Sinn Fein are winning the peace, as people forget the IRA’s war

Sinn Fein are winning the post-1998 peace. They are now the largest party in Northern Ireland, and almost certainly will be the largest party in the Republic after the next election. A combination of internal and external events have come together to make their brand of ‘left populism’ (housing spokesman’s Eoin Ó Broin’s telling phrase) seem unstoppable. The housing crisis in the South and the chaotic aftermath of Brexit, the Covid pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis caused by the Ukraine war in both jurisdictions have combined to make people fearful and angry, and Sinn Fein will be the beneficiaries.

To what extent are Sinn Fein under Mary Lou McDonald – a skilled Dublin politician with no history in or connection with the IRA – turning into a normal left-wing social democratic party? Here are some recent views. First is the opinion of a reader of this blog, Frank Schnittger from County Wicklow, in last month’s comments column.

“As someone who doesn’t support Sinn Fein, I am nevertheless impressed by the degree to which they have been able to reinvent themselves since the 1990s. They have been able to transform themselves from a hard right, socially conservative, proto-Fascist, anti-EU, hard line nationalist party into a relatively moderate, social democratic, relatively liberal, pro-EU party with some very articulate spokespeople to boot…I think we should give Sinn Fein some credit for largely leaving violence behind them over the past 25 years, facing down some dissident threats from their own side, and doing so far more completely than the loyalist paramilitaries.”

Many people in the Republic are coming to believe this. But is it the whole story? I have been reading the Monaghan-born comedian Ardal O’Hanlon’s new novel, Brouhaha, a story of violence, disappearance and death in a border town in the uncomfortable recent transition to peace (in the interest of transparency, it should be noted that O’Hanlon is the son of a prominent former Fianna Fail politician, Dr Rory O’Hanlon). A central character, a young woman newspaper reporter, is asking a Sinn Fein councillor at a public meeting about his involvement in the mysterious disappearance of a young local woman. “The thing that flustered her most was that nobody…backed her up. Obviously, she didn’t expect the average rank-and-filer of the Party to have his conscience pricked and publicly express misgivings. It was not that sort of party – one that brooked dissent or internal debate or independent thought or any deviation whatsoever from the message. Your average aficionado and assorted hangers-on were, understandably, in their element at this point in time, carried away by the momentum, by the showing in the polls, by the intoxicating message of hope, of salvation, of a better world. They were carried away by the novelty of it all, and the youthful character of it, the sophistication of the Party machine, and, yes, perhaps the fetching whiff of sulphur was part of the attraction too. Nobody was denying it. But what was most appealing to people – people who were so often dismissed as losers – was the genuinely serious chance of being part of a winning team.”

My Ireland-loving Belfast unionist friend Paul Burgess used to feel that republican triumphalism when speaking from Sinn Fein platforms in Cork (he has stopped doing that now). 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.1

It is inevitable that people’s memories of a terrible period like the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ fade over time. We saw that in striking – even shocking – fashion in last month’s Belfast Telegraph/Lucid Talk opinion poll, which found that 69% of nationalists agreed with Michelle O’Neill’s recent remark that there was “no alternative” to the IRA campaign, that (in the wording of Lucid Talk’s question) “violent resistance to British rule during the Troubles” was the only option. This is not what the majority of nationalists who voted for the SDLP in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s believed. In a 1998 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey (historically the most accurate of all NI opinion polls), 70% of Catholics said they had “no sympathy at all” with the reasons republicans gave for violence. That’s a 360 degree turn-around in just 24 years – it’s almost unbelievable.

Now only a minority of older SDLP voters disagree with O’Neill. And moderate unionists are genuinely shocked that so many of their nationalist neighbours are now endorsing – albeit retrospectively – the IRA’s campaign of violence against them, their security forces and their society.

“Only those in advanced middle age remember the horrific reality of conflict: the shootings, the bombings, the tears and the funerals,” wrote the Belfast Telegraph‘s political editor Suzanne Breen. “A generation of younger voters, without the power of recall, has a much more romanticised take on what occurred.”2 This amnesia among the young and young middle aged is the stuff of Sinn Fein dreams.

Take a microcosm of the nationalist vote in the largely middle class constituency of Belfast South in the May Northern Ireland Assembly election. Here Deirdre Hargey, not a particularly articulate or impressive Sinn Feiner (although a former Lord Mayor), took 20.3% of the vote, compared to 11.5% for the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole, a young, personable and highly competent candidate who was considered one of the party’s star performers. Compare this to the comparable votes in the first Assembly election two months after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement: then the SDLP took 21.7% of the vote compared to Sinn Fein’s paltry 6.4%

It is particularly noteworthy that in 2005 Hargey was one of 70 people who said they were in the toilet in a south Belfast bar during the murder of Short Strand man Robert McCartney by a group of former IRA men and “saw nothing”. It was a particularly brutal murder: McCartney and his friend Brendan Devine (who survived) were attacked with knives taken from the kitchen, and McCartney was taken to a nearby alley to be finished off. The bar was then ‘cleaned up’ in classic IRA fashion. The dead man’s four brave sisters and fiancée mounted an initially high-profile campaign – which took them to the White House and the European Parliament – to try to bring his killers to justice. They courageously named a former IRA commander, Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison, as the man who had given the order that McCartney was to be killed (he was himself shot dead in 2015). For their pains they were “shunned, vilified and demonised” (in Catherine McCartney’s words) in the small republican Short Strand area where they lived, until they were finally forced to move away.

Such was the outcry at the time that Hargey was dropped as a Sinn Fein electoral candidate and suspended from the party. None of which stopped her becoming Lord Mayor 13 years later and topping the poll in Belfast South 17 years later. She may have turned a blind eye to a horrific murder, but that did not seem to bother the mainly middle class nationalist voters of the Ormeau Road, the Malone Road, the university area, Stranmillis and Finaghy, as well as the working class nationalists of the Markets area. That’s amnesia in spades.

And what about the Republic? Has amnesia had its effect here too? Among young people, like the Trinity College Dublin politics students I talked to last spring, the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ are ancient history, comparable to Fine Gael’s brief ‘Blueshirt’ phase in the 1930s.3 There are many people, like Frank Schnittger, who believe Sinn Fein has largely cast off its toxic military past. Then there are those who are only interested in the ‘bread and butter’ issues of housing, health and the cost of living in the Republic, all of which are (and will remain) in crisis mode. Finally, there are those people who want as little as possible to do with the North because they are happy with the prosperous, peaceful Republic as it is, and/or, in Fintan O’Toole’s words, because they feel “underlying anxiety about the spread of mayhem across the Border” in the event of a bungled reunification. Significant numbers in all these groups, except the last, are likely to vote Sinn Fein in the next election.

1 ‘A Shared Future? SF still believes its vocation is to deliver unity in its own, unapologetic image’, Belfast Telegraph, 29 April 2022

2 ‘Provos didn’t win their war, but in terms of the historical narrative, republicans are winning the peace’, 20 August 2022

3 ‘Discussing Irish unity over dinner with Trinity College Dublin politics students,, 14 April 2022

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

Mary Lou McDonald and the forgotten people of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’

The title of this blog,  ‘Two Irelands Together’, was not chosen by accident. My core contention in writing this column is that for more than 400 years there have been two clashing politico-religious cultures on this island – Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist – and that for the past century these have been forced into the ‘narrow ground’ of Northern Ireland, with disastrous consequences for all concerned.

I hold that before Irish people can come together peacefully and harmoniously in the same political unit, there have to be mechanisms in place to allow them to come together in other ways – socially, culturally, economically. That wise man, the business leader Sir George Quigley (who died in 2013), observed that major constitutional change in Ireland “has to obtain legitimacy if it is not to prove destabilising and even impermanent. Achieving legitimacy in this context must surely start with the recognition that there are in this situation two mutually opposed ‘principles of legitimacy’ which are strongly held – one nationalist and one unionist – and that some common ground would have to be found on which the divergent aspirations are transcended in a general consensus. The Good Friday Agreement recognises this in its espousal of the principal of consent for constitutional change. It would be a delusion to suppose that change could be achieved through some simple majoritarian process rather than by negotiation.”1

There is precious little common ground at the moment. This came home to me last month when I read  Sinn Fein leader Mary-Lou McDonald’s speech to the National Press Club in Canberra in Australia in the same week that I visited the victims organisation, the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF), in Lisnaskea in Fermanagh.

McDonald is a powerful orator who clearly believes it is her destiny to become the woman who will unite Ireland. In Australia (as elsewhere) she made headlines by predicting that a Border Poll on Irish reunification would take place “in this decade.” Her reply to any question about the risk of renewed violence in the North in the event of an extremely narrow vote for unity in that poll – this time certainly led by loyalists – is always the same. “The war is over”, she says.

It is worth quoting her words in Canberra at more length. She was asked by a journalist how she would ensure that such a Border Poll did not reignite violence in Northern Ireland. “The process for reunification will be orderly. It will be peaceful, and it will be democratic. I will not give an inch on that, and really believe there is a strong onus on every political representative and leader to state that categorically. I will not even countenance the scenario you have painted. That cannot happen under any circumstances, and I say that as one of the effigies that was hanged on a bonfire. People decided for peace. The truth is – a big bonfire, a bus lit on the Falls Road – these are very limited phenomena. The war is over. We are moving to the future, and there is no appetite across wide society to return to armed actions and conflict. I cannot accept – I don’t think any democrat could accept – that some unspoken possibility of perhaps tensions somewhere would throw us off our democratic course.”2

When McDonald says “the war is over”, what she really means is that the guerrilla/terrorist war the Provisional IRA waged in Northern Ireland and Britain for nearly 30 years is not necessary any more because Sinn Fein are winning the struggle to move towards Irish unity very effectively now without violence. They are already the largest party in Northern Ireland and will certainly be the largest party in the Republic after the next election, in early 2025 at the latest. And they have reached this enviable position by playing down the drive for unity – their core ideology – in both jurisdictions, and focussing on the housing, health and cost-of-living issues that really concern ordinary people, and are so urgent now that we are in an inflationary spiral caused by the war in Ukraine and the resulting potentially catastrophic rises in the cost of oil, gas, wheat and other staples.

However her declaration that as leader of Sinn Fein (the party of the IRA) she will “not give an inch” on her determination that the process of reunification will be orderly and peaceful is extraordinarily arrogant and hypocritical.  Arrogant because order and peace in the North in the event of a very narrow vote for unity are not within her gift. Hypocritical because, in common with everyone in her party, support for the IRA’s 1970-1997 campaign of violence is a compulsory requirement for membership. When was the last time you heard anyone in Sinn Fein criticising the actions of the IRA? The answer is ‘never’. And the IRA Army Council is still there somewhere in the background, with Garda Commissioner Drew Harris confirming this as recently as 2020.

McDonald’s arrogance is there too in her fanatical belief – common to all republicans – that unity is inevitable, that there is no alternative.”We’ve built the peace [after 30 years of IRA murder and mayhem – AP], and we now look to the next phase: the reunification of Ireland. We are living in the end days of partition. The momentum behind Irish unity is unprecedented,” she said in Canberra. My understanding of the Good Friday Agreement was not that Irish unity would be the next step, but that the reconciliation of the warring communities in Northern Ireland would be the first step along a road that could possibly – but not inevitably – lead to unity.

Which brings me to the victims group in Fermanagh. At the back of a half-empty factory estate in Lisnaskea are the comfortless offices (a far cry from the splendour of the National Press Club in Canberra) of the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF), overseen by an  impressive young man from south Armagh called Kenny Donaldson. Donaldson is adamant and even-handed in his insistence that republican and loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces must all be held to account for past atrocities.

For the past 24 years his group has undertaken the difficult, unsung work of representing, counselling and providing services for those whose family members were killed by republican and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, the Republic, Britain and further afield during the Northern conflict. For obvious reasons, their work focuses in particular, although not exclusively, on civilians and members of the British and Northern Ireland security forces killed (murdered, they would say) by republican paramilitaries (‘terrorists’ they would call them in unionist South Fermanagh, which was one of the Provisional IRA’s most active ‘killing fields’).

As Sinn Fein strides towards gaining political power in Ireland and both recognition and respectability internationally, these are the forgotten people. There are literally thousands of people on SEFF’s books, most of them unknown to the uncaring world outside their families and friends. Who, for example, has heard of the five BBC engineers and building workers who died when they were blown up by a landmine on their way to repair a TV transmitter on Brougher Mountain on the Fermanagh-Tyrone border in February 1971?  Nobody has ever been prosecuted for this atrocity, although it was widely believed to be an IRA bomb meant for the security forces (the battery used as the device’s power source had been bought in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim). For the sad record, those who died were BBC engineers Malcom Henson from Lancashire and William Thomas from Carmarthen in south Wales; and local men George Beck, John Eakins and Harry Edgar, all from Kilkeel, County Down.

Who remembers the names of the 21 civilian victims of the November 1974 pub bombings  in Birmingham, admitted by a former senior IRA man in 2014 but never officially claimed by that organisation? In Ireland this terrible attack is largely remembered because six innocent Birmingham-based Irishmen served 16 years in jail for it before a lengthy campaign led to their convictions being quashed by the Court of Appeal “It is often said that the greatest act of injustice was experienced by the Birmingham Six, but surely the greater injustice was the decision taken by a terrorist organisation to mass murder innocents – and to this day continues to deny victims and survivors the truth of the events that unfolded on that fateful day which saw their loved ones massacred,” says SEFF in one of its publications.

Who remembers the 11 Royal Marine bandsmen who died in an IRA bomb at their barracks in Deal in Kent in September 1989? Or Maheshkumar Islania, an RAF corporal originally from India, and his six-month-old daughter Nivruti, who were shot dead by IRA gunmen in Wildenrath in Germany in the following month? Or the two Australian tourists – Stephen Melrose and Nick Spanos – who were killed in front of their wife and girlfriend in May 1990 by black-clad gunmen when they stopped for a meal in a Dutch town which was popular with off-duty British servicemen?  Or Tom Oliver, a County Louth farmer and father of seven, who was abducted and killed by the IRA in July 1991, his body dumped over the border in south Armagh?

All these people left behind stricken families and devastated lives. They are just a few examples of the thousands of people who are are obliterated from memory as Sinn Fein march onto their promised land of unlikely all-Ireland amity and harmony. There has not been a single prosecution of anyone involved in any of these IRA attacks. There has not been a scintilla of admission (with the singular exception of the Birmingham bombings man), let alone repentance, from those responsible. Nobody in this republic knows or cares about their victims. It is little wonder that Northern unionists ask if the lives of these forgotten people – and so many like them – are worth less than those who were killed by the British Army in Derry and Ballymurphy, whose cases have been the subject of constant and highly publicised international campaigns over half a century. 

The South East Fermanagh Foundation continues its unheralded work from its offices in Northern Ireland and Britain. One of its publications, Terrorism Knows no Borders, also features 56 people (out of an estimated total of 105) killed in the Republic by the UVF, the IRA and the INLA, including those who died in the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings, Lord Mountbatten and his companions blown up on his boat in Mullaghmore in 1979, and other civilians, soldiers, prison officers and gardai. Another publication, Uniting Innocent Victims, includes victims of ETA attacks in the Basque country. Kenny Donaldson is currently in Rwanda on a study visit to learn how they have worked to bring people together in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in that country.

One of SEFF’s most moving projects is a travelling exhibition of quilts, remembering the individual people from all sides who were killed/murdered during the Northern ‘Troubles’. The project’s three key messages are: “1) violence was futile and totally unjustified; 2) those remembered were wholly innocent, and 3) the legacy of those represented will live on amongst those left behind.”

In its introductory brochure, the organisation says: “Memorial quilts allow us to tell the story of the ‘Troubles’ in a very human way, encouraging people viewing the patches to consider the individual being remembered and not simply the badge or affiliation they had with a particular organisation which for some made them a ‘legitimate target’ for assassination. These individuals’ lives had worth not only to their families but to their colleagues, friends and the wider community at large. Ordinary men, women and children from right across the community were treated as collateral damage during the ‘Troubles’, and this continued with the concessions granted [to] terrorism and its political annexes within the Belfast Agreement and subsequent agreements (both overt and covert). This continues to exist to this day due to the justice, truth and accountability deficit being borne by innocent victims/survivors of terrorism.”

This is a small voice for justice and truth that needs to be heard throughout this indifferent island. In this jurisdiction it is all but silent. And with Sinn Fein moving into government here in the near future, it will not only be silent, but officially silenced too.

1 The Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland, No.8, Spring 2013, p.27

Posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein | 13 Comments

Will the United Kingdom under Liz Truss be in danger of stepping out on the road to fascism?

From an Irish viewpoint, the prospect of Liz Truss becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is deeply worrying. This is the woman who as Foreign Secretary has outdone Boris Johnson in her aggressive rejection of the Northern Ireland protocol, saying she is prepared to tear up large parts of that agreement with the EU even at the risk of precipitating a trade war in the middle of an actual war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis it has caused. She is the author of the legislation that will drive a coach and horses through that protocol. In the words of the Observer‘s chief political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley: “In belligerence towards Europe, Ms Truss, the former Remainer, now outJohnsons Johnson.”

She is a right-wing libertarian who like Johnson is contemptuous of rules and conventions and calls herself “the disruptor-in-chief.” Fellow-disruptor Dominic Cummings, who has known her for a long time, remarks: “She’s about as close to properly crackers as anybody I have met in parliament.” He predicts that she would be an “even worse” prime minister than his former boss. “On the basis that it takes one to know one, that assessment is extremely alarming,” says Rawnsley.

When it comes to her signature economic pledge to magic up £30 billion of instant tax cuts by putting the cost on borrowing, she is very far from her heroine and model Margaret Thatcher. “The Iron Lady didn’t believe in unfunded and inflation-fuelling giveaways. She would be horrified by the notion of piling on more national debt when the government is already making record interest payments on its borrowing. Trussism isn’t Thatcherism. What she’s peddling is cakeism. In that sense too, she is the true heir of the outgoing prime minister”, writes Rawnsley.1

She certainly looks like the continuity candidate of the Boris Johnson faithful, with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries her noisiest cheerleaders. “She is the adoptive child of the ERG (European Research Group) and all the other batshit groups on the right of the party,” says one Tory MP who would describe himself as a man of the right.

For the past 12 years of Tory rule, each new Prime Minister has represented a move to the right: from David Cameron, through Theresa May to Boris Johnson. Everyone knows that the 180,000 Conservative Party members who will choose the next holder of that office are well to the right of British public opinion as a whole, particularly on the EU and immigration. Barring some huge gaffe on her part, they are going to choose Liz Truss over the slick, high-tech representative of international finance, Rishi Sunak.

How far to the right can Britain go? The other imponderable is the growth of English nationalism, with its toxic mixture of anti-Europeanism and nostalgia for a past of triumphant imperialism. In the 2011 census for England and Wales, 67.1% of people chose “English as a sole identity”, not combined with other identities. This group was three times greater than those who considered their sole identity was “British.”

Does this growth of English nationalism make Britain racist? The writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch has written: “Britishness, as an identity, is in crisis. It is still linked in the imaginations of people of all races to the concept of whiteness. A 2017 poll found that more than half of the British population felt the presence of people from ethnic minorities threatened their culture. Not surprisingly, there is widespread distrust in the language of integration.”2 Against this, one has to say that Boris Johnson in Downing Street, for all his faults, was no racist, filling his cabinet with people from Asian and African backgrounds (including hard right politicians like Priti Patel and Kemi Badenoch). And the outside possibility that Rishi Sunak will become the next Tory leader and Prime Minister would put to bed most allegations that Britain is a racist country.

In his book How Britain Ends, in which he warns sternly against the rise of English nationalism, the distinguished former BBC broadcaster Gavin Esler (who grew up in Northern Ireland) quotes historian Peter Hennessy’s “Good Chaps theory of government”, which posits that Britain’s unwritten constitution has functioned successfully over the centuries because “it requires a sense of restraint all round to make it work.”

“But as Hennessy himself wondered…what happens if we run out of Good Chaps, and a few Bad Chaps, men and women who do not show restraint, take over? Or, less dramatically, what happens if the British people have lost so much trust in the political system that they have begun wondering if its vagueness and uncertainty is really able to protect them from abuse by those in power? Trust in the British system of government is at an all-time low.”

In a recent report Hennessy (and co-author Andrew Blick) have wondered about the risk of Britain’s unwritten and thus uncertain constitutional system falling “under the spell of a populist leader, someone who did not take seriously the unwritten checks and balances and sense of restraint inherent in the Good Chaps system. Might we be entering Trumpland – a Trumpland without a clear constitution to limit the powers of a leader who pretended that he or she wanted to Make Britain Great Again?”3

Might this person be Liz Truss, as it was with the mendacious, ferociously ambitious and equally self-obsessed Boris Johnson? And how far would she go to please her constituency on the hard right of the Tory party and beyond?

Unlike many Irish people, I am not instinctively anti-British. On the contrary, I cherish the values of fairness, equality and social democracy I learned growing up in post-war Britain. Only recently I was contemplating a letter to the Irish Times objecting to their left-wing, feminist columnist Una Mullally’s comment that anti-trans rhetoric in Britain showed the “descent of their nation into a fascistic farce” (her second such reference in a few weeks).4

But a recent conversation with a friend who is a high level international civil servant, a man of wise and considered judgement, in which he wondered about indications that the UK might be in danger of moving in a fascist direction, gave me pause for thought. Fascism is defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as “a system of extreme right-wing or authoritarian views”. This man, the polar opposite of a wild-eyed radical, referenced as examples of moves towards right-wing authoritarianism Boris Johnson’s contempt for parliament during the implementation of Brexit; the ERG’s preference for Britain as ‘Singapore upon Thames’ with little if any protection for the rights of workers; and Home Secretary Priti Patel’s cruel and unworkable plan to deport people seeking asylum in Britain to Rwanda (which neither Truss nor Sunak have dissociated themselves from).

That took me back to a powerful article by Fintan O’Toole in 2018. He was writing about what he called Donald Trump’s “test marketing” of his policy of separating Latin American migrant children from their parents and locking them in cage-like compounds. “Fascism doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate.”

One further step is “the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities” (which we know plenty about in Northern Ireland!). And fascism of course needs propaganda machines so effective it creates for its followers “a universe of ‘alternative facts’ impervious to unwanted realities” (which Trump was a master at creating and testing).

The next and trickiest step, said O’Toole, is “to undermine moral boundaries, inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty. Like hounds, people have to be blooded. They have to be given the taste for savagery. Fascism does this by building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group. This allows the members of that group to be dehumanised. Once that has been achieved, you can up the ante, working through the stages from breaking windows to extermination.”5 Let’s see how people feel about crying brown babies in cages or hapless Syrian or Afghan asylum seekers being sent to Rwanda. How will it go down with Rupert Murdoch and the readers of his newspapers? With Fox News? With the Sun and the Daily Mail?

Nearly 60% of Republicans were in favour of Trump’s brutal treatment of illegal immigrant families on the Mexican border. The great majority of Conservative Party members support Priti Patel’s brutal policy to force asylum seekers to go to Rwanda. These attitudes are not only common in Britain, they are all over Europe: with Marine Le Pen in France; Matteo Salvini in Italy; Viktor Orban in Hungary; Voz in Spain; Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany. The EU’s record of sending back African asylum seekers trying to cross the Mediterranean to barbaric prison camps in Libya is a shameful one.

I may be over-alarmist about this. Nightmare images emerge from Irish and Jewish folk memories. I will leave the last word with the British poet Michael Rosen: “I sometimes fear that/people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress/worn by grotesques and monsters/as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis./Fascism arrives as your friend./It will restore your honour/make you feel proud/protect your house/give you a job,/clean up the neighbourhood,/remind you of how great you once were,/clear out the venal and corrupt,/remove anything you feel is unlike you…/It doesn’t walk in saying,/’Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”

1‘Liz Truss reminds me of a Tory leader, but it’s not Margaret Thatcher’, Observer, 24 July 2022

2 How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations, Gavin Esler, p.87

3 How Britain Ends, p.269-273

4 ‘Manufactured moral panic on trans rights is nonsense’, Irish Times, 20 June 2020

5 ‘The trial runs for fascism are now under way’, Irish Times, 26 June 2018

Posted in British-Irish relations, General | 3 Comments

From Rebel Cork to Orange Antrim: a cyclist’s journey through the gorgeous heart of Ireland

In the first eleven days of July I cycled with my friend David Ward from Mizen Head in west Cork to Fair Head in north Antrim to raise money for Concern’s work for girls’ education in Afghanistan. The journey confirmed me in my belief that we live in one of the most beautiful, peaceful and friendly countries in the world (I have been privileged to be able to visit over 60 countries in every continent except Australasia). Since I always try to devote at least one blog every summer to something that has nothing to do with politics, I thought I would try to describe my impressions of this 640 kilometre trip through the gorgeous heart of Ireland.

Our route took us from Mizen Head through Bantry, Macroom, Mitchelstown, Templemore, Tullamore, Mullingar, Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh, Ballymena and Ballycastle to Fair Head. We traversed 12 of Ireland’s 32 counties. The greatest part of the journey was along secondary and minor roads (and occasionally bog roads and cart tracks) since when you click on the ‘cycle’ icon on Google maps you are inevitably led away from main roads. So it was eleven days spent largely crossing the Irish countryside.

And much of it was in the unfashionable countryside of the midlands: from north Cork, through Limerick, Tipperary, Offaly, Laois, Westmeath, Meath, Cavan, Monaghan and Armagh. This is not any kind of tourist trail, evidenced by the fact that we did not meet a single other cycle tourist in our passage across those counties. Yet even in the flat centre of Ireland, on the Offaly-Westmeath border, a yellow field of mown hay against a background wall of dark green deciduous trees is a thing of beauty.

There is plenty to marvel at in those relatively unfrequented parts of the country. We passed Ballydoyle stable in south Tipperary where Nijinsky, possibly the greatest European flat racehorse of the 20th century, was trained by Vincent O’Brien. We walked around the handsome and almost totally unknown King’s Square in Mitchelstown, a little gem of a tree-lined Georgian mall built by the extravagant (and eventually insane) Earl of Kingston for the local Church of Ireland community in the 1780s, where we met a builder from Kilkenny who was taking time off from his holidays to help convert six of the houses into accommodation for Ukrainians.

We rode up the wonderfully scenic Glen of Aherlow under the Galtee Mountains, looking across to the rich pasturelands of the Blackwater valley and the Golden Vale. There is good tillage here too – wheat, barley, oats and even maize – which makes an environmentally conscious ‘townee’ like me wonder if this shouldn’t be the future of Irish farming on fertile lands like these in an age of potentially catastrophic climate change. Certainly a world expert like Professor John Sweeney believes that Irish farmers must very soon reverse a process which has seen the size of the country’s dairy herd, its biggest agricultural polluter, increase by almost half over the past decade (Ireland’s 135,000 farms produce 37% of national greenhouse gas emissions).1

We visited Belvedere House on the shores of Lough Ennell outside Mullingar. Here the extremely wicked Robert Rochfort, 1st Earl of Belvedere, locked up his beautiful young wife for 31 years, accusing her of adultery with his brother, until she went mad. He hated and envied another brother so much that he built a folly called a ‘Jealous Wall’ between their adjoining stately homes so that he wouldn’t have to contemplate his property. A better example of an aristocratic 18th century waster it would be hard to find. A 20th century relative and occupant of the house was Charles Howard-Bury, who led the first British expedition to try to climb Mount Everest in 1921 (on which the lead climber was the astonishingly glamorous George Mallory, who was to die on the mountain three years later)

We skirted the Slieve Blooms in Offaly and Laois, stopping for lunch at a charming small cafe (Peavoy’s) in the equally charming village of Kinnity. It is marvellous how the new prosperity of rural and small town Ireland has led to the appearance of excellent cafés and coffee shops in the tiniest of places. In Toon’s Bridge near Macroom in Cork we had a vegetarian lunch of the highest quality in the Dairy, whose primary business is making Mediterranean-style cheeses from unpasteurised buffalo, sheep and cows’ milk and selling them in markets and shops across Ireland. In Ardboe in County Tyrone on a Sunday morning we had coffee and cookies at the High Cow Bagel takeaway coffee shop in a formerly derelict shed at a remote crossroads above Lough Neagh. An hour later we had lunch in a flower-bedecked lock-keeper’s cottage cum café on the banks of the River Bann at Toomebridge. 30 years ago – in violent and Sabbatarian Northern Ireland – such lovely places would have been simply unthinkable.

It is not only the village cafés which are a revelation, but the villages themselves. Places like Kinnity, Castlepollard in Westmeath, Redhills in Cavan and Glaslough in Monaghan are as neat and bright and colourful as any village in rural England or France. Modern bungalows and redecorated farmhouses are surrounded by immaculately-tended gardens. I’m sure there are still pockets of rural poverty, but to the passer-by this looks genuinely like a ‘new Ireland.’ It is a very far cry from the picturesque scruffiness, miserable housing and widespread rural poverty I witnessed when first cycling around Ireland as a teenager in the mid-1960s. For me, this is a sign of a successful country: when ordinary people in humble places traditionally neglected by the metropolis are clearly living in comfort and prosperity.

Another striking finding is the ubiquity of the Gaelic Athletic Association in out-of-the-way places. Every village in Ireland, north and south (outside the traditionally unionist areas of Northern Ireland), seems to have an immaculate GAA pitch, usually with adjoining training pitches, bleachers and often floodlights. It is little wonder that Ireland’s national identity is so strong in rural areas, with such a formidable, island-wide amateur (but superbly and professionally run) sporting organisation at the centre of community life everywhere. The Catholic Church in Ireland may be in sharp decline, but the organisation promoting gaelic football, hurling and other ‘national’ pastimes is stronger than ever.

For of course the great divide on the island is still only too apparent. Cycling through ‘rebel’ west Cork, the memories of the long struggle against British rule are as vivid as ever. At the Pass of Keimaneigh on the road from Bantry to Macroom there is a monument to four ‘Whiteboys’ who died in a clash with the British Army as long ago as 1821. Every few miles along that road there is a memorial to men who died in the 1919-1923 War of Independence and Civil War. In Inchigeelagh in the west Cork Gaeltacht there is a plaque commemorating the local ‘glebe house’ (the residence of the Church of Ireland minister) “burned down by Irregulars to prevent it falling into the hands of the Black and Tans (1922)” – a little rewriting of history there, since the Black and Tans were disbanded in 1922, and the anti-Free State ‘Irregulars’ were actually fighting the new Free State army.

It is a surprising (and recent) change also to see a plaque at Kilbarry National School to a former pupil called Michael O’Leary who won a Victoria Cross in the First World War. Apparently his nationalist father was not impressed.  “I am surprised he didn’t do more. I often laid out twenty men myself with a stick coming from Macroom Fair, and it is a bad trial of Mick that he could kill only eight, and he having a rifle and bayonet,” he was reported as saying.

At the other end of the island, we rode into Ballymena (my birthplace) two days before the ‘Twelfth’. Across the street in Harryville (which made headlines for the wrong reasons back in 1996 when local Catholics were forced to run a hostile loyalist gauntlet on their way to Mass) was a traditional Orange arch bearing the message ‘Hold Fast to the Good; God Save the Queen.’ Holding fast to the British government’s internationally discredited legislation to overturn the NI protocol after agreeing it with the EU doesn’t have the same ring to it!

As we rode towards Ballycastle on the final day, through the beautiful countryside skirting the Antrim Hills, past Cloughmills (stronghold of my mother’s Gaston family) and Loughguile (birthplace of the late Cardinal Cahal Daly, whom I got to know and admire when I was Irish Times religious affairs correspondent in the 1990s), I felt some sadness in the middle of a perfect summer’s day. The regular Orange halls we passed were testimony to the fact that this is is one of the heartlands of Protestant Ulster. What is going to happen to these Ulster Protestants as events outside their ‘wee North’ turn against them? As the Tory grandees squabble over who is going to succeed the clownish and incompetent Boris Johnson; as the United Kingdom’s stock in the world falls again as it cuts itself off from its closest and most important allies and markets in Europe; as its economy further declines for the same reason; as Scotland, so close to Northern Ireland over the centuries, goes its own way; as Sinn Fein, now the largest party in the North, also becomes the largest party in the Republic after the next election?

So this column tries to avoid Northern Irish politics at least once every summer, and, once again, like every other summer, it fails.

PS Grateful thanks to the many readers of this blog who contributed to my all-Ireland cycle for Afghanistan. I raised €10,850 for Concern’s work in that stricken country.

1 ‘Failure to meet climate commitments will be costly’, Irish Times, 6 July

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, The island environment | 4 Comments

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

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 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.

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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”].

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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

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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