Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

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?

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Northern Ireland – another opportunity to miss an opportunity

9 May

Northern Ireland has just held elections for its powerharing Assembly. The results can be best described as ‘steady as you go’. There were no major shocks, with the two largest parties, (the pro-United Kingdom Democratic Unionists, and the pro-united Ireland Sinn Fein) retaining their hold of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister positions. Seats were traded here and there, and two seats for the People Before Profit party should make life in the Assembly a little more colourful, but there are no fundamental changes.

That lack of change means that Northern Ireland is condemned to at least five more years of embedded sectarianism and limited scrutiny of a dysfunctional Assembly packed with (at best) mediocre politicians. The Assembly’s primary role will be to administer the austerity agenda of the London-based Conservative government.

There are other mid-sized parties in Northern Ireland: the former largest unionist party (the Ulster Unionist Party), the former largest nationalist party (the Social Democratic and Labour Party), and the cross-community Alliance Party. These parties had hoped to make breakthroughs in the Assembly elections but that did not happen. The UUP and SDLP were ‘ethnically outbid’ by their in-group rivals the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively.

The powersharing Assembly uses the complicated d’hondt system to apportion seats in the Assembly Executive or cabinet. Up until this stage, that means that the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein have been joined at the cabinet table by the middle sized parties: the UUP, SDLP and the Alliance. What that means is that everybody is at the table. And no one (apart from the odd independent or micro-party) is left in the Assembly chamber to provide the type of scrutiny and oversight that legislators need. Scrutiny is needed especially given that the already mentioned mediocre calibre of the legislators and the bickering dynamic that is the hallmark of ethnically based parties.

So Northern Ireland is destined for another five years of non-productive nonsense. Electoral participation rates – once the highest in the United Kingdom – have been falling as people realise that the powersharing Assembly talks a lot but delivers very little.

But things could change if the mid-sized parties were brave enough. There are few signs that they possess this bravery. The leaderships of these parties range from the conservative to very conservative in terms of vision, charisma and ability to think critically. But – and let’s suspend belief for a few moments – if the SDLP, UUP and Alliance were prepared to give up the possibility of a seat or two in the Assembly Executive then they would be able to stand outside and try to hold the Executive to account. Joined together they would be the second largest party in the Assembly – more seats than Sinn Fein.

At the moment, the three mid-sized parties trade in their ability to truly scrutinise the Assembly’s operations by accepting a few ministerships. They effectively prop up the dysfunctional Assembly because they want ministerial crumbs (basically, they have positions like Minister for Lettuce or Minister for Bouncy Castles). The DUP and Sinn Fein hold the main ministries and are the driving force behind the Assembly – and the direction of Northern Ireland politics.

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland fought the Assembly with a series of slogans like ‘Forward faster’ and ‘Better sooner’. More accurate slogans would have been ‘Just the same’, ‘status quo forever’ or ‘nowhere fast’. They, along with the SDLP and UUP, truly lack vision to take brave steps and recognise that their current strategies amount to a continuation of their own marginalisation. They are the authors of their own stasis. If they had leadership (and I am operating in the realms of fantasy here) they would consider being brave and stop propping up the weird edifice of the Assembly. The Alliance Party in particular is culpable for the continuation of a dysfunctional polity. It claims to want a different sort of politics for Northern Ireland, one that is post-nationalist and post-unionist and is aimed at uniting people. Essentially, by taking ministerial positions (that the other parties usually don’t want) they have been bought off.

Clearly the mid-sized parties have different political agendas – especially on constitutional issues. But there is a lot they could agree on, especially in relation to public policy issues. By working together, they could form an effective scrutinising bloc that could make life difficult for the two main parties, and suggest that a new type of politics is possible.

The UUP, SDLP and Alliance have a chance to be brave. They won’t take it because they want one or two of their members to be Minister for Table Legs.

The murder of Francis M’glone. Who remembers the poor sods?

19 Jul

I was invited to a fascinating day-long seminar last week on commemoration, memory, symbolism and the Northern Ireland conflict. We had excellent presentations from an inter-disciplinary array of academic experts. The presentations and discussion got me thinking about who we remember after conflict – and who we forget as well. The big names are remembered – the political and militant leaders, and the high profile murder cases. But the ‘poor sods’ are forgotten: the digger driver or coalman shot on their way to work; the British soldier from a sink estate in Doncaster; the young man in the wrong place at the wrong time. While much mourned in their family and locality, in all probability they are forgotten by most. And given that Northern Ireland has had many cycles of violence, earlier victims are often crowded out by the more recent ones.

By coincidence, a few days before the seminar, I chanced upon a newspaper from 1 March 1884 in my study (apparently kept in the family because it contained a nice poem about a shamrock). The newspaper was an Irish-American publication that contained news snippets from Ireland. Buried in this news round-up was the following under the heading ‘County Tyrone’:

“An inquest was held in Dungannon on Saturday, upon the body of the young man, Francis Maglone, a Roman Catholic who died on Saturday from the effects, it was alleged, of injuries received at the hands of a crowd of persons on Saturday night, February 11, as already reported. The jury returned an open verdict.”

The story is of interest to me because I am from Dungannon. I spent a few fruitless hours Googling the story and attempting to find out the details. Then through an appeal to historians on Facebook, I began to make headway. Through the digital archive of the Morning News, a nineteenth century Belfast-based paper, I was able to piece together a few more details of Francis M’glone’s death (it is spelt this way more commonly).

Francis was 24, was in employment and lived with his mother and father (a labourer) in Corrainey (between Dungannon and Coalisland). He had gone to Dungannon in February 1884 with a friend (named O’Neill) to collect his wages, and they had a drink in a pub. They then had a drink in another pub next door. On leaving that pub they were approached by a stranger who asked them to have a drink with them. That done, they then set out for home with the stranger tagging along. The stranger did not give his name but said he was from Coagh and would walk some of the way with them. On walking along Northland Row – a pretty Georgian Terrace opposite the Royal School Dungannon and near the Catholic Church – the stranger seemed to have given a signal to a group of six or seven men who threw stones at Francis and his friend. Francis was hit on the head and knocked unconscious. His friend ran away. Francis was found about an hour later and brought home. He was put to bed and never fully came around. He died two days later from an injury to the head.

A man named William Beatty was charged in connection with the case but the case was thrown out. A local nationalist MP raised a question in the House of Commons about the case, asking about the sectarian make up of the magistrates involved in the inquest. But apart from that, there seems to be very little on record.

One newspaper account says ‘No cause is known, except that it may be party affair’. Whether that means that it is sectarian or an intra-group attack I do not know. Certainly there was much sectarian violence at that time. A campaign for Catholic emancipation known as ‘The Land League’ was gaining much support, and the Protestant Orange Order was reacting with demonstrations. Sectarian brawls and riots were common throughout what is now Northern Ireland. Moreover, newspaper accounts of the time make clear that the policing and judicial systems were stacked in favour of Protestants, and those Catholics loyal to the Crown.

What is interesting about the Francis M’glone case, and so many others like it, is that he was forgotten. There is no memorial on the spot of his murder, no annual procession in his name, no songs in his honour. Instead, there are snippets in newspapers that have long ceased to be published and not much else. It got me thinking about the shortness of human memories. About fifty people died in sectarian rioting in Belfast in the mid 1880s. Another four hundred died in the 1920s. Yet, the names of those involved (Catholics and Protestants) are mostly (if not entirely) forgotten.

Who remembers the poor sods?

Gay cakes and the politics of conscience

2 Mar

A fascinating ethical and practical issue is playing itself out in Northern Ireland at the moment, but it has much wider implications. The issue started with a family owned and self-declared ‘Christian’ bakery refusing to bake a cake that would be adorned with a pro-gay marriage slogan. Lots of media and political commentary followed that showed how Northern Ireland – like many other societies – hosts very diverse views on moral issues. While some voices are at the forefront of a progressive equality mission, others remind us that biblical literalism is alive and well.

The issue has made the news afresh because a member of Northern Ireland’s largest political party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has proposed a ‘conscience clause’ in equality legislation that is due to come into force. The Catholic Church – often the target of DUP ire – has come out in support of a conscience clause. A case of social conservatives sticking together, I suppose.

My first inclination was to be abhorred by the notion of social conservatives coming together to discriminate against certain groups in society. Especially abhorrent was the cynicism of specifically applying the conscience clause to equality legislation that is there to protect discriminated-against groups. Let us face it, the Catholic Church and the DUP social agenda often seem stuck in centuries past. And some of their respective representatives seem prone to practising what they do not preach in relation to sex and morality. The notion of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (or race or religion etc.) is despicable, and the fact that this is even an issue is embarrassing.

But the notion of a conscience clause, and particularly the politics of conscience, got me thinking. We all have a conscience, or think we have one. It often engages with the very core of our being – drawing on intuition and our affective dimension. It is not wholly subject to our rational self (or I suspect that to be the case). Moreover, the idea of conscience moves us away from the thinking of ideologues who follow a particular ‘line’ regardless of the issue. Conscience might free us from that and reveal the inconsistencies and contradictions that most of us harbour. It also frees us (and politicians) from the weird rule that political parties must be obeyed by their members and that one subscribes to all parts of a manifesto. In thinking of a conscience, I am thinking of politicians who may want to deviate – on moral grounds – from party policy on issues like the death penalty or experimentation on embryos.

So the idea of the politics of conscience (as opposed to the cynicism of a conscience clause) is attractive (I am indebted to discuss with Professor Marie Breen-Smyth for differentiating between a conscience clause and the politics of conscience). It seems liberating and humane and gives space for agency and the individuality that is often excluded from orthodox politics. It is also a reminder that politicians are (or can be) individuals with a conscience.

But then we come back to the case we opened with: the right of a business owner to discriminate against customers on the basis of sexual orientation (or race, religion etc.). It offends my liberal sensibilities that anyone would discriminate on such a basis. But then I thought of my own practice – both professionally and privately. I withhold my labour in political ways. For example, I think twice about cooperating with colleagues at Israeli institutions lest I support apartheid. I have engaged in strikes for better conditions, and avoided dealings with some other institutions when they were involved in labour disputes. Personally, I alter my shopping habits on the basis of politics and conscience. None of this is to give the impression that I am some sort of ethical saint. I am not. But it does underline how conscience plays a role in our everyday practice and worldview.

As any good liberal would be, I am tortured over this issue of conscience and the implications it has for discrimination and social conservativism. In the case of public services one can see how they should be open to all, without discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion etc. In the case of privately run businesses, I am not so sure, even though that brings me to a morally very uncomfortable place. On the one hand, do we really want to live in a society with a series of no-go zones for sections of the population (but then we already have that in reality – especially in relation to economic ability)? On the other hand, do we really want to force individuals to do things that they find (for reasons we might profoundly disagree with) morally abhorrent?

What we are probably seeing in Northern Ireland is the cynical use of a conscience clause to dodge the responsibilities of equality legislation. That should not detract from allowing space for individuals and societies to develop a politics of conscience.

Welcome to Britain in 2015. The Minister of the Environment denies that climate change is linked to human activity. The Minister for Health outlaws abortion. The Minister of Education decrees that creationism (that the world was made in seven days) is taught in all primary schools.

5 Jan

You might think that this is some sort of weird fantasy. But there is a possibility – after the May 2015 UK general election – that the Democratic Unionist Party (a Northern Ireland group of hard-line social conservatives) goes into coalition government with the Conservative Party.

There has been much commentary and speculation on the forthcoming UK General Election and the likelihood that either of the two main parties – Labour and the Conservatives – will be unable to form a majority. Much of the commentary has been on possible coalition partners and the deal they would extract in exchange for keeping a government in power. Commentators have mainly focused on two scenarios. In the first, the United Kingdom Independence Party – a Eurosceptic group of Britain-firsters – would form an alliance with the Conservatives. In return the Conservatives would hold a referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. But since Prime Minister Cameron has already said he would hold such a referendum, he would have to give something more to appease UKIP – possibly just a straight exit.

The second scenario that has been mooted in the media has been the Scottish Nationalist Party holding the balance of power and extracting promises linked to their independent Scotland agenda. The SNP are on something of a roll, having marshalled an amazing 45 per cent of Scottish voters into voting to leave the UK in the September 2014 referendum. The SNP is widely expected to make serious gains in the Westminster election at the expense of a Labour Party that is seen as remote and London-orientated. So, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the SNP could hold the balance of power in the UK after the May 2015 general election.

But let me introduce a third scenario – one that is rarely discussed in the UK media: a Conservative-Democratic Unionist Party coalition. The DUP are Northern Ireland’s largest political party and currently have eight seats. They will probably gain a few more seats in the general election. If the election is as close as many commentators believe, then it could be that just a small number of additional seats are required to allow one of the main parties into power. The Conservatives are the natural bedfellows of the DUP: right wing, unionist, unsympathetic to the state as a provider of welfare, Eurosceptic …

So what would a Conservative-DUP coalition look like? Well, the Conservatives have been steadily shifting to the right over the past few years. In part, has been as part of an attempt to outflank UKIP. It is also a reflection of candidate selection of right-wingers – essentially Thatcher’s children who believe in rolling back the welfare state, killing off the National Health Service, and allowing their friends in the City of London to exploit a low-wage economy. So the Conservatives are a known quantity.

The DUP, however, deserve scrutiny. They are well known in Northern Ireland but with the peace process largely out of the headlines, many people in the UK know little about them. They were founded by the Reverend Ian Paisley, boycotted the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, and now their leader – Peter Robinson – is the First Minister of Northern Ireland’s powersharing Assembly.

Rather than give a political history of the DUP it is probably best just to highlight a few beliefs of their representatives. Then leave it to your imagination to think through the possibilities if these people were in power in the UK:

– The DUP Mayor of Ballymena said that Hurricane Katrina in the American South was an act by God to prevent a gay parade that was due to take place in New Orleans two days after the hurricane struck. He also blamed AIDS on the ‘filthy practice of sodomy’.

– A senior DUP member, Sammy Wilson, regards climate change debates as ‘a con’ and ‘uninformed hysteria’. He is sceptical that humans are responsible for climate change. Mr Wilson is an MP in the Westminster Parliament and a Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

– Iris Robinson, the wife of the DUP leader and herself a former MP, believes that homosexuality is worse than child abuse. She was quoted as saying: ‘There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children.”

– First Minister Peter Robinson was forced to make a bizarre apology when he defended a Belfast Pastor who called Islam ‘heathen’ and ‘satanic’. As part of his apology, Mr Robinson said that he would trust Muslims to ‘go to the shops for him’.

Presumably the real concessions that the DUP would seek to extract would be related to their Northern Ireland agenda. The vast majority of citizens in the UK would not care about this so the DUP would be able to extract a hefty price in terms of their agenda over parades, policing and the administration of justice. But the real fun would start when a Conservative-DUP coalition was faced with issues of conscience, sexuality, morality and medical ethics. Many DUP members are firmly rooted in the seventeenth century in terms of their social outlook. Would the Conservatives be prepared to enter into such a bargain to get their hands on power? The answer, I suspect, would be yes.