Tony Blair, What a Mess You’ve Left Us In!

We’ve been in crisis before, but this is just about as bad as it gets. So before anything really bad happens let’s pause for a moment and consider who is really to blame for the current loss of trust in the peace process.

On all the evidence to date the answer seems clear enough: responsibility lies with former Prime Minister and peace prize winner Tony Blair. And there are further serious questions that the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers must answer for as well.

Let’s start with a few principles about conflict resolution.

Peaceful resolution of conflict comes about when parties to that conflict establish trust, act with integrity with and towards each other, and show transparency.  Those brokering peace cannot say one thing to one side, something completely different to another and then hope that peace and tranquillity can be built on a foundation of deceit.

Sadly that appears to have been what has happened. And as the deceit goes back so far and makes a mockery of much recent discussions about the past and specifically victims, it’s hard to see how we progress from here.

Going back to the roots of the problem we need to remember that the conflict was not a conventional “war.” It was a dirty, savage business. Paramilitaries of all types used torture, intimidation, kidnapping and executions. They bombed towns and cities, killing and maiming civilians. State forces too broke conventional rules of combat and there was collusion, cover up, mass internment, civilian deaths and shoot to kill. We’re a million miles away from the Geneva Convention.

During the conflict the IRA carried out bombings and shootings, the Army and police pursued the IRA, loyalist paramilitaries attacked republicans. There were many victims, some were directly involved in the conflict, most were just going about their daily business when they were killed or maimed.

It ended in stalemate and key elements in any talks both before and after IRA ceasefire and subsequent decommissioning would have inevitably centred around what the British government would do for IRA members in return for the ending of “armed struggle”. Some of those terms would have been political, others would have been about future treatment of IRA members. In these discussions the status of victims would not have been discussed at all.

Once conventional politicians were involved in talks we progressed to the Good Friday Agreement with its clauses around early release of paramilitaries which left the status of “on the runs” as unfinished business.

Those of us who were not members of paramilitary groupings were disturbed by early releases but were encouraged to consider this as a price we had to pay for peace: and the Good Friday Agreement was passed by referendum.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein continued to press over the status of “on the runs” In their view, with the “war” over, the slate should be wiped clean for IRA members who should be allowed to return home without fear of prosecution.  We all know that this issue was raised – it was on the public record at the time and there are many references to it online, in books about the peace process and in the press.

However within Northern Ireland every political party save for Sinn Fein opposed any kind of amnesty for on the runs and was firm in opposition to the Northern Ireland Offences Bill when it was put forward by Blair’s government in 2006. The Bill was subsequently dropped because Sinn Fein in turn would not agree to the amnesty being extended to members of the security forces.

I am grateful to Ed Moloney who found a piece written in 2007 by former Belfast Telegraph journalist Chris Thornton which is here: http://thebrokenelbow.com/2014/02/26/on-the-runs-trickery-by-blair-shows-how-the-future-is-trapped-by-the-past/

It is quite clear from any reading of this article that the DUP had been told by Blair that there was no deal over the OTRs. Thornton quotes DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson as follows: “The Prime Minister has made it clear that there is going to be no amnesty for IRA terrorists on the run.

“Neither will it be done by reintroducing the deeply offensive legislation or by some kind of back door deal.”

Remarkably by this time many of the “comfort letters” to republicans had already gone out, the back door deal had been activitated!

There is obviously much, much more to come out on the matter but on the evidence of this piece, back in 2007 people knew that files of OTR cases were being considered and that many had returned home and that others, including Crumlin Road jail escapers had received the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.

Of course Blair and his apologists will argue that that means all parties knew of the arrangements. But it is a very big leap from knowing that on the run cases were being reviewed to being aware and being supportive of OTRs  getting comfort letters, initially from 10 Downing Street no less and that these letters would have sufficient force to subsequently halt a trial of a man accused of the Hyde Park bombing. Granted there is specific reference to letters in Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell’s book published in 2008. But do we really have to go to Waterstones and plough through self-serving memoirs in order to uncover what has gone on here?

It would appear that the deal was done, it was dressed up as a mere administrative process and nobody from the other parties twigged what was really happening. The most you could accuse them of in these circumstances is not digging hard enough

Perfidious Albion indeed

Which brings us to Theresa Villiers. Ms Villiers was very supportive of the Haass talks but has consistently maintained that issues of dealing with the past were matters for the parties here rather than her. Strange then that she chose not even to mention in passing that whilst saying this, her own office was sanctioning letters to former IRA activists that had a direct bearing on the very matters they were discussing.

And when talking about the past everyone agrees that victims’ interests should be put first. Well, here’s the problem, they weren’t. And guess what? They probably never will be now because you cannot have one rule for the IRA and another for everyone else. We’ve reached amnesty by default whether we like it or not. The legitimate interests of victims from all communities were  sacrificed in the interests of ending conflict.  That may have been a price many were prepared to pay. But until it is properly addressed and resolved the injustice it involved will fester away like an open wound.

And sadly, after this week’s revelations, the mutual trust required to resolve it is just not there.

 

 

 

Ross Kemp on our Extreme World

Welcome to Northern Ireland Ross!
Welcome to Northern Ireland Ross!

There’s a burly bald guy on the TV wearing shades and he is jogging down a street looking like he means business. And then you look a bit closer. That’s not a real hard man – just look at the clobber for a start – you don’t get that kind of gear in TK Maxx. When he takes his dark glasses off he just doesn’t have the eyes. You know what I mean: the cold, dead, merciless eyes of people who have done seriously bad things. We have that kind everywhere, even in government.

Yes, that’s not a gangster. It’s the actor turned journalist Ross Kemp. And look, aren’t those the Ardoyne shops, just to the right of the screen? Yes indeed they are. For Mr Kemp is in town to film the latest episode of his Extreme World series.

Extreme World is about “the most dangerous places in the world” The current series takes us to Lebanon, Papua New Guinea and the slums of Rio. Last time around he was in the Congo and Pakistan. But today, right there on the telly, this is “Our Time, Our Place” and there’s Ross with his camera crew at Twaddell Avenue watching teenagers throw rocks at cars.

This was not quite what the powers that be had in mind when they said they wanted to stimulate the film industry here. Nor will the scenes that followed be repeated in the Tourist Board’s marketing materials. In terms of dismantling Northern Ireland’s positive image, this was about as damaging as it can possibly get.

But it is worth watching again and again, if only because it gives us a compelling insight into what the rest of the world, especially people in the rest of the UK actually think of us and if this sort of programme does not help to wake politicians up from their collective inability to resolve conflict nothing will.

Let’s start with just one minor detail: the supreme irony that in the very week that a senior Orange man went to war on the Irish language, that an English broadcaster felt the need to use subtitles when interviewing loyalists in north Belfast. That in itself is worth thinking about. I doubt it would happen in Newcastle, Birmingham or Liverpool. The use of subtitles is a sign of just how much viewers regard Northern Ireland as an alien place, certainly not part of their world, a very different Extreme World.

The reality is that people can fly the flag and feel as British as they like, but many fellow Brits regard them as strange, alien, and yes, let’s be frank about this: frightening.

Then there were the interviews. It was almost as if Kemp’s research team had scooped up all the most incoherent, illogical and plain stupid contributors from the Nolan Show and then got them to tell us what Northern Ireland is all about, aided, as previously noted, by the occasional use of subtitles. Frankly anyone watching from anywhere else in the world must have concluded that we are all deranged.

The programme shifted from Derry/Londonderry to Belfast. In the Maiden City Kemp gulped at the damage from shrapnel and RPGs at a police barracks, before heading off in his black Mondeo to chat to Gary Donnelly of the 32 Counties Sovereignty Committee who told him why dissidents would continue with “armed struggle”.  In between we heard about punishment shootings and the activities of Republicans Against Drugs.

Then we were on the peace walls in north and west Belfast. Viewers from elsewhere will have been horrified to note that there are now more than there were before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. And surely too, they would have been astonished to notice how many people were up so early on the morning of the Twelfth both to be offended and to give offence.

What a place!

Of course many people here will argue that Kemp doesn’t understand. He has no real insight into their grievances and issues. That is not the point at all.

What we were getting was an insight into how others see us, it is nothing whatsoever to do with how we would like to be portrayed, or indeed how we truly are. And what others will have taken from the show was that Northern Ireland is a divided, bitter, violent, ugly, hate-filled place locked in its past, and dominated by a tribal rivalry which is utterly incomprehensible to the outside world and totally alien to it.

When you strip it all down that is how we were portrayed and that is how we will continue to be seen unless and until outstanding issues are resolved.

What will especially have struck those in the rest of the UK is the cost of the rioting – £25 million. At a time of massive cutbacks in public services why on earth, they will say to themselves, should we continue to subsidise a place we prop up, in order to help fund the cost of mayhem?

 

Why We Should Support Friday’s Union Peace Rally

One of the saddest and most frustrating features of politics in Northern Ireland is the extent to which all the bigger parties are stuck in their tribal past.

They often get blamed for showing a lack of leadership in an apparent collective failure to move beyond sectarian politics and to work together to create a better, more prosperous and harmonious Northern Ireland.

Successive opinion polls show an alarming disenchantment with politicians, indeed the entire political process and a strong desire in the population for them to move on and engage more effectively in creating a stronger economy for the benefit of all.

However, as I have written before politics is about winning elections and there has been little evidence in the past that when parties do make brave and bold gestures they get rewarded at the ballot box. When it comes down to voting we tend to vote for the strongest voice in our community, even if the policies they go on to pursue are not what we want.

And the danger here is that politicians then become overly influenced by the margins and extremes: nationalists look over their shoulders at the small but vocal dissident groups, and unionists by the wilder elements of loyalism. The middle ground suffers, progress is not made, the electorate becomes more disengaged and frustrated.

It is easy to blame politicians for this, but it is not entirely fair: they are simply responding to the only real evidence they rely on in formulating policy – voter behaviour.

If we are to change that, to encourage our politicians to take heart and make difficult decisions in the wider interests of society, they need to be told that that is what we want. In order for that to happen other voices need to assert themselves so that we can do so clearly and in numbers.

During the Troubles the business community was largely silent as the economy was ripped apart, lives ruined and communities and workplaces fell under the evil spell of sectarianism and mutual loathing. Recently however business organisations have become much more vocal in asserting the need for a strong, stable economy and condemning the violence, illegal demonstrations and carnage that so blight both the present and our future. There is no doubt that through their efforts the business community has had an impact on politicians.

The Trades Union movement, which represents 215,000 members in Northern Ireland, has throughout the bad times united people from all communities in opposing sectarianism and violence and its peace rallies have been a major contribution to progress, giving ordinary people the opportunity to make their feelings known.

Tomorrow (Friday) the Irish Congress of Trades Unions will be holding a rally in Belfast city centre which calls on all parties to end political paralysis which is holding us back and to work together for the benefit of all.

And very briefly here are just a few of the issues we should be concerned about.

The failure to effectively reform failing schools. Only one third of children on free school meals achieve five GCSEs Grade A*-C – double that ratio get such grades amongst children not eligible for FSM – and less than 30 per cent of those children of the working poor and the jobless achieve two A-Levels. An even smaller proportion of children entitled to free school meals, 18 per cent, go onto third-level education.

 

The slow progress in building enterprise. Of 62 cities surveyed across the UK, Belfast had the lowest number of business start ups. An important factor here is the sheer size of the public sector in Northern Ireland. So whilst in the prosperous south east of England, the private sector has replaced jobs lost by the public sector, we are still in recession because the scale of the public sector means that cuts affect the private sector. The same medicine doesn’t work.

 

Political disputes holding up major investment projects. The A5 road project has so far cost £60 million and has not materialised. We all know about the Maze development. Whichever way you stand on that one £18 million of EU funding has now been lost. A similar problem is looming over potential withdrawal of EU funding to the Narrow Water Bridge project and we recently had the spat between the Departments of Finance and Agriculture which Lord Chief Justice Morgan described as “a case about political failure.”

 

These are all critical issues to our future. And school reform, effective investment to create jobs, and finding an effective way to stimulate enterprise are just a few of the issues that should be centre stage. Instead politicians are finding themselves distracted by the age old political pursuit of whataboutery as they fail to build stable foundations whereby these other issues would be more effectively addressed.

In the meantime whilst other parts of the UK are recovering and we are falling behind exacerbates discontent and deprivation, which in turn feeds conflict.

Some politicians have criticised the unions for organising the rally, presumably they think that the unions have no business engaging with politics which should be left to them. Politics, of course, is the legitimate concern of every citizen and the involvement of both businesses and unions in the process is vital if we are to persuade the parties, that yes, we are ready for change, and that we do expect them to compromise in the wider interests of society.

 

 

Stormont on Friday: Addiction Care and Illegal Dumping

Our weekly digest of debates you may have missed at Stormont

Long road to recovery? The UUP’s Ross Hussey said, in a Tuesday debate on the future Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital’s addiction treatment unit, that he is worried centralisation of services is ongoing because it is financially easy, and could lead to “insufficient” care. The MLA said retention of an addiction treatment service in the Western Trust area was vital.

The DUP’s Tom Buchanan said people in Omagh and Fermanagh are disappointed at the proposed loss of addiction care, saying leaving the entire trust area without such a service “runs contrary to the very ethos of Transforming Your Care (TYC)”. He added that alcohol problems are especially prevalent in rural areas, and people in the area should not be expected to travel to Antrim or Down for treatment, while the links between substance abuse and mental health issues should also be considered. Sinn Féin said detoxification and stabilisation are important issues, and that travelling to Holywell could prove dangerous due to the distance, especially as ambulance cover west of the Bann is “scant” and public transport lacking.

The SDLP said it accepts the need for change but not the direction of TYC, while the specific proposals come with a “significant” geographical barrier, calling into question quality of care for those in the west. The Health Minister said substance abuse is one of our main public health challenges, costing around £1bn per year, while changing services will reflect the closer-to-home ethos of TYC – but that no decisions have been made, and the HSC Board will take geographic considerations into account.

 

Rubbish disposal? At Question Time on Tuesday, the DUP’s Sydney Anderson asked the Environment Minister what he planned to do in light of the recent review into waste disposal which showed widespread illegal dumping. Mr Durkan said the report “powerfully illustrates” local issues in this area, with an estimated 516,000 tonnes found at the illegal Campsie site, while the problem is known to not be isolated.

The Minister said he is awaiting upcoming proposals before announcing his plans, but that he could be advised to make broad changes to both regulations and oversight, saying that loopholes need to be closed in response to a further question from Mr Anderson, who noted regulators received scathing criticism – with the planning office found to have played a pivotal role in authorising developments used for illegal disposal.

Sinn Féin asked how much it will cost to fully clear and decontaminate the Mubouy site, with the Minister saying the report’s estimates run into hundreds of millions of pounds, but that it is hoped that is not the case, with clean-up decisions set to depend on current investigations. The SDLP asked what discussions have taken place about tackling such crimes on an all-island basis. Mr Durkan said the matter was raised at the last North/South Ministerial Council meeting and that co-operation is vital due to the cross-jurisdictional nature of such problems. The UUP asked if anyone has been charged or convicted in relation to the offences, with the Minister saying investigations are ongoing and he is unable to comment.