Archive for the ‘Politics, Northern Ireland’ Category

Two of my occasional colleagues on media projects and panels will have a little business to settle today.
When Eoghan Harris visited the West Belfast festival he took a wager from Jude Collins. Eoghan had said that Sinn Fein would lose all its seats to Fianna Fail in the next Dail General Election, the one that was held yesterday.
Jude offered him a £100 bet on that and asked what odds Eoghan would give him. Eoghan offered ten to one.
Perhaps unfortunately for Eoghan, I recorded the sealing of the deal.

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Half truths or worse from the IRA

This week the commission for the location of victims remains has
closed down its search in County Monaghan for the body of Gerry Evans.
The search for the remains of the disappeared has been fruitful in
some cases, hopeless in others; depending on the quality of
information passed on by the IRA.
And it is not only the families of the disappeared who have been
challenging the memory of the IRA.
Some families of those killed as informers have been talking to the
IRA and seeking information about the reasons their loved ones were
The answers are not always satisfactory here either.
I have been talking to the family of a young man shot
dead by the provisional IRA nearly 40 years ago.

As broadcast on Sunday Sequence this morning (Oct 3.2010)

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The past in Northern Ireland is a clatter of unfinished stories, and the neater and more vague the official versions of events, the more suspicious and cynical we become.
Rightly or wrongly.
An early assessment of past violence was the Widgery Tribunal into the Bloody Sunday killings of January 1972. That taught us how examining the past would have to work. The government of the day and the political and military leaders would have to be shielded from any charge of murder. That’s how most of us understood the implications of the report.
Only when the main players were dead, 38 years later, could a report be published and accepted by a Prime Minister that shamed the army and the judiciary.
The past has come back to us three times this week.
An enquiry into the murder in prison of the loyalist killer at Billy Wright published its £30 million report and told us nothing we didn’t know, that Wright had been killed by a group of INLA prisoners, who had somehow acquired guns, and scaled a prison roof when a surveillance camera was conveniently switched off. But there was no government or security service involvement.
Now, some people hear a story like this and think — well, isn’t that the way of the world, you turn your back for a minute …
But most of us, hearing of the deft assassination of a man who was a major threat to the peace process, whose removal was so convenient, will sense intrigue. We can’t help it. Any novel that opened with the murder of an irrepressible killer like Wright — who was going to be back on the streets if not stopped — would have to end with a very wide circle of machination exposed.
Not in real life — yet hard not to wonder if in another 30 years, when this may be no more than just a morsel of history, a piece of paper will turn up, the connection between the assassin and — well somebody very big and safely dead.
Isn’t that what happened a few weeks ago in the report of the police ombudsman — by the way, are you counting all these reporting and investigating bodies and noting how the job of sifting the past has become so fragmented? The police ombudsman, reporting on the bombing of Claudy and the murder of nine people in 1972 found that the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, had visited the head of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Conway, and arranged for the transfer of the chief suspect in the bombing, a Catholic priest, Father James Chesney.
Now that couldn’t have come out when Whitelaw was alive.
Certainly not when he was in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet, as Home Secretary. Unthinkable.
But years later and the new Tory top tier in government has no problem dumping on the reputation of a predecessor, any more than on the soldiers who slaughtered innocents on Bloody Sunday.
Time makes every embarrassment bearable.
And what did people think, at the very start of the peace process, when a helicopter crashed on the Mull of Kintyre, killing 29 people including 25 of the most senior military and police intelligence operatives monitoring the Northern Irish paramilitaries?
Brilliant material for a novel. Only one way for the story to go. Could anything so dramatic — so relevant to the big political story — have only been an accident? Well not in the movies.
The findings: that the pilots were to blame.
The lingering suspicion: that the software controlling the ‘copter was faulty. Not a pointer to clandestine devilment in high places but to negligence further up the line.
This week we hear there is to be yet another enquiry.
And when things don’t smell right and the drama and horror and relevance awakens cynicism and suspicion, these drive our curiosity and our demand for better answers.
And, if we are sometimes cynical in the wrong, that is a safer position to be in than never being cynical at all.
One bit of the past did go away this week.
Bones found in a Co Monaghan bog last month were finally confirmed as those of 57-year-old Charlie Armstrong — one of the Disappeared — killed, almost certainly, by the IRA, nearly 30 years ago.
Charlie goes into his grave this morning, a Christian burial at last in Crossmaglen. And that is the end of it.
The IRA has not owned up to the murder.
The family will not demand to know who the killer was or the circumstances. That was the undertaking they gave when they pleaded for help to find the body.
And the Commission for Victim’s Remains — another past-filtering body — does not gather forensic evidence — that’s the trade-off for paramilitary assistance.
But what was so significant about the murder of Charlie Armstrong that the IRA still has to disown the killing?
Perhaps merely the pedestrian likelihood of the killer having been a neighbour.
Perhaps a connection to someone whose political career is in need of careful protection?
Cynicism, conspiracy theories or plain common sense?
We’ll never know. We are left, as with the murder of Wright, and the carnage on the Mull of Kintyre, with an aching sense that there is more to the story that we cannot be allowed to know.
And maybe there is.
And maybe there isn’t.
Catching Up With The Past

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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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