Tuesday, 19 July 2016

In Defence of Small Nations

At dusk on Friday the first of July – one hundred years to the day after the start of the Battle of the Somme – I paid a short visit to the war memorial in the centre of Derry. I scanned through the hundreds of names inscribed on the monument and came to my great-uncle’s. Sergeant Denis Roddy was a Lewis gunner in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and he died on the Western Front on September 4th 1918.

Not for the first time, I wondered why one of my ancestors would have donned a British army uniform and fought overseas in one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. I know that young Irishmen like Denis were told that the war was being fought to defend their faith and to defend small nations.

Two days before the recent EU referendum poll, prominent Labour Brexiteer Gisela Stuart claimed: "We can take back control over our laws. We can take back control over taxes. We can take back control over our borders, immigration policy and security."

As I listened to her, I wondered who exactly she meant by ‘we’. A week of Tory bloodletting and an insurrection in the Labour Party have ensured that the Conservative Party will be in control of our laws, our taxes, our borders, our immigration policy and our security for the foreseeable future.

No doubt Ms Stuart would defend this outcome by saying that "the people have spoken". Indeed they have. But so have the peoples of Northern Ireland and Scotland  – and with a different voice.

Ms Stuart, who felt so aggrieved at the ‘control’ that Brussels exercised over UK citizens’ lives, should sympathise with us now. Momentous decisions which affect our lives will be made by Conservative politicians in Westminster who have no more mandate to govern us than the Brussels bureaucrats Ms Stuart disparaged.

Today, the minister overseeing the UK’s exit from the European Union, David Davis, will talk to NI’s first and deputy first ministers by telephone. It should be a strange conversation. Mr Davis was an ardent advocate of Brexit, but his boss – the new prime minister, Theresa May (as well as her predecessor, David Cameron) – thought it was overwhelmingly in Northern Ireland’s best interests to remain in the EU.

When Arlene Foster speaks to Mr Davis, she will be at odds with the deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, and out of step with the majority of Northern Ireland voters. Mrs Foster believes, as she is entitled to, that Brexit will be better for Northern Ireland. Most of us disagree. A majority of Scots think they, too, will be worse off.

Two years ago, as Britain commemorated the start of the First World War, David Cameron said that some of the principles that soldiers — like my great uncle Denis and others — had fought for were still relevant. He said men rallied to the cause of stopping one big European power "snuffing out" a small country like Belgium. He said "small countries had a right to their independence and existence".

His successor, avowed unionist Mrs May, should tread carefully. The British government’s handling of the EU membership issue will have profound consequences for the integrity of the United Kingdom in the long term.

With Scotland and Northern Ireland having rejected Brexit so emphatically, it will be interesting to see how far the rights of small nations are respected and protected now.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Whiff of Change

We were promised a Fresh Start and a fresh start is what we got. Eight new departments, eight new ministers, even five new faces.

If this was meant to be a fresh start, why is there such a bad smell this morning?

The new-look Executive, unveiled yesterday, tantalised us with the prospect of a new era in northern politics, but when it came to Justice it was the ‘same old same old’.

If this was meant to be a fresh start, why is there such a bad smell this morning?

The Good Book warns us that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and the new Justice Minister, Claire Sugden, will be a looming reminder of that division every time the new Executive meets. All the swagger, bravado and chutzpah in the world cannot hide the crack.

Ms Sugden’s presentation in the temple by the First and Deputy First Ministers caught many by surprise. It shouldn’t have. The Justice post had been hawked around Stormont for days – with no other takers.

The previous incumbent, who has spoken of “significant – very significant – challenges ahead” in Justice, would have signed up, but the price he demanded was too exorbitant for the ‘Big Two’ parties.

The East Londonderry MLA’s no-strings-attached acceptance of the poisoned chalice is perplexing. During her short Stormont career she had railed against the previous administration. “This house of cards is falling,” she had warned, “and good will come of that only if the jokers at the top come crashing down too and do not get up again.”

How strange that Ms Sugden is now the keystone holding the house of cards together – the one helping the ‘jokers’ up again. Had she declined the offer, the vacancy would have provided an immediate and searching test of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s real commitment to Fresh Start.

The former politics student, who got them off that hook, will now get an insight into politics that no university education could offer. For the moment Ms Sugden finds herself in a luxurious position: the ‘jokers’ – the two most ruthless parties in Stormont – need her more than she needs them. No wonder they flaunted her so triumphantly – like an It’s A Knock-out joker – before the media yesterday.

But it’s a long and hazardous road. Luckily, ahem, she’ll have two DUP MLAs ‘minding her back’ as chair and deputy-chair of the Justice Committee.

Eventually, of course, there will be a day of reckoning at the polls, when her supporters in East Londonderry – who backed her precisely because of her independence – will decide whether her decision was a judicious one.

In affirming the terms of her Pledge of Office, the new minister promised, among other things, to promote equality and prevent discrimination. Ironically, though, her elevation was only possible because of an elaborate contrivance to keep Sinn Féin at the back of the Justice bus.  

On the most optimistic reading, the fact that the ‘Big Two’ parties are, at least, prepared to hold their noses, do business, and try and tackle the many difficulties which confront us is promising. The problems will come thick and fast, though. Cutbacks. Austerity. Hospital waiting lists. Job losses. Abortion. Academic selection. Corporation Tax. Roads. Universities. Flags. An Irish Language Act. And an Official Opposition dogging the Executive along every tortuous step.

Fresh start or false start? Time will tell. The clock is ticking. The brave new dawn is still a long way off. And the smell lingers.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Seats, Chutes and Leaves

“We’re in control. We know exactly what we’re doing.”

Those nine words – uttered by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, as he stood alongside First Minister Arlene Foster on the steps of Stormont Castle yesterday – show precisely why the SDLP had no real option but to follow the Ulster Unionists into Opposition and why the Alliance Party cannot credibly join the next Executive.

This will be a Programme for Government crafted entirely by the two largest parties. They “know exactly” what they’re doing. Nothing the smaller parties said to the ‘big two’ during a two-week negotiation was going to knock them off course. With 53% of the vote and 66 seats between them, they have been given a resounding mandate to do whatever it is they know they’re doing. The rest of us, like the smaller parties, will just have to suck it up.

The DUP and Sinn Féin manifestos for the 2016 Assembly election were so similar in major respects that their leaders might have been yanked out of their chairs by the ear for copying. Clearly, this Programme for Government has been a long time in the cooking, with only a select few allowed into the kitchen.

The charge that the SDLP is “walking away from” power-sharing and the Good Friday Agreement simply doesn’t stack up. This isn’t power-sharing, it’s job-sharing. The clue is in the words, “We’re in control.”

Some are hailing this moment as the arrival of ‘normal’ politics in Stormont. It is transformational, certainly, but there’s nothing ‘normal’ about it (except by Northern Ireland standards). We will still have two parties in control – in this case two parties without the cover provided by the proximity of their closest rivals and which, frankly, still detest each other.

Never mind that there are some in the DUP who still won’t shake the Deputy First Minister’s hand; the First Minister still won’t countenance the idea of Sinn Féin holding the sensitive Justice ministry. Now, it appears, we have the Green Party’s representatives and Independent MLA, Claire Sugden, being tantalised with that poisoned chalice (surely it would prove electorally fatal for the former?).

Ask yourself these questions: do the DUP now trust their partners in government; and do Sinn Féin want to make Northern Ireland work? These two parties find themselves strapped together – dare I use the phrase ‘inextricably linked’? – like sky-divers sharing a single chute, mandated to govern us for the foreseeable future.

Let’s revisit those comments by the Deputy First Minister. “We’re in control. We know exactly what we’re doing.” That's democracy.

In control? Really?

Our budget is allocated for the most part by an administration at Westminster that looks even more riven than ours (we can’t even be sure who’ll be leading it in five weeks’ time) and which is wedded to the idea of austerity. And as for knowing what they’re doing, have the DUP and Sinn Féin now agreed that lower Corporation Tax here is affordable and will be introduced in this mandate? Have they agreed to prioritise job creation in our unemployment blackspots – Foyle, West Belfast and North Belfast? And – all politics being local – have they agreed a ‘Derry deal’?

As they fling themselves from the airplane into the wide blue yonder, strapped together for a perilous descent, supporters will hope they really do know what they’re doing. And I hope that one or other has remembered to check that there’s a parachute in the bag.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Cloak and Dagger Politics

Almost a month has passed since politicians reached a new agreement on Northern Ireland’s political future. For the victims of the conflict, though, ‘Fresh Start’ is a false start. If the politicians were serious in addressing the legacy of the past, then the agreement represents another glaring and ignominious failure.

The latest accord was fairly comprehensive; it encompassed welfare ‘reform’, paramilitarism, cross-border crime, corporation tax and other financial measures. Rather embarrassingly it even addressed the issue of tax credits (whose planned introduction was abandoned by the Conservative government within days). But there was no agreement on our violent, often shameful, history.

The past is a rock that no one wants to look under. Not the British government. Not the paramilitaries. Nobody except those who lost loved ones; those who were injured or maimed; those who believe in truth and justice; those who believe in the primacy of law and the importance of democracy. Nobody who matters.

The truth is that any of the protagonists could act unilaterally and address the past. They won’t. They could choose to shed some light on one of the darkest periods in our history. They won’t.

That shouldn’t surprise us where paramilitary organisations are concerned; neither should it surprise us where the British government is concerned. But, it should concern us.

When the Secretary of State, Teresa Villiers, Harry Potter-like draws the invisibility cloak of ‘national security’ around her, we are entitled to wonder what secrets have lain buried for up to 45 years and, even yet, cannot bear scrutiny? We are entitled to wonder where national security ends and criminality begins?

Where a democratic state is concerned, its involvement in criminality is not something to be hidden. It is something to be investigated and exposed; that is the mark of a true democracy. And past misdeeds are not something to be traded off in negotiations; that would continue and compound the initial wrong done to victims.

Some will feel that the State should never divulge the secrets it is withholding. Others believe it should only do so in the context of a wider process involving paramilitary organisations. Are they happy to draw equivalence between the State and ‘terrorists’?

The State cites ‘national security’ as its excuse for non-disclosure and non-investigation. National security? National self-interest, more like.

Sadly, the past will linger like a bad stench along the corridors of Stormont. It will permeate the corridors of Westminster, too, although those who frequent them don’t seem to notice any more. 

In the meantime, we remain stuck between a rock and a hard place. Relatives of the dead will visit lonely graveyards; victims will struggle to cope with their disabilities; and people in this part of the world will continue to lecture those elsewhere about the importance of democracy.

Democracy? Hypocrisy.        

Thursday, 3 September 2015


Theres a famous saying, of uncertain provenance: “If you can remember the ‘60s, you werent really there.”

I do remember the ‘60s. I was there (although ‘thereobviously means different things to different people). Location, in this context, is critically important.

I was born in Derry in 1960 and our experience of the sixties was very different to that of Londonders. Unlike in swinging London, the only substances most of us inhaled were the fumes which seeped day and daily from the Gasyard at Stanleys Walk, or CS gas from the hundreds of canisters which the police pumped into the Bogside from 1969 on.

Our city was gerrymandered and controlled by a unionist political minority. Catholics were discriminated against; unemployment was endemic; and housing conditions – for many – were appalling. We still disagree over what to call the place.

Nelson Mandela observed that “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” And where you sat affects your whole outlook.

I was struck by this as I listened to Mike Nesbitts statement explaining why he was withdrawing his Ulster Unionist Party from the Northern Ireland Executive. In it he said, “Without trust there is nothing.”


Mike Nesbitt is only three years older than me but our worlds were obviously very different. He was born in North Belfast but grew up in the staunchly unionist East of the city. His community, like his family, suffered at the IRAs hands. His fathers linen business was blown up by the Provisionals in 1973 – one of many obliterated in the IRAs bombing offensive. Hundreds of Protestants and unionists died at the hands of republican paramilitaries. It would be entirely understandable if Mike Nesbitt regarded certain republicans as ogres, and only natural that he suspected their motives.

The sources of my nightmares were different though. RUC men ‘batoningmy neighbours during civil rights protests. Palls of CS gas hanging over our homes. Going to sleep in the top bunk with gun battles raging outside. Routine harassment. Arrests and house-raids. People my age being killed by the police and army. The dread of UDR checkpoints. And, of course, Bloody Sunday – the terror of the day itself and the sense of utter betrayal in its aftermath.

This was all happening just 75 miles away from where Mike Nesbitt was living but he and I were a world apart in terms of our experience.

And now Mike talks about the need for ‘trust.

Trust cuts two ways. I belong to a part of the community which has had ample reason to distrust political Unionism, the police, the courts and the State. But when I, and tens of thousands like me, voted for the Good Friday Agreement, we set grievance – and bitter experience – aside and chose to build a future better than the past.

Its that better future which is now in jeopardy. The hope which resides in the Good Friday Agreement will be non-existent without the political institutions it introduced.

Mike talks about the need for ‘trust. His party points an accusing finger at Sinn Féin over its ‘linksto a “terrorist organisation”. How does he imagine thats perceived by nationalists who have seen unionist politicians cosying up to loyalists for years? How does he think unionistsprofessed concern for a murdered, former IRA man, is being received now?

Shortly after he became Unionist leader, Mike provoked controversy by asking to be adopted by a poor family for 24 hours, so that he could better understand their plight. It might have been a better idea to spend some time in the Bogside, or West Belfast, or on the ‘other sideone of North Belfasts many peace lines. Perhaps then he might have got a better insight into the complexity of our problem.

Trust isnt something you can command. Trust is earned. If it develops at all it happens through contact and dialogue.

Martin Luther King Junior said, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

If Mike Nesbitt is serious about wanting to build trust, walking away is the very worst thing he could have done.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Naked Ambition

What’s the point of wearing a fig leaf if it doesn’t cover your modesty?

The Ulster Unionists’ threatened withdrawal from the Executive – which will presumably be ratified by its party executive tomorrow – was based, we’re told, on ‘principle’. And as the party jumps ship, it looks like it might be followed into the lifeboats by the DUP, with dire implications for the power-sharing government at Stormont.

The ‘principle’ argument doesn’t hold water though. “You can’t have parties connected with ‘terrorists’ in government,” goes the UUP’s rationale, but you can work “collectively” with them outside of the parliamentary chamber, for example on a graduated response.

This argument is pathetic.

If anything, initiatives such as the graduated response are even more perverse. The Stormont Executive is a mandatory coalition, whereas the United Unionist Response was voluntary. When unionist leaders rail against the continuing existence of terrorist organisations and their leaderships, it takes all my forbearance not to shout out, “Look behind you.”

The Ulster Unionists’ decision is based not on principle but on naked self-interest.

This morning, their leader, Mike Nesbitt, put in a startling performance on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme. “I will accept that [the Chief Constable's assessment about the IRA and Sinn Fein] but I’ll tell you what, if Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness or preferably both, said the same thing about the IRA – which would admit that they are existing – that would start building trust,” Mr Nesbitt said. “If they said the same thing - that the IRA exist but they're not existing for the old reasons - that would be a step. But they won't do it. They're in denial."

So far so good.

Twenty-one seconds later, though (I actually counted), Mr Nesbitt asked: "Why should I trust Sinn Fein? Why should I trust Gerry Adams who says he was never even in the IRA?"

Oh dear. Contradicting himself (not for the first time). This problem won’t be fixed as easily as Mr Nesbitt imagines.

For starters, whose assessment will he trust?

Does he accept the Chief Constable’s? George Hamilton has already assessed that the Provisional IRA is no longer engaged in terrorism and is following a political path; he accepts Sinn Féin leaders’ bona fides regarding their rejection of violence and pursuit of peace.

Does Mr Nesbitt accept the former Independent Monitoring Commission’s view? In its last report the IMC concluded that PIRA had “gone out of business as a paramilitary group”. Indeed the IMC went further: PIRA had “transformed itself under firm leadership” while loyalist groups “lacking comparable direction” had struggled to adapt.

If it was looking for an excuse, the UUP should, perhaps, have consulted the SDLP’s former Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon. Mr Mallon has told the Irish News that while the Provos have ceased paramilitary activity they are still involved in money laundering, fuel laundering and smuggling. While criticising “nods and winks” and governmental ambiguity, Mr Mallon thinks withdrawing from the Executive at this stage is premature.

He is right. Money laundering, fuel laundering and smuggling – not to mention murder and extortion – are matters variously for the police, Revenue and Customs, and the National Crime Agency. It is our politicians’ job to hold the police and the NCA to account for their record in tackling such crimes. I can’t imagine that the authorities’ job will be made any easier – or our aspirations for a more peaceful and law-abiding society achieved any sooner – by endangering the political institutions and ‘upping the ante’.

Really! Country first and party second?

Mr Nesbitt may have wrong-footed the DUP, who are rushing to play catch-up, but it may prove a Pyrrhic victory. In striking to ‘hoover’ up unionist votes, the UUP risk creating a vacuum. And history teaches us that Northern Ireland – like nature – abhors a vacuum.




Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Careful Now

There is an old adage: be careful what you wish for. Many unionists would like to have seen the IRA defeated 19 years ago, when the last ceasefire was announced. It didnt happen. Likewise, many would like to see republicans wearing sack cloth and ashes. That isnt going to happen either.
We are where we are and – imperfect though our peace is – we are in a much better place than a generation ago. Have we forgotten that only 17 years ago this month, 29 men, women and children, and two unborn babies, were killed in the worst atrocity of the Troubles, in Omagh?
The relative peace we enjoy didnt materialise out of thin air. It had to be worked at.
The Chief Constables assessment last weekend that, while an infrastructure existed at a senior level of the Provisional IRA, the organisation was not on a "war footing" came as no surprise to the Secretary of State. It appears however to have astonished some unionist politicians. It also seems to have caught some nationalists by surprise and, at the same time, piqued senior republicans who had been adamant that the IRA had “left the stage” and “gone away”.
Republican assurances cut little ice now with the Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt. That is hardly surprising.
What is hard to fathom, though, is unionist politicians’ lack of attention to some of the Chief Constables other ‘clarifications: that the Provisional IRA is “committed to following a political path”; that it is “no longer engaged in terrorism”; that the IRA “does not exist for paramilitary purposes”.
Moreover, the Sinn Féin president could hardly have been more forthright in his condemnation of whoever shot Kevin McGuigan dead. They were “criminals”, Gerry Adams suggested – in language he would never have used of IRA members.
Surely such statements should be a source of relief, if not necessarily a cause for celebration? Instead, we see unionists of various hues searching high and low for an allegation, a word, a nuance – anything that might justify withdrawal from the power-sharing government.
Imagine for a moment that the IRA had gone away – completely, and to unionistssatisfaction – in 1996. What do people believe would have happened? Where would IRA members have gone? Would they have kept faith with a political process which has left everyone feeling short-changed?
Conflict resolution and peace-building are complicated, especially when there is no clear ‘winner. We need look no farther back than a recent war in the Middle East where – following Iraqs defeat – the precipitate dismantling of military, police and governance institutions led to anarchy and chaos. Peace processes have to be managed.
The last thing Northern Ireland needed in 1996 – or indeed needs now – is hundreds of highly committed, highly trained former IRA members seeking some outlet, other than a peaceful one, for their disaffection. How, other than with some lingering infrastructure – a command chain of sorts – can former combatants be kept ‘on messageand ‘onside?
The late Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, captured mid-seventies Northern Ireland brilliantly, in his poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing:
                                            “O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
                                             Of open minds as open as a trap,
                                             Where tongues lie coiled as under flames lie wicks”. 
Heaneys words seem as relevant today as they did forty years ago.
No one likes doing ‘nod-and-winkpolitics but, in the real world, there is a chasmic difference between politicking and realpolitik. Had it not been for ‘back channelsand secret contacts between previous governments and the IRA we would all still be stuck in a morass of violence. The supposed naivete of some politicians nowadays is truly breath-taking.
When the Independent Commission for the Location of VictimsRemains liaised with intermediaries, who did people think those intermediaries were talking to? Why would any IRA volunteer – former or current – risk imprisonment in cooperating with the search for the Disappeared other than on foot of an order?
Nineteen years after the last IRA ceasefire and seventeen after the Good Friday Agreement, we still have no sense that our political institutions have taken root or confidence that the peace will endure.
It will be interesting in the coming weeks to see whether the DUP will follow the UUPs lead by leaving the Executive, how the SDLP will respond (although its difficult to envisage them ignoring the ‘positivesin the Chief Constables assessment), and who lines up alongside the Ulster Unionists in any new ‘Opposition.
The people who will be most satisfied with the latest developments will be the TUV and republican dissidents, both of whom will be able to say, “We told you so.”
Mike Nesbitt was shrewd enough to secure the unanimous support of his MLA Group, the party’s one MEP and two MPs for today’s move, as well as of senior representatives of his Councillors’ Association and the party chairman. His initiative has undoubtedly wrong-footed the DUP.

But, how wise is his gambit, when viewed strategically? Mr Nesbitt insists today’s move is a principled one, in response to the murder of Kevin McGuigan. Nationalists and republicans have scented hypocrisy, though, pointing to the differing ways he treats republican and loyalist representatives who have been linked to groups implicated in murders.

The Ulster Unionist leader says he believes the situation “can be fixed” but for that to happen requires “some clarity about the IRA and its command structure”. Clarity from whom – the PSNI, Sinn Féin, the IRA? And in what form – a statement, a gesture, sack cloth and ashes?
The Secretary of State now has a big call to make. Tomorrow the DUP will remind her of the “responsibilities she has to punish any party that is found to be in breach of their commitments to exclusively peaceful and democratic means”. Ms Villiers confirmed only two days ago that her “understanding” was very much in line with the Chief Constables (Mr Hamilton has already accepted the bona fides of the Sinn Féin leadership). She said she was satisfied for the moment that all parties in the Northern Ireland Executive were supportive of the principles of democracy and consent.
Northern Ireland is barren territory for politicians but fertile ground for poets. ‘Peace comes dropping slow, WB Yeats wrote, in his most famous poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. We could not have imagined how slowly it would come here.

Be careful what you wish for.