Archive for the ‘Politics, Northern Ireland’ Category

I was standing in Guildhall Square in Derry yesterday with 12,000 people listening to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology for the killings of 14 innocent people on the Bloody Sunday parade of January 30 1972.

Judging by the rapturous applause from the crowd, most were as surprised as I was by the frankness of the statement. I have always understood that, whatever the lip service paid to law and order, the army was effectively immune. So this contradicted that understanding.

However, my prejudices about the army are grounded in experience during the early Troubles of witnessing the bullying manner and thuggery of the Parachute Regiment in particular and other regiments too.

I never had any doubt that the dead of Bloody Sunday were murdered, and I believe that many civilians were murdered by soldiers in Ballymurphy and Springhill and other areas.

Mr Cameron was conceding that the paras who killed on Bloody Sunday had disgraced the army and their country but insisting there would be no other open ended enquiries and that he believed the record of the army in Northern Ireland was a proud one. His concession is limited.

Perhaps he is allowing that the killers of Bloody Sunday will be the scapegoats for Britain’s excesses during the Troubles. And if the Republican community is of a mind to offer similar scapegoats, he appears to be hinting that the head of Martin McGuinness would be welcome.


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It’s not hard to imagine the jaws dropping onto desktops when the
letter arrived from Culture Minister Nelson McCausland asking museum
heads to pay a bit more attention to matters of vital concern to him
like the Ulster Scots heritage, the Orange Order and the origin of the
On reflection, museum managers might have considered a range of
options short of telling him to get stuffed.
Mr McCausland’s view is that a museum should reflect the culture and
beliefs of the community it serves. In seeking to refute this, the
museums might seek to actively explain the world to a community with
reference to the gaps in the understanding of even its leading
cultural funders.
In short, if Mr McCausland wants the university to offer discussion of
Intelligent Design theory, let them do it. There are a lot of people
among us who believe that religion can still hold out against
scientific discovery. They would have been on the side of the Pope
against Gallileo and they still think they can refute Darwin. They
want to retain the conviction within scientific institutions like
universities and museums that God created the world in seven days.
Well, let them try.
The first comfort for museum heads is that Intelligent Design theory
is already a concession to science. It is a relaxation of the demand
by religious creationists that the Book of Genesis be taken as a
sufficient account of the emergence of the universe, life and
The court cases in the United States, around the demand for the
teaching of Intelligent Design , were attempts by religious
fundamentalists to argue science with scientists, conceding in effect
that there was no point in trying to impress them with scripture.
Scientists and secularists saw this as a threat. It was in fact, the
movement of religious fundamentalists on to ground on which scientists
can defeat them, if they are confident of the strength of their case.
Why shouldn’t we have an exhibition on Intelligent Design
incorporating a discussion of the arguments around it in the museum?
People like Nelson McCausland might soon discover that there is no
comfort in it for them. If they are hopeful that Intelligent Design
restores the Christian explanation of the Universe to them, then they
may be well served by having the full case and its implications laid
out for them.
The problem for creationists is that their argument, if won, might
only establish that an intelligence initiated the Big Bang.
For all they know, that intelligent being might have been killed in the blast.
He, she or it may reside still in another universe and have lost all
interest in this one. There are no grounds for supposing that that
being knows about us or has any benign intentions towards us. There
are no grounds even for supposing that it is an infinite Deity. There
may be another universe in which children spark off Big Bangs with
their chemistry sets. They may not even know that they are doing it.
They will live in a different time frame so our whole span of
existence in this universe may be just a blink to them.
The problem for Intelligent Design freaks is that they don’t read
enough science fiction.
Rationalists might say this is absurd. But we are already making black
holes under Geneva ourselves with the CERN project, so what is so
implausible about an intelligence more advanced than our own
conducting similar or more radical experiments elsewhere?
What Intelligent Design believers do read – some of them – is the
theories of John Polkinghorne, a scientist and minister of the Church
of England who won the £1m Templeton Prize for research that
reconciles science and religion.
The usual experience of religion in the contest with science is that
literal interpretation of scripture loses every encounter. Then those
who continue to insist that religion retains lost ground begin to
sound more desperate and absurd in the secular world. Scientists feel
little need to go on arguing points that they feel that they have won,
like natural selection. Some scientists like Richard Dawkins continue
to wave the victory in the faces of the religious defeated, but there
is no scientific need for them to do so.
Polkinghorne said that the universe looks like a ‘put up job’. If the
pull of gravity was fractionally greater than it is, the universe
would compact into a hard ball; if less, it would scatter like vapour.
It has to be just right if you are to have solar systems and planets.
Look at the Earth. Without a wobble in its revolutions there would be
no seasons and without seasons no cycle of nature. Without our
unstable crust there would have been no volcanoes and we would be a
ball of ice, but the instability has to be just enough to allow life,
not enough to destroy it.
So, what is the scientific answer to the perfect ‘just-rightness’ of
this universe for life? One answer, seriously put forward, is that
there are millions of failed universes, or universes that turned out
differently, and that this is the one that by chance is just suited to
us. That explains our survival agains the odds.
In other words, the answer is a call to faith in the existence of the
unknowable; the sort of thing that religious people come up with.
The difficulty in this debate is that both the religious and the
scientific contenders have cranks on their side; adamant Christians
who think the Bible tells them everything they need to know and ardent
rationalists who fantasise that the job of explaining the universe is
What about an exhibition at the Ulster Museum that acknowledges the
mystery of our being here as mortal but self conscious beings in an
unlikely universe?
Would Nelson be happy with that?
I suspect he would want to see models of humans hunting dinosaurs, but
it is easy to deny him myths for which there are no evidence.
But just because we have a crank for a culture minister doesn’t mean
that the unexplained universe shouldn’t enthrall us.
And some smarty pants in the museum is bound to agree that a serious
discussion of intelligent design theory would tick the right box to
get Nelson off his back.

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Tim Brannigan’s new book, Where Are You Really From? recounts the life of a black boy born in Belfast who became a Republican activist.

Is having two identities a freedom or a burden? That’s a question I explored with him and others in similar double identity situations.


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A sampling of voices on a Belfast city street suggests that people have very little interest in the political regime that serves them – crisis fatigue, perhaps.

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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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One overlooked aspect of the Eames Bradley report on the past was the charge that the churches have a responsibility for sectarianism.

[You’ll note that there is a new player format here now. It’s a bit brash, I know, but I’ll find something more suited to the genteel people who visit this site.]

Rev Lesley Carroll explained it all to the Clonard Fitzroy Fellowship last week.

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There can be few more grim and ghoulish jobs than sifting a wet and
mucky bog for a body.
Those who consigned Gerry Evans and others into the dark grime in
remote country areas intended that those bodies would never be found.
And the most benign interpretation of their failure now to give
precise location details is that they also buried their own guilty
memories deep.
Gerry Evans disappeared — or was ‘disappeared’ — over 30 years ago.
If his family has learnt anything since, it is patience.
I met Mary Evans, Gerry’s mother, in Crossmaglen last year and the
striking thing in our conversation was how she remembered specific
dates, like sacred anniversaries.
She last saw Gerry on the 25th of March 1979. He had left the house
after dinner to meet friends in Castleblaney and had not returned. On
the 18th of March 2008 someone put a map through the letterbox of
Gerry’s aunt’s house in Keady, with a note saying, ‘We believe this is
where Gerry is buried’.
Just this week, the digging began.
I also met Gerry’s brother Noel, who was only 11 years old at the time
of the disappearance and who admits to not having really grasped the
horror of it until he was older. ‘You couldn’t really work it into
your intelligence what had happened until you got older, and what a
bad situation you were in.’
And still, though anonymous people are apparently moved to be helpful,
Gerry Evans is in a different category than most of the disappeared,
for the IRA does not formally acknowledge any responsibility for him,
or for another Crossmaglen man, Charlie Armstrong, who disappeared
close to the same time.
In an area saturated with Republican sympathies, the Armstrongs and
the Evanses say they feel that they are the only people who understand
each other and the grief of living with unexplained loss. Mary Evans
says, ‘People don’t really understand. Me and Kathleen Armstrong
would meet going to mass; we could talk about it because we knew how
each other felt. Other than that it was all silent.’
Kathleen Armstrong says, ‘That longing is always on you to have a
grave to go to.’
All of the families of the disappeared have articulated a similar
sense that their experience cuts them off from the world, since those
who have never felt the need to recover a body for a funeral, don’t
really understand that perpetual ache.
One Irish government minister, meeting one of the families, is
reported by them to have callously said that they should ‘move on’.
The troubles were over, he said, ‘Everyone else has moved on, why
don’t you?’
The families have, in fact, made a major concession in their
desperation for news. They have accepted that those who killed Gerry
and Charlie should not be punished or even shamed.
Noel Evans put it like this: ‘Now we have gone beyond justice and
we’ve said that. We don’t want people scared to contact the
confidential line or scared to contact us for fear of reprisals or
fear of justice being done to them. Those days are gone. We just want
They do not want to be perceived, in Crossmaglen, to be working for
the embarrassment of the IRA. They appeal only for something no
decency could refuse, a Christian funeral.
There are many around them who respect and even revere the IRA. There
may even be some who believe the IRA’s profession of ignorance of the
fate of the two men.
Probably, the practice of ‘disappearing’ their victims was adopted by
the IRA as an effort to retain respect in their communities after
orders that would have been hard for their neighbours to endorse.
The earliest disappearance that we know of is the most famous, that of
Jean McConville, a mother of ten children, living in the Divis Flats,
when, in December 1972, the Belfast IRA determined that she was an
informer and took her from her home and shot her. In the normal run of
things, at that time, an informer’s body might have been found in a
back alley. But 1972 had been a difficult year for the IRA. They had
come under the first real pressure from the Catholic community to end
their campaign, and had even conceded a two-week ceasefire that summer
and entered talks with the British government. Much of that pressure
had centred on their killing of Martha Crawford during a gun battle in
Romoan Gardens in March, though they tried to blame that on the army.
The IRA had hoped to preserve a reputation for honesty and plain
dealing with the Catholic community, but it had more lies to tell
before it would decide that Jean McConville’s body be buried 50 miles away on
a County Louth beach and that no claim of responsibility would be
They professed themselves mystified by the bombing of Claudy in July 1972 and the murder of eight people there.
When one of their bombs, in transit, killed eight people in Anderson
Street in the Short Strand, the IRA claimed that it had been planted
by Loyalist paramilitaries or the SAS. This was to be remembered for
years as one of the great atrocities against the Catholic community.
An IRA statement had said that the bombers had been seen entering the
street and that an active service unit had attempted to intercept
them. That was how they explained the deaths of IRA members at the
They also lied about the killing of eight year old Rosaleeen Gavin and
about their responsibility for the bombing of the Abercorn Bar. A
unifying feature of the actions they disowned before the murder of Mrs
McConville is that they all entailed the deaths of women or children.
So a pattern of lying to the Catholic community, which it professed to defend, was well established before the secret burial of Jean McConville, and one effect of this was to exaggerate the threat against that community from Loyalists and the British.

Most of us knew nothing of the secret burial of IRA victims until
after the ceasefire of 1994. Then Helen McKendry, Jean McConville’s
daughter, gave an astonishing interview to David Dunseith on the
Talkback programme on Radio Ulster. She described how, after her
mother had been taken from their home, she had, as a little girl,
looked after the other children in their flat and how, after several
weeks, social services took them into care and separated them.
Then other stories followed, with the families of Brian McKinney and
John McClory coming forward and a campaign getting underway.
Progress has always been slow. The Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams
pledged to help the families and visited Helen McKendry to hear her
story and assure her of his concern.
The breakthrough came in 1999, when the IRA formally admitted to the
disappearing of nine people.
The British and Irish governments agreed to the creation of a
Commission for the Location of Victims Remains, which would guarantee
immunity to any members of the IRA who came forward with information
about where they had buried people.
The first body to be given up was that of Eamon Molloy an Ardoyne man
whom the IRA had shot as an informer in 1975.
Brian McKinney and John McClory were discovered in 1999. The IRA had
shot them in 1978 after Brian McKinney had allegedly admitted stealing
from them.
It took another four years and an exhaustive search of a beach in
County Louth before Jean McConville was found. The search for her body
had closer media coverage, probably because it was easier for
broadcasters to marshal their cameras on a beautiful beach in fine
weather. Reporters watched a digger scoop and sift the sand, hour
after hour, day after day, looking for clothing or a few bones. The
searching seemed to unite the scattered McConville family, and they
erected a small shrine to their mother at the beach. The search itself
proved fruitless. The body was found at a separate beach. It then
became clear that Jean McConville had died of a single bullet wound to
the head.
There were two unsuccessful searches also for Danny McIlhone, in 1999
and 2000, before his remains were found last year in the Wicklow
Mountains. The story behind his death is that the IRA had been
questioning him about the theft of some of their weapons and that he
had been killed in a struggle to escape.
The IRA admits to having killed four other missing people, Kevin
McKee, Columba McVeigh, Brendan McGraw and Seamus Wright.
The families of the disappeared still meet formally twice a year, for
a mass on Palm Sunday and a small ceremony at Stormont on All Souls
The families of those whose bodies have been found continue to attend
these gatherings, being the only ones who really empathise with the
suffering of people like Mary Evans and Kathleen Armstrong.
This year there was a new family among them, that of Peter Wilson, of
the St James area of Belfast, who went missing in 1973.
The question of whether he rightly belongs on the list of those the
IRA killed and hoped we would never hear of again is a serious one. It
opens up the possibility that the IRA, which has pledged to being open
and helpful is still harbouring what secrets it can.
But for the family of Gerry Evans, hoping that his bones might emerge
from the bog and that their last realistic prospect of giving him a
funeral might be fulfilled, the broader politics of blame and guilt
are irrelevant.
They only want their boy.

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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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Northern Irish politicians are campaigning for compensation from the Libyan government for their having armed the IRA. I wish them every success. But if they encounter a certain Colonel Juma, I’d love them to ask him if he remembers me.

In the early 1980s I taught English to conscripts of the Libyan Air Defence Forces.

One day I was with my class when a young three star officer came frantically into the class. The boys all stood sharply to attention.
The officer spoke a little English and a little French and conveyed the problem to me. Colonel Juma had arrived to inspect the metalwork class. I was to take the boys immediately to the workshop for a demonstration.
“No, I can’t do that. I don’t teach metalwork. That’s Peter Keller’s job. Go and find him”.
Three-star looked  appalled at me. I had not understood how serious this was. There was no time to discuss it. He snapped at the boys and they ran out to the workshops. I would have to find Peter.
Peter was a towering man with ginger hair and a sneering sense of humour. He took his job seriously and was often complaining about slack standards in Libya.
I heard some movement in the room next to the main workshop classroom where the boys were frantically tidying their uniforms and gathering samples of their metal work.
Inside Peter was on his knees on the floor, in a blue T shirt and white boxer shorts, painting a yellow line to mark the perimeter of a large green machine.
“Go away, Malachi. I am busy”.
“Peter”, I said. “Colonel Juma is here and he wants to inspect the metalwork class. You have to help”.
“I do not have to help. This is my day off. I am not really here at all. I have come in my own time to catch up on work and I don’t have to do anything”.
“O.K.” I tried to be more diplomatic. “This is not a problem of my making either, Peter, and I can walk away too”.
“Then do it”.
I went back into the class room and the boys were now erect and stiff at their desks. Each held up a little piece of iron which had probably started out as square, but had holes drilled in it and angles cut into it. I had done some metal work at school myself and could judge how roughly some of these had been finished.
Right. Let’s just wait.
Then the door opened and in walked Colonel Juma, the second in command of the Libyan armed forces, accompanied by several others of similar rank and a fawning and wilting young three star officer.
Juma was a stocky black man. His epaulets had gold eagles as well as stars. The other officers had declining numbers of stars and eagles, and beside them our own top man, with no eagles at all, looked pretty meek.
I had no idea what to say. I was without words. Colonel Juma approached me with a warm smile and I said hello and gestured towards the petrified boys.
Juma was clearly puzzled by my behaviour but perhaps used to people wilting before him.
Then the door opened and Peter strode through. He was wiping his hands with a dirty cloth.
“Why is it that you can never get any fokking work done around here?” He flung the cloth aside and strode on past and out the main door.
I probably whimpered like a stricken beast at that moment. I might have been rallying myself to address Colonel Juma and the officers, but now I was thrown and could organise no words.
Colonel Juma and one of the senior officers, perhaps the third in command of the armed forces of the Libyan Peoples Arab Jamahiriya, walked the ranks of the class. The other officer elected to provide some kind of commentary, though what he could have known about Peter’s metal work class, I don’t know. They were civilly making do with a badly organised presentation, which made them seem to me to be the most adorable of men.
Peter then returned through the class door.
“Gentlemen! What can I do for you today”, he said.
The colonels all turned and smiled warmly, as charmed by him as I had been by them. They seemed to float towards each other, cushioned on an air of supreme confidence.
Peter turned lightly to me and said: “You are looking a little pale Malachi.”

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The Sinn Fein case against republican armed dissidents, currently trying to revive the ‘armed struggle’ is basically this:

We fought a noble and brave struggle and took the war to the British for decades and retired from the field of battle undefeated. Our current objection to war is that it is counterproductive and that it is wrong to impose such suffering on people when an alternative exists. We are in a new phase of the struggle. We have found a means by which we can achieve a united Ireland through peaceful politics. Any republicans who are complicating this for us by political violence are traitors to the Irish people.

There are problems with this case:

The Provisional IRA campaign was not qualitatively different from that of the dissidents. It inflicted grotesque and unwarranted suffering on many innocent people and achieved nothing. It had no prospect of achieving a united Ireland. The Provisionals ended their campaign, not as an undefeated army but as an army going nowhere. The peace process enabled it to retire from the armed struggle with dignity, and most of us are glad they did. But the new political context, in which they now operate, offers no realistic prospect of a united Ireland either.  If it did, the DUP would want no part in it.

So what should the Sinn Fein leaders be saying to young people who are tempted to join the dissidents?

They should say: It was all an ignoble waste of life and energy.  We were wrong to pursue a war that could take us nowhere, but we were young and angry, and much of the time we were reacting to broader circumstances we had no control over. We achieved nothing other than the stalling of a political compromise like the one we finally accepted. We were right to accept it and wish we had been able to settle for it thirty years earlier.

The problem is that Sinn Fein is still bound by myths, must pay homage to its own fallen heroes and must try to persuade the base that it is still republican, though it is no more republican now than British Labour is socialist.

When Stalin died, Kruschev could drive a stake in his heart and own up to the crimes of the past.

When the current leaders of Sinn Fein go, their successors – the true inheritors of constitutional nationalism – will be free to say: we were wrong.

Until then they will perpetuate myths that can ennoble armed struggle and cheapen their own politics. It is an awful pity we can’t have the clarity now that we need and will inevitably get later on, from some future SF leader who will find it costs nothing to speak the truth. And that it is worth speaking plainly and honestly if there is a chance that it will discourage those who , soaked in the nonsensical myths of republican glory, might be tempted to claim a little of that glory for themselves.

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