Friday, March 28, 2008

The GFA's been signed ...

... get out of jail free.

Oh joy. There's to be a new Belfast edition of the famous board game Monopoly.

Like other special editions in recent years, it'll have local place names, but this time interestingly they're going to include special Northern Irish banknotes (funny, I wondered where they all went, obviously they were stolen by the Irish Recycling Authority).

Suits from Monopoly HQ will be canvassing public opinion in the city on what placenames to include. Obvious candidates there, but what about the Chance cards? I have a few ideas.

Community Chest: You get stuck in a revolving door at Stormont. Go back to Castlereagh.

Chance: You get a job with the Shoukri brothers. Collect 200 pounds from each player.

Any offers?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Poacher turned gamekeeper

In 40+ years I've never discovered how "brouhaha" is pronounced, but whatever way there's spade-loads of it in Fermanagh this week with the news that Seán Lynch is to join the District Policing Partnership.

Sinn Féin support policing and are joining the DPPs, which is good, and Lynch is the Chairman of Sinn Féin in Fermanagh, so no surprise that he's joining. Trouble is: he served 12 years in jail for terrorist offences and was the IRA's so-called Officer Commanding while he was there. And now he'll be policing the police.

Tom Elliott, our MLA and local councillor, is asking pointedly whether Lynch is still in the IRA. Good question. Aren't they still an illegal organisation? Amazingly, Bert Johnston of the DUP is taking an easier view of it, welcoming SF's involvement. I never thought I'd see the day those roles were reversed, but we've come a long way.

There's a harsh irony in this, difficult to swallow and obvious to any observer, but my take is simple. It's right to grit our teeth and accept it, encourage it even. I'd rather have Lynch ensuring our policemen did their jobs than ensuring they met early deaths.

This is democracy, folks. Lynch is elected to office, and whatever you think of his past you have to respect the votes of those who put him there. He's accountable to them, so "game on", I say.

I would really welcome it if Seán Lynch were to come out and say he'd left the IRA for good. Or if the IRA disbanded, as I think they should. And they should. But we have to believe people can change and encourage them to do so, not beat them with nasty words when they try to do something honorable.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ten years on

It's 10 years since the Belfast Agreement was signed. Remember those stiff speeches as each leader tried to apply his own spin? That day, apparently, the union was never safer, while the Brits were a step further towards going. Funny thing, compromise, but welcome all the same.
Reflecting on those days, Seamus Mallon offers an interesting perspective on the future too, in a piece by the BBC's Martina Purdy, daring to utter some thoughts I touched on a few posts ago. Martina writes, he suggested there may be federal or confederal arrangements in future. (Mallon verbatim: "I believe Britain will go, they will leave. I don't think that will result in a 32 county political arrangement."
Indeed, looking back twenty years from now, it may well be black-and-white politics which are confounded. Under 20th century Ulster logic, a British Northern Ireland or usurption into a 32-county republic were the only options. Still are for most people. And in a world of antithesis, such as prevailed until - arguably - the 1998 Belfast Agreement, such black-and-white views were logical and defensible. But all of Ireland has changed since then, and so have the UK and Europe too.
A third way? Gotta be. An independent Norn Iron or joint protectorate would be unworkable, but maybe a semi-detached Northern Ireland leading to a federal borderless Ireland would be a model worth exploring, but only only political hemp-smokers would suggest we're ready for that now.
Happy Easter to all.

Monday, March 17, 2008

True Grit

Strong-muscled, healthy and with a lifetime of service before them, young men make the best slaves.

Snatched by Irish raiders to his home town on the Cumbrian coast, the preacher's boy learnt the strange Ulster dialect of his Celtic mother-tongue whilst looking after animals in the hills of what we call County Antrim. After a few years he escaped and did what we'd all do. He went home.

Later, with renewed Christian faith and a vision that the Irish needed to hear the great news about God, Jesus, forgiveness and new life, Patrick again set his eyes westward and cast off into the unsure.

To us, the details of Patrick's life are a mix of debated record and myth. But the result of his life is indisputed: the birth of faith in Jesus in the hearts of our forebears, a legacy for countless generations whose importance transcends ethnicity, politics and our ideas on theology.

As we raise our glasses of Guinness today to a chorus of "cheers" or "sláinte", let us pause and reflect - as the cool pride of Ireland guilds our throats - how much courage must it have taken to leave, this time willingly, and return across the Irish Sea.

Given the dangers, Patrick must have been a man transformed, on fire with conviction! May that passion for Christ grip us all.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

On Paisley and the Union

It'll be the end of an era when Ian Paisley retires in May as First Minister, but more importantly as leader of the DUP - the party he founded when traditional Unionists were getting too cosy with Catholics.

Although Protestant, most of my family and friends viewed Paisley as a bigot and an embarrassment, but he was a useful embarrassment when the IRA was shooting Fermanagh farmers like dogs in their tractor cabs. Like him or loathe him, though, you have to admire a man who held so much public goodwill for so long.

In Ireland, where church leaders are often political as well as pastoral, Paisley pointed the way to Heaven and provided an almost physical guarantee of constitutional rule. He was, in short, the Planters' Pope.

Yet he was not unassailable. His church's right wing rejected him as leader when he shared power with Sinn Féin, and many press reports claim his party rejected him for nepotistic employment practices and for failing to criticise his son's dubious property dealings. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

The fact that Paisley lasted so long at the top of British-Irish politics may, however, be less down to his undoubted political ability and more a function of the utter hopelessness of the Unionist prospect. He was a strong, loud, uncompromising voice during an era when the tide finally turned and Irish Unionism found itself, ultimately, isolated by Downing Street. He did what he prevented Trimble doing ten years before because he had one big advantage over all previous Unionist leaders - he didn't have Ian Paisley standing in the wings shouting "sell-out!".

To that extent Paisley was personally responsible for slowing down the normalisation of Ulster society. Seamus Mallon was right when he labelled the GFA "Sunningdale for slow learners". I go further. If Terence O'Neill had shared power with Gerry Fitt in the 60's we'd have been spared 30 years of terrorist genocide, the DUP would be the TUV, England wouldn't have tired of us and the Union would be no less (or more) secure than it is with Scotland. The phrase "armalite and ballot box" would never have been coined, people would wonder who Bobby Sands was, the Miami Showband would still be playing, Sinn Féin would be a benevolent association for ageing anti-partitionists and, much more importantly, social division in Northern Ireland would by now have experienced the first forty years of healing instead of merely the birth pangs of an uncertain future.

However, we are where we are and must deal with present realities. Paisley's late-career realpolitik was unavoidable and, in the end, the right thing to do. It was right to recognise Sinn Féin's electoral mandate, and it was right, for Unionists, to get the best possible deal while still able to negotiate.

You see, the writing's been on the wall for Unionism for forty years, indeed arguably for 100 years. The following statement may surprise those aggravated by my rejection of Irish terrorism, but partition is neither natural nor sustainable in the long term. Even die-hard Unionists know this to be true and waste no effort on optimistic thoughts of the future. They know there's nothing to gain, only things to give up. Indeed "siege unionism" is now the norm, especially in the West, where every dagger-blow hurts and the golden age is a feature of fading memories, not future dreams. Young Unionists, especially, find this atmosphere so depressing whereas, in the mind of Shinners, the golden age is still to come, bringing a dynamism Unionists find so perplexing and so threatening.

In 50 years' time, Paisley's retirement will be seen as the end of popular Unionism - not because of weak successors but because the job of Unionism was largely completed. Unionism may have served the Irish Protestant during the dark days of the birth and establishment of the Irish Republic, but now that it has matured as a democratic state largely free of the influence of Roman Catholicism and the Gaelic ascendancy we may well see that Ulster Protestants find themselves increasingly attracted to the idea of a borderless Ireland, albeit - I stress - under the right political and social circumstances and in an atmosphere of growing friendship between Ireland and the UK.

That's a transition I've made in my own political outlook, and it's one worth exploring. Our grandchildren may thank us for it.