK chart-reaching punk rock band, Ruefrex, and to spend the past nearly 30 years living and working in Cork as a lecturer in applied social studies at University College Cork, academic writer, novelist and musician (and whose Twitter handle is in Irish).

He wrote about sharing the platform at Sinn Fein ‘Towards a united Ireland’ meetings in Cork with party leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill. He said the capacity audience at a big meeting in Cork city “appeared elated at the inescapability of their own cause and seemed to prepared to pay lip service to the concerns of unionists, but little more.”

“An undeniable air of confident destiny prevailed. And a sense of political inevitability permeated the proceedings. One fellow panel member, drunk on the certainties provided by a rapt and uncritical republican audience, somewhat lost the run of himself. He suggested that liberal unionists were as rare as unicorns. And that, ‘once you had the unionist community by the balls, their hearts and minds would follow.” How the audience laughed.

Burgess went on: “It was perhaps in that moment that I fully realised the folly of my enterprise. Despite what they may say, Sinn Fein will never be prepared to re-examine and compromise those treasured shibboleths established from their formation, copper-fastened through the ‘armed struggle’ and seemingly legitimised in the present day.”

“Despite the emotional and historical baggage that their party will always carry for the Unionist community, Sinn Fein continue to believe that it is their vocation to deliver any new Ireland in their own unapologetic image. In short, they will never put country before party.

“Latterly, we do not have to look far to find examples of a mean-spirited stymying of unionist identity. From rose bushes to memorial stones, to the NI centenary illumination of Belfast City Hall, the chip, chip, chipping away at Protestant/unionist/loyalist symbolism and culture continues unabated.

“From these experiences, I have concluded that all the posturing around terms like ‘inclusion’, ‘shared futures’ and ‘everything being on the table’ represents little more than spin and hollow rhetoric. Prods are simply going to have to like it or lump it. And God knows what ‘lumping it’ would mean in Sinn Fein’s new Ireland.”

1 Recommendations for an Anti-Poverty Strategy: Report of the Expert Advisory Panel, Goretti Horgan, Pauline Leeson, Bernadette McAliskey and Mike Tomlinson

2 ‘A Shared Future? SF still believes its vocation is to deliver unity in its own, unapologetic image’, 29th April

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

Discussing Irish unity over dinner with Trinity College politics students

I had an interesting dinner with five political science students from Trinity College Dublin last month at which we discussed Irish unity and Southern Irish attitudes to it. I had met them three weeks earlier when I was giving a guest lecture at TCD and had asked the assembled students if any of them would be interested in talking to me further about these topics for a book idea I was researching. Eamon and Molly from Dublin, Martin from Cork, and Geraldine and Maurice from Limerick (not their real names) agreed to join me.

In the first instance, what I wanted to get their reactions to was a blog I had written last November entitled ‘My single transferable blog: the people of the South are not ready for reunification.’ My thesis then could be summed up in the following paragraph: “There appears to be zero discussion here about the crucial issue of what happens to the Unionists at the end of the Union as we have known it. Instead, we in the Republic sail blithely into an unexamined future with a brainless consensus that in the end the good guys of Irish nationalism will win out over the Northern bigots and stooges of British imperialism, and then we will live together happily ever after in harmonious unity.”

All of them appeared to agree with this provocative sentiment, although Maurice remarked: “I really wanted to disagree with you but in the end I agree 100%.” He said he had spoken to “incredibly nationalistic friends” and found they had not at all considered what would happen to the large number of angry, alienated Unionists who would have to be included in a ‘new Ireland’ after a narrow majority for unity in a Border Poll. His conclusion was: “What’s wrong with the way things are right now? We’re living in peace in the South and relative peace in the North. I wouldn’t vote for a united Ireland. I would let sleeping dogs lie.”

Interestingly, Maurice also said: “I’ve a pretty strong national identity. I feel very Irish. However the idea of changing what our country is about to accommodate British colonisers [i.e. Unionists coming in from the North] doesn’t sit right with me. I’m happy with the way things are now.” Several of the others agreed with him about feeling uneasy about bringing “British colonisers” into a united Ireland.

“On the other hand people from the North shouldn’t be punished or ostracised because of their attachment to British culture,” said Molly. “Even though Catholics and Nationalists were treated badly in Northern Ireland (and Unionists have historically wielded the tool of national identity against those who did not want to be British), we have to make sure that our own sense of Irish nationalism doesn’t recreate those same harms to Unionists, people who feel British in the run-up to, and maybe in the aftermath of, reunification.”

Molly felt that while we were no longer being actively colonised, “the lasting effects of colonisation and partition are undoubtedly still felt around the island,” and any discussion on preserving or reshaping national identity had to be conscious of this context and “why symbols of national identity matter so much in the first place.” She said “imposing a national identity on those who do not want it is dangerous…national identity always involves the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others.” She went on: “We have seen over the centuries the harm and violence that came with the forced imposition of British identity and culture on this island – the lesson of that should not be that Britishness is bad (though in many ways it sort of is), but rather that nationalism is almost always exclusionary and usually violent – it cannot be nurtured peacefully or respectfully.”

Geraldine said there had been “a big resurgence in Irish identity, based on pride in our economic success over the past 20-30 years.” She wondered if the strong British ties of Northern Unionists were seen as a threat by many people in the Republic. Personally, she would not want “to adapt in any way to British culture, even if that was the price of bringing some significant element of Unionists” into a united Ireland. “We were under the British for so long – now that we’ve got our own successful Irish identity, we wouldn’t want to let that go.” She felt the old British (or rather English) tendency to look down on the Irish had flipped, with the Irish, as economically successful Europeans, now feeling rather superior. “Unity [including the Unionists] would take a lot of unpacking of unconscious biases we have, that even young people have,” she admitted, giving as an example the shouts of ‘Up the Ra’ in Dublin night-clubs.

They all agreed that the extreme conservatism of Northern unionists – led by the DUP – on issues like same sex marriage and abortion reform was particularly off-putting for young Southerners. Eamon said he had a republican friend living in a unionist area in the North who talked about “male prayer groups out in the streets protesting about abortion and gay rights – how much more unattractive can you possibly appear?” He also noted that when it came to places to travel to, Northern Ireland was low down on most young Southerners’ lists: “they see it as a really desperate place.” Noting that not so long ago the Republic was a very conservative, Catholic society, but had changed radically in recent years, he asked why the same thing had not happened in the North.

Eamon appeared to articulate what to this writer is the overwhelming opinion of ‘middle Ireland’.”A united Ireland would be great at some point, but many people here think that overcoming the housing and health service crises is far more important, and to take on unity as well would be just too much.”

Molly said if she was a Northerner worried about paying the mortgage or the rent, she would look at an Irish government that did not seem to care about people who were homeless or hopelessly seeking a place to live, and say: “Sort yourselves out and start running a functioning country where young people in danger of homelessness can get a house. The Republic of Ireland is not exactly a Utopia either, is it?”

Three of the five would vote Sinn Fein in any future election (the other two would vote Labour or Social Democrat). But they all agreed that most young people would vote Sinn Fein, not out of any belief in imminent unity, but because the “historic duopoly” of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael had been in power for ever in the Republic, and Sinn Fein – for all their aggressive, populist rhetoric in opposition – should be given the chance to get into government to see if they could do better at tackling housing and health. “We’ve never had a left-wing party running the country”, said one.

However they also agreed that, in Molly’s words, Northerners were “accustomed to living with the National Health Service, with a far better level of services than the HSE.” She hoped she was not being too optimistic in hoping that bringing into the Irish electorate a large number of people who were used to better health and social services, “unaffiliated with religious organisations, would make it much easier to generate the political will to advocate for increased investment in social services…Many Unionists may be entirely unwilling to identify as Irish, but I think when it comes to healthcare, housing, energy costs and other basic needs, it becomes increasingly clear that, regardless of ideology, many of us want the same things.”

Similarly, they wondered what education would look like in a united Ireland if there was no Catholic Church involvement. Young people in the Republic felt such involvement was normal, “but for most of the world it isn’t – students coming from abroad to study here think it’s very strange.”

Martin said young people learned nothing about Northern Ireland at school: “the Leaving Cert history course was completely one-sided. We complain that the British are not educated to know about Ireland, but we have a nationalistic history syllabus ourselves.” He had grown up hearing “awful stories” from his parents about the ‘Troubles’: “they were seeing the news every day about people being murdered there – that leaves an indelible mark on your outlook about these things.” Not surprisingly, he was the only one of the five who voiced concerns about Sinn Fein’s past links with the IRA. At the same time he was in favour of eventual unity and voiced concern about possible changes in national symbols like the flag and anthem.

“I wonder how much current and younger members of Sinn Fein identify with that [the IRA]. I have a lot of friends who are Sinn Fein members – I don’t want to write them off because of the actions of their predecessors,” said Maurice.

Molly compared Sinn Fein and the IRA with Fine Gael and the fascist Blueshirts in the 1930s:”the reason I don’t point the finger at lifelong Fine Gael voters is that those wrongdoings are no longer relevant, they have passed out of living memory. The same process has happened for our generation with Sinn Fein.” There was general hilarity at the thought of the bespectacled intellectual Eoin O Broin as an IRA gunman.

Eamon said the two main things people in the South worried about when faced with the prospect of the North coming into a united Ireland were firstly, if badly managed, reunification could see a return to violence; and secondly, concern about Dublin having to take over the £10 billion annual subvention from the British treasury to maintain Northern Ireland’s services (“although I don’t even know if that’s a true figure”). However, Maurice thought that a newly prosperous Republic could now cover the British subvention. “Yes, we could. Would we want to? Maybe not.”

I came away from that dinner conversation cheered at the thought that such a smart and impressive group of young people could be running this country in 20 years, even though they shared much of the confusion (and naivety) of their elders when it came to ignorance about the North (and unionism, in particular) and confidence in Sinn Fein as a future left-wing governing party focussed above all else on housing and health. I found their emphasis on the British colonial thinking of Northern Unionists as an unacceptable legacy of the unhappy history of colonialism in Ireland particularly enlightening. Perhaps as somebody from a Northern Protestant background brought up largely in Britain – albeit in a strong Labour household – I have tended to under-estimate the strength of this feeling in Irish young people: real (if not uncritical) pride in an Irish nationalism which a hundred years ago took on the might of the British empire and won independence by force of arms; and, after many years of stagnation and disillusion, has belatedly made a significant success of that independence. Whether it will help us bring about a harmonious united Ireland is another matter. However, as a man in my seventies, I came away certain that it would do me nothing but good to talk to young people like these about such things more often.

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland | 4 Comments

Sinn Fein will be re-writing recent Irish history when it gets into power

Earlier this month Mary Lou McDonald denied that the deletion of thousands of Sinn Fein press statements going back over 20 years represented an attempt to cover-up the party’s ‘soft’ position on Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The Sinn Fein leader had brazenly jumped that ship shortly after the invasion, leading the calls for the expulsion of the Russian ambassador to Ireland.

However as far back as 2015 Sinn Fein’s four MEPs abstained in a European Parliament resolution that condemned human rights abuses in Russia and criticised Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. In December Chris McManus, now the party’s sole representative in the parliament, voted against a resolution that supported Ukraine’s independence, stated that Putin’s military build-up at Ukraine’s borders represented a threat to Europe’s peace and security and called on Russia to respect its international obligations. McManus has abstained or voted against six European Parliament resolutions critical of Russia since 2020.1

We can expect a lot more rewriting of recent history – Irish history – if and when Sinn Fein gets into power in Dublin. The Provisional IRA’s 30-year campaign of violence will be rewritten as an unavoidable consequence of the peaceful civil rights movement in Northern Ireland when faced with the repressive Northern state. Multiple killers of off-duty policemen and UDR men like Seamus McElwaine and Francis Hughes will be portrayed as glorious heroes. And most importantly of all, the IRA’s campaign will be justified as the legitimate and righteous continuation of the 1916-1921 War of Independence against the British occupier, completing the unfinished business of winning Irish freedom, unity and sovereignty.

Many people in the Republic of Ireland will be open to this interpretation. Republicanism is a kind of underlying orthodoxy in Southern society. A lot of people in this state, notably Fianna Fail followers and supporters of left-wing parties, proudly call themselves republicans or republican socialists. In this period of centennial commemorations, many – perhaps most – people here find it easier to identify with the uncompromising Irish republicans of that era than with supporters of the compromising Irish Free State or John Redmond’s peaceful Irish Parliamentary Party (people like this are always in danger of being demonised as ‘free staters’,’shoneens’ or ‘west Brits’). With Fianna Fail now discredited after having spent too much of the past century in government, this adds up to one more psychological advantage for Sinn Fein.

Republican assumptions and language are shared by those who would never call themselves supporters of the Provisional IRA. You can see it in the small things. I am starting to see apolitical theatre reviewers refer to IRA prisoners in the Maze, who may have been convicted killers, as ‘political prisoners’, and a part-time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment as a ‘terrorist.’ The liberal intelligentsia is particularly guilty here: acquaintances of mine inveigh against the former Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris, a fierce critic of the IRA, with a vitriol they would never use against Gerry Adams or Mary Lou McDonald. With prominent anti-IRA voices like Harris, Kevin Myers and Professor John A. Murphy silenced by death or disgrace, there are few people left in the media and public life to take on the now ascendant Sinn Fein champions of republican violence.

It may not be politically correct these days, but it is worth reminding people forcefully of the extent of that violence. Between 1971 and 1998 the Provisional IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British army, the RUC and the UDR combined. Of the 1771 people they killed, 636 were uninvolved civilians. I’m going to repeat that in bold. Between 1971 and 1998 the Provisional IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British army, the RUC and the UDR combined. Of the 1771 people they killed, 636 were uninvolved civilians. Is there any other ‘freedom struggle’ in recent world history where the forces of ‘freedom’ killed nearly five times more people than the repressive state forces facing them? A Northern friend from a security force background has estimated that there are over 400,000 people with some past or present connection with the security forces in Northern Ireland – and the majority of them have the most vivid recollection of relatives, friends and comrades who were killed and injured by the IRA. Does that affect their view of Sinn Fein and its policy of driving on to an early united Ireland? You bet it does.

Which brings me to an interesting long article in the New York Review of Books this month.2 Because if Fianna Failers and Irish left-wingers are susceptible to Sinn Fein’s propaganda (and Irish republicans are world-class propagandists), that is doubly or trebly so for many (perhaps most) Irish-Americans, who support the IRA because it aims to drive the British out of Ireland, and most European leftists, who admire the IRA as Europe’s very own anti-imperialist guerrilla force. One rarely hears a well-argued contrary view in Europe or the United States. However the novelist Nick Laird, born and reared in Tyrone, has provided one in his excoriating review in that prestigious US publication of a new three volume collection of photographs of Northern Ireland – Whatever you Say, Say Nothing – by the celebrated French photographer of the ‘Troubles’, Gilles Peress, a former president of the Magnum photo agency, and now professor of human rights and photography at Bard College, New York, and senior research fellow at the Human Rights Centre at Berkeley University.

Laird is damning of the partiality and prejudice of this mighty photo collection and its accompanying text, most of it by Peress’s collaborator, an American lawyer called Chris Klatell. Both both Peress and Klatell are unashamed supporters of the IRA. For example, Klatell is happy to quote An Phoblacht, the Sinn Fein newspaper, as his source for an account of the disputed killing of IRA men by the SAS; and to describe two men as having been killed “on active service” when the bomb they were making exploded prematurely. Apart from other photographers, those thanked by Peress in the acknowledgements for “their hospitality, generosity and advice” are nearly all IRA members and Republican activists.

Laird calls the book “deeply partial, and by turns incomplete, ill-informed, outdated and patronizing.” He gives many examples of this. Here are two: Klatell describes Francis Hughes, who was to die in the 1981 Maze prison hunger strike, as “a charismatic and tenacious young member of the Provisional IRA referred to as the ‘most wanted man in the North of Ireland.’ The authorities captured him in a ditch after a shoot-out with the SAS, looking like a rock star with dyed blonde hair even though he was gravely injured.” What Klatell doesn’t mention is that “Hughes was convicted of killing three people and reputedly killed more than a dozen, with some sources alleging he was responsible for at least 30 deaths. Among the deaths he was linked to were those of a 77-year-old grandmother and a 10-year-old girl.”

Here is a second. “Klatell recounts Peress describing how, back in 1985, Daithi de Paor, an IRA man, had told him a story of the IRA bombing a costume shop: ‘For some reason, or maybe for no reason, the Volunteers decided they had an issue with the Indian man who owned the costume shop’ and decided to blow it up. After setting the bomb on the counter they drove away, but saw in the rearview mirror ‘the fucking Indian guy, calmly carrying the bomb out of his shop and chucking it into the street.’ So the following week they went into the shop, ‘froze the owner at gunpoint, and glued the bomb to the counter. Then they all stood round in awkward silence, holding the bomb down, waiting for the glue to dry.’ After recounting this story, Peress laughed. ‘No one else did. That’s a terrible story, they said. What happened to the poor Indian man who owned the shop?’ Gilles looked around in puzzlement. ‘That story wasn’t about the man who owned the shop’, he said. ‘It was about the glue.”

Laird concludes: “Realizing that murdering an immigrant for ‘some reason, or maybe for no reason’ might strike readers as despicable, Klatell tries here to put some daylight between himself and Peress, though with its black humour, casual gangsterism and purposeless violence this anecdote is somehow one of the truest things in the book.”

Klatell cannot imagine a Northern Protestant sensibility that is “anything other than grotesque”, says Laird. “Orange marches are ‘sadistic victory parades of the Prods, ecstatic in their imposition of humiliation’. To many people, not just Protestants, this might seem not only a caricature but a gross misrepresentation.”

Laird concludes that “among Americans the list of useful idiots for the Irish Republican cause is long, and Klatell, though he has clearly steeped himself in the history and culture of the North, has also, in the end, let himself be a tool of violent Republicanism. He is attempting to cement a story that simply isn’t true, the reality being more complicated and demanding than his scrapbook admits.

“It is, of course, possible to believe in the inevitability and desirability of a united Ireland without supporting or romanticising Irish Republicanism. It is possible to think that partition was a disaster and that Northern Ireland practised systematic discrimination against its Catholic minority for many years, while also refusing to justify, glorify or accommodate the horrific actions of Republicanism. That’s why the Social Democratic and Labour Party exists – to advocate for Irish reunification, though it has been largely eclipsed by Sinn Fein.”

Seamus Heaney is invoked repeatedly in these volumes. “What is missing is Heaney’s sense of a morally complicated place, a location where no one was exactly right but some were clearly wrong: ‘My sympathy was not with the IRA, but it wasn’t with the Thatcher government either”, the great poet wrote during the 1981 hunger strike. Laird recommends reading another engrossing book by an American observer of the North, which takes its title from the same Heaney poem as Peress’s collection: Say Nothing, by the New Yorker journalist Patrick Radden Keefe. Laird calls this a “masterpiece, and one of the best introductions you’ll find to the twisted state of Northern Ireland.” I could not agree more.

1 Elaine Loughlin, ‘Sinn Fein’s soft stance on Russia is clearly on the record’, Irish Examiner, 1st March

2 ‘Partial Reports’, New York Review of Books, 10th March

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein | 3 Comments

Is Ireland neutral in this battle between good and evil?

Sometimes (rarely) wars are seen as battles between the forces of good and evil. The war of the Allies against Nazism is the classic example in modern times. Except the Irish state chose to sit that one out, unwilling to line up alongside the ancient British enemy – then on the side of the angels – less than 20 years after its war of independence against the old oppressor.

I would suggest that the savage and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia comes into this category. In less than three weeks Putin’s merciless generals have unleashed a campaign of terror unseen since the Second World War: they have pounded residential areas, targeted hospitals, mined and bombed agreed ‘humanitarian corridors’ and forced four million and a half Ukrainians to flee their homes. Putin appeared to threaten nuclear war when he warned that Russia’s response to anyone who stood in its way in Ukraine or “creates threats for our country and people” will “lead you to consequences you have never encountered in your history.” 39 countries, including Ireland, have petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine.

Ireland is proud of its neutrality (although decisions like allowing US troop planes to refuel at Shannon en route to wars in Iraq and  Afghanistan show how governments can interpret it as they will). But during the seventy years of Soviet rule was the Irish Free State/ Republic of Ireland, among the most conservative and Catholic – and therefore anti-communist – countries in Western Europe, really neutral? Didn’t it shelter under the nuclear-armed NATO umbrella to ensure Ireland’s security? Given its tiny air corps and navy, didn’t it rely on the RAF and the Royal Navy to secure its air corridors and shipping lanes (and to support its limited search and rescue capacity)? Isn’t this a classic example of what Fintan O’Toole calls Irish people’s ability to be in two minds at the same time: neutral and anti-communist, anti-British and reliant on Britain?

I feel a real thrill of pride when I see Ireland’s blue-bereted soldiers flying off on United Nations duty in dangerous places like Lebanon and Liberia, or Irish naval vessels saving the lives of African refugees in the Mediterranean. But neutrality has its darker side too. Perhaps the most shameful episode in a century of Ireland’s international relations was Éamon de Valera’s visit to the German embassy in May1945 to offer his condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler. This extraordinarily foolish – not to say immoral – gesture helped to ensure that Ireland had few friends in the world in the years immediately after World War Two.

But are Irish people neutral in the battle for Ukraine? Absolutely not. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Dail on the afternoon of the Russian invasion that while Ireland was militarily neutral “in this conflict Ireland is not neutral at all. Our support for Ukraine is unwavering and unconditional.” Former President Mary Robinson, speaking on the Late Late Show, called the Russian invasion “a flagrant breach of the UN Charter. Of course we’re not neutral. How could we be?” Her successor, Mary McAleese, said Russians had to be told: “Your country is now a pariah in the world.”

There has been a huge upsurge in support for taking refugees from the war there (we have been told by government ministers that we may have to take up to 100,000 refugees, and at time of writing the Irish Red Cross had logged 14,500 offers of accommodation for them). Our government’s ‘let them all come’ policy is in sharp contrast to the mean-minded, ultra-bureaucratic response of official Britain. Many thousands of people have protested outside the Russian Embassy in Dublin’s Orwell Road. There is something primordial, deeply rooted in Irish history and folk memory, that rises at the sight of a powerful nation attacking its smaller, peaceful neighbour.

There is little dispute in most European countries that the EU needs to rearm and prepare to defend itself against this suddenly much more dangerous Russia. Other European neutrals like Finland and Sweden have put their money where their mouths are and sent arms to Ukraine. 53% of Finns are now in favour of NATO membership, the first such majority ever. Ireland and Finland share similar sized populations and economies, and are both militarily non-aligned. But that’s where the similarities end. Finland’s defence budget is around five times the size of Ireland’s; it has mandatory military service for men over 18; it has just bought 64 ultra-modern F-35 fighter jets from the US; it has more than 200 naval ships compared to Ireland’s nine (even though its exclusive economic maritime zone is 30 times smaller than ours); and it is a world leader in countering ‘hybrid threats’: cyberattacks, social media disinformation and foreign powers attempting to interfere with elections.

On 1st June Danish voters will be asked in a referendum whether to end their country’s opt-out from EU defence (negotiated in order to salvage the Maastricht Treaty after it was rejected by Danish voters in 1992). Its prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, has announced “the largest investment in Danish defence in recent times” in response to Putin’s “pointless and brutal attack on Ukraine.”  As the leaders of the European Union, meeting in Versailles last week, moved towards “a stronger and more capable EU in the field of security and defence” (and President Macron proposed a €200 billion leap in military spending across the bloc), we in Ireland will have to make a difficult choice, almost certainly in a referendum.

The Irish government can, of course, go along with Sinn Fein and much of the Irish left, and decide it doesn’t want to join any efforts to enhance EU security and defence, but Ministers are acutely conscious of how isolated this would leave us, says the Irish Times‘ well-informed political editor, Pat Leahy. He goes on: “Central and eastern European countries would point to the solidarity extended to Ireland during Brexit and wonder at the lack of reciprocity when they feel threatened…Failure to join a new common defence effort would be seen by other countries as ‘very odd and a lack of solidarity’, says a senior diplomat from another (neutral) EU country. ‘Why would we support your Northern Ireland policy – which we do – when you cannot contribute to European security?’ asks this person. Another EU diplomat  from a different country says that failure to join in EU defence would be seen as ‘a kind of Brexit.”

Leahy continues: “If the Government decides to run a referendum, expect it to be fronted by the Taoiseach. He would present himself as a lifelong supporter of military neutrality who has been convinced by events that Ireland must play its part in defending the EU; not an abandonment of neutrality, but a commitment to self-defence. It would strongly reject the idea of equivalence between the EU-NATO side and Russia” (as proposed by MEPs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, honoured guests of the murderous Assad regime).”It would say: time to pick a side.”1

However, seeing this as a contest between good and evil is the easy part for us in Ireland. Our solidarity with Ukraine will only be really tested when we start suffering from oil, gas and even food shortages because of the war. And Europe backing the ‘good guys’ in Kiev with increased arms supplies won’t be nearly enough to bring this horrible war to an early end.

In an instructive if depressing article last week, Gerard Toal, professor of government at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (who is Irish), warned that “attractive as ‘good versus evil’ thinking is right now, it is the enemy of de-escalation and the ugly compromises needed to give this war’s victims a good enough peace, an opportunity to return home quickly, to mourn, and to rebuild.” He proposed a package of ‘ugly compromises’: Russia and Ukraine to sign a treaty which would see Ukraine committing to becoming a neutral state in return for Russia supporting its bid for EU membership as a neutral state like Ireland; the UN to administer self-determination referendums in Crimea and Donbass; Ukraine to agree to dissolve far-right armed groups on its territory; in a phased process, the US and EU to drop sanctions against Russia; and NATO and the Russian Federation to commit to negotiating a new military security order in Europe, involving closing the door to future NATO membership to Ukraine and five other former Soviet bloc countries situated between Russia and the EU.2

Is this the only way to stop Russia threatening Europe? To reward Vladimir Putin’s aggression by giving him much of what he is demanding? Is this the best way to defend the values of peace and democracy which European countries have spent more than 70 years painstakingly building through the EU and its predecessors, and which Putin’s Russia has worked so hard to undermine? Values like liberal democracy; human rights; open societies with freedom of movement and information; fundamental freedoms of conscience, expression and peaceful assembly, and as much human (including racial and gender) equality as a capitalist economic system will allow. I just don’t know. What I do believe is that it is time for Ireland to stand fully alongside our European partners and friends, even if our odd half-in, half-out neutrality has to be sacrificed at this grim turning point in European history.

1 ‘Any decision on neutrality will come at a price’, 12 March

2 ‘There’s a way out of this, but it’s not good news for Ukraine, Irish Times, 12 March

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Republic of Ireland | 1 Comment

Unionism unloved and unbowed, and the rise and rise of Alliance

“Unwanted and unloved, Unionists are unbowed…but Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal is just the latest example of many in Britain kicking unionism and then being loved even more strongly in return”. That was the headline above a Belfast Telegraph column by Sam McBride earlier this month. If you want to know what it happening inside the imploding world of the DUP in particular and unionism in general these days you have to read McBride – for my money the best-informed reporter in Northern Ireland.

McBride recalled that when Johnson addressed the nation in December 2020 to announce his trade deal with the EU to “get Brexit done”, the prime minister effusively told the British public: “We have taken back control of laws and our destiny. We have taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation. In a way that is complete and unfettered. From January 1 we are outside the customs union and outside the single market. British laws will be made solely by the British Parliament. Interpreted by UK judges sitting in UK courts. And the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will come to an end.”

Every word of that was only true, McBride pointed out, if followed by an “excludes Northern Ireland” disclaimer — which it didn’t. “Whether mendaciously or thoughtlessly, the prime minister of the United Kingdom spoke of the country he leads in a way which was only accurate if he defines that country as excluding Northern Ireland.”

It is not surprising that there are Unionists — even passionate, traditional, longstanding Unionists — whose commitment to Britain has been shaken by the betrayals of recent years. But McBride believes they are the exception. “There is no evidence that hordes of Unionists are recanting. Unionists knew before Northern Ireland was created that they were unloved by London. It did not diminish their sense of Britishness. In fact, hundreds of thousands of them were willing to fight and die to stay British. History shows that when unionism feels forsaken, it more often goes in the direction of militancy than moderation.”

As Northern Ireland came into being in 1921, the father of Ulster Unionism, Edward Carson, railed against British double-dealing: “But why is all this attack made upon Ulster? What has Ulster done? I will tell you what Ulster has done. She has stuck too well to you, and you believe that because she is loyal you can kick her as you like.”

That fear of abandonment — and the determination to resist regardless of pressure — lies deep in the unionist psyche. But while history is a guide to the future, it does not determine what that future will be. Unionism now is weaker than it was in 1912, 1921, 1974 or 1985, says McBride. “It now might be at or close to the point where militancy is no longer feasible. Yet even if that is the case, it does not mean that compromise will replace confrontation. There is within a strain of unionism an atavistic preponderance towards lashing out, even when it seems pointless.”

“That unionism’s attachment to the UK is sustained through repeated humiliation shows the depth of the connection — and shows how hard it will be to persuade even a substantial minority of Unionists to change sides in a border poll,” McBride concluded.

The background to this article was, of course, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s decision, in a belated protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, to pull the plug on the Executive – or that major part of it which required the DUP First Minister Paul Givan and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill to be in post. This means that certain key Executive actions – such as a budget for the next three years – will now not go ahead, and an Assembly election campaign which was due to start at the end of March (with polling day on 5th May) kicked off in early February.

The North’s two main opinion polls – LucidTalk/Belfast Telegraph and University of Liverpool/Irish News – using different methodologies, agree on one thing: Sinn Fein are on course to become the largest party on 5th May and therefore the DUP will lose the First Minister’s post. On the BBC the day after Givan’s resignation Donaldson squirmed for eight minutes – an eternity on radio – to avoid Stephen Nolan’s repeated questioning about whether he would accept the outcome of such an election by agreeing to serve as Deputy First Minister.

At a Chatham House-rules gathering I attended last week in Belfast – along with a group of well-informed political and community activists of all stripes, addressed by leading journalists – the consensus was that, after some tortuous negotiations, a divided and weakened DUP would again go into government under Michelle O’Neill as First Minister (the alternative would be a return to Direct Rule, which most of them loathe). Under new legislation those negotiations could take up to six months, with the old, now headless Executive staying in office for that time. If you think the fractious 2020-2022 period was a recipe for inertia and deadlock, just wait for that unhappy vacuum.

This is going to involve highly complex stuff that may require some amendment of the Good Friday/St Andrews Agreements’ strange ‘designation’ rules. If current opinion poll trends are proved right, under those rules Sinn Fein, as the party with the largest number of seats from the largest ‘tribal’ designation (i.e. nationalism) will automatically get the First Minister’s post. However, this may be contested by unionism – even if it is split three ways between the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice – if they are still in a position to claim that they are the largest designation.

This will be even more complicated if Alliance’s surge in the 2019 Westminster and European elections continues into May’s contest. A University of Liverpool poll in the Irish News earlier this month put Alliance (with 15.6%) in third place, after Sinn Fein (23.2%) and the DUP (19.4%). This compares with an Alliance vote of 3.7% in the 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly elections and 9.1% in the 2017 Assembly elections. Not surprisingly, this rise in Alliance support is paralleled by a fall in the support for both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

If Alliance and other non-sectarian parties (e.g. the Greens, who registered 6.3% in the University of Liverpool poll) get over 20% of the seats, there will be pressure to change the whole ultra-complex D’Hondt voting system (and particularly its ‘designation’ element) brought in by the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements. For example, my understanding is that if Alliance does so well that it is returned with the second largest number of Assembly Members, it could find itself nonetheless not entitled to the Deputy First Minister’s post; this could go still to the DUP as the largest party in unionism, the second biggest ‘designation’.

The bizarre ‘designation’ rules were originally incorporated into the Good Friday Agreement as a way of ensuring that the four leading ‘tribal’ parties – the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, the DUP and Sinn Fein – would sit in government together. Will the British government – as it faces multiple problems of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the post-Brexit disruption of trade and internal rows over the prime minister’s character and behaviour – want to devote the huge time and effort needed to renegotiate this extraordinarily complex Agreement (which took 22 months under the Solomon-like chairmanship of Senator George Mitchell to put together in the first place)? I doubt it very much. We are, after all, in the era of Boris Johnson, who lied his way to an Irish Sea border with barely a thought for Northern Ireland, not Tony Blair, who for all his later faults genuinely believed he could make history by solving the interminable ‘Irish Question.’

I have been asking another question at conferences and gatherings on the North I have been attending in recent months. If the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance between them won enough seats after May’s election and wanted to form a centrist coalition government without the DUP and Sinn Fein, would the Good Friday/St Andrews Agreements allow that? Both politicians and journalists who responded to my question believed the answer would be ‘no’.

Wouldn’t it be a big step forward if those agreements could be amended to allow such a democratic opening to take place? To quote the distinguished Queen’s University Belfast educationalist, Professor Tony Gallagher: “This would be a shift towards a voluntary coalition in which a Programme for Government becomes a collective enterprise, not a set of disparate and separate wish lists. Such a Programme for Government might even be worked out before the election, as a platform to put to the electorate. It should certainly be agreed before any new Executive gets under way. After all the outgoing Executive collapsed having never agreed a Programme for Government.” Is such a normal democratic process impossible ‘pie in the sky’ in Northern Irish circumstances?

POSTSCRIPT 1: I found it very moving the way that Assembly Members of all parties, including Sinn Fein, lined up to pay tribute to Christopher Stalford, the 39-year-old DUP MLA, Deputy Speaker, and father of four small children, who died suddenly nine days ago. By all accounts he was a warm, witty and highly intelligent man. This was the ‘new’ Northern Ireland at its most united, honourable and optimistic. Sinn Féin chief whip John O’Dowd recalled how the previous week “he gave us both barrels across the chamber”, but went on to say mournfully, “I will miss him. As has been said, this place will not be the same without him.” His Sinn Fein colleague Caoimhe Archibald said the South Belfast MLA was “decent; he had manners; he had class.” Linda Dillon said Stalford was “full of integrity and a pleasure to do business with… I genuinely felt sad yesterday when I heard the news, and I still feel that overwhelming sadness.”

POSTSCRIPT 2: It is difficult to write about the drearily familiar problems of little Northern Ireland when more than 75 years of relative peace in Europe (other than in the former Yugoslavia) was shattered by Vladimir Putin and Russia’s utterly unprovoked attack on Ukraine last week. I cannot do better than to repeat the extract from the Irish Times editorial on 26th February which it splashed across the top of its front page on that day.

“The immediate horror of the Russian invasion has been visited on the people of Ukraine. It is they who have been subjected to a murderous and flagrantly criminal assault that may plunge them into years of violent turmoil. Yet John Donne’s ominous words come to mind: ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.’ Vladimir Putin has tolled the knell of an era of relative peace and stability in Europe. For all of us, the reverberations will linger in the air for many years to come.”

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | 1 Comment

Fintan O’Toole, Leopold Bloom and me

I have been reading We Don’t Know Ourselves, Fintan O’Toole’s marvellous personal and political memoir of Ireland over the past 64 years. I am an unashamed admirer of O’Toole’s writings, and his brilliantly insightful, left-wing views on multiple aspects of Irish life in all its glory and grubbiness. I once introduced him to a Northern Irish audience as a “national treasure”. In my years in the Irish Times, our paths occasionally crossed, most memorably on the terraces at Belfast’s Windsor Park on a bleak night in November 1993, when we sat silent and anxious beside a section of the crowd singing about being up to their knees “in Fenian blood”, and inwardly cheering as an Alan McLoughlin goal sent the Republic of Ireland to the finals of the following year’s World Cup.

O’Toole shares some of my pet hates: the all-powerful Irish Catholic Church of the mid-20th century, with its imperious prelates, brutal Christian Brothers and child-abusing priests; that church’s long alliance with Fianna Fail, personified by the astonishingly corrupt and hypocritical figure of Charles Haughey; and the doublethink of the IRA and Sinn Fein, who for many years combined “electoral politics and mass killing, political party and private army, victim and perpetrator.” This was “of a piece with the larger Irish capacity for being in two minds simultaneously” – although he feels that by the 1990s this capacity was radically diminishing. I fear a new generation, those who will vote in their hundreds of thousands for Sinn Fein in the next election, have inherited at least some of it.

I did not experience the unanimous fury of the people of the Republic at the horror of 14 innocent people murdered by the British Parachute regiment in Derry 50 years ago last weekend. I was told of it by a driver as I was hitch-hiking through Colombia. In contrast, O’Toole’s father, a socialist and sceptic about Irish nationalism, announced that he was prepared to go to war over it. “We have to face it”, he told his wife and sons. “Me and the boys are going to be up in the North, fighting. It’s coming. There’s no choice now. It’s just the way it’s going to be. It’ll be them or us. We have to be ready for it.” 14 year old Fintan was “stunned, terrified, but also excited. It was a big thing to think about, this civil war that was going to shape our destinies.” If ever there was a ‘two nations’ moment in Ireland, this was it: nationalist Ireland ready to go to war over a British atrocity; many in unionist Northern Ireland wrong-headedly equating it to the killing of Protestant civilians by the IRA. 

As an Irishman of part-Jewish ancestry, I was particularly intrigued by a chapter on Leopold Bloom, the central character of James Joyce’s Ulysses (first published a hundred years ago this week), who, according to O’Toole, had an afterlife following his starring role in that greatest of novels. O’Toole recounts the story of Bloom’s death in 1942 (certainly apocryphal, since Bloom was not a real person) from a Dublin Jewish chronicler, Asher Benson. According to Benson, he was barred from burial in the Dolphin’s Barn Jewish cemetery on the grounds that he was “a confirmed apostate, an eater of forbidden food, and had married out” (and was also a great lover of a jug of porter). He ended up being half-buried in the middle of the night under the wall dividing the Jewish cemetery from the houses on Aughavannagh Road in Crumlin, and thus possibly in the O’Toole family’s back garden.

I have always been interested in Leopold Bloom as the sort of atypical Irishman I could identify with. In the famous Cyclops episode in Ulysses, which takes place in Barney Kiernan’s pub, off Capel Street, Joyce contrasts the citizen’s aggressive and xenophobic nationalism with Bloom’s gentle insistence on tolerance and compassion. Bloom talks about “persecution…all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.” The citizen interrupts:”What is your nation, if I may ask”. “Ireland”, says Bloom. “I was born here. Ireland.” “The citizen said nothing only cleared the spit out of his gullet and, gob, he spat a Red bank oyster out of him right in the corner.”

Later in the conversation Bloom gives his views on violence and hatred. “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.” “What?” says Alf, another drinker. “Love”, says Bloom. “I mean the opposite of hatred.”

In terms of love and hatred in the northern part of Ireland, I fear sometimes that we haven’t moved on much since 1904. I worry that the xenophobic nationalism of the citizen is about to be reborn in the form of a near-future government dominated by the militant republicanism of Sinn Fein squaring up to the jingoistic English nationalism of a Tory government in London. I ask myself: where will I, as a peace-loving, left-of-centre, non-republican person from a half-Presbyterian, half-Jewish background, fit into the ‘new Ireland’ ruled over by Sinn Fein?

In all my years in Dublin I have always been bemused when somebody is described as a “republican” as if that were a mark of distinction, a source of pride. To me, a contemporary Irish republican is somebody who believes in killing people in pursuit of some ill-defined all-Ireland republic. I agreed with John Hume back in 1989 when he said that “there is not a single injustice in Northern Ireland today that justifies the taking of a single human life.” He said the same thing repeatedly about the IRA’s killings and bombings in pursuit of unity, denouncing their ultra-nationalistic and fascistic belief that they were the “pure Irish master race.”1

Between 1998 and 2016 I had hoped we were moving into a benign period of power-sharing between the parties of unionism, nationalism and republicanism in Northern Ireland and increasing cooperation between North and South on the island of Ireland, and that over a period of 30 or 40 years of joint EU membership and rising prosperity this would start to remove much of the historic poison from relationships on this island. I believed that the neuralgic issue of Irish unity could be postponed until a future and perhaps wiser generation. Maybe I was naive. Maybe I underestimated the right-wing anti-European forces that were gathering in Britain to drive on to Brexit; the DUP’s insularity and stupidity in fully backing that madness; and Sinn Fein’s determination to take full advantage of such a huge British misstep to up the tempo of the drumbeat for unity.

I had hoped that in this benign period there would be recognition of a new broad definition of Irishness, that one could be fully recognised as Irish as a non-Catholic, an immigrant, a gay person, a black person, a Northern Protestant or unionist – anybody, in fact, who, like Leopold Bloom, is born on the island of Ireland. One would not have to fit into the stereotype of the ‘true Gael’ that was dominant in the first 50 years of this state’s existence: an Irish-speaking, Brit-hating, GAA-following, physical force-supporting republican. With the huge immigration into this country over the past 25 years of people from Eastern Europe, Africa and Brazil (among many other countries), the definition of Irishness will have to be greatly broadened anyway (despite the 2004 constitutional referendum, endorsed by nearly 80% of those voting, which, against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, restricted citizenship to those born in Ireland to Irish citizens).

I sometimes I wonder where I, as a kind of ‘West Brit’, with my Northern Protestant background and largely English upbringing, will fit into this new Ireland with its Sinn Fein-led worship of violent republican ancestors, including those who killed over 1,700 people in the Northern Ireland conflict. Just as ‘republican’ is usually a compliment in the present day Republic of Ireland, ‘West Brit’ is an insult. ‘Unionist’ is one of the worst insults one can throw at anyone in Irish politics, and even a Taoiseach like John Bruton was not safe from the insulting epithet ‘John unionist’ for trying to reach out to the unionists at various stages of the 1990s peace process.

I am a passionate and lifelong lover of Ireland and its people and culture (in my retirement I have taken up set dancing and have been learning Irish). But I just cannot see how we are going to attract any significant number of Northern unionists into our shiny new Ireland, many of whom are understandably opposed to all things Irish after being battered by 30 years of IRA violence (in the 2011 census 2.1% of Northern Protestants defined themselves as Irish, compared to 20% in 1968). And if the politicians overseeing that transformation are from the party which glorifies the perpetrators of that violence as the heroes of the final stage in the long and noble struggle against the British oppressor, unionists’ acquiescence in such an outcome is even more improbable.

We need a change of heart in the South if we are going to attract any unionists into our society. A Dublin friend who has held prominent positions in both Irish jurisdictions asks if the citizens of this republic “can open up to the notion that a sixth of the population will have an identity which is not Irish”. He goes on: “I think we need an expression of Irishness that accommodates, welcomes and doesn’t exclude Britishness. It doesn’t compromise the notion of being Irish; we don’t have to dilute a sense of Irishness to be open to a sense of Britishness. Nobody is purely Irish and nobody is purely British on this island – it’s too interwoven for that.” This man believes the work of bringing about Irish unity is a 100-150 year project.

1 https://www.lrb.uk/the-paper/v11/n03/john-hume/john-hume-on-the-end-of-the-unionist-veto-in-ulster

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland | 4 Comments