Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

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.

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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?

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?