Archive for April 25th, 2008

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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