The Worst a Man Can Be

Three powerful new novels by Northern Irish male writers this year all have something in common. All draw on previous stories and find a freedom in that device to explore evil.

Thomas Paul Burgess takes an idea from the James Stewart film A Wonderful Life and reverses it. This idea is that a man might, in his despondency, meet an angel who will show him the best that he has done with his life and revive his will to go on.

Thomas Paul Burgess

In Through Hollow Lands, another George Bailey, who is a complete shit, is shown the worst that he has done and given a prospect of redemption. The result is bleak, hilarious and quite awesome in its embrace of a truly daunting idea, that with real badness comes insight.

Richard O’Rawe touches on the same idea when he creates criminal geniuses and pits them against each other in his novel, Northern Heist, based on the 2004 Northern  Bank robbery. O’Rawe takes the known and familiar elements of the story, the tiger kidnappings in their brutality, and weaves a new story. What we are left with is a sense, similar to that in Burgess’s book, that we have come close enough to touch people we would never want to meet, and found them fascinating.

Richard O'Rawe

Then Michael Hughes in Country, tells the story of the Iliad through IRA rivalries in South Armagh, starting of course, with the taking of a woman. The raw dialogue of low and vicious people becomes epic and Hughes shows how insights into war are timeless and universal. (I didn’t get a pic of Michael.)

None of these writers know each other, yet.  All are at early stages in their careers as fiction writers. All have found the similar devices of modelling their story on someone else’s; in O’Rawe’s case on the news coverage of a robbery. And all have done this to explore the worst brutality a person might be capable of.





Victory on abortion does not necessarily remove it as a contentious issue. It will be hard for political parties now to take up pro life positions. Any that argue for tighter legislation than proposed will be viewed as ultra conservative. But the abortion question did not die in US politics after Roe v Wade. So what happens next in Ireland? We may presume that those who passionately believe that abortion is murder will continue to oppose it. They will see themselves as meeting a moral responsibility with courage. The may see Northern Ireland as the last defensible bastion of human decency and organise to preserve it as such.
Already I have seen Catholics campaigning for the DUP because of their abortion position.
Yet I foresee abortion rights in Northern Ireland becoming a focus for reform, much more important than an Irish Language Act. Now the secular liberal minded young will be more averse to seeing the return of devolution if it involves the DUP having its continued veto on social reform.

There will inevitably be some payback for the dismissal of the NI vote to Remain. At the extreme end of what that might be is the possibility of a border poll and a united Ireland resulting from that. At the other end is just a lingering dissatisfaction at England having made a decision for us over our heads.
The understanding of our position enshrined in the GFA is that we are not as British as Finchley, we have Irish and therefore EU citizenship, should we chose to exercise that ‘birthright’, and that we have the right to vote ourselves out of the UK – Nixit? Norxit?
The presumption then that our vote just goes into the bigger pool and has negligible meaning is a reversal of that trend and is wounding.
But how might we respond to that?
Many of us are likely to want to change the terms on which we relate to GB, much as Scotland wanted to drive ahead for Devo Max after the failed referendum on independence. Of course this was promised and reneged of, but two countries of the UK being treated like vassals brings the same question into sharper focus.
We would have been saved this insult if we had been members of the UK on similar terms to those in which the UK is a member of the EU, that is with a veto. Germany and France can act jointly as the big beast in the EU, overshadowing the others, yet even Lithuania has a veto on major decisions.
I suggest that after Brexit we seek to renegotiate the terms of the Union, holding out the threat of scuppering it altogether – Nixit/Norxit – if this demand is ignored. Simply, it is wrong that we would leave ourselves vulnerable to having decisions made for us, against our interests, by English nationalists.
Of course we would be in a much stronger position if we could be self sustaining, and we can’t.
But I foresee the possibility that if Brexit goes badly and Britain is humiliated, it is England that will take the blame. The Remain factions in Scotland, NI and London will be in a position to say to England, We told you so!
That won’t be much good, however morally satisfying, yet England too will feel the need of a political leadership untainted by Brexit if it turns out to be a disaster.
Another possibility is that English Nationalism will then blame Ireland for its problems and that the demand for Nixit/Norxit will come from them.

Power-sharing was devised as a system to ensure representation of a minority community in the governing of Northern Ireland. It was needed by the ‘catholic/nationalist’ community which was otherwise put upon and disadvantaged. The system did not work for most of the time between its being devised and the time at which ‘catholics/nationalists’ ceased to be a minority, but that was because the context of political violence made government here impossible. Essentially the IRA vetoed power-sharing through its campaign and its demand for full Irish unity.
Power-sharing may also become necessary in the future to protect a ‘protestant/unionist’ community. But it may be no coincidence that the period in which it fails to function is when these communities are almost equally balanced.
In circumstances in which competing ideologies approach balance, as in GB through most of my life, the system which works best, or at least well enough to avert the threat of revolution, is majority rule. The competing forces battle it out in debate and the result is decided by the vacillating minority or middle ground.
But for us being locked into a power-sharing system now, this might work here better than it ever has before. Neither SF nor the DUP would be able to govern alone and would have to form coalitions with each other or with other parties. This would force both to compromise on hard principle – which would be a good thing. A system of majority rule, which produced conflict when it was ossified for fifty years, might now be the system that would work for the erosion of sectarian blocs.
Yet both of these blocs would have to agree to it and neither, it seems would be able to consent to being governed, if only for periods, by the other. However much Labour and the Tories hate each other in England and Wales, they do consent to being governed by each other, do agree to that being better than not being governed at all.
We, unfortunately, are free to exercise that option of not being governed at all.

A Civic Unionism?

In the 1990s there were several people who advanced the idea of a ‘civic unionism’. Norman Porter, Stephen King and Robert McCartney and others developed these ideas. They had a strong influence over David Trimble. Their argument was that Unionism could be a link into a multi cultural Britain that was far more interesting a context to be part of than a narrow Catholic Ireland.
And this is a potentially appealing idea.
But where was the Unionist with a multicultural perspective, who was British in that way?
Unionists knew they had to enlarge their conception of what they were about because the world was looking in and thought a united Ireland was obviously a decent aspiration to work for; that it would even be better for unionists.
And demography was working against the unionist majority, so nationalists had to be given a sense of belonging here. There were hundreds of thousands of people from the catholic community who were not especially interested in a united Ireland but they weren’t voting for unionist parties. If unionism could present itself as culturally inclusive it could win these people over and rely on their support for the Union through the coming years in which the Protestant community would be in a minority.
But no one made the move. And the GFA prompted the consolidation of communal blocs – not their intermingling.
Arlene helped bring Trimble down and went with the DUP, though perhaps liberalising the DUP at the same time as destroying the Ulster Unionist Party which was exploring the civic unionism idea.
At the same time, Ireland became more liberal and less Catholic and the ‘better off with us even though we don’t like you very much’ argument of Unionism lost appeal.
This is a big problem for the DUP.
If they take the view that they are safe within the Union because catholics who don’t vote for them, and who they don’t seek to include, will not dump them out of the Union – because that’s what the polls say – then they are taking a big risk.
If Catholics only stay within the Union while they expect to be economically better off there – that can change with the next recession; it offers unionists no guarantee.
I was on Nolan yesterday with Jim Wells who smugly assumes that the ‘moderate nationalists’ are in the bag – Unionism having done nothing to cultivate their interest in the Union. The man’s a geg!
So Arlene wants us to see her as culturally inclusive while she is leader of an almost totally white and Protestant political party. [Thanks to Davy Crockett for correction.]
She is certainly not culturally inclusive in any sense that would be understood in the rest of Britain, where her party’s traditional distaste for gays makes it contemptible.
But if she is signalling that she wants to be inclusive and to change the character or her party, let her get on with it.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP have the same problem – all white, monocultural parties – though both have tried to seek a broader international context, through Europe and America, through links to the Palestinians (and Colombians!!) for SF, through celebration of the EU for the SDLP.
Neither has done enough to absorb people from the Protestant community who might be tempted by some of their thinking. SF continues to celebrate murder. The SDLP is coming late to the idea of supporting abortion in limited circumstances, SF having just squeezed themselves into that growing consensus ahead of them.
And each doubts that its dependable support base would let it move anyway.

How Brexit Offends.

People continue to frame the problem of Ireland and Brexit around the potential for a hard border triggering violence. That may happen but it is not the bigger picture as I see it.
The offensive part of Brexit for many is the presumption that the NI majority for Remain has no meaning, that our votes simply pool in with the UK’s as a whole. This ignores the fact that NI is already a semi detached part of the UK, that unlike in other parts, the entire population is entitled to EU citizenship and passports; that NI is not as British as Finchley, indeed that international treaties like the GFA have been created to acknowledge the Irishness of all in NI who choose to identify as Irish.
It follows from this that people so affronted by the disregard for their vote and for their special status within the UK might react. The greater likelihood is not that they would be violent but that they would insist in other ways on their EU membership being acknowledged. They have at their disposal something which no other grouping in the UK has, the option of voting themselves back into the EU through a Border Poll.
Theresa May says she fears that ‘moderate nationalists’ may break up the UK. And she is right to identify ‘moderate nationalists as a greater problem now – a greater imponderable – than militant republicans.
But there is another problem within NI and that is the veto which Evangelical Christians exercise over social reform through the DUP. This prevents Northern Ireland modernising alongside the rest of Britain, Ireland and Europe. It condemns us to being a redneck backwater.
This also has, potentially, the same remedy as Brexit, a border poll that would merge us with the Republic inside the EU where social progress could continue according to the will of the majority and free of the drag of religion.
Until recently it would have seemed absurd to seek social reform on issues like abortion and same sex marriage through joining the Irish Republic, but now the republic is liberalising faster than we are and many here want to be part of that change too.
That creates the possibility of a border poll being seen as a solution not just by ‘moderate nationalists’ but by secular minded, liberal thinking people in the ‘Protestant community’, people who loved their Britishness for the sake of its secular character in preference to ‘Catholic Ireland’ and will be held back in NI now in a way that they would not be in the Republic – or in GB if it ultimately made more sense to them to move there.