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It is hard for Sinn Fein leaders to say plainly that those who can help catch the dissident should take their evidence to the police. They have, however, come as close to stating that baldly as they have ever done.
In the past their reactions to the dissidents have amounted to a call that they should come forward and explain themselves, as if the objective was to get them into talks rather than into jail.
Martin McGuinness has been better at the condemnatory language than the prescriptive. So the dissidents are ‘enemies’ and ‘traitors’ who should remove themselves from the scene.
We can’t doubt that he is bloody furious with them and it is hardly surprising.
The dissidents are using the strategy that worked for past generations of the IRA.
In January 1919, Dan Breen’s men shot dead two RIC officers and started a guerilla war that would lead to the total collapse of the British state in Ireland.
When Irish people were unwilling to join the police or be seen in their company, and huge numbers discarded their uniforms for their own safety, then Ireland became a problem for the army straggling back from Europe, a political problem to be resolved urgently.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the IRA attacks on the RUC helped deepen the rift between the police and the Catholic people. Few Catholics would join and the reality of a Protestant force made reform an essential part of political settlement.
The aim had been to make Northern ireland ungovernable and to put Irish unity on the table. That bit didn’t work.
Similarly, when the British tried to ease pressure on the police and replace the totally protestant B Specials in 1970, they created a local regiment, the Ulster Defence Regiment and urged Catholics to join.
The IRA bombed those Catholics in their cars and shot them and soon the UDR was almost exclusively Protestant and that brick in the new dispensation being attempted was invalidated.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness know that history better than most of us.
They therefore understand what the dissidents hope to achieve and have a sense of how realistic their target is.
If Catholics shrink back from joining the PSNI, in the context of the abolition of the 50/50 rule securing places for them, then Sinn Fein could find itself in partnership in government with an almost exclusively Protestant police force.
The party could not live with that.
All the reforms of policing, the ombudsman and the board and all the human rights legislation would not cover the indignity of Catholic republicans being pursued by Protestant police officers and of suspect, but often innocent, young Catholics being arested, searched and questioned.
McGuinness knows that policing is the loose brick in the peace wall because his own tradition in republicanism trained him to loosen that brick in the hopes that the wall would tumble.
That being the case, he has no choice but to defend the police and the Catholics who have joined and who might join. In doing so, he is defending his own position and his political legacy.
If we revert to Protestant policing, everything he has done will have been in vain.
A thought that should perhaps have occurred to Owen Paterson before he scrapped the 50/50 rule.
The collapse of Catholic policing must be McGuinness’ worst nightmare. It would amount to his own peace accord with the DUP being undermined by the same methods which he used himself against the old Stormont and Direct Rule.
There would be an elegant karmic symmetry to it that one might relish if it wasn’t such an appalling prospect for the rest of us too.
So Sinn fein must now signal to the Catholic community and to other republicans that touting is no longer a sin or a crime. They must encourage a flow of information to the police about the dissidents and help put them out of business.
And they must take a lead in that.
This is the hard part for republicans. Michael Collins in 1921 stormed his former comrades holed up in the Four Courts and blew them to oblivion. History is letting the Provos off lightly in not plunging them into their own civil war.
On balance, McGuinness must surely see that this is not as hard as facing into failure would be.
He is already being told that he is a hypocrite for condemning the murder of Ronan Kerr, having endorsed the murders of 301 other police officers, a policewoman shot in the back outside Derry Courthouse, men shot on their doorsteps, coming from church, visiting hospitals.
Hard too will be the challenge of preserving that memory as honorable while telling those who would use the same methods today that they are enemies and traitors.
Today Martin McGuinness says that the police must win. Now he must tell the dissidents that he was in the wrong too; that the best evidence that they can’t win is that the Provos didn’t win either.
And he must sit down with the Chief Constable, if he hasn’t done already, and tell him everything he knows that might help him nail the old diehards.

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BBC discussion on religion

The BBC has been running a series of items on the decline of religion in Ireland. They invited me onto a podcast panel and this is the end result. I thought they had pulled me in because they had read my new book, but no; just a coincidence.

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Waking the Dead

You can’t expect children to know what to do at an Irish wake.

Wee Fergus inched gingerly through the room to the coffin for a look at his grandad, found the waxy corpse interesting for about a minute then went out to play with his ball in the garden.

Katie, being older, comprehended that she had lost someone and was crying.

The discovery of Pat dead in his bed that morning was like an emotional bomb blast. Sons and daughters would hurry home from half a dozen cities.

Delma and her daughters set up a production line for sandwiches. Within hours the house would be full of chatter.

Betty and I, while there was a chance, went to inspect the grave and meet the gravedigger. It was a double grave with room for herself later. ‘What side do you want him in?’

She had no thoughts on that.

‘What side of the bed did he lie in?’ I asked.

‘The left’, she said.

‘Left it is’, said the gravedigger.

Pat, for now, was laid out in his coffin in the living room. Betty ruffled his hair to make him look more like himself.

It is a shock that soon passes, seeing someone dead, formally laid out, the beads entwined in his fingers. The corpse is at the mercy of the artistry of the undertaker. My sister, in her coffin, wore red lipstick for the first time since her teens. My father, in a blue jacket I had lent him to be cremated in, looked like a club doorman.

Pat had looked worse.

Wee Fergus was warned again that this was a solemn occasion. He had the best possible defence: ‘But they are laughing too’ . He was pointing at me and big Damien, receiving visitors at the door.

I noted that these visitors were more sombre than we were and I straightened my face a bit.

There were times you would have to suppress a cackle at someone’s joke and turn to another person saying: ‘Isn’t it an awful business, and wasn’t he such a lovely man’.

Which he was. And you’d try to be as sad as they were, as sad as you had been yourself a moment before.

Pat Boyle, my wife’s father, an old country school master and brass band conductor, had survived heart trouble and two cancers to get within a spit of eighty and he had kept his sense of humour too.

He rose to speak at our wedding with a confidence that he could put on a far better performance than I could any day of the week.

At another wedding, Mel’s, he quoted from the gospel: ‘The Lord said, “It is good that we are here”‘.

But what people said mostly about Pat was, ‘Just think of the stories in that man’s head that are lost now.’

I’m not sure that I can comprehend the Irish wake much better than Fergus does. You really only learn the genius of it from going to many of them. The folk image is of old men drinking porter around the coffin, telling stories that get scarier and bawdier as the house darkens.

Blame Dave Allen with his yarns about a dead hunchback who’d had to be strapped down and then bounced up when the strap broke; about corpses taken out and set on the rocking chair.

Father Oliver Crilly tells me that he doesn’t remember a wake with drink, that it is not in the tradition at all, though a large bowl of cigarettes, until recently, was.

Probably hundreds came to the house that day and the next. Every time a priest called there was a decade of the rosary. One prayer leader’s pronunciation of ‘womb Jesus’ had mourners suppressing giggles. Some priests were good on wee homilies to Pat. Some weren’t.

But the things that go wrong in a wake are part of what makes it work, so long as they aren’t calamitous. The point of it all is to distract a family from grief and help the bereaved absorb the shock. It is good that we were there.

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A Peter Taylor documentary in the BBC’s Age of Terror series, says that Martin McGuinness knew about plans for the Enniskillen bomb in 1987. Surprise surprise!

It really isn’t news that Martin McGuinness was the leader of the Provisional IRA’s Northern command during the 1980s. Practically every book on the history of the Provisionals tells us that.

It is only a matter of extrapolation then to work out how much responsibility he had for carnage during the Troubles.

So, when Peter Taylor, the investigative journalist connects McGuinness to the Enniskillen bomb, as he did in his Age of Terror documentary this week, he is, in one way, merely stating the obvious.

By similar extrapolation we can connect McGuinness to the IRA’s campaign against construction workers, the assassination of loyalists, the long-range sniper attacks on British soldiers and virtually any category of IRA activity you like to mention; the torture and assassination of suspected informants, for instance, the bombing of a fun run in Lisburn.

All Taylor really told us about McGuinness is that he was a top provo.

It is what we knew.

Logically his telling us changes nothing and yet, potentially, it changes everything.

McGuinness himself may think that most of us believe his claim that he left the IRA in 1973.

No one at all believes that, least of all those who loudly proclaim it.

But we know our Martin and forgive him, don’t we?

We’re really impressed that he has turned out to be so amicable and cheerful, having snarled at us so much over the years about ‘the cutting edge’ and tripe like that.

It’s not that we don’t know what he did, just that we don’t want it shoved in our faces, lest we should doubt our decision to forgive him, for that is what we have done.

It is hard to reconcile the gritty, bitter hard man of the eighties with the affable poet, fisherman, DFM of today.

One thing the contrast tells us is that McGuinness is deeply relieved to be where he is now, with his bloody past behind him.

The alternative futures that he would have envisaged for himself 20 years ago must have included a grisly death or a long term of imprisonment.

Compare, for instance, the fates of many Palestinian leaders of similar standing: Arafat trapped in his bombed bunker for months before he dies, where even the toilets didn’t work; Yassin and Rantissi bombed from the air. It was fortunate for Adams and McGuinness, and those around them, that the British opted for a strategy of infiltrating and managing the IRA rather than destroying it.

If the British had changed that policy at any time, they would not have announced it and given the army council a chance to scatter. Adams and McGuinness would probably just have gone the way of INLA leader Ronnie Bunting, shot dead in his home by slick assassins that most republicans sincerely believe were from the SAS. McGuinness lived most of his adult life with the expectation that that was a turn his fortunes might take.

We would simply have woken up one morning to the news that he was dead.

But how secure is Martin McGuinness, even now, against embarrassing, even politically crippling, disclosures from his past?

Surely someone who touched the lives of so many has left evidence and witnesses behind of the offence he has given.

In a normal political environment a contender for political leadership is scrupulously vetted for depth charges in history: affronted lovers, bank statements, hijinks on You Tube. Where politics is normal, no party in its right mind would run Martin McGuinness, with his past.

The danger of embarrassing disclosures is too great.

We may know broadly what job he had in the IRA; it’s doubtful we could bear the details, and we can’t be sure we’ll forever be spared them.

This is the theme of David Park’s brilliant new novel The Truth Commissioner, in which a Sinn Fein minister – the Minister for Children and Culture – is threatened by the exposure of past deeds, some of which were not cultural or considerate of children at all. Logically, everyone knows, in broadbrush terms, the kind of things the minister did. Yet, when a plausible claim is suddenly made explicit, his position becomes untenable.

On the one hand we know what McGuinness did; on the other, we know little or nothing of the detail. Nor might we want to, just yet, when disclosure might create such political damage.

Some know very clearly. Ian Paisley is a member of the Privy Council and entitled to the fullest briefing he could ask for.

Old peelers know.

They probably marvel at the irony that McGuinness, having chosen so many of the victims in Northern Ireland, got to help pick the victims commissioners too.

But this is an irony for future reflection.

It may be that when we have moved so far beyond the Troubles that we no longer see politics as an essential contrivance for sparing us their resumption, we will look with a colder more critical eye at the characters and careers of the people we have elevated. And we may not remember that this generation showed extraordinary forbearance and forgiveness. We will just wonder if it had a particular fondness for dangerous men.

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