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.

Friday, 29 May 2015

A Matter of Choice

The Irish literary giant, George Bernard Shaw, wryly observed: “Put an Irishman on the spit and you can always find another Irishman to turn him.” His remark came to mind as Stormont MLAs debated the ill-fated Welfare Reform Bill earlier this week.

The inability of our various politicians to reach agreement on such a crucial issue has exasperated the public. And MLAs’ frustration with each other exploded in sniping recrimination on The Nolan Show the following evening, when even the normally even-tempered Roy Beggs became animated and agitated. The East Londonderry MP and MLA Gregory Campbell put up by far the most impressive performance, jabbing at his nationalist opponents and even locking horns with a woman in the audience. So, how come I’m not convinced by the DUP’s case?

Well, first of all, it’s not the DUP’s case. The DUP voted against the Conservatives’ welfare agenda at Westminster and argued for local mitigating measures in their dealings with the last government. Remarkably, Stormont’s largest party have since become the most vocal cheerleaders for welfare ‘reform’ and, in the process, the debate here has degenerated into one of ‘Orange versus Green’.

The DUP would have us believe their conversion was a matter of realpolitik. This is, we shouldn’t forget, an ideological battle between right and left. But it is also about right and wrong.

What has disappointed me has been the failure of many opponents of the Welfare Reform Bill to present any persuasive case against it. That has resulted in the perverse spectacle of some people – who will quite possibly bear the brunt of George Osborne’s so-called ‘reforms’ – defending his policies.

There is so much wrong with the Tory case that I hardly know where to begin. For starters, the idea of being lectured about fiscal probity and financial rectitude by people who have struggled with their parliamentary expenses beggars belief. 

Those who’ve swallowed the Conservative line have coined a new cliche – the “money-tree” – with which to belittle opponents. Would this be the same money tree, I wonder, which Amazon and Starbucks scrumped off for years? And we’ve had the usual off-stage mutterings from Tory supporters about the “need to live within our means”. These people really should be given a mirror.

Osborne’s brutal assault on welfare is being presented as ‘the only option’ when, in fact, it was – and remains – a choice. It is a very deliberate choice. I can’t make up my mind whether the DUP’s change of heart is a surrender or a genuine conversion.

There is no gainsaying the challenging state of the UK finances. It is true, too, that there is only so much money “in the kitty”. Demand is infinite while resources are finite. But that requires decisions to be made about how those limited resources are to be spent; how outstanding resources – unpaid taxes – are to be collected; which parts of our public services deserve to be protected; and which people should be expected to shoulder the burden.

In a very crude way, the choice is between targeting the rich or the poor.

Osborne has opted for the latter. He has trained his sights on the one million people on zero-hours contracts and the one million who eat out of food banks, rather than on the rich and the mega-rich. People like Harriet Green – the former Thomas Cook boss who will get an estimated £10m bonus this summer – must be laughing all way to the bank. And don’t start me on bankers.

The choice is between targeting those on benefits or those in mansions.

Benefit fraud costs the state about £1.2bn a year (less than the £1.5bn of benefits which go unclaimed by people entitled to them). In the year to April 2013 the ‘tax gap’ – the difference between the estimated tax owed and the amount actually collected – was £34bn. Coincidentally, in 2013 Amazon paid around £4.2m in tax in the UK, despite racking up more than £4bn in sales here.

The choice is between targeting welfare or warfare.

Can a UK – which has to “live within its means” – afford to replace a weapons system it will almost certainly never deploy? The Trident nuclear weapon system will cost an estimated £100bn over 30 years if MPs decide to replace it. One Labour MP has dismissed it as “a useless, hugely expensive virility symbol which will never be used”.

Our hospitals certainly will be used over the next 30 years. So will our schools and universities, our roads and railways. The list goes on. And so will the hardship.

Make no mistake: this debate is about choice. It would have been remarkable if – having campaigned so vigorously against the Tories’ welfare ‘reform’ plans recently – Sinn Féin and the SDLP had then chosen to implement them. Their supporters, and the victims, would have been outraged. Remember what Nelson Mandela said: “Where you stand depends on where you sit”.

With welfare ‘reform’ here paralysed (for the moment), our Executive deadlocked and Stormont in crisis again, the Secretary of State has entered the fray. America fought a revolution over ‘taxation without representation’. Here, we’re going to suffer devastation at the hands of a government whose entire mandate in Northern Ireland could fit comfortably into Windsor Park (even with its reduced capacity).

That’s what I call a democratic deficit. You have to admire Theresa Villiers’ chutzpah, though, coming in to administer Conservative rule in the most Tory-repellent region of the UK.

So what happens next? I haven’t the foggiest idea. We still don’t know the full extent of welfare ‘reform’. That may become clear on July 8th when the Chancellor delivers his emergency budget, with its expected £12bn in additional welfare cuts. The Twelfth week is shaping up to be even more interesting than usual.

With our politicians getting twitchy (an improvement on apoplectic), Mrs Villiers is cautioning against any rush to judgement. We all need to “reflect carefully” on the way forward, she suggests. Will ‘careful reflection’ persuade her to snatch welfare powers back from Stormont, possibly precipitating the collapse of the Stormont institutions? Your guess is as good as mine.

I will leave you with one final thought. Three years after the Second World War had ended – while the UK economy was in severe difficulty and rationing was still in place – the British government founded the National Health Service. There would have been many, I’m sure, who would have counselled against it and claimed it was unaffordable.

On careful reflection, though, it was the right thing to do. Yes it has proved costly (it continues to devour resources), but it has been – and remains – something worth protecting, a price worth paying. Established in the most challenging of times and in the most difficult of circumstances, the NHS was a tangible statement about the kind of society we should aspire to: a compassionate one, a more civilised one, a fairer one.

Hard though it is to believe, right now, we can still achieve that. That’s real aspiration. It’s a matter of choice.

As regards George Bernard Shaw’s spit-roasted Irishman, it would seem that on this occasion – just like ‘The Lady’ – some Irishmen and women are not for turning.     

Friday, 15 May 2015

Blindingly Obvious

Whatever Nigel Farages qualities, his major flaw, according to UKIP colleague Patrick OFlynn, is that he has become a snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive man. That perception didnt deter almost four million people from voting for UKIP at the recent general election.

On first reading, it was a far more successful election for the SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell. His party managed to retain its three Westminster seats three times as many as UKIP but Dr McDonnell’s reward has been a determined heave against his leadership.

If theres one charge you cannot lay against him it is that of being thin-skinned. The South Belfast MP must have a hide like a rhinoceros to insist on clinging onto the SDLP leadership after this weeks assaults on his authority.

The party which prides itself on its contribution to the peace process now finds itself embroiled in a civil war. McDonnell has spurned Seamus Mallons advice to resign as quickly as possible – “it would be good for him and good for the party” – opting instead to hang on and dig in.

Dr McDonnell insists the vast majority of SDLP members want him to remain as leader. That is a dubious claim in view of the personalities arrayed against him Claire Hanna, John Dallat, Mallon, Brid Rodgers and now Mark Durkan. In any case, support within the party is irrelevant. Its the electorate who count.  

No one can take away what McDonnell has achieved in the three and a half years he has been at the helm: reorganisation; an influx of young new blood; more women. But one issue cropped up time and time again for SDLP canvassers during the Westminster campaign: their partys leader. The bull in a china shophas become an issue for potential voters.

Dr McDonnell is right about one thing this is not a silly personality contest or beauty contest”. Its far more important than that. It is now a battle for the very future of the SDLP. As Councillor Hanna pointed out: This is a do or die; its ‘fight or flightfor the SDLP for the next twelve months”.

I suspect Hanna is being optimistic about the timeframe. Her party faces another election in less than a year and cannot afford to go into that campaign led by a man who has been criticised so publicly by so many of his colleagues.

Former leader Mark Durkan told the BBC programme, The View, last night that people wanted to see the DUP-Sinn Féin leadership at Stormont challenged in a cogent, competent way, in a passionate way. That is a withering, implicit criticism of McDonnells stewardship.

The party has to define what it stands for now. Should it remain tethered to an Executive which treats it with such disrespect? Should it be inextricably linked to budgets of which it is so critical? Would it be more credible and more popular in an opposition role at Stormont? These are huge issues which need to be resolved quickly.

The Antrim Glens man had an embarrassing first party conference as leader when he was dazzled by the conference hall lights during his leaders address. Those who care about him should hope he wont be blind or deaf now to the personalities and voices urging him to go. 

Claire Hanna is correct. This does look like 'do or die' for the SDLP. The patient is in poor shape. I wonder what a doctor would prescribe?