Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

The unfortunate Lord Maginnis

10 Jan

The job of the social scientist is to spot patterns in social phenomenon, and there is a pattern to be spotted in Lord Ken Maginnis’ orbit. Ken – now Lord Maginnis – served himself for many years as MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone in Northern Ireland. He now sits in the House of Lords as an independent after a parting of ways between him and his – the Ulster Unionist Party. He believed that homosexuals were ‘deviant’. They did not. Anyway, it would seem that whenever Ken is around unfortunate events happen. All of this, I am sure, is coincidence. Doubtless, time and again, Ken is the innocent bystander and things just happen in his presence.

Earlier this week, there was a hullaballoo at the entrance of the UK’s House of Parliament. Things were shouted at the security staff along the lines of ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ Ken was in the vicinity at the time but it would be wholly out of character for him to shout at anyone. Not like him at all.

And then in his former constituency and home town, there was a road rage incident. A driver was grabbed by the arm and someone was called a ‘yellow bellied bastard’. Ken was nearby, but as a dedicated public servant it would be inconceivable that he would involved in such unseemly behaviour.

Lightening seemed to strike in the same place again for poor old Ken when there was an alleged assault at his London flat. Poor Lord Maginnis’ neighbour apparently ended up with a cut eye but it is very probable that Ken was out at the time. He was probably doing charitable work for the poor.

In a clear case of persecution of the weakest members of our society, a train company came after Ken for an unpaid fare. They alleged – I am sure they were completely wrong and he was completely innocent – that he travelled by train without paying. Ken, as a man of principle, made sure it went to court. The court – in an act of folly – ordered that goods worth £1,500 be seized from Ken. I suspect that a Mother Theresa figure like Ken would have goods worth that much.

And then, some years before, poor Ken was trying to enjoying a Chinese meal when he was struck on the head with a beer can. This time it definitely was Ken. He wasn’t just near-by, it was his head. Imagine: there you are trying to enjoy your chicken chou mein and you are clocked on the noggin by a can of Stella. Never, in the history of humanity, can someone have had such poor luck as Ken.

The man is a magnet for bad luck.

Ireland is already united – it’s just that a lot of people haven’t noticed.

2 Jan

The prospect of a united Ireland has moved up the political agenda in the midst of Brexit uncertainty, but Ireland already has been united – to all intents and purposes – for many years. This united Ireland is one forged in the everyday activities of millions of people on the island. It is a united Ireland of travel patterns, family relationships, businesses, sport and culture that work around (or more precisely – across) the border. It is a united Ireland that is embodied, enacted and lived.

This notion of a united Ireland is based on a sociological understanding of politics and society that sees politics (and most aspects of life) as a verb – something to be enacted through everyday living rather than a noun – something that is declared by constitutions and political leaders.* The actual behaviour of many people on the island of Ireland is one that traverses the political and economic border and renders it an anachronism. Examples of this abound: people working in Belfast but living in Dublin (less than two hours journey time in the car), over a million passengers per year from Northern Ireland using Dublin airport, the thousands of northerners who attend stadium concerts in Dublin every year, and the all-island sports of rugby, GAA and many others that see people cross the border every weekend. Added to this are the thousands of businesses that trade on both sides of the border, the huge number of northerners with second homes in Donegal (in the Republic of Ireland), and the countless shopping trips that criss-cross the border on a daily basis.

Those waiting for formal united Ireland – one enshrined by a constitution and recognised by the United Nations – may have some time to wait. Brexit uncertainty has made the prospect of a vote for a formal creation of a united Ireland more realistic, but it is hard to see a united Ireland coming about without opposition from Northern Ireland’s unionist population. And the Brexit-supporting English political elite would probably re-discover the value of the Union if it was really in jeopardy. The blue-prints of project fear, which worked so well during the Scottish independence referendum, would be dusted off and the massed ranks of the pro-Union media and the English Establishment (it really does exist) would be energised.

The beauty of the de facto united Ireland is that trenchant unionists can avoid it. They don’t have to travel south if they don’t want to. They can fashion lives that are British, unionist and have little to do with the Republic of Ireland. It is still possible (indeed all too easy) to lead lives that are segregated from political and religious others; 90 percent of children still attend either all Catholic or all Protestant schools. Social housing is still overwhelmingly segregated according to religion – as is the private sector. The cultural hegemony of a British unionist identity has taken a battering as Irish (or Catholic nationalist) identities have grown in confidence (and gained economic power). Yet, it is still possible to be proudly British and avoid the de facto united Ireland.

To some extent this united Ireland has been enabled macro-political developments – most importantly the removal of the hard security border in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. And there have been some formal cross-border cooperation in the health and energy sectors. But, to a large extent, this united Ireland has occurred in spite of macro-political developments: people have just got on with their lives. People want to see Bruce Springsteen playing in Dublin so they cross the border; they want cheaper booze in Tesco in Newry so they cross the border; they want to spend their summer holidays in Donegal so they cross the border. This ‘getting on with it’ is the default activity of most people where circumstances allow. Despite the Troubles, people still had to hold down jobs, get the kids to school and engage in elder care. The border was a massive inconvenience during the dark days of the Troubles, but many people ignored it as best they could. The same is true today.

Brexit has simultaneously complicated and clarified things. The complication comes from the fact that no one – and certainly not the British government – can tell the impact of the withdrawal from the European Union on everyday lives. The clarification comes – if it were ever needed – in making it clear that the vast majority of people in England know nothing about, and care even less about, Northern Ireland, Ireland and border life. Indeed, British Home Secretary Priti Patel’s comments on food shortages in Ireland in the event of a crash out Brexit make clear the extent to which a couldn’t care less attitude sits comfortably at the apex of government. In the face of such attitudes, and in the face of similar attitudes over the decades, people have just got on with living an all-Ireland life as best they can. This has accelerated in recent years as people have become richer, safer, more mobile, and gotten used to free movement across Europe. This united Ireland is here to stay – and very probably will become more entrenched – regardless of the ‘un-care’ from Downing Street.

*This notion of everyday politics lies at the heart of the Everyday Peace Indicators research programme (everydaypeaceindicators.org)

Bloody Sunday: Amnesty not murder charges

14 Mar

A former British soldier is to be charged with two counts of murder arising from ‘Bloody Sunday’ – a massacre by state troops of civilians who were protesting for civil rights in Northern Ireland. For the relatives of the dead (13 civilians were killed) this holds out the possibility of a justice that has been delayed for decades. There will be predictable howls of outrage from the usual sources. English and British nativism will dispense with arguments on justice and simply play to home audience.

It is worth asking what is to be gained from bringing someone through the courts for something that happened decades ago. Certainly the relatives and many in Catholic-nationalist circles in Northern Ireland may feel that there is a chance that justice might be done. But it is worth looking at the wider context of Northern Ireland – a society in which there has been a peace process but very little reconciliation. There is a strong case to be made that retributive justice has little to offer Northern Ireland – especially given the time that has elapsed since the massacre. This case will simply stir up traumas, entrench bitterness, and give many actors the opportunity to trot out tired tropes.

This Bloody Sunday murder charge is only possible because of the failure of Northern Ireland’s politicians – and political leaders in Britain and Ireland – to follow the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement with a comprehensive reconciliation plan. Various ‘dealing with the past’ schemes have been put in train but in a half-hearted way. The leaders of sectarian parties have little interest in initiatives that would put them out of business. Political attention in London and Dublin has little bandwidth for Northern Ireland (aside from Brexit).

The alternative to retributive justice is a form of transitional justice that recognises the hurt and exigencies of a deeply divided society but also recognises the need to protect the peace and move on – however painful that might be. An over-arching reconciliation plan might include a comprehensive strategy to deal with the past and an amnesty for all Troubles-related deaths, injuries and damage. That, of course, is easier said than done but one cannot help but look at the twenty years since the Belfast Agreement was reached as a squandered opportunity to deal with the past and thus avoid dragging pensioners through the courts.

An all-encompassing amnesty as part of an over all reconciliation plan would – of course – be controversial (what isn’t in a deeply divided society?). It would mean that individuals that many would regard as ‘terrorists’ would not face charges. It would mean that families would not receive forms of justice that involve a court hearing and a punitive sentence. It would mean hard choices between peace and justice. But, with an over-arching reconciliation plan there is a possibility of seeing peace and justice as complementary – as forming a reinforcing process that moves a society out of the need for retributive justice.

We now have the spectacle of former IRA members being dragged through the courts – to the cheers of unionists and the right-wing press, and former British soldiers being brought to the same courts – to the cheers of some within nationalist Ireland. What we don’t have is a reconciliation process.

Karen Bradley and the justification of state killing

7 Mar

There was some surprise at Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley’s comments justifying killings by the British State. The surprise is surprising. Bradley is a British unionist and is merely upholding British unionist policy that the British state is legitimate. The logic of British unionism, like all forms of nationalism, is violence. Some British unionists are civic and seek forms of pluralism and toleration. But this is a minority interest. The logic of nationalism is the exclusion of others – by the use of force in some cases. In this case, the logic is that the British state must hold the monopoly of violence in Northern Ireland and therefore is correct to defend the use of force against subaltern and dissenting voices.

There was a moment when people may have thought that the British State was somehow neutral in relation to Northern Ireland (and indeed, Secretary of State Peter Brooke famously sent the IRA a secret message saying as much). But this moment was very much procedural. It was part of the peace process and designed to encourage Irish republicans to call a ceasefire, engage in negotiations, and disarm. That moment has long passed. Those strategic goals on behalf of the British State have been achieved. There is no pretence from the Theresa May government that it is anything other than unionist. Mrs May has been very clear about that in her public pronouncements. Part of this is the expediency of keeping the Democratic Unionists on board to prop up her minority government. But in a deep cultural sense, British Conservatives are statist, militaristic and unionist. That is part of their DNA – hence there should be no surprise at Karen Bradley’s comments. It is why I simply do not believe her apology.

There is another aspect to this as well: the fact that Karen Bradley was brazen enough to tell the truth about her support for state killings. Some commentators have put this down to Bradley’s by now well-known incompetence and professional laziness. I am not so sure (although I cannot dispute her incompetence and laziness – sue me Karen, we’ll happily go over your ministerial record in court). I think there is a wider issue here of the coarsening of political debates. We see this in many contexts: just check out Fox News and much of US politics for its rebarbative ‘stuff you if you don’t like what I’m saying’ tenor. In the UK, Brexit has been responsible for wiping away the pretence that pills should be sugared and that government should appear to be listening. Bradley’s comments should be placed in the context of a rougher form of political discourse, in which there is little pretence at achieving consensus, and no shame in offending citizens. It is worth reminding ourselves that Bradley’s offence is egregious. While she does not have the rhetoric flourishes of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or his counterpart from the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, she is effectively saying the same thing: the state has the right to kill some citizens without any pretence to due process.

Bradley’s apology is very revealing. It apologises for ‘offence caused’ rather than the actions of the state itself. A meaningful apology would mean going against her political base. It would separate her from the Daily Mail reading Conservative heartland and from the British Army – a surrogate for all things that are upright in broken Britain. That is why there was no meaningful apology. Bradley – like Duterte and Bolsonaro – was being honest when she justified state killing.

Letter to Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley MP

26 Jul

Dear Karen,

I hope you do not mind me intruding on the parliamentary recess and offering the unasked-for advice that follows. But, you see, I think you do need some advice related to your day job as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Remember that? The day job?

As you know, the devolved Assembly that was established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has not been sitting for over 18 months. It is your job to getting it back to work – and thus to get one of the major world achievements of the 1990s – a comprehensive peace accord in Northern Ireland – back on track. It is a difficult task and let’s face it, the principal political parties that you have to work with – the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin – have very different aims and absolutely loathe one another. And then there is your own political party: it’s is at war with itself over Brexit. So you could be forgiven for pulling the bedcovers over your eyes on a Monday morning and thinking ‘I don’t want to go into the office today’. Believe me, sometimes I have the same feelings about Manchester.

Anyway, I hope you don’t mind if I observe that since taking over as Northern Ireland Secretary of State you don’t seem to have had much impact. Admittedly, you have a tough task but the impression of many observers is that you could try a bit harder with the day job. I read something the other day that compared your dedication to the job unfavourably with that of your predecessor, James Brokenshire. That must have hurt. To call his tenure as undistinguished would be unkind to the undistinguished.

Here’s my unasked for advice … it comes in two parts. The first part is a bit blunt but sometimes things need to be said in a straightforward manner. The second bit is somewhat more nuanced. So here comes the blunt bit: In order to do your job it might actually help if you spent a little bit of time in Northern Ireland. We all know it isn’t your dream job, but you said yes to it and are happy to accept the frills (and cash) that go with it. Your attendance in Northern Ireland is something akin to David Davis’ attendance in Brussels when he was in charge of the Brexit negotiations. If we were talking about school attendance then, at this point, social workers would be involved. Is it really up to another adult to tell you that in order to do your job you have to be prepared to travel to Northern Ireland and show a bit of effort?

The second bit of advice on getting the devolved Assembly up and running is to think about harnessing people power. If you talked to people in Northern Ireland – that is real people outside of your protected bubble – you would know that they are utterly fed up with what they see as a political class who are not terribly interested in getting the Assembly up and running. Democratic Unionist and Sinn Féin antipathy for one another outweighs any perceived advantages they see in cutting a deal. This is facilitated – in part – by direct rule that means most public services function more or less as normal. This is where your opportunity is. There are a few pinch points: budgets and decisions delayed because of the stasis at Stormont. People care about frontline public services. Dinner table conversations revolve around hospital appointments, school places and the he pothole on the road just by the Centra. There is space for a campaigning Secretary of State to build on public resentment and turn it into something positive. There is a golden opportunity to hold a series of public meetings all across Northern Ireland that would highlight the delays and how the inability to put the powersharing deal back together again is having a real impact on everyday life. You are the one with the data to know where the pinch points are and where they will be. You are the one with other data – polling and intelligence – that could make this work. You could turn this into a mass movement that would not necessarily have to rely on a Northern Ireland civil society that is – well – a bit tired. It would require energy, charisma and commitment. It is not unkind to say that those qualities have not been evident in your first months in the job, but you could surprise us.

What I am suggesting is a summer road show. It would get you out of the security bubble (honestly, no one is going to hurt you – especially if you tell people that you want to make life better). It would give you an opportunity to get people on your side. Fundamentally, it would scare the main political parties if they could see that they were being outflanked from the ground up. You could work on a rhetoric that elected politicians should do their job, that public services are at risk, that public services will decline if politicians don’t get their act together. The nature of power-sharing means that parties from opposing groups do not have to like one another – but they do have to work together. These are simple messages that could be repeated night after night in a series of town hall meetings. It would be truly non-partisan as it would be shaming the Democratic Unionist and Sinn Féin. They will try to bang the ethno-nationalist drum about culture war, but if you stick to the theme of public services there is a real chance of having an effect.

And, the people that probably matter to you most – the chatterati in London and political/media elite – would take note. Look at Gavin Williamson and Michael Gove – not particularly likeable people but they have gained a reputation for being passionate about their brief (Williamson) and having mastered the detail and being full of initiative (Gove).

Or you could stay in London, visit Northern Ireland very occasionally, and give the impression that you couldn’t care less.

Yours truly,

Brexit and Borders

28 Nov

There is a lot of noise about Brexit and the UK-Irish land border. It is not helped by injudicious comments by grand-standing politicians. Pro-Brexit Labour MP’s Kate Hoey’s Trumpian remark that the Irish government would have to pay for any border wall was probably the most injudicious of all. But if we stand back and take a look at the situation then a few things become clear.

The first is that this will be a hard Brexit. By its very nature the EU is a members’ only club. Forms of associate membership are available but the key dividing line is whether you are a member or not. The act of leaving the club, and of leaving a club whose fundamental aim is the standardisation of rules (and values) across member states, ensures a hard Brexit.

The second point that is emerging from behind the political noise is that the technical negotiations are a long way off finding viable solutions for the border issue. The UK-Ireland land border – like all borders – is a political creation. Crossing the border is an everyday activity for many people who live along the border (they cross to fill the car up with diesel, go to college, go to work, go to see their relatives). Many people cross the border multiple times a day. In order for that to continue to happen a seamless system has to be in place. Such a system will probably rely on technology (perhaps a smart pass system like in toll roads or London’s congestion zone). But the technical details, let along the infrastructure of cameras and the crucial detail of who pays for and polices this) have yet to reach the feasibility study phase. Quite simply a smart pass border relies on smart politicians to mandate very smart technocrats to work on this. So far, the politicians are still grandstanding.

The third point is that Northern Ireland will be different in terms of both the UK and EU contexts. The point is important and matters a great deal to Northern Ireland’s unionists. For them, it is crucial that Northern Ireland remains within the UK and its people have the same protections as everyone else in the UK. This is a bit of a fiction. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement already awarded Northern Ireland special status on top of its place in the UK. Citizens in Northern Ireland have the right to dual citizenship (British, Irish or both), and Northern Ireland’s position in the UK is conditional on people actually wanting it to remain in the UK. The 1998 Agreement authorises a referendum on the constitutional issue.

Whatever the outcome of the EU-Ireland-UK negotiations on the UK-Ireland land border it is clear that Northern Ireland will be different from other EU-non-EU land borders. We have never had a situation in which a member state leaves the EU – a member states that contains many citizens with everyday links across that border. That will require all sorts of deviations from the normal.

It is worth remembering that communities along the border have lived with political boundaries for generations. They have found ways to subvert political borders through everyday activities of trade, love, family and culture. Those ‘subversions’ will continue. At the height of the Troubles, the British military had a chain of watchtowers and checkpoints along the border. They also blew up many roads to make sure that people only crossed the border along designated routes. Communities made their own roads across the border in order to avoid the checkpoints and the hassle. It is a useful reminder that people can be ingenious in finding ways to subvert political boundaries.

A final point is that there are few countries that can match the UK-Irish inter-governmental relationship. Attempts to find a way out of the Troubles from the mid-1980s onwards have meant that generations of civil servants have developed close working relationships. These reached a zenith in the mid to late-1990s and early 2000s as the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated and bedded down. Many of the key players have retired and a few have died. But there is still a good institutional memory in permanent government to allow imaginative solutions to be found. The political timetable (possible election in Ireland and a precarious UK government) and grandstanding politicians don’t seem to help matters.

Northern Ireland: Time to put the victims groups to bed?

20 Dec

Two former British soldiers, aged in their 60s, are to be prosecuted for the murder of a non-state militant in Belfast in 1972. This follows similar attempts to prosecute former militants and soldiers over ‘historical’ acts of violence in Northern Ireland’s troubles. A significant number of former soldiers and non-state militants have been arrested and questioned over the past four years about decades old offences. In 2013, a 62 year old member of the IRA was charged with a bombing in London that killed four British soldiers. Indeed, in 2014 Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was arrested in connection with a murder 42 years previously. No charges were brought.

All of these arrests led to howls of protests from supporters who point out the righteousness of the individuals they support. The Sun newspaper called the arrests of the soldiers a ‘bloody outrage’ and ‘witch hunt’ (and, of course, celebrated the arrest of Gerry Adams). The Daily Mail called the soldiers ‘heroes’ and their victim a ‘terrorist’ who would not hesitate to use violence. The reactions are predictable and as though from auto-bot script-writing software. In part the reactions are human and affective – from relatives of victims and those who feel justifiable moral outrage. But much of the reaction is simply politics and is fuelled by entrenched victims groups who are a little too comfortable in their roles.

Northern Ireland can continue along this path of prosecuting pensioners for things they did in their youth until the last of them dies out. Or, it could try reconciliation. The latter path is difficult and would lead many people to feel uncomfortable but the drip-drip prosecutions and constant recrimination is symptomatic of a society that is not at ease with itself and thus maintains the potential for further violence. Despite a major peace accord (the 1998 Good Friday Agreement) there has never been reconciliation: nation-wide, local, legislative, or symbolic. The three major violent actors (the British State, pro-united Ireland militants, and pro-United Kingdom militants – and the communities that support them) have never faced up to their responsibilities on the past – and more importantly – on the present and future.

The powersharing Assembly in Northern Ireland is dominated by two ethno-nationalist parties (the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein) who have little interest in reconciliation. It would – after all – put them out of business. They rely on electoral bases that can be mobilised around familiar tropes of victimhood, sectarianism and long-term zero-sum goals. Rare initiatives on reconciliation are kicked into the long grass. The European Union has spent an unfeasible amount of money – almost £2bn in the tiny space of Northern Ireland – on ‘peace and reconciliation’. That money was spent to buy off militants and communities but it was not spent on reconciliation. It was also raided by the British and Irish governments for general budgetary expenses. The British State – which ran death squads and is guilty of mass human rights abuses – is protected by its security establishment which launches howls of protests if anyone mentions its shameful past. Think Ronaldo diving to the ground and clutching his face when a defender looks at him. Lt Col Very-Safe-in-Surrey is rolled out by the newspapers to thunder about what a disgrace it is that honest and decent squaddies (the working classes that the Lt Col cannot abide in his everyday life) are being prosecuted while ‘terrorists’ roam free.

So where can Northern Ireland go from here? There are reports that privately the two main political parties would like to try to put the past them, but the victims groups that they have (in part) created and nurtured are an obstacle to that. The monsters they have created have a life of their own and lazy reporters from Northern Ireland’s newspapers simply hit speed dial to get an instant quote. There is a case for the political parties (and responsible elements of the media) to distance themselves from the victims groups. This is not to under-estimate the real pain and hurt that the families of victims of violence have experienced. But most mourning – in my experience – is conducted among families and friendship circles. Mourning happens around the kitchen table, in the quiet moment when a relative misses the company of a loved one. Mourning and coming to terms with the past does not – again in my experience – come through spokespersons for victims groups, press releases and giving public money to victims groups. It is time – almost a quarter of a century after the militant ceasefires – to put the victims groups to bed.

It is also time for the two main political parties (they run an absolute duopoly thanks to the rules of the powersharing Assembly) to face up to their responsibilities and draw a line under the past. This would involve a pact (this is politics after all) in which representatives of the three violent actors (the British State, the pro-united Ireland militants, and the pro-United Kingdom militants) would release comprehensive statements dealing with their past actions. So the British State must confess to its death squads, sponsorship of loyalist militants, and massive human rights abuses. The Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defence Association and various other loyalists must acknowledge – in detailed ways – the pain and hurt they have caused through murder, bombing, intimidation and a host of other acts of violence. Otherwise Northern Ireland can sleepwalk into the next few decades by prosecuting pensioners.

It is worth noting that most militants (that is: soldiers, policemen, state militia, and members of non-state militant groups) were in their late teens and twenties when they engaged in violence. They were in large organisations run by older men who gave them orders. Frankly, many were immature and may not hold the views now that they did decades ago. Should we really prosecute adults for what they did as teenagers when they were members of coercive organisations?