The “Glorious Revolution”

The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson made an inspiring and quite brilliant appearance on the Nolan Show a few days ago.

He was speaking about the burning of Polish flags on 11th night bonfires and attacks on the Polish community.

He told listeners of a letter he had received from a woman in East Belfast who described watching a Polish fighter pilot defending Belfast during the Blitz. His plane was hit, and had caught fire, but instead of bailing out he flew straight into a German bomber, destroying it. He had given his life to save the citizens of Belfast.

Donaldson demanded that those who claimed to be loyalist and indulged in racism should take a little time to study their real history, and when they did so they would be ashamed and appalled at attacks on people from a community that had done so much, at such great cost, to protect ours.

He went further and reminded listeners that the Twelfth itself was a celebration of the Glorious Revolution and that was essentially about the establishment of civil and religious liberties.

This is a really fascinating thing for him to have said: after all where else in the world do you get politicians of all hues, invoking the distant past in order to make sense of the present?

And wherever else do we have such a confused interpretation of what actually happened which so distorts our behaviour today?

Many historians have always known this. FSL Lyons famously wrote at the outbreak of the Troubles “to understand the past is to cease to live in it”.

So let’s very briefly look at the Glorious Revolution.

When Charles II died in 1685 his brother James II who had converted to Catholicism came to the throne and he started to exercise more and more power without reference to Parliament. English parliamentarians were alarmed as they suspected him of wanting to re-establish an absolute monarchy. When his son was born, opening up the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, secret negotiations were established with his daughter Mary and her husband William, the Stadholder of Holland.

Essentially the deal that they cut was that William and Mary would be offered the crown. In exchange they would effectively sign up to new constitutional arrangements that would establish the supremacy of parliament.

In 1689 these provisions became codified in the Bill of Rights, which to this day is the foundation stone of parliamentary democracy. Never again would monarchs be able to exercise arbitrary power. The Bill of Rights was the main inspiration for the US Bill of Rights after it established declaration in the next century.

So the Glorious Revolution was a critical turning point in history, shifting power permanently to parliament, whose members were guaranteed freedom of speech.

However two groupings were excluded from the general liberating impact of the fall of James: Catholics and Protestant dissenters. James had granted religious freedoms to both these groups. After the Glorious Revolution Catholics were excluded from the vote, not permitted to stand for parliament, and legislation was passed which was only revoked last year barring a monarch from adopting Catholicism.

It is important to remember that the 17th Century was still an age of religious conflict. To Catholics Protestants were heretics and in Catholic countries heretics were persecuted, and many were tortured before being burned at the stake, so that their sins could be cleaned with fire. In 17th Century England, the same treatment was handed out to Catholic priests.

The very notion of religious toleration was novel and why, indeed would you tolerate a creed that you believed to be inspired and motivated by the Anti-Christ?

The Glorious Revolution was probably the single most important development in shaping contemporary British democracy, which in turn has been an inspiration for many other States across the globe. In that respect alone it deserves to be celebrated by all

However it do not establish religious freedom, in the modern sense, rather a victory of one religious tradition over another, which was then excluded from influence, reinforcing resentment that still simmers today.

I’ve yet to meet anyone anywhere today who believes that Catholics or Protestants or dissenters should be excluded from the vote and banned from Parliament or forced to attend a church that is not of their choice. So maybe we should find a little time to celebrate that as well, to make it clear that when we mark the great events of the past, we are not necessarily endorsing every single aspect of what was said and done in a distant time in a world we would not recognise today.

If we are prepared to look coldly and dispassionately at the past we often find that things were not always quite what they seem.

 

 

liberty?
liberty?

The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson made an inspiring and quite brilliant appearance on the Nolan Show a few days ago.

He was speaking about the burning of Polish flags on 11th night bonfires and attacks on the Polish community.

He told listeners of a letter he had received from a woman in East Belfast who described watching a Polish fighter pilot defending Belfast during the Blitz. His plane was hit, and had caught fire, but instead of bailing out he flew straight into a German bomber, destroying it. He had given his life to save the citizens of Belfast.

Donaldson demanded that those who claimed to be loyalist and indulged in racism should take a little time to study their real history, and when they did so they would be ashamed and appalled at attacks on people from a community that had done so much, at such great cost, to protect ours.

He went further and reminded listeners that the Twelfth itself was a celebration of the Glorious Revolution and that was essentially about the establishment of civil and religious liberties.

This is a really fascinating thing for him to have said: after all where else in the world do you get politicians of all hues, invoking the distant past in order to make sense of the present?

And wherever else do we have such a confused interpretation of what actually happened which so distorts our behaviour today?

Many historians have always known this. FSL Lyons famously wrote at the outbreak of the Troubles “to understand the past is to cease to live in it”.

So let’s very briefly look at the Glorious Revolution.

When Charles II died in 1685 his brother James II who had converted to Catholicism came to the throne and he started to exercise more and more power without reference to Parliament. English parliamentarians were alarmed as they suspected him of wanting to re-establish an absolute monarchy. When his son was born, opening up the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, secret negotiations were established with his daughter Mary and her husband William, the Stadholder of Holland.

Essentially the deal that they cut was that William and Mary would be offered the crown. In exchange they would effectively sign up to new constitutional arrangements that would establish the supremacy of parliament.

In 1689 these provisions became codified in the Bill of Rights, which to this day is the foundation stone of parliamentary democracy. Never again would monarchs be able to exercise arbitrary power. The Bill of Rights was the main inspiration for the US Bill of Rights after it established declaration in the next century.

So the Glorious Revolution was a critical turning point in history, shifting power permanently to parliament, whose members were guaranteed freedom of speech.

However two groupings were excluded from the general liberating impact of the fall of James: Catholics and Protestant dissenters. James had granted religious freedoms to both these groups. After the Glorious Revolution Catholics were excluded from the vote, not permitted to stand for parliament, and legislation was passed which was only revoked last year barring a monarch from adopting Catholicism.

It is important to remember that the 17th Century was still an age of religious conflict. To Catholics Protestants were heretics and in Catholic countries heretics were persecuted, and many were tortured before being burned at the stake, so that their sins could be cleaned with fire. In 17th Century England, the same treatment was handed out to Catholic priests.

The very notion of religious toleration was novel and why, indeed would you tolerate a creed that you believed to be inspired and motivated by the Anti-Christ?

The Glorious Revolution was probably the single most important development in shaping contemporary British democracy, which in turn has been an inspiration for many other States across the globe. In that respect alone it deserves to be celebrated by all

However it do not establish religious freedom, in the modern sense, rather a victory of one religious tradition over another, which was then excluded from influence, reinforcing resentment that still simmers today.

I’ve yet to meet anyone anywhere today who believes that Catholics or Protestants or dissenters should be excluded from the vote and banned from Parliament or forced to attend a church that is not of their choice. So maybe we should find a little time to celebrate that as well, to make it clear that when we mark the great events of the past, we are not necessarily endorsing every single aspect of what was said and done in a distant time in a world we would not recognise today.

If we are prepared to look coldly and dispassionately at the past we often find that things were not always quite what they seem.

 

 

Politicians Should Never Pander to Racists

It has been depressing to see racism raise its ugly head in East Belfast this week. It is important that the vast majority of us who believe that all human beings deserve the same rights and privileges stand together on this issue before Northern Ireland becomes a global by-word for bigotry, ignorance and intolerance.

Many of our people for centuries have left this place to seek their fortunes elsewhere. When they do so we have expected them to be treated fairly and not to be discriminated against.

Ireland, north and south, has traditionally been an exporter of people, because our economies have dictated that many youngsters have had to leave in order to secure jobs and prosperity. Traditional songs and stories are studded with references to emigrants, trying to build a future in a different land, often under the most difficult of circumstances.

It is part of our history, and it is a part of our present as well. Many of us have children who have left to work or study elsewhere, and we know that they will not be back.

But sadly, the Irish abroad have not always been welcomed with open arms. They have been subjected to harassment, bullying, racism and physical attack. Building a new life was often ultimately a success, but for many over the centuries who have attempted it, it was a struggle. We all know that it is part of our shared history.

There are plenty of people old enough to remember the days when boarding houses in England sometimes bore signs reading “No Irish here”. I doubt that being from Northern Ireland would provide any form of exemption from this. Nor to the “thicko” Irish jibes, and the racial characterisations. When I was at university everyone with an Irish accent, north or south was called “Paddy”

In the United States, in England and everywhere that the Irish have been, earlier generations have experienced intolerance first hand.

You would have thought that we had collectively learned from that. That the very last thing that we would want to see over here is the degree of ignorance and intolerance which sometimes greeted Irish emigrants. Like for, example mounting a picket outside someone’s house because he is “not from around here”.

Racism, which, of course, is sectarianism’s equally twisted and ugly sister, is a real and present reality in Northern Ireland and it needs to be challenged and confronted whenever it rears its head.

We need to do this in any event because justice and any sense of fair play demands it.

But we also need to be very aware of the fact that if Northern Ireland is going to see any form of economic prosperity, it will require more tourism, more inward investment and more exporting. That inevitably involves contact with people who are from different cultures and different races.

Frankly they will not want to come here or do business with us if they believe that Northern Ireland is a cold house for foreigners.

Yes, of course Northern Ireland is not 1960s South Africa or rural Kentucky. But too much more of the kind of headlines we have seen in recent weeks and the rest of the world will conclude that it is. We can’t afford that.

In recent times there has been a lot of criticism of our politicians for being so slow in producing an anti racism strategy. That partly misses the point.

The vast majority of us are very clear on the subject. We despise racism in all its forms. It is demeaning, destructive and most of all ignorant. I’m sure that our political leaders agree.

So yes, let’s have a strategy produced as soon as possible. It will do nothing but good. And in the meantime our politicians would do best by being absolutely clear and unequivocal, and united in condemning racism in all its forms, with no ifs, or buts, or qualifications.

Yes, of course racists vote too. But they should never be pandered to or appeased. No mainstream party should want racists in its ranks, or a mandate from racist votes.

 

Sorry Is Not the Hardest Word

Is it ever a good idea for politicians to admit to mistakes and say sorry? Some political commentators say that it is not a good idea. They argue that it is a sign of weakness, especially in leaders and that it creates a precedent, damaging their image.

I’ve never really understood this and have come to believe that political spin doctors live in a parallel universe.

In this strange other world politicians are always “on message”. They parrot off the same lines when interviewed by the media, regardless of the questions they are asked. Indeed many seem to have a genuine problem answering questions at all. When it comes to political opponents everything is cut and dried: ie they are wrong about everything, and we are always right.

And as for having done anything wrong, well that never happens: everything that isn’t working in the world, except perhaps the weather, is the direct responsibility of “the last government” or whoever else it is that disagrees with them.

I’m not alone in finding this irritating. Political engagement is falling off right across the western world. Fewer and fewer people are active in politics than ever before and in most elections where there is an option not to vote, those who choose not to take part outnumber those who support the “winning” party. That was certainly the case in the recent European elections in Northern Ireland and, indeed, right across the UK. Even if you were to add together votes for our two largest parties they would still struggle to hold off the army of the disillusioned, apathetic and disaffected who chose not to vote at all.

This trend of switching off from politics is growing and is causing increasing concern. There has been a lot of research carried out into it and, strangely enough conclusions include that people are fed up with watching and listening to politicians shouting at each other. They don’t like it when they evade straightforward questions and they also think that politicians should be performance-managed, in that they should be held accountable for their failings and not allowed to blame them on others.

So when you step back and think about it, it is this strange, mysterious world of the spin doctor that has to be at least partially responsible for the decline in support for and participation in politics. Funny that, isn’t it?

In the real world we acknowledge that people (even, dare we say it, politicians) make mistakes, some of them absolute whoppers, and, generally speaking if they apologise for them and do everything they can to make amends, we forgive them. After all we make mistakes too, it is part of being human.

So in that context it was good to see First Minister Peter Robinson apologising for the ill-judged remarks he made about Muslims last week. A few careless phrases ended up getting broadcast around the world, damaging both the office of First Minister, the image of Northern Ireland and denting our efforts to get foreign investment. It was also less than helpful in a place which is currently plagued by racially motivated attacks. He chose his words clumsily and he was, quite rightly castigated for that.

To make a public apology, albeit rather late in the day, was the right thing to do. It took courage and Peter Robinson deserves credit for it, and I for one, respect him for it. The test now, of course is for him and all his colleagues across the Executive to put in place a strategy to make sure that people from ethnic minorities here are cherished, protected and better understood.

So has Peter Robinson created a precedent? I certainly hope so. There are plenty of people in politics here and elsewhere who would enjoy a lot more respect if they were gracious enough to apologise when they foul up instead of trying to bluster their way through.

And if that were to happen more often then maybe the rest of us, who make mistakes all the time, would actually like them more for it. A little bit more humanity and humility would do no harm whatsoever in the current political climate.

The Truth About Charity Bosses’ Pay

It has been depressing this week to see a row being fomented in the press and media about how much chief executives of local charities get paid.

Critics of the sector have been having a field day, and in the process displaying a more or less total ignorance of how modern day charities work, and what they are there to achieve.

So let’s put all the outrage and hysteria to one side for a moment and have a cold, hard look at the facts.

First of all let’s examine what is a charity.

For many of us a charity conjures images of someone waving a plastic bucket in front of us in the street and we think of people doing things for others for nothing. And when we give to charities we expect every single penny to go to the cause we are supporting.

The reality of course is that although many charities do rely on fund-raising, many others do not: they receive government funding for their work, or else are paid to provide products or services like private sector businesses.

Queens University is a charity, so are many nursing homes and mental health organisations whose highly trained professional staff provide counselling, care and therapy. Within the sector there are theatres and arts groups and organisations that provide all manner of training.

The difference between a charity and a business is primarily twofold. A charity does not make profits that are then distributed to shareholders, any surpluses made go back into the organisation. And a charity by law has to be operating for the public benefit and have a specific purpose such as promoting education, health, the arts etc.  Charities are exempt from some taxes and are also regulated by the Charity Commission.

So in crude terms the main differences between a charity and a business is that whilst a charity by definition has to do things that are good, businesses can do whatever they like, good, indifferent or down-right bad.

And whilst we feel it is perfectly legitimate for people to get paid big bucks for doing bad things, it is somehow utterly unacceptable for us to pay decent wages to people who do good things. When you stop and think about that for a moment it makes you wonder what on earth the world is coming to.

Much of this nonsensical view of the so-called Third Sector stems from a different age: a time when very wealthy philanthropists many of whom had made money out of “bad stuff” decided to put something back by giving money to the poor and needy or else so there is this sense out there that people who work for charities should all be volunteers who do it for the cause and don’t get paid.

Of course many thousands out there do just that and make an enormous contribution to good causes.

But many charitable organisations these days have massive turnovers, and if you want to make a difference, a real difference you simply have to pay for staff, and funnily enough that includes management as well.

Is anyone out there seriously arguing that Queens University lecturers should work for free? Or that clergy should live on fresh air? Or professional therapists refuse to be paid – just because all of them do work that counts as being “good.”, and that the rest of us should be entitled to sneer at them because we don’t?

And for those kind enough to allow them to be paid at all, what is the rationale for arguing that they should be paid less because they have jobs that are helping to make the world a better place? Strip away all the phoney bluster and indignation and you see the whole argument for what it is: utterly illogical and ridiculous.

So let’s just put another myth to bed. Chief executives of charities are not the real bosses. They have a fancy title and they run the staff and operations, but they are not in charge. They are employees, hired hands. The people who run the show are the board of trustees. They hire and fire the chief executive and fix his or her salary. And guess what? They don’t get paid at all, they are volunteers with no vested interest in whatever the chief executive gets paid other than ensuring that they have the best person for the job and that the package is fair and reasonable given all circumstances. Those circumstances will vary according to the position and the skills required. From time to time excessive packages will be paid, but these are not the norm at all.

So whilst there is absolutely no room whatsoever for fat cats in the charitable sector, all staff need to be paid a fair and reasonable wage and that applies to managers too. It is vital that charities can attract great people who have the integrity, courage and expertise to make them better, otherwise you will end up with all the good people getting paid big money for doing bad things, that’s just how the world works.

But there’s a serious lesson here for charities too. Each and every one of them is on notice now. They need to demonstrate day and daily how and why they make a difference, and what value they bring to society and the common good.

And for chief executives this should be a wake-up call as well. It’s not good enough for them to hide behind their desks, or spend all their time chasing funding pots as if their charity were some kind of giant job creation scheme. Ultimately it is all about the cause they represent. If more were to get out there and push harder for change, and help to make a tangible difference, maybe, just maybe there would be less fuss about their pay

Marching Back to the Past

Storms are predicted for tomorrow and Saturday, so it is likely that the riders in the Giro d’Italia are lashed with rain and buffeted by wind as they battle across Northern Ireland in the first leg of their race.

Somehow that seems apt. There may be no election posters on the route. Derelict shops have been painted so they look like thriving businesses and we’re trying to put on a sparkly new face to the world.

Sadly nobody will be taken in. The arrest of Gerry Adams and the dreadful agony of the McConville family, and all those who mourn the disappeared, have created more global headlines than a cycle race ever will.

The “serious crime suite” at Antrim police station is still a bigger pull than the glories of the Causeway Coast and when the race moves on, the posters and flags will be back, and instead of looking forward to a better future, we’ll be plunged right back into our squalid past.

We’ve become prisoners of it now, prisoners of past atrocities, injustice and a mutual hatred that is primeval in intensity.

Some of us have been warning for years now that a failure to deal adequately with the past, and most specifically with victims of a dirty and vindictive conflict would come back to haunt us.

Our political leaders had the opportunity to do that last Autumn, and they came very close to doing so in the Haass talks. But all the progress then has faded away and we have been rocked by the On the Runs controversy, the Secretary of State’s refusal to hold an inquiry into the Ballymurphy massacre and the arrest of Adams on foot of the Boston College tapes.

So we now find ourselves in a position where, unless victims’ issues are urgently addressed, we could easily find ourselves descending right back into the past, with a collapse of political structures and a descent into street disturbances and an unravelling of all that has been achieved. This is not scaremongering. A peace process is just that, a process, and the process is stalled.

In order to make sense of it all we have to go back to the Good Friday Agreement and the deal that underpins it. Effectively a stalemate had been reached. The IRA towards the end of the conflict had become riddled with informers and incapable of achieving its aims through violence. The security forces could contain but not defeat the IRA. So the IRA decided it was no longer going to shoot and bomb, and in exchange paramilitaries were released from prison, the Army started to withdraw, new political structures were created, some with north south elements and the RUC disappeared and was replaced by PSNI.

These arrangements were voted on on both sides of the border and approved by a majority in both jurisdictions and as part of the deal the Republic withdrew its constitutional claim to the north.

So there was no clear cut victor, the agreement was a compromise which brought the conflict to an end. However it did so at a great price to surviving victims and the families of all those who had died. For many years they were effectively ignored, yes there was sympathy, but the prevailing view was that we all had to “move on”.

Sadly however, for victims whatever happened is not just a matter for the past. Amputated limbs do not grow back, deceased loved ones do not return, their victimhood is a present reality.

The Executive has embarked on official support for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of critical events that have shaped our history, these will be going on for several years to come. However more recent anniversaries have gained far more media coverage: the 40th anniversaries of terrible things that happened in the early 1970s and these have unlocked the previously silent voices of those who suffered. So the screens have been filled with grainy footage of carnage and those who are still struggling to come to terms with what happened all those years ago. There’s been so much of this already, and there is much, much more to come.

The injustice of what happened is a cancer which is eating at us today. There is no cure for it because you can’t erase the past. Those involved deny all knowledge of their roles, and victims therefore do not even get to know what really happened, who did what and why.

For politicians victims are used in a sick game of whataboutery. For Sinn Fein effective amnesty for republicans is part of the Good Friday Agreement but not for agents of the State.

For others former paramilitaries should be pursued to the ends of the earth, but not those who were involved in collusion, or played God by allowing atrocities to take place so as not to compromise informers.

We are inexorably marching back to the past.

 

 

 

 

Marty and Peter: Friends Again?

Last week they were at loggerheads over On the Runs. Peter threatened to resign because Marty had done a secret deal behind his back. Marty said Peter was causing a fuss about nothing and was just being silly.

This week Marty and Peter are in America and when they met some nice people from the telly they had their picture taken with them. Suddenly they were “Friends” again. martyandpeter

Jim and Jamie will not be happy with that. They say Marty is not a nice man and if they were photographed with him at all they would refuse to smile because you don’t do that kind of thing when bad men are around.

Welcome to the bewildering world of Northern Ireland politics where nothing is ever all that it seems – and the latest frenzy on social media is around First and Deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness posing with Courteney Cox the Friends actress and her partner Johnny McDaid from Snow Patrol.

So how is it that Robinson and McGuinness who were in crisis melt down last week can now be so apparently relaxed together and about to watch some movies with A List celebrities?

That simply would not happen anywhere else. In Britain, for example, where political differences are actually quite small in these days of “grabbing the centre ground” hostilities are still maintained, at least outwardly. I can’t imagine for one moment Ed Miliband for example, going to the pictures with David Cameron, nor would Ed Balls go on a date with George Osborne, never mind commissioning a PR shot before doing so.

But this is Northern Ireland, remember, and our economy is, well let’s be kind and say weak. So we need our political leaders to show a united front and go out and do what is necessary to get trade and investment. So our leaders smile and pose together. We take our election posters down for the Giro d’Italia and paint our derelict shops so that they look like thriving businesses.

Full credit to them for all that. They are bringing in events and trade and business and that, of course is good and worthy of praise. And all those nice Americans will say to one another when they have gone: “Well they have their differences, and peace is a long, long road, but, my, do they work well together and when you meet them they are actually great craic! ”muppets

But then we think of home, where the only rule of the political game is tribal intransigence. And we are still reeling from the On The Runs letters controversy which has caused legitimate widespread hurt to victims.

It just seems so bizarre. We know the reality and, from whatever political perspective you come from, it doesn’t wash to be saying one thing at home and then delivering different messages, albeit via a photocall abroad.

We are worried about what the future holds, for those who have suffered and for those who have not, but just want a decent future, in an economy that works, and freed from the scourge of bitterness and hate and we are concerned about what will happen when they get home.

We see our politicians in all camps indulging in lowest common denominator politics because they believe we will always vote on strict tribal lines when it comes to elections. History is on their side on that debate.

But we do need jobs and investment. We need to deal with the past and learn to get on in the present. And we need both to stop fantasising about some mythical united Ireland when such an entity is an economic impossibility, and also stop pretending that Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley when the citizens of said borough think we are strange and alien and most certainly do not share that view.

Interestingly the Friends picture was not taken by a photographer employed by a newspaper but by a Belfast agency that was presumably directly commissioned for the purpose by the Northern Ireland government and accompanied a press release. So I presume it was officially sanctioned and signed off as such, much like the picture of the pair with the Muppets that caused so much hilarity a few years ago.

I have no problem with that. I just wish that the image so carefully cultivated for overseas audiences were to become a reality here. Soon.

The alternative is playing to the lowest common denominator, reprising the whataboutery politics in which we specialise, and drifting slowly, but inexorably, into a new era of conflict, mutual hatred and economic stagnation. No jobs, no hope, no future.

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.

 

 

 

The Secret IRA Deal and a Giant Betrayal of Trust

It is a remarkable irony that in the very week that Gerry Kelly decides to sue the Chief Constable after his unscheduled and unorthodox ride on a police Land Rover that we discover that his former comrade in the IRA John Downey is not to be charged in relation to the Hyde Park bombing.

For many of us the Downey affair seriously undermines our faith in both the criminal justice system and the Westminster government’s role in the peace process.

Downey is accused of planting the Hyde Park bomb in July 1982, which exploded as unarmed soldiers from the Blues and Royals were riding on their daily route from their barracks to Buckingham Palace.

Lieutenant Dennis Daly, 23, Trooper Simon Tipper, 19, and Lance-Corporal Geoffrey Young, 19, died instantly; Corporal-Major Roy Bright, 36, died of his injuries three days later.

The bomb, made from several pounds of gelignite and packed with 6in and 4in nails, had been left in the boot of a blue Austin car parked on a driveway in the park. Seven horses were also slaughtered in the blast.

Downey’s trial started last month and reporting restrictions were imposed by the judge Mr Justice Sweeney whilst lawyers argued about whether the case should go ahead

It transpired that Mr Downey was one of 187 republican “on the runs” who received letters of assurance stating that they were not wanted in connection with IRA offences This was apparently part of a secret deal between Gerry Adams and Tony Blair connected to the IRA’s decommissioning of weapons: the trial was duly halted.

The British government had attempted to legislate over issue when it put forward the Northern Ireland offences Bill which would also have extended to former soldiers and police but this collapsed in 2006, hence the secret pact. All Northern Ireland parties initially objected to it, except Sinn Fein, but when it withdrew support because the measures would have been extended to members of the security forces, the Bill collapsed.

At the time the then Secretary of State Peter Hain said: “To exclude from provisions of the Bill any members of the security forces who might have been involved in such offences would have been not only illogical but indefensible, and we would not do it. Closure on the past cannot be one‐sided. That was, and is, non‐negotiable.”

However the British government went down a different route, hence the letters, as Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell explained: “The intention behind the British Government giving written assurances to individual OTRs was to try to resolve the issue given the failure to find a workable general approach and to provide individual letters that Sinn Fein could use to reassure the individuals concerned that they could return to the UK without fear of arrest.”

Until this week it would appear that nobody outside the British government and Sinn Fein were aware of the deal.

This is all the more extraordinary when you consider that so much time and effort was put into the Haass Talks last year. A senior American diplomat was invited to Northern Ireland to help resolve outstanding issues between the parties. One of them, which was exhaustively debated, was how to deal with the past. There was ultimately no agreement although the final draft contains proposals around “limited immunity” which would apply in cases where individuals volunteered information about their past as part of the Haass process

But the Haas document also states: “In any society, holding people accountable for breaking the law is a fundamental responsibility of government. Doing so consistently and even-handedly reinforces belief in the integrity of government and reassures citizens that their society is safe, fair, and just. “

And “There are also likely to be some who carried out violent acts who would, under certain circumstances, be willing to provide information about actions they took during the conflict. We emphasise that these circumstances must not include an amnesty. Where sufficient evidence exists, the Public Prosecution Service cannot forfeit its right to choose to prosecute crimes.”

We do not know the extent to which all the parties signed up to this. But we can be sure of the following: Sinn Fein who were in the talks and the British government who were watching closely from the sidelines were very well aware that they had already entered into an agreement which went considerably beyond what is in the document.

It’s hard to imagine any of the other parties being happy with that when they discovered the reality this week. Negotiations, especially those around such delicate and sensitive issues must be carried out in good faith and transparently in order to build trust.  I am very much afraid that what was revealed in the Downey case will destroy what small amount of goodwill there was left.

And as citizens I think we should all be very concerned indeed that a government should be prepared to undermine the judicial process in such a secretive way and by doing so, showing contempt for the fine words of Haass, which I will quote again:

“In any society, holding people accountable for breaking the law is a fundamental responsibility of government. Doing so consistently and even-handedly reinforces belief in the integrity of government and reassures citizens that their society is safe, fair, and just. “

To many of us, those 187 letters are not showing either consistency or even-handedness and that leads to serious questions about the fairness and justice of society.

Gerry Kelly should also reflect on that before he goes any further with his action against the Chief Constable. His former comrade cannot be put on trial for charges of mass murder. He, however, feels free to sue the PSNI because he was carried for a few yards on the front of a vehicle.

 

 

Willie Frazer: the Loony on the Bus

Media training
Willie Frazer: the loony on the bus

In every community and every walk of life there are people with extreme, irrational and frankly deranged views on every topic you can imagine.

We all know the type, and most of us at one stage or another has been trapped next to one, in a bar, a taxi, an aeroplane, a bus or at a family gathering. Some of us humour them, others ignore them. It is generally not a good idea to challenge them unless you have an hour or so to spare and enjoy listening to strangers ranting.

None of us take them seriously and their views are of no importance because they don’t make any sense. My biggest concern whenever I’ve been trapped into conversation by one of these people is to hope and pray that nobody else is listening for fear that they will think that I am also deluded, illogical and deranged.

Which brings me to Willie Frazer.

Mr Frazer is the political equivalent of the loony on the bus, the pest at the family gathering and the boorish stranger on the plane.

He has no electoral mandate and although his buffoonery can sometimes be, well frankly hilarious, he is an embarrassment to the cause he purports to uphold.

Of course we all know people with similar views I’ve sat next to a few in my time and been cornered at social gatherings just like everybody else.

In that context I am utterly at a loss to understand just exactly why there has been such massive media coverage this week about Mr Frazer’s comments about the actress Mandy Hill wearing a school PE top logo during an episode of Eastenders. Search for long enough on Twitter and you’ll find many equally silly tweets on a bewildering variety of topics. The top is manufactured by a company that supplies the GAA but does not actually have any GAA associations on it.

Mr Frazer believes that this is unacceptable and just as bad as if she were wearing a Nazi or Ku Klux Klan uniform and is somehow glorifying terrorism.

It is a laughable argument, not worthy of discussion. I own a brown shirt. It doesn’t mean I am a fascist, I just happen to like it and nobody seeing me wearing it has ever suggested that I am endorsing any kind of view. It’s just a shirt.

If Mr Frazer was an important political player in Northern Ireland his comments would have been newsworthy in that we’d be entitled to be concerned as to why a political leader had shown such a lapse of judgement.

As he is only famous for being foolish, then it is not a story. Foolish Man Says Foolish Thing is the real headline, and is neither a news story nor a piece of entertainment.

Sadly by indulging Frazer and giving him widespread coverage two false impressions are given.

First that he is a significant enough figure for his comments to be noted and debated. And secondly that he is somehow representative and that his views are commonly held and have support.

It is this second inference that concerns me. The Protestant Unionist Loyalist community, to use a phrase I don’t especially like, does have concerns, frustrations and issues around expressions of culture and identity.

These deserve an audience and should be taken on board as part of a serious discussion about how people can live together with mutual respect and understanding.  The two traditions in Northern Ireland need to be reconciled and that can only happen when legitimate concerns are properly addressed.

By picking out the loony on the bus as being representative of widely held views and taking those views seriously misrepresents what the real issues are and contributes nothing to an important debate.

Of course there are people here with ridiculous ill-formed views but they are not representative of the vast majority of any of us. Mr Frazer has no mandate and precious little support. He only gets coverage because he has extreme opinions which he voices at every conceivable opportunity.

We should remember that because there is a danger that by holding up Mr Frazer as being representative of anything, unfairly exposes an entire community to ridicule and contempt.

And here’s a simple question for local news editors: why does a man with no influence or mandate whose only claim to fame is being a boorish buffoon excite so much media attention?

 

Northern Ireland: Better off Pink?

Have you got one on order yet?
Have you got one on order yet?

I’m really looking forward to the Giro d’Italia coming to Northern Ireland in May.

It’s a brilliant coup to have secured the start of the race and it will be fun to learn a bit more about such an exciting and spectacular sport.

We’ve had great success lately in attracting big events: last year there was the G8 Summit, the World Police and Fire Games and the UK City of Culture in Derry/Londonderry. This is an area where our politicians have excelled: getting behind proposals to bring visitors here, working together effectively, and using their networks to get results. We should applaud them for this. They do work hard at it and they do get results.

This performance is reflected in the latest tourism figures, which were published last week. They reveal that Programme for Government targets of 4.2 million visitors and £676 million tourist expenditure which were set for December 2014, have been met by September 2013.

 

It’s not very often that government targets are met, so this is cause for celebration. However delve a little deeper and there are a few more worrying statistics in the report. For example the number of overseas visitors who came on holiday, as opposed to being on business or visiting relatives and friends, actually fell during the action-packed year. The biggest factor in the rise is actually people from Northern Ireland holidaying here. So if, for example you live in Coleraine and spend a night in Belfast, you are categorised as a tourist, whether you think you are or not, and you will find yourself included in the figures. That’s fine with me – if you are staying in a hotel and eating out then your money is just as welcome as someone from Germany, Sweden or Italy.

But the lack of growth in overseas visitors is a concern and that is presumably why the Tourist Board, politicians and others are putting such efforts into making the Giro a success.

So we are being encouraged to deck out our homes, shops, restaurants in pink, which is the race colour. There is pressure on politicians who will be competing for local government and European seats during the time of the race to remove their posters from lampposts and Belfast City Council wants more than £200,000 so that empty and derelict premises passed by the riders look like thriving shops.

You get the picture. We all dress in pink for a couple of days, eat pink themed meals in pink bars, pretend there’s no political action going on, and paint over the dereliction and decay that is blighting our towns and cities.

The watching millions will be charmed by the wild beauty of the Antrim coast, they will warm to the quaintness of our streets and to a people who have taken the race to their hearts. Many may conclude that Northern Ireland is misrepresented and misunderstood and will decide to visit.

I wish the powers that be good luck with this: I hope it works. We need the money and tourism is vital to our future prosperity.

However:  a little advice. One of the biggest challenges for the PR industry is not so much coming up with ideas that make people look good, but matching the image you are creating firmly in reality. Get that wrong and the whole exercise can backfire to such an extent that you end up causing damage instead of boosting your reputation.

This has certainly been our experience here: yes great things happened last year. But there was rioting during the Police and Fire Games, and widespread disorder throughout the year which culminated in Northern Ireland featuring on Ross Kemp’s Extreme World. So let’s not be delusional about this. There’s a reason why people don’t come here on holiday and taking down posters of Anna Lo, Diane Dodds, Alex Attwood and Martina Anderson is not going to alter that, and is when you think about it, insulting to all those good people. As if anyone watching in Italy would decide, after all, not to come here when they discover what the SDLP candidate for the European elections looks like!

No the reality is that disorder and instability are symptoms of a lack of political progress. And tourism will only take off when that is addressed.

I’ve no problem whatsoever in the authorities pretending that everything is just terrific here – and I’ve got my pink shirt all washed and ironed already.  I just wish they would put in just a bit more work to actually make it so.