Archive for August, 2009


One thing can be said with confidence about the decision of dissident
republicans to mount a checkpoint in South Armagh on Friday:
they had made the judgement that it would be safe for them to block
the road and to display weapons in the open air. That judgement was
vindicated. They were right.
A PSNI patrol, stumbling upon members of the Real IRA disporting
themselves as if they were the only law in the country, made a
tactical withdrawal. They made the judgement that it would not be safe
for them to proceed. That judgement was probably correct too.
But why did members of the Real IRA conclude that they could blithely
place themselves in the firing line? Well, they have seen the
dismantling of the security apparatus that plagued the Provisional IRA
in that area. When hilltops around the scene would have housed
watchtowers, it would have been difficult for them to evade detection,
though not impossible, even then.
And when helicopters patrolled the skies over Armagh, the gunmen would
have been quickly spotted.
Even in those days, it would have been a rare for British soldiers to
take the kind of action that units in Afghanistan would mount against
armed militants who had broken cover.
Since the late 1980s – a time when the British army and the RUC
frequently ambushed targets – the approach has been more sensitive.
The worst that these men had to fear, probably, was that they would be
detected leaving the scene and arrested. By then, of course, they
would have dumped their gear.
In Gaza or Helmand, you get blitzed for behaving like that. The guy on
the ground who spots you would either shoot you himself with a sniper
rifle or summon up a missile strike from a helicopter gunship to do
the job.
Armed militants in Northern Ireland have understood for a long time
that that is not the local way of doing things.
There are two likely explanations for the behaviour.
One is that it was bait for that unlikely ambush. In which case they
calculated badly. No one was going to take that bait.
Intelligence indicates that the Real IRA is currently in possession of
a belt fed machine gun. So, conceivably the armed republicans handing
out leaflets to drivers in South Armagh were hoping that PSNI mobile
support units would descend on them. This being so close to the
anniversary of the Provisional IRA’s slaughter of paratroopers at
Narrow Water in 1979, the inheritors of republican paramilitary
responsibility might — who knows? — have been trying to legitimate
that mantle with a grisly spectacular of their own.
If so, they failed to take into account the timorous and tentative
manner in which the modern PSNI confronts insurgency.
More likely, it was a propaganda stunt.
As such, it was a good one.
They can say that they control the roads now and that neither the
forces of the state nor Establishment Republicans can do anything
about them. A photographic image of this checkpoint, if it is
broadcast, will carry the message that the Real IRA is now the
functioning power in the land.
Of course, all they did was stop a few cars on a quiet Friday evening,
in holiday season, hand out a few leaflets and disperse. But the image
of armed republicans acting like the forces of the state, mimicking
the Brits, is a potent one. The Provisionals made several attempts to
disport themselves in this way, as did the Official IRA, patrolling
the markets area of Belfast in their own jeep in 1972.
One of the big clashes between the BBC and the Thatcher government
concerned efforts by journalists to film an IRA checkpoint in
Carrickmore in County Tyrone.
There is not a lot of footage out there of tooled up paramilitaries
swanking with their guns, looking as if they can operate as freely in
the Northern Irish countryside as, say, Hamas does in Gaza. We tend to
see the same clips over and over again.
In that the Real IRA is fighting a propaganda war rather than a
military contest for territory, the more it can present itself as
looking like an actual army, to the embarrassment of Sinn Fein and the
police, the more effectively it makes the case abroad that the
conflict continues.
“This was an attempt by this group to make themselves relevant,” said
SDLP MLA Dominic Bradley. That’s one way of putting it.
If video footage of this goes out to the world, they will have put
themselves at the heart of hundreds of future news bulletins, since
broadcasters are always scrambling for images to illustrate a dramatic
account of conflict here.
Ulster Unionist and Danny Kennedy says the incident demonstrates that
we are not yet ready for the devolution of policing and justice here.
The paradox of his political position is that it probably coincides
with that of the Real IRA. They probably calculate that if they can
scare the Unionists out of devolution, that that would be the shortest
route to undermining and even bringing down the executive.
The biggest worry about the Real IRA currently is that they do have a
hand to play.
Ironically, it is difficult to think of anything that the police could
have done that would have been more productive than backing away from the scene. Had they mounted an attack on a checkpoint, they might have just created a couple of Real IRA hero martyrs.
Then again, their having been taken by surprise suggests a failure of
intelligence. Maybe that is the most worrying part of the story.

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new look

I can’t resist tinkering with this, so here’s a new look, that will last or die as the notion takes me.

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I was invited by The Regional Training Unit of the Department of Education to give the after dinner speech at the end of their Summer School at Stranmillis this year. Here is a recording I made of it.

“Past generations appear convinced that their own educational experience was better than what is available today.
They didn’t mind corporal punishment – it was good for them.
They didn’t mind having to bring in a lump of coal for the fire – it made them realise the value of things.
They didn’t mind that the teacher had a pet pupil who got all the praise – or worse.
And what is all the modern fuss about bullying in school? When I was a lad, we were bullied all the time and it taught us to stand up for ourselves.
The debate on education is hampered by this incredible paradox; that it is seen to be in decline from an age in which provision was patently worse.
Furthermore, teaching was more creative then, people will say. Teachers didn’t have to have lesson plans or follow the core curriculum; they could follow their own intuition about how to get the best out of everybody.
And most pupils failed their exams, so that proves standards were high.”


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Is Nelson McCausland the Minister for Culture Arts and Leisure?

I mean, I’m only asking.

Because, this morning, on Good Morning Ulster he corrected Seamus McKee for making that assumption.

He said that when he was protesting against GAA clubs being used for Hunger Strike commemorations, he was speaking in a personal capacity. Which means what? That he is now two people, or at least two people.

Maybe on other occasions he speaks as a representative of the Orange Order or a member of a church, and are we to allow him the conceit that all these people, all called Nelson McCausland have different opinions about things; that they aren’t to be taken as committing each other when they make bald statements?

Then, in reply, comes Barry McIlduff, speaking in a personal capacity too.

He is chair of the Culture Arts and Leisure Committee which monitors Minister McCausland’s department and calls it to account. He wanted to say that he was speaking only as a member of Sinn Fein, and not as a member of the committee. So he is at least two people too.

And maybe when he goes home at the end of the day he is someone else entirely again, not even a republican for all we know.

Which is all too handy.

It means that the business of the elected assembly – elected that is, by you and me, in our capacity as voters – is shielded from us, by those we have elected into office, telling us that they wish to disregard their responsibilities for a moment and speak outside the roles we have given them.

It’s as if you had brought someone into service your boiler and asked them if it needed replaced yet and they said: well, speaking in a personal capacity, I think this will last you another ten years, but speaking in a professional capacity I like to recommend our new model.

The personal capacity allows people to speak a little more informally – perhaps even a little more honestly – but it also preserves the official capacity against the question that might force it to loosen up and be more honest too.

And anyway, it doesn’t make any sense.

It is the whole Nelson McCausland who is Culture Minister.

Does he really expect us to imagine that he leaves part of himself outside the office when he is at work?

We expect him to separate office from party to this extent, that when he is promoting Culture Arts and Leisure, he is doing it for the whole community. Edwin Poots, in that role, for instance, once said that he personally opposed Gay Pride but that as Minister he would fund it. That’s a separation of opinion and responsibility. But I would have no problem with him saying: I am the Minister and I don’t like Gay Pride.

It was the simple truth and everyone understood.

You might even respect him more for doing with dignity and candour the parts of his job he found unpalatable.

You can talk to a man like that.

But when a minister, or a policing board official or a leader of business or a broadcaster insists on separating the personal from the political, their real selves from their working selves, they are always doing it for only one reason, to stop you asking questions about how they do their job and how they bring their personal experiences and opinions to that job.

I don’t think we should be stopped from asking those questions. I think they are the most important questions of all, speaking personally, that is, which is the only way I do speak.

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Monitor’s Note

There has been a huge response on this blog to the items on Pastor McConnell, but monitoring them is taking a lot of time and diverting me from the other work I want to be doing here, so I have suspended that material, at least for a while. There are legal dangers for me in allowing some of the vitriolic comment too.

Clearly Whitewellers need their own blog. These are easily set up through wordpress.com

Go to it somebody.

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The Pogrom Myth

Many people will remember this week as the anniversary of a pogrom, an attack on Catholic homes by the massed ranks of the RUC, B Specials and Loyalist paramilitaries.
Two great lessons were assimilated by many Catholics from that experience, or that understanding of their experience. These were that the Northern Ireland state was hostile to them and that the IRA, which had failed to defend them, would have to be beefed up so that it could do a better job the next times the prods went doo lally and descended on them.
The flaw in this version of August 1969 is that it takes no account of the plain fact that it was rioters in Ardoyne and the Falls Road – Catholics – who started the Trouble in Belfast that week, and it was very big trouble they started.
Of course, violence had been building since October 68 when a Civil Rights march in Derry was broken up by the police wielding clubs and a succession of marches had turned into major riots since, particularly in Newry, Armagh and Derry.
The rioting in August was part of a plan to overstretch the police who had been drawn into a huge riot in Derry after the Apprentice Boys parade on August 12th. No shots had been fired in Derry.
I watched the Falls Road part of the operation on the second night of rioting, August 14th.
The plan there was, apparently, to burn down a redbrick police station at Hastings Street, situated just where the Westlink now comes off Divis Street.
The rioters would chuck stones and petrol bombs. The police fought with a combination of baton charges and ‘whippets’, Shoreland light armoured cars with mounted Browning machine guns, designed for use against an open field cross border attack.
As the rioters inched closer, the whippets would prance out of side streets to scatter them and then the baton charge would go forward and try to grab a couple of them. The other part of the rioters’ plan was a squad at the top of Divis Flats with petrol bombs. I saw them drop a milk crate of unlit bombs onto the road and when the police ran after the rioters, someone dashed a proper petrol bomb on to this to set the whole lot alight.
This was entirely a Catholic attack on the police. It was clever and it was dangerous.
The Minister of Home Affairs later shed tears on television for not having been able to cope with this without the use of guns.
There was an audience of about a dozen of us watching this. I had joined this group after leaving my girl friend to the bus station at Smithfield so that she could get the last bus home to Rathcoole.
I watched the B Specials arrive in a civilian commercial van and make their way along the wall of the station with their rifles.
An inspector came out and told us that things were getting very dangerous and we should disperse. I went down Durham Street and up the Grosvenor Road.
I was in front of the Royal Victoria Hospital when I heard the first machine gun shots. They were so loud, I thought they were close by me and I ran. A man grabbed me into his car and drove me home, where I listened to the shooting from my bed.
That night wee Patrick Rooney died in his bedroom in Divis.
I had never heard any shooting before in real life and the scale of the gunfire – as often afterwards – seemed such that dozens would die.
Next day I walked across the Falls to the Shankill and up Agnes Street to the bars my father managed on the Crumlin Road. There was wreckage on the Falls and the normally friendly customers were cold with us so we left. I walked back across the Shankill with my sister and watched the first contingent of Brighs soldiers march up Durham Street. That night the two bars were burnt out. My father kept Paris Match photographs of those burning bars for years.
That afternoon, Protestants rioters burnt Bombay Street, and that attack became the symbolic moment of the whole period, according as it did with the easy myth that innocent Catholics were swooped on by Protestant bigots and barbarians.
Indeed, for many who had stayed at home that night, that is exactly what their experience was.
They should not pass the story on to their children however, that it was a one sided fight. It was the Falls that started it.

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[This is the text of an article published in the Belfast Telegraph 5.08.09]

It isn’t hard to predict what the first item on the agenda of the new Victims Forum will be.
As representatives of the different victims groups come together, and look across the table at people from groups they don’t like, they will seek a definition of a victim which excludes those unlike themselves.
Well, some will be broad ranging in their understanding and some won’t.
For many of the victims representative groups who will be invited to send delegates to the forum, the rights and wrongs of the past conflict are clear, and some of those who want to be included among the victims are actually, in their eyes, perpetrators.
It is this inevitable ranking of victims into hierarchies, depending on relative innocence and guilt, that the Eames Bradley Consultative Group on the Past tried to forestall with its recommendation that families of all those who died, blamelessly or not, should receive  a recognition payment of £12,000.
The point was to make a practical statement to the effect that all those who died were victims of a conflict which was part of the legacy of history and not of their making.
It would place all victims on a level footing at the start of a reconciliation process.
The announcement of that proposal caused ructions when it was made in January with the publication of the Eames Bradley report.
It now seems highly unlikely that the coming Victims Forum will endorse that proposal.
Many expressed themselves ‘sickened’ by it. They did not see it as the solution to the problem of their likely divisions, something that would start them out on an equal basis, but as an insult to those who were genuinely innocent, in that they would be categorized along with those who had killed them.
Now the Forum will meet knowing something that was not in the report, that the Commission for Victims and Survivors, which establishes the Forum, actually encouraged Eames and Bradley to retain the recognition payment proposal.
That information was leaked last week at the John Hewitt Summer School, at a panel discussion which I chaired.
Denis Bradley said plainly that the Commission had asked for the recognition payment on the understanding that this would ease divisions within the Victims Forum when it sat.
It was an uncomfortable moment for Mike Nesbitt, one of the Commissioners. He had criticised the report when it was published, arguing that the recognition payment idea was divisive and would even split families.
He had said that the idea was a bad one because it took no account of those who lived with injuries, only of those who had died.
In Armagh last week he said that he didn’t quite remember that the commission of which he is a member had endorsed the idea. He said he hadn’t been at all the meetings. He said that three of the commissioners had voted for the recognition payment but that he had decided that he could not accept it, and he admitted that he had been late in coming to that conviction.
It wasn’t a great example of unity and certainty within the four person Commission. The commission was set up after considerable procrastination by the Executive. Originally advertised as a single post, critics of the compromise arrangement, by which four people would be perceived as representing the diverse traditions in Northern Ireland, feared that agreement would be difficult. Well, so it seems to have proven.
This week the Commission for Victims and Survivors issued a statement confirming that it had encouraged the Eames Bradley Consultative Group to include the recognition payment among their recommendations.
The Commission denies that this had anything to do with the formation of the Victims Forum. It also wants to make clear that the payment was not its own idea.
There can be little doubt from the wording of their letter to the Consultative group, in November last year, that the Commission liked the idea. Its only quibble with it was with a suggestion of an an age qualification, to favour the families of those who died in the 1970s. The Commission expressed no reservation against payments being made to families of paramilitaries killed in the pursuit of the campaigns.
“CVS welcomes the suggestion that CGDP would recommend an acknowledgement payment be made to families of those who have lost loved ones as a result of the conflict.”
It is perhaps not surprising that when the idea was so widely reviled and they were even divided among themselves, the Commissioners for Victims and Survivors have not leapt to defend it once it was published.
Their own masters in the Executive are against it and the secretary of State has effectively scrapped it, though formal discussions on Eames Bradley continue.
But if the Commissioners thought it was a good idea last November, then perhaps they should say plainly now that it is a good idea still, or tell us what has changed.

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Denis Bradley of the Eames Bradley Consultative Group on the Past has revealed that the proposal to pay £12,000 to victims families, was endorsed by the Victims Commission.

He disclosed this at a panel discussion at the John Hewitt Summer School, chaired by myself. Victims Commissioner Mike Nesbitt was also on the panel.


After a request for a further interview with the commissioners on this, I received the following statement.

“The Commission for Victims and Survivors met the Consultative Group on the Past on the 22nd October 2008, and were apprised that the Consultative Group were thinking of recommending an ex-gratia payment to widows aged 70 and over.
The Commission offered a formal response on the 13th of November, as follows:
‘CVS welcomes the suggestion that CGDP would recommend an acknowledgment payment be made to families of those who have lost loved ones as a result of the conflict. However, we are concerned that any age weighting criteria would be applied in consideration of these payments, as the acknowledgment of loss has no relation to age.’

Put simply, we were concerned to prevent a situation where there were two neighbours, both widows, but only one received a payment, with the other losing out because she was born a day later than her friend.
It is clear, therefore, that the Commission did not ask the Consultative Group to make the payment. Rather, we advised that if they were going to make such a recommendation, they should beware an arbitrary, age-related cut-off point, and asked them to re-consider their original proposal.
Further, Denis Bradley’s assertion that the Commission linked the payment in any way to our role in establishing a victims’ forum is incorrect.”

It appears that the flak which hit the Eames Bradley Group after the Recognition Payment was proposed should either have been spread more widely, to include the Commissioners, or the Commissioners, to be true to the position they had taken, should have come out more strongly in defence of Eames and Bradley.

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