Archive for April, 2008

Northern Ireland is still in evangelising mode.
We are singing own achievements to the world.
Yesterday Martin McGuinness and Jeffrey Donaldson came back from Finland where they had been meeting Iraqis to urge them towards peace.
Our church leaders are currently in Israel and Cardinal Brady hopes to go into Gaza to provide moral support to christians there, and a little guidance on peacemaking too, if they ask for it.
Well we have been marketed abroad by the best as an example to the world that ancient intractable conflicts can come to an end.
Some of the giddiest exponents of this message have been Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. And, since they can take some credit for a peace process, it is hardly surprising that they would exaggerate its achievements.
The problem with this is that it inflates the already problematic self-importance of Northern Ireland.
We don’t need to relish the sense that we are of global importance; we have that sense already.
What we need is to come down from our platform and realise that we are about as significant in global terms as Humberside or Brittany.
And anyway, as a witty colleague put it to me, surely countries that want to learn about living in peace should go to Switzerland.
Yet there is a global market for wisdom drawn from the Northern Ireland experience. An extraordinary number of people from here have been abroad to conferences and workshops, encounter groups and secret mediation sessions to sell the benefits of the Northern Ireland peace process experience.
One night at dinner at the police training centre at Garnerville I sat with a UVF man and a Republican exchanging their snapshots from Nicaragua and South Africa and sharing stories about what great times they’d had.
The Northern Ireland peace process model is being sold as the answer for Kashmir, Iraq, Armenia, Kosovo, the Middle East.
Have you got a little interethnic mayhem on your doorstep? No need to worry. Northern Ireland will be your guiding light to peace and freedom.
Well, will it?
What Blair and Clinton would have you believe is that the template of power-sharing, as worked out here, can be exported.
The flaw in that argument is simple. It was worked out here in 1973, and we hope that it is now stable and functioning at last.
The Israeli writer, David Grossman, whose son, a soldier, was killed in the last Lebanon war, says something that resonates very strongly with Northern Ireland experience.
He says most people in Israel and Palestine already know the solution and the compromise. The problem is getting to it, and if Israel had good leadership that leadership would be making that solution plain and clear.
That, is his lesson from Israeli experience, and it is the chief lesson of our own.
We almost never talk about how we got to the point where we were ready to agree a deal that was, in its essentials, more than 30 years old.
And why do we not talk about that? Because to do so would shame those who delayed it, our slowest learners.
Instead, we let them be the great achievers, the champions of peacemaking, let them stride the world with their carpetbags of ideas, and take the credit for heroic compromises that most of us would have made 30 years ago.

The lesson of Northern Ireland is that you move at the pace of the slowest among you, and then they get the credit for the whole thing when they come on board.

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A Peter Taylor documentary in the BBC’s Age of Terror series, says that Martin McGuinness knew about plans for the Enniskillen bomb in 1987. Surprise surprise!

It really isn’t news that Martin McGuinness was the leader of the Provisional IRA’s Northern command during the 1980s. Practically every book on the history of the Provisionals tells us that.

It is only a matter of extrapolation then to work out how much responsibility he had for carnage during the Troubles.

So, when Peter Taylor, the investigative journalist connects McGuinness to the Enniskillen bomb, as he did in his Age of Terror documentary this week, he is, in one way, merely stating the obvious.

By similar extrapolation we can connect McGuinness to the IRA’s campaign against construction workers, the assassination of loyalists, the long-range sniper attacks on British soldiers and virtually any category of IRA activity you like to mention; the torture and assassination of suspected informants, for instance, the bombing of a fun run in Lisburn.

All Taylor really told us about McGuinness is that he was a top provo.

It is what we knew.

Logically his telling us changes nothing and yet, potentially, it changes everything.

McGuinness himself may think that most of us believe his claim that he left the IRA in 1973.

No one at all believes that, least of all those who loudly proclaim it.

But we know our Martin and forgive him, don’t we?

We’re really impressed that he has turned out to be so amicable and cheerful, having snarled at us so much over the years about ‘the cutting edge’ and tripe like that.

It’s not that we don’t know what he did, just that we don’t want it shoved in our faces, lest we should doubt our decision to forgive him, for that is what we have done.

It is hard to reconcile the gritty, bitter hard man of the eighties with the affable poet, fisherman, DFM of today.

One thing the contrast tells us is that McGuinness is deeply relieved to be where he is now, with his bloody past behind him.

The alternative futures that he would have envisaged for himself 20 years ago must have included a grisly death or a long term of imprisonment.

Compare, for instance, the fates of many Palestinian leaders of similar standing: Arafat trapped in his bombed bunker for months before he dies, where even the toilets didn’t work; Yassin and Rantissi bombed from the air. It was fortunate for Adams and McGuinness, and those around them, that the British opted for a strategy of infiltrating and managing the IRA rather than destroying it.

If the British had changed that policy at any time, they would not have announced it and given the army council a chance to scatter. Adams and McGuinness would probably just have gone the way of INLA leader Ronnie Bunting, shot dead in his home by slick assassins that most republicans sincerely believe were from the SAS. McGuinness lived most of his adult life with the expectation that that was a turn his fortunes might take.

We would simply have woken up one morning to the news that he was dead.

But how secure is Martin McGuinness, even now, against embarrassing, even politically crippling, disclosures from his past?

Surely someone who touched the lives of so many has left evidence and witnesses behind of the offence he has given.

In a normal political environment a contender for political leadership is scrupulously vetted for depth charges in history: affronted lovers, bank statements, hijinks on You Tube. Where politics is normal, no party in its right mind would run Martin McGuinness, with his past.

The danger of embarrassing disclosures is too great.

We may know broadly what job he had in the IRA; it’s doubtful we could bear the details, and we can’t be sure we’ll forever be spared them.

This is the theme of David Park’s brilliant new novel The Truth Commissioner, in which a Sinn Fein minister – the Minister for Children and Culture – is threatened by the exposure of past deeds, some of which were not cultural or considerate of children at all. Logically, everyone knows, in broadbrush terms, the kind of things the minister did. Yet, when a plausible claim is suddenly made explicit, his position becomes untenable.

On the one hand we know what McGuinness did; on the other, we know little or nothing of the detail. Nor might we want to, just yet, when disclosure might create such political damage.

Some know very clearly. Ian Paisley is a member of the Privy Council and entitled to the fullest briefing he could ask for.

Old peelers know.

They probably marvel at the irony that McGuinness, having chosen so many of the victims in Northern Ireland, got to help pick the victims commissioners too.

But this is an irony for future reflection.

It may be that when we have moved so far beyond the Troubles that we no longer see politics as an essential contrivance for sparing us their resumption, we will look with a colder more critical eye at the characters and careers of the people we have elevated. And we may not remember that this generation showed extraordinary forbearance and forgiveness. We will just wonder if it had a particular fondness for dangerous men.

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Oh Paddy, are you sure?

A body set up to review the working of the parades commission which adjudicates on contentious parades in Northern Ireland is about to recommend abolishing that commission. Former Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, leading that body, may be crediting us with more democratic potential than we really have.


At first it seems a completely crackpot idea to do away with the parades commission.

Remember the long anguish with which it was created.  And the enormous problems it was created to solve.

Fr Oliver Crilly and the Rev John Dunlop called witnesses and deliberated and produced an enormous report.

The key problem was that deadlock over parades was generating enormous violence and threatening to destroy the entire peace process.

One important principle was that both sides to a dispute should talk to each other.  The Orange order didn’t like that, because it didn’t trust that the protesters were bona fide representatives of communities – and it wasn’t happy anyway with the idea that any community could object to them walking the Queen’s highway.

Equally important was the principle that the decision on banning the parade should be taken out of the hands of the police so that the issue would not be decided on the greater threat of violence. If the decision was the chief constable’s all you had to do, to get a parade banned, was to guarantee that he would have a greater headache if he let it go ahead.

Solution: an independent parades commission of sensible and dispassionate people, making determinations on reasonable grounds that could be defended.

And then in time, everybody would come round to dealing with it.

And, sure enough, last year we had the most peaceful marching season for since the start of the troubles.

The big deadlock at Drumcree has not been resolved, but the sting has been drawn from it.

Peter Hain, who was fond of creative, if illegal measures, put Orangemen on the commission, disregarding the appointment rules there, as he had done when appointing the first interim victims Commissioner.


But you would think, generally, with parades, this is a time to leave things as they are, and trust that no major troublesome forces would want to use parades to produce major social disruption, not least because the two great disruptive parties are now governing us.

We haven’t seen Paddy Ashdown’s report yet, but the leaks say it proposes that there should be a separation of the mediation and adjudication roles.

That idea was first raised by the Rev Roy Magee, one of the first members of the parades commission, who stood down when he spotted this precise weakness.  Marriage guidance counsellors can’t be divorce court judges, at least not for the same clients.

But there are suggestions that decisions should be taken now by councils, and behind them an adjudication panel set up by the office of the first and deputy first minister.

Currently the first and deputy first ministers are facing a split on the victims commission. If the DUP swings to the idea of changing the guidelines for the job, to rule out paramilitary activists as victims, they will probably have to readvertise the post.

A great precedent for co operation.


You can see what has happened.

Paddy Ashdown has concluded that Northern Ireland can function like a healthy democratic society.

Well, that’s the conclusion that Chris Patten came to when he was charged with reforming the police service and what did we get from that?  We got the Democratic Unionist Party assenting to a name change for the RUC and the dropping of a cherished royal symbol from their badge.

Look to that example, and your hopes might be raised.

Alternatively, look to the botch up over appointing a victims commission, and you think that our less elected representatives have to do with parades, the better.

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Can those who created the victims in Northern Ireland create a credible Victims Commission?

(Hearts and Minds, BBCNI )

It’s no surprise that the legalisation of our victims commissioners has stalled in political deadlock.
The dispute over victims is now the crystalllisation of the whole conflict into a single issue.

There will be no ideal future in which Peter Robinson will bounce grandchildren on his knee and tell them what a hard struggle for justice the poor Provos had. He can never be expected to empathise with the felt need of Republicans to kill and destroy. Nor will he share in their sense that it was all done for the best of reasons by the best of people.
And a white bearded Gerry Adams will not be telling his grandchildren that Unionist decency and principle saved Ulster from chaos. There is no point expecting him to share with Unionists in their sense that they were a community under attack for no other reason than that they were British, and that British is a wonderful thing to be.

Both sides see the past entirely differently. And the Alliance party proposals for running the victims commission expose those differences and put each side in danger of being upstaged by the other. That’s why resolution seems near impossible now.

To a unionist, bad things were done, mostly by republicans and the only good is that those things have stopped. To them, the understanding that there can be no hierarchy of victims, enshrined in the policy underpinning the original victims commissioner post, is merely cosmetic.
To a republican, treating all victims as equal, effectively treats all killers as equal and legitimates their armed campaign.
Suggesting that one of the four commissioners might be more equal than the others, dents that presumption.

A commission of four, broad enough to appease all corners, was a compromise before the impossibility of finding one commissioner to represent the concerns of all.
Now, ask who is to chair those four, and to speak for all, and the old unresolvable question is back.

More than 3000 ghosts haunt Stormont, unsettled and unsettling.
They made a political resolution harder and they continue to complicate it.
There is no hierarchy in the degree of confusion they create. Some are diehard Republicans, rolling in their graves, appalled at the compromise of ideology.
Some were good cops and some were bad cops. Many were children who, though they framed no political challenge in their lifetimes, dare us to forget them.
Their challenges are diverse and passionate.

For all that some of those who died had been trying to promote a war and others who died had been trying to stop it and some others who died had been trying to live ordinary lives without regard to the war at all, they are equal in this: they are all dead and they were all loved.
But if there is no hierarchy of victims, there is a hierarchy of killers.
There is one political organisation in this place which has approved far more killings than anyone else has, and recruits to its political purposes those who have done that killing, expecting them to be respected for that.

Is it right that the organisation which chose more victims than any other had equal standing in appointing victims Commissioners with some who chose none at all?
I suspect that that is the unvoiced question in the hearts of many who bemoan the continuing difficulties over appointing the victims commission.

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More sex please

As you can see, this is a bit of a tryout. I’ll drop in some of my journalism as I go and shorter comments too.

I have just finished reading David Park’s outstanding novel, The Truth Commissioner and while I rate him a genius in melding the personal and the political I have to take issue with his sex scenes.

I had thought the briefest sex scene in modern Irish literature was Danny Morrison’s in The Wrong Man.

It can be quoted in full: He lay on top of her and she put it in.

But Park’s love scenes don’t happen at all. Couples get into bed and the next paragraph begins: ‘Afterwards …’

For a writer with such an eye for detail this is surely remiss.

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