Belfast journalist Liam Clarke died this week. He was one of the most lucid and considered commentators on Northern Irish politics. This is a recording of a conversation I had with him before an audience four years ago.
Archive for the ‘Politics, Northern Ireland’ Category
Scotland is now more sharply divided on the union than Northern Ireland is.
Polling last year showed that only 3 per cent of people here would vote for a united Ireland in an immediate referendum. Larger numbers have long term aspirations for Irish unity but the decision has already been made, in the hearts of most notional Nationalists, that things are best left as they are.
There are a number of motivations at work. One is simply to avoid a calamitous fissure and civil war. Many people who regard themselves as more Irish than British would rather have peace even at the the cost of deferring an aspiration for unity.
Which perhaps indicates also that that aspiration is not very strong.
Life inside the UK has not been a grave burden on people here. They have had a welfare state with a National Health Service to cushion them.
And they would be less inclined to try for a united Ireland now when the economy in the Republic is so weak.
In Scotland they see things differently.
For a start, their nationalism is partitionist. Irish nationalists believe that Ireland is one country because it is an island. The Scots aren’t into geographical determinism.
Forty five percent of the Scottish population is ready to leave the Union right now, today.
That figure should resonate with history,
In drawing the perameters of Northern Ireland, a six county statelet, in 1921, a simple calculation was made around the numbers who wanted to be British and those who wanted Irish independence.
Within the whole province of Ulster, which some unionists wanted to draw the border round, forty five percent of the people were Irish nationalists. James Craig, who would be the first prime minister of Northern Ireland, reasoned that this was simply too large a disgruntled minority to govern.
Well that is the figure that defines Scottish politics for now. Their sense that they are in the Union against their will is a problem that both Westminister and the devolved parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh will have to deal with.
They will have to manage a minority of a scale that James Craig baulked at.
Of course, there is a difference.
Craig was speaking at a time of war.
The IRA had made the south ungovernable. Not even the army had been able to contain it without the support of rabble militias like the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans.
Not a single shot has been fired in the assertion of Scottish independence.
That is something that modern Irish republicans should reflect on.
The Scottish nationalists have made the same journey that they have made, in roughly the same time span. And where many marvel at Sinn Fein being in government in the North and close to being an indispensable partner in the next Dublin coalition, their achievement is entirely belittled by that of other nationalists who thrived without violence.
Alex Salmond brought Scotland closer to leaving the Union than Gerry Adams brought NI in the same period. Salmond, however, has conceded that his job is done and it’s time to go; Adams seems inpervious to the thought that his party can manage without him.
And Salmond did it without the bombs and the killings, without confrontation with the British army and without exacerbating sectarian division. He did it without lining up with foreign tyrants, in Libya and Cuba, or with national freedom struggles in Colombia, Palestine and South Africa.
Students in future will be writing essays comparing and contrasting the paths taken by Sinn Fein and the Scottish nationalists and concluding, most likely, that Irish republicans had never needed the IRA, that it only got in their way.
The other big difference between Scottish and Northern Irish opposition to the Union is that for Scotland the passion was not even nationalistic let alone sectarian.
Where Yes campaigners gathered to sing Scottish folk songs to advertise their campaign, others in the No camp complained that this was an abuse of tradition by appropriating it for a political argument. No one here ever accuses the other side of stealing its music. The point, indeed, would hardly be understood here, because in Northern Ireland, the issue is almost entirely about ethnic or community allegiance.
In Scotland the core of the issue was the sense that the country was misgoverned by Westminster and could do the job better itself.
No one in Northern Ireland believes we could govern ourselves better than Westminster does.
The vote in Scotland is being celebrated as a victory for democracy because of the record turnout, 84 per cent. That compares with the 81 per cent here who voted in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.
There are lessons for us and for Scotland from that experience.
The greater Scottish enthusiasm for their independence debate should be an indicator for those of us who remember ’98, that this was even bigger for them than Good Friday was for us.
But the other side of that is that our referendum was a peak in the enthusiam and it dimmed afterwards.
Successive elections, some with a prospect of saving the deal as it faltered, never realised such a turnout again.
So we might predict from our own experience that the current Scottish ardour around the demand for independence, and the rejection of London as the seat of power, may wane now.
Yet we had a decisive majority in our vote and still the issue did not go away.
Northern Ireland is, in a strange way, the region of the UK that is most comfortable with the Union and therefore most likely to be shaken up by the changes to come.
The first blows are cultural and psychological. In the past we thought of the Union as something we had to decide on ourselves. It was a static thing and we had to determine our relationship with it. Now we find that it is in flux, changeable.
One thing is for sure and that is that the Union can only be defended now on the terms that won the argument in Scotland, the economy, defence, being stronger together. Orangeism now looks like an expired argument. Ulster unionism as a badge of Protestant ethnicity is irrelevant to the strength of the Union.
Unionists have to make their case now and they have to make it primarily to their neighbours. That is a function of demographic shift inside Northern Ireland but also of the changing, possibly weakening Union.
Our party leaders may find themselves round tables in the coming years with the leaders of the other countries and will not impress them with ethnic arguments. To be fair to them, they probably already know that.
If Scotland is to stay in the Union as a more automous country, shouldn’t Edinburgh also be at the table with London and Dublin during the next round of negotiations too? After all, it will still be paying for us.
In future UK wide talks, we will be at those tables, if at all, as a region and not as a country.
Scotland is important and has the prospect of leaving the union; it has an alternative. We have no alternative and therefore nothing to barter with, at least nothing that would incline the rest of the Union to cherish us more dearly.
We appear to be entering a period in which the different parts of the United Kingdom will have less to do with each other, even as the Union has been affirmed, but they have still to hammer out how that is to be done. And we are the small guy, the one most easily crushed.
Either Cameron will meet his commitments to Scotland and devolve greater power there in tandem with similar arrangements in other devolved regions, or he will break his promise and create huge dissaffection in Scotland and the North of England.
Either way, Scotland and England will have less to do with each other.
Can we be in a Union with Westminster and expect the other countries paying into this not to want a say in how we are governed?
The other countries in the Union becoming more autonomous is bound to make us look like the clinging runt of a grown litter.
We thought we were safe within the Union, but how safe will we feel when the major issues will be discussed by three First Ministers of similar standing, for Scotland Wales and England, while we still have to be nursed by Westminster, not least because we can’t agree on much, but also because we never could hope to muster as much autonomy as those real countries can?
Otherwise we are a humble and scrawny half formed thing. Very soon we may be just a region among nations all of them bigger and with more power, and none of them, perhaps, with a powerful longing to look after us or be in Union with us.
But could Northern Ireland not go through the same kind of transformation that Scotland has seen?
Could it ever adjust to discussing its options in practical terms, without reference to religion or to the Republican tropes of Imperialist oppression and occupation or the Unionist ones of Orange heritage and the legacy of the Somme?
Could we separate ideas about the Union from those of community and identity, the way Scotland has? And what answers might we come up with if we did?
That’s what we have to do, or we will not just be the child at the big table but a particularly annoying one.
This is a recording of a paper I gave to the Art of the Troubles Conference at the Ulster Museum today.
Gerry Adams has written two separate accounts of his attempt to escape from Long Kesh and I try to analyse why he may have told the story so differently at different times.
The arrest of Gerry Adams showed that without a process for dealing with the past we only have policing and that can deliver destabilising shocks.
This talk was first broadcast on Radio Scotland, May 10, 2014.
I was invited today to sit on a panel discussing diversity and division at the DUP party conference. This was chaired by Sammy Douglas and also there were Fr Tim Bartlett, Jeffrey Donaldson and David Hume, for the Orange Order.
The first question is for Fr Tim.
You would not want to be a police officer with the backlog of murders they have to deal with in Northern Ireland. Currently there are 1,800 unsolved murders on the books. An Historical Enquiries Team has been wading through these.
You don’t get many prosecutions.
Where you do, they often fail and even where you nail some gunman who, during the Troubles, maybe shot a teenage girl in the head, or bombed a bar and killed half a dozen people, or somebody who beat a boy to death with a spade because of his religion, then you don’t get the satisfaction of seeing them banged up, for the decades of incarceration and reflection their crimes warrant.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, if they killed as members of a paramilitary group now recognised to be on ceasefire, then they get two years. That’s the deal.
So the Attorney General comes up with an idea.
Instead of being swamped under all these hopeless and unproductive investigations, why don’t we just close the files.
No prosecutions, no inquests – some are still outstanding, believe it or not – no historical enquiries, no special public enquiries for victims groups campaigning for them.
But perhaps a new climate in which the guilty and those who know the guilty can step forward and be truthful. Perhaps that. Perhaps not.
The context for this surprise suggestion is a talks process going on at present under the tutelage of the US diplomat Richard Haass to reconcile burning disputes here, and we have a lot of burning disputes.
One concerns how often the Union Flag should fly over public buildings. Protests over that have landed hundreds of people in court and have dampened commerce in the city. And threaten to sully Christmas for those of us who would rather go shopping, and that’s most of us.
Another dispute concerns Orange Parades going past Catholic areas where really they are not wanted. This tension has been exacerbated on one hand by anti parade protesters who could give themselves an easier life by looking the other way and by parade bands and bandsmen who love nothing more than to wind up a crowd, by beating their drums louder outside Catholic churches.
And the past is in dispute: that’s the big one. What do we do about the past?
For republicans the Troubles was a legitimate war against British imperial oppression, though how that explains bombing pubs and barber shops and supermarkets isn’t at all clear.
For Loyalists it was a war between themselves and the IRA, legitimate from their perspective as the good guys fighting the evil of Republicanism, though it’s not clear how that fight was advanced by shooting random Catholics, walking home from the pub, maybe carving some of them up with butchers knives and phoning their wives at home to let them hear the screams.
And for the British it was a defence of law and order, keeping truculent sectarian factions apart and working for reconciliation and peace – though that isn’t easy to reconcile with covering up for killers on both sides, secret operations which entailed the killing of civilians and, leaking targeting information to Loyalists – the dirty tricks that we seem to be learning a little more about year by year, even month by month.
So you can see why John Larkin, the Attorney General might be tempted to say that progress could be easier if we simply closed the drawer on outstanding cases and enquiries and left each of these three, in effect, with their fantasy that they were fine people doing their best for us all.
For when cases do come up, they all squeal.
Sinn Fein has been picketing the courts arguing that former IRA members should not be on trial because they are peace makers.
Loyalists riot when some of theirs go on trial and claim they are being discriminated against.
The state doesn’t really do much of prosecuting its own people but Unionism is appalled at any prospect of British forces being treated as criminal in their fight against the IRA.
They fear that if there is to be open disclosure of past actions – and freedom from prosecution would help that – then it is the people who kept the files and have the information about past deeds who are going to look worst. The IRA and UDA and UVF presumably don’t have written records of their killings.
And some of the retired security force personnel are pointing to another problem.
If you force disclosure of what we know, it may contain a lot of information about current political leaders and make stable coalition between Sinn Fein and the DUP untenable.
And the whole point is to try to preserve political stability by neutralising the irritants that threaten it.
Mr Larkin’s proposal was awkwardly timed if it was to appeal to the victims of paramilitary and state violence, that is, those who would be expected to waive their right to justice.
It came on the thirtieth anniversary of a republican ambush on a religious service in a gospel hall in Darkley County Armagh in which three people died. The congregation was singing Bathed in the Blood of the Lamb as the bullets rattled through them.
Then BBC Panorama broadcast interviews with former soldiers who disclosed that they had killed civilians, trawling the streets of Belfast for targets in unmarked cars, in civilian clothing themselves.
And this is just a couple of weeks after a powerful documentary about those killed and disappeared by the IRA in which Gerry Adams repeated his denial that he was ever in the IRA and upping the tension with his republican critics by describing as liars those former IRA members who have said he was their commander. That hasn’t gone down well and already there have been leaks from inside the IRA of information about operations attributed to Gerry Adams.
If people don’t believe that the IRA and the Loyalists can be honest about the past, – and they have serious reason to doubt it – then they are less likely to pay the price – an effective amnesty for disclosure.