Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Space for the Miraculous

The Lithuanian poet, Czeslaw Milosz (a friend of and inspiration to Nobel literature laureate Seamus Heaney) wrote that, ‘One clear stanza can take more weight / Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose’. 

For over 20 years now—whenever I have felt the dead weight of politics in the North bearing down on me, bearing down on all of us—I have turned to poetry, and Heaney in particular, for solace and encouragement. 

Twenty years ago, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement had me—and, I suspect, 71% of the North’s population—'walking on air’ (to employ a favourite phrase of Heaney’s).
Since then, things have ground to a halt and reverse gear has been engaged. Politics has got brutish and nasty again, and it feels as if the Good Friday Agreement is being ripped up—piece by piece—before our very eyes.

In 1975, Faber & Faber published Heaney’s fourth poetry collection, North, in which he addressed, squarely and for the first time, the ugliness of the conflict in Northern Ireland. In Whatever You Say Say Nothing, he wrote: ‘Christ, it’s near time that some small leak was sprung / In the great dykes the Dutchman made / To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.’

It’s sobering to recall just how dangerous the tide had become by the mid-seventies. The monumental Troubles history, Lost Lives, records that in the four years between 9th August 1971 and 9th August 1975, 1,342 people died as a result of our squalid little conflict – more than a third of the death toll for the entire Troubles. Almost 500 died in 1972 alone. 

Heaney’s poetry offered meagre pickings for those in search of hope or encouragement in the mid-seventies: ‘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’. It was an accurate diagnosis of what our society looked like at the time.

Good Friday 1998 changed all that, or so I thought. I remember the heady excitement—the sense of opportunity—after the deal had been done. I remember poring over the accord, line-by-line, in my mother’s home the next morning; sure, there were big asks - we all had to swallow hard - but this was an opportunity too good to miss; this was something I could live with. 

I recall the euphoria of the subsequent referendum when, in May 1998, Northern Ireland’s Chief Electoral Officer, Pat Bradley, announced the result: “’Yes’ – 71.12%; the percentage for the ‘No’ was 28.88%.” Almost 95% of the electorate in the Republic said ‘Yes’ in a simultaneous referendum in the South. It was a resounding endorsement by the people of Ireland as a whole, but the euphoria dissipated fairly quickly and optimism has been thin on the ground ever since.

Heaney felt, perceptively, that peace in Northern Ireland “was always going to be a rigged-up, slightly rickety affair” (Stepping Stones – Interviews with Seamus Heaney). And as the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary arrived this week, the historic deal was being honoured more in the breach than in the observance. We’ve had no power-sharing government since January last year and—while the killings have largely stopped (no mean achievement)—hope has been all but extinguished.

Yesterday, in the Belfast News Letter, the man who chaired the talks that led to the agreement—former US Senator George Mitchell—warned people not to “take for granted the absence of violence.”   

Is that it, then? Should we leave the Agreement on life support until it ‘flatlines’ and we hear the piercing ‘beeeeep’ signifying its demise?   

No. We cannot let it die. We have a responsibility. Almost two and a half million of us voted for the Agreement in the referendums – 85% of the combined electorates North and South. We have to fight to resurrect the opportunity the Agreement created. But how? 

Seamus Heaney rests, now, in the soil of his beloved South Derry, in the cemetery adjoining St Mary’s Church in Bellaghy. The inscription on his gravestone reads: ‘Walk on air against your better judgement’. 

It was one of the quirks of democracy that the party which had railed most stridently against the Good Friday—or Belfast—Agreement ended up as the largest party in the power-sharing government. It has sometimes appeared more interested in ‘power’ than in ‘sharing’, with inevitable consequences.

The collapse last month of the political talks and the ongoing stasis at Stormont are par for the course. The challenge now is to revisit our brief flirtation with power-sharing—the compromise so many of us opted for—and make it permanent.

The next step should be obvious to all who practice or believe in politics. President Bill Clinton pointed it out again this week: “20 years ago, 17 hours late, some brave people cleared a space for the miraculous. You should fill it.” 

So, how can this "space for the miraculous" be filled? How can we walk on air again – all of us, this time?

Heaney, in his poetry, resisted the magnetic draw of the Troubles for as long as he could bear. Ultimately, though, he succumbed – out of a sense of responsibility, both as a poet and as a human being. In the process, he revealed himself as something of a visionary. 

In a 1995 visit to Ireland, President Clinton borrowed the ‘hope and history’ line from Heaney's The Cure at Troy to exhort the North’s political leaders to strike a deal (Heaney later said the line belonged “in the realm of pious aspiration”).  

However, in Doubletake, Heaney also invoked the divine: ‘So hope for a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge. / Believe that a further shoreIs reachable from here.Believe in miraclesAnd cures and healing wells.’

Miracles? Cures? Healing wells? We don’t ask for much, do we? Well, perhaps a smidgen of courage, too. 

In Seamus Heaney’s last recorded words—dispatched by text from his hospital bed—the poet reassured his wife, Marie: ‘Noli timere’ – ‘Don’t be afraid’. 

It is advice Northern Ireland’s politicians would do well to heed. One clear stanza…….. 

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.