Archive for January, 2010

This piece was carried on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph on January 28, the day after Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen gave up mediating between Sinn Fein and the DUP on how and when to devolve policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. (See also.)

The British prime minister, Gordon Brown was back at work in London
last night, with his mind focussed again on crucial global affairs.
British soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan, the civilian death
toll there is in the tens of thousands and the shaky president of that
country, Mohammed Karzai, is in London today for a conference with
sixty foreign mnisters.
It wouldn’t be surprising if, in the midst of such a gathering, Gordon
Brown wasn’t to ask himself just how important his fruitless daliiance
in Hillsborough had really been.
The Taoiseach Brian Cowen was similarly getting back into his stride
in dealing with a crime wave whose death toll is nearly as bad as the
troubles were here and an economy in crisis.

It is an embarrassment for the people of Northern Ireland and a shame
on our political leaders that two such busy heads of government were
drawn here to try to resolve a political deadlock.
Compared to the other great crises which Gordon Brown has to manage
this week, Northern Ireland should be much smaller beer.

It is hard to be sure whether it would have been even more
embarrassing if they had succeeded, for that would have confirmed,
symbolically and in the eyes of the world, that we are in our
political infancy. As it is, our disgrace is that our intercommunal
intransigence has survived a 20 year peace process and looks as if it
might to define us in perpetuity.
Perhaps the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown and Taoiseach, Brian
Cowen have learnt a lesson from the experience and will not indulge us
as lavishly again.
More likely the idea has become ingrained in British and Irish
political culture that pandering to our petulant divisions is one of
the first responsibilities of governments.
We are very tempted this morning to urge them to place Northern
Ireland, in a more realistic ordering of their concerns, much closer
to the bottom.
The experiences of their predecessors should tell them that the type
of high wire summitry which they engaged in this week often goes awry.
Remember the repeated efforts to resolve the decommissioning deadlock,
the Hillsborough talks session which has gone down in history as ‘the
April Fools’ Day talks’, or the ‘ seismic shift’ talks at which the
earth did not move. The governments have over and over again trusted
that the moral pressure which prime ministers can apply, by
withdrawing themselves from urgent work elsewhere, would be sufficient
to dislodge local political party leaders from fixed positions and
they have been wrong. They have several times spun their efforts as
far more creative and productive than they have turned out to be.
If the parties here are going to continue pleading with the Prime
Minister and the Taoiseach, and even with the president of the United
States, to do their jobs for them, then perhaps it behoves civil
society here to speak over the heads of political leaders about the
embarrassment of our helplessness.
Ordinary countries can not summon outsiders to solve their problems,
unless they are torn apart by calamitous warfare or a natural
And the irony is that among the concerns which Gordon Brown had also
to address this week, and from which we deflected his attention, were
Haiti and Afghanistan.
Of course, Northern Ireland is not an autonomous polity and the agreed
devolution of powers is not complete. Britain and Ireland do have
responsibilities here. But we are supposed to have been long passed
the point at which we could reasonably confess ourselves helpless to
solve our problems.
Brian Cowen leads a country which is suffering appalling economic
setbacks and the threat of industrial action. He would have been
perfectly entitled to say that he could not come to Hillsborough
because he had other things on his mind. To think that he was summoned
here by Martin McGuinness, an officer in a political party which has
virtually no traction left in his jurisdiction!

The tradition of Taoiseachs and prime ministers dropping everything
and rushing to Belfast to save the assembly from yet another imminent
breakdown grew out of the fear that political deadlock would reverse
the peace process into a resumption of the Troubles. Tony Blair and
Bertie Ahern, in their day, believed they were saving lives when they
came over and called Republicans and Unionists to the talks table, and
they may well have been right.
We must hope that Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown at least trust now that
most of us want our politics to function without blackmail and the
threat of violence and would rather see the Assembly fall than be
sustained by fear.
The principle that they must respond with such urgency to fears of
institutional collapse and an assembly election, is grounded on the
assumption that we are basketcase political entity, and that in itself
is demeaning to the many people here, both in politics and in civic
society, who order their priorities pragmatically and in the interests
of the whole community.
And there has to be a realistic fear that if political party leaders
here feel that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are at their beck
and call, then they will be routinely tempted to turn disputes into
crises and party positions into threats of disaster.
There is an awful sense abroad that the political careers of some who
are prominent in the executive here were nurtured in the global gaze
and that these people still need the attention of the whole world
before they can function. There was a hint of that last week when
Martin McGuinness was asked for a comment on the allegations made
against Gerry Adams, that he had mismanaged complaints made to him
about the sexual predations of members of his party. McGuinness’s
answer was shocking in its naivete. He said it appalled him that the
media locally were attacking a man who had created one of the best
peace processes in the world.
We have to learn to live with the fact that we are not very important.
We are a region of one and a half million people.
We have been indulging an unwarranted self-aggrandisement. Academics
study us and international journalists write about us and wherever we
go on our own travels we encounter the sense among others that we are
one of the crucial conflict zones on the planet. Yet our conflict
barely rates against an ordinary gangland dispute in an American city.
Yet the peace process which delivered us into perpetual tetchiness is
held up as a model to the world.
We have to ask ourselves now if the political arrangements which we
have established are fit for purpose.
One of the problems is that we cannot legislate for amity or even
civility between parties locked into coalition. Jim Allister makes the
case that mandatory coalition is an unviable and unjust political
arrangement. But the dream that people in Northern Ireland had when
they voted for it, by a great majority, was not that it would be
‘conflict by other means’ or, as foretold by Peter Robinson, ‘a battle
a day’. They wanted it to be a co-operative partnership between
parties with a past history of animosity, and they wanted to see the
old bad feeling and suspicion put aside. They hoped that parties which
had inherited an oppositional mindset from decades of protest, might
learn to co-operate to the practical advantage of their people. They
hoped that when the DUP and Sinn Fein took responsibility for the
everyday governance of the whole region, they would be too busy to
rehearse old hatreds.
It has to be acknowledged that there are some in the Executive who
have confirmed our hopes and expectations. One cannot point the finger
at Michelle Gildernew or Arlene Foster or a few others and indict them
of mischief and dissension.
But Sinn Fein played the education portfolio as an irritant.
Similarly, the DUP has conducted the culture portfolio as if it was
the front line in an historic grievance.
Martin McGuinness clearly loves the position he holds and perhaps has
less of an appetite for stand-off than his party leader. On the other
side, the most irascible and smug provocations from the DUP have not
come from Peter Robinson. But both Robinson and McGuinness have played
bad hands in the long wrangle over when policing and justice powers
would be devolved to Northern Ireland.
Mr Robinson procrastinated until the European election arrived,
apparently fearing that his party candidate Diane Dodds would be
seriously wounded if he had conceded a date. Then, when she was
wounded anyway, he appears to have drawn the dispute out even further
and more slowly, making little concession to the inevitability that
there will always be another election to fear. And if he had at any
time conceded a date for policing and justice, he would have killed
the issue. Jim Allister’s only hope was that he could force Robinson
to delay it; he was never going to have a chance of reversing it.
There is no better argument against a staller than to show that the
deed is done.
Mr McGuinness lost two earlier opportunities to force his hand. One
was when Peter Robinson was installed as First Minister, and he might
have refused to put himself for nomination until a clear price was
paid. Later, after the money was agreed and the DUP linked the parades
issue to the devolution of policing and justice, he could have stormed
out with more credibility, if that was what he was inclined to do. The
old street warrior wasn’t as sharp as he might have been, and now the
ground has shifted under him. He missed opportunities to play it hard
and he waived the opportunity to play it soft.
He might reasonably have hoped that when, last March, he stood with
Peter Robinson and damned the dissident republicans as ‘traitors to
the island of Ireland’ that Robinson might have said then that the
confidence in Sinn Fein that he sought, was now clearly warranted.
Both parties drew out the dispute.The question many will ask, looking
back on that, is whether either or both of them did so on the
understanding that two governments would provide a safety net and
rush, in the end, to save them from themselves.
They would prove themselves better fit to govern Northern Ireland if
they would accept that they are stuck with each other, will still be
stuck with each other after an election, and got on with the jobs we
have entrusted to them.

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The Robinson Affair

How long have we thirsted for a good scandal here? The enthusiasm with which the public is lapping up the Robinson Affair seems to reflect a deep and abiding need for colour and distraction on our political culture.
The whole settlement might be going down the tubes but hey, what a gas!
And that excitement which Iris has generated has made politics interesting for thousands who had just got bored.
OK, those thousands are maybe not focused on the damage this scandal is doing, the jeopardy that faces the institutions. but try and tell them now that they shouldn’t be mocking? You can’t.
Iris has changed the way we think about politics, and this has come as a relief for people for whom it had all become too worthy and tedious.
We have had fifteen years of solemnly intoning the mantras of the peace process, earnestly hoping that dealdines might be met and that deals might be completed and that peace would descend upon us.
More recently people have come to think that an actual healing of political and communal divisions in Northern Ireland is not possible. They went from being bored and earnest to being merely contemptuous of a political system which is inherently acrimonious and self indulgent.
And to think that our quibblers and ninnies in the assembly benches imagine that they are an example to the world of how peace can be made in other tumultuous conflict zones!
We have heard enough of that.
Hope and history don’t rhyme and never will.
But suddenly there is the Robinson Affair and all politics is human again.
We don’t have to reverently think of our representatives as historic figures who have excelled themselves in political courage and crerativity. Nor do we feel we must adhere to inflexible communal allegiances which require us to speak well of them. The people are laughing, and their mirth is as much from relief as from amusement. It is as if an onus of sobriety and conscientious commitment has been lifted from us.
The whole damn shebang might be about to slide into the ditch like last week’s snow, but what a story!
The people of Northern Ireland are responding to that story not with foreboding but with hilarity and amazement.
And this tells us that some of the big sacred notions of the peace process no longer hold us in thrall.
Remember them?
The greatest of these was The Big Picture.
Whenever we had doubts about the behaviour of paramilitary organisations or political parties engaged in negotiations, we were always reminded that we had to keep The Big Picture in mind. The Big Picture was the overall political settlement that would restore order and good government to Northern Ireland.
For example, when the IRA or the UDA killed somebody during the interparty negotiations, some politicians and journalists might have been tempted to fly off in umbrage at the audacity of these hypocrites, talking peace up in Stormont and killing or maiming people on the streets.
Invariably, when challenged on these barbarous acts, the political spokespeople of the killers would say something like this: ‘Yes, it’s terrible, these things happen; but keep your eye on The Big Picture.’
In the past we would have turned a blind eye to murder for the sake of political stability; today we won’t turn a blind eye to adultery and the shocking spectacle of a First Minister demanding that funny money be, not shuffled into a Swiss bank account but paid back!
The next big concept governing the peace process which has taken a dent is: History.
History, it was said, rhymed with Hope. It had a hand and Tony Blair felt it on his shoulder one night in Hillsborough Castle, while struggling not to succumb to soundbites.
An incredible number of incidents in recent years have been described as ‘historic’. Speeches by visiting poltiicians routinely opened with: ‘Ten years ago, who would have believed that ….’ They didn’t seem to notice that the more they said it, the more people did believe and the less amazed they were.
We had historic agreements, historic presidential visits, historic statements, historic acts of decommissioning and then more historic agreements. We even had historic attendances of ministers at football matches.
What went unnoticed was that people were gasping for the other thing we had been promised: Normality.
They didn’t want to see politicians doing grand things for the history books; they’d have settled for them getting the hospitals and the education system in order.
History, we were encouraged to believe, was not just ‘one damn thing after another’. It had purpose and direction. It was destiny, really. And it was taking us to a glorious future.
Except that it, in reality, History was just the past and there was no guarantee that marking one event or another as Historic would make its memory of influence endure.
Then there was Hope, the Hope that rhymed with History, according to Seamus Heaney.
But all we had had a right to Hope for was normality and we only had to look at neighbouring countries to see what normal politics was.
Normality included corruption and sleeze, governmental penny pinching, spin and deceit and back stabbing inside political parties. Normality in Westminster, for instance, is that every few months a minister resigns for not declaring interests, for cutting corners for migrant servants, for fiddling expenses or just to ‘spend more time with the family’. That’s normality; nothing to get excited about.
There were times when people here said things like: Isn’t it great that we are arguing over education and hospitals in stead of shooting each other on the streets?
Well, actually it would have been better if we had had our health and education services sorted out too.
Hope promised a shared future, reconciliation and an end to bickering and more bickering. But it didn’t deliver.
Occasionally, however, Hope offered the prospect that politicians who are thought to be making too much money and not doing enough work might be humiliated. That Hope appears, for once, to have been richly fulfilled.

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A humanistic view of marital infidelity would ask if both partners should take responsibility for one of them wandering. Lucky Peter Robinson; he gets his wife to take all the blame and then forgives her on national television.

Here’s a piece I publish in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph:

Part of the indignity for Iris Robinson is that her disclosures about
an affair contrast with an image which she has presented of herself as
a morally assertive and sexually prim woman.
There have been sexual infidelities in other political families in
Northern Ireland that have not brought people to the extremes of
attempted suicide and public confession.
The striking thing about the confessions we heard last night is that
no clear motive for them was made plain.
Peter Robinson said that part of the motivation was to end speculation
that his personal problems and recent absence from public life were
grounded in illegal financial dealings. And it is clear that he now
wants the media to stop investigating the affair that Iris had.

Spotlight on Spotlight

The Spotlight programme on BBC Northern Ireland has said that it is
still waiting for answers to a series of questions put to the
Robinsons. Presumably, a good result for Peter and Iris would be that
the planned Spotlight programme would be pulled. The Spotlight team
are now faced with the suggestion that humiliating Iris with further
disclosures would be bad for her mental health, and might cost her
If there is any more to the First Couple’s desire to make this
heartrending public confession, other than to morally constrain
Spotlight, then it is perhaps indicative of a naivete about the rest
of the world’s expectations of them.
Iris, in particular, presents herself as almost legalistically religious.
At the time she was having her affair she was pontificating in the
media about the ‘abomination’ of homosexuality.
She brought heaps of grief upon herself over that whole argument.
She was ridiculed in much of the media and lampooned as a ridiculous
hate figure, most colourfully on the Gay Pride parade through Belfast.
Yesterday, on social networking sites, Iris was being traduced as a hypocrite.
It is hard to escape the sense that her own sexual frailties would not
have brought her such pain had she not succumbed to the fantasy that
she was pure and holy enough to dictate right and wrong to others.
You get a flavour of that smugness in the interviews she gave to
writer Lorraine Wylie three years ago for a book described as ‘An
Intimate Portrait’.
The book included accounts of life lived almost as a soap opera. One
memorable yarn recounts how the Robinsons got so sunburned on holiday
that they couldn’t put clothes on over their tender skin and set up an
arrangement whereby Iris would order room service from under the
bedclothes while Peter hid naked in the bathroom. The outworking of
that, as told in the book, was that Peter ‘glowing like a Sellafield
fish’ misheard his cue to come back into the bedroom and presented his
full glory to the waitress.
Iris also wrote of her fury at the vicious rumours about her marriage
and her husband. She said, ‘it never ceases to amaze me what
imagination can conjure up. I’ve heard my husband accused of
everything from infidelity to domestic abuse and even murder.’
The initial impact of the disclosures on last night’s news appears to
have been highly sympathetic.

God and Conscience

Journalists who were present when Peter Robinson made his statement
were clearly deeply moved by it.
Some will have been reading backwards to the extraordinary flashes of
temper from him in the past year and perhaps concluding that these are
more intelligible against the background of marital stress. And
religious people will note that both Iris and Peter emphasised the
power of God and conscience in their lives. It was guilt which drove
Iris to an attempt at suicide; it is the conviction that God himself
has forgiven her which consoles Peter.

And it is not only sexual indiscretion which Iris has owned up to.

The statement says that she provided financial support for her lover and encouraged others to as well.

But if they talk sometimes as if they are not quite human themselves,
they certainly appear a lot more human to the rest of us now.
Sexual infidelity is human. The grief of a betrayed spouse is human.
And it is human to plead in extremis for mercy from an investigative
media which might drag out the pain, even if it does not unearth more
For Iris, now, political life is at an end.
This is a tragedy for someone who was a gifted parliamentary performer.
Sometimes the focus of her interest appears to have been punitive and
moralistic. A reading of the questions that she has asked in
Westminster over recent years shows a primary concern with the
treatment of prisoners and particularly of sex offenders.
She enjoyed politics. There was something almost exultant in the wrath
which she turned on Health Minister Michael McGimpsey in the assembly
and others. Being married to Peter Robinson may have been a political
advantage to her but it may also have carried considerable benefits to
him too. She seemed to soften him a bit. She was one of the more
colourful and intriguing characters. Life will be much more
embarrassing at church and among her own circle now that it is clear
how human and ordinary she is, but there are people who will like her
the better for it.
The other question is whether her marriage to the First Minister will
survive. He himself says that is not guaranteed and it may be that  he
was suggesting that the decision is still more with her.
She described her depressive illness as ‘personality changing’.
If she stays with Peter and accepts his forgiveness and can be happy
there, well and good.
If she moves on, and casts off some of that prissy conviction that she
flaunted so lavishly before, then who knows what she might be?
A potential embarrassment to the party if she no longer feels bound by
loyalty to it?
A wiser better person if she will let herself be ordinary and
vulnerable without feeling the need to expunge your own life when the
ardent facade breaks?
Or will she go into some kind of shameful purda?
Well, now that wouldn’t be the Iris we know at all.

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