Speech by Malachi O’Doherty at Alliance Annual Conference

Malachi O’Doherty is the author of ‘I Was a Teenage Catholic’ and is a commentator for the Belfast Telegraph.

Moments of sudden and overwhelming change occur in life. We may not expect them yet often after they have happened we can look back and see the progress towards them and wonder how anyone including ourselves could have failed to see in advance that they were inevitable.

Yet we live our lives by pushing aside the contradictions and the difficulties until they can be ignored no longer and then we write our history as a history of contradiction and difficulty rather than as a history of denial.

Divorce lawyers know this better than anybody. They say you never really know somebody until you have divorced them. Estranged partners attest that all the time, that they were taken by surprise. She never seemed to mind me having a drink then one day I came home and all my clothes were on the doorstep.

You live with somebody and you ignore the bad temper and the drinking and the smelly feet, treating them as lapses from basic civil decency, until one day all you can see is the anger and drunkenness and the pollution of your bed. The offensive one may be genuinely surprised that you have flipped but there is no talking you out of it this time. What enrages you now is not last night’s bad behaviour but a lifetime of bad behaviour and the marriage is over.

There is nothing more pathetic than those who plead for the offender, as if there has only been one offence, except perhaps those who insist on the innocence of the offender when it is clear that the offence was entirely in character and was only going to be repeated again if forgiven again.

That is where we are now with the Provisional movement. The flip has happened and it cannot be reversed and those who conduct their politics on the basis of the thinking that preceded the flip will be annihilated.

Sinn Fein in January urging Bertie Ahern to get back into talks to see if that one little hurdle could be resolved – the DUP’s unreasonable demand for a humiliating photograph of weapons decommissioning – was as pathetic as the drunken husband going back to the house next day, with his clothes in bin bags, to reassure his wife that he had come home late the night before because he was out buying her a birthday present.

The rest of us look back on all the efforts to get Sinn Fein into a political deal and feel simply that we have been humiliated, that we were just too blind to see the obvious, that they never wanted a deal. And that fresh conviction accords so well with the facts as we know them that we could not be talked out of it. The Northern Bank robbery did not set Sinn Fein back just one round of the negotiating process. There is no conceivable possibility that they could acknowledge it, apologise for it and pick up where they left off before it. What has been damaged, indeed convincingly refuted, is their entire credibility as serious players in a quest for democratic resolution.

That is not to say that others will not try to make it work. Tony Blair is very much a schemer out of the same mould as Gerry Adams and probably understands Gerry Adams a lot better than you or I do. He may well try, like some deft and charming poker player, to rope us back into another round and to assure us that he will protect us from the cheater. Be extremely careful of that, because those who go into another game may lose the next game and achieve nothing but taking the blame on themselves for the next breakdown.

Bertie Ahern seriously believed last December that the DUP’s requirement of a photographing of decommissioning was the only obstacle to the completion of a deal. One cannot be overcautious of someone as naive as that.

1What went wrong?

What went wrong was that the peace process was regarded as a project outside the rules of ordinary politics. It was regarded as a quasi religious project. People who knew better encouraged us to believe that a spiritual transformation was occurring inside Northern Ireland and that people who had been brutal and manipulative leaders of ethnic cults and death squads were undergoing a change of heart.

Do you remember the Northern Ireland office ads: a man of 50 comes out of prison, reflecting on his own paramilitary past to see that his own son has become a killer too. I’m a lot like you, Dad.

At the time, I thought those ads were directed at the leaders of the paramilitary organisations themselves to try and coax them to see that they faced the tragedy of their own children being condemned to reliving the troubles. Now I realise that those ads were aimed at all of us, as all ads are, to coax us into believing that a change of heart had come over the paramilitary leaders and that they were now ready to settle terms for the sake of a pipe and slippers and the odd night in the pub with their sons.

The idea that the peace process might be a spiritual event was imported from South Africa. South Africa had a leader who was revered worldwide as a man of superior conscience. Without scrutinising the details of their peace process, we could see that the massive civil war we had anticipated through the Eighties had been miraculously averted in the Nineties. Well that was in keeping with the spirit of the times. Walls had come down all over Europe. Soviet Russia had been opened up by an imaginative leader that Mrs Thatcher could do business with. We must not blame ourselves now the for agreeing to believe that a global miracle was occurring and that we were part of it, though you would think that the Balkans and Rwanda would have reminded us that the pendulum swings the other way too.

The peace package was sold to us by politicians pretending to be saints and the chief of these were Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Mo Mowlam and Gerry Adams.

Much of the inspiration for this approach came from South Africa. I remember an introduction to a South African diplomat by the Northern Ireland office. The South African explained to us that a major breakthrough had occurred during peace talks there when one of the delegates travelling to the venue in his helicopter diverted to help an injured child, the child of a delegate on the other side.

The diplomat told me: when our people saw that their people loved children too it made a big difference to our perspective of them.

This patronises and infantilises people here and their political differences. We should have laughed at those who told us that unionism and republicanism would find common ground through personal relationships. No one argues that Tony Blair and Michael Howard would learn to moderate their language at Question Time if they got to know each other’s wives and children.

It also played into the hands of those political leaders who wanted to avert discussion of the issues which divided them from their enemies. Gerry Adams, at staged rallies on the Falls Road, personally lifted small children onto the stage to advertise himself as a decent and gentle human being. It was all beside the point. Who doubted that the man was capable of ordinary human civility? That was not in question. But if children got blown to smithereens in IRA operations sanctioned by him he seemed well able to retain his composure and resolve.

Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein routinely used language which referred to South Africa and implied that he was the Mandela figure of Northern Ireland and that all would be well if he only had a de Klerke settle final terms with.

Much of the media bought this.

Then, God help us, we had Mo Mowlam.

The woman was a complete nincompoop.

Mo was the apostle of anti politics. She was also the glove puppet of Tony Blair. It was clear at times of intense negotiation that she was extraneous. Her function had been to treat us like children and to set aside all consideration of real political issues. Through Mo, our conflict would be presented to Britain and the wider world as essentially infantile. The problem was not that we had impassioned and committed political leaders asserting incompatible communal positions; it was that we just didn’t know each other well enough to get along. This was a variant of a very old idea about the Irish, that they are immature and driven too much by their passions. Those who believe this and are not Irish themselves are enabled to feel very good about themselves in contrast with us. Those who are Irish and believe this must prefer to be pampered than to be treated as adults. And those who recognised the strategy and saw that truculence would be indefinitely indulged, and who saw themselves as outsmarting the imperialist, had a point.

Even last week I was on a radio programme arguing with another journalist who thought that one of the great contributions to peacemaking in Northern Ireland had been the publishing of joint editorials by the News Letter and the Irish News. This was of course entirely inconsequential and pure propaganda. It was propaganda for the myth that all we needed was a change of heart and that a change of heart was already underway. We were being coaxed out of thinking politically. The one thing we must never lose sight of: politics! Politics!

For some the peace process was a means of taking us out of stagnant politics into no politics.

The presumption of their thinking was that we are not fit for a political engagement here. Those who have most affected to be concerned for our welfare have been among those most patronising of us and most persuaded in themselves that we are not ready for the high risks of a functioning democracy.

There are people in government positions and in diplomatic positions who think that Northern Ireland has yet to evolve politically into the maturity of responsible civic commitment. Before that, if we are to go through a phase of corrupt politics, polluted by gunplay and espionage, well sure that’s normal, they tell themselves. Belfast in the 21st century will be like Boston in 19th, with its ward bosses, its bribery, occasional violent pruning and its crime links. And out of this will emerge the power blocs which will determine the political shape of future decades as the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys emerged out of the hustling, the dealing, the killings of the 19th century in Boston.

Be aware that that political environment is what many of those who say they are nurturing us towards peace think is all we are fit for.

And those who would seek to give us that kind of politics are very happy to indulge the patronising fantasies of those who think it is all we are fit for. What else is going on when Sinn Fein says that it must demur on the prospect of entering government, taking ministerial seats, assuming responsibility for devolved policing powers and making important decisions for the future of the electorate because those lot over there, yes themuns, insist on a photograph of decommissioning procedures which have already been agreed?

People believe that that was a legitimate reason for scuppering devolution because they believe we are children here and that we don’t yet understand how politics functions in the real world. They believe that that was the real reason for the collapse of talks because they cannot contemplate the possibility that they are simply being outmaneuvered, for goals they can barely conceive of, by the very people they have been presuming to patiently educate.

Their presumption of our political immaturity is the present-day equivalent of their long held assumption that we are passionate, unreasoning and — a late 20th century addition this — quaint.

It has come to be thought of as a stinging insult to tell a party here that it is electioneering and politicking with the peace process. What, in under God, is a political party for if not to fight elections and play politics? Yet this is now regarded as low motivation in the context of the peace process. It seems only one party is allowed, by the rules of peace processing, to fight for votes, and that is Sinn Fein.

When Bertie Ahern accuses Gerry Adams of bad faith in sanctioning a bank robbery during a talks process, Gerry Adams has one ready rebuke at hand that will shut him up: you are turning this into party politics because you are afraid of our vote: as if he wasn’t doing exactly the same thing himself. But can Bertie accuse Gerry of electioneering on the back of the peace process? No because the rise of Sinn Fein is provided for within the process itself. There are few who would not regard it as a setback to the peace process if the Sinn Fein vote fell and their supposed journey from violence to politics was seen to be unproductive for them.

We are living in a changed political context. That change came with the shock of disillusionment felt after the robbery of the Northern Bank. Now most of the media is concentrating on the McCartney sisters and their campaign for justice but that campaign has been relatively successful in attracting media attention and political sympathy because of the changed context since the bank robbery.

There are two myths which are accompanying much of the journalism about the McCartney sisters’ campaign. The first of these is that the IRA has changed from being a principled defender of the Catholic community into an organisation more barbarous and less politically astute.

The second myth, related to this, is that the Catholics of Short Strand live in perpetual danger of being overwhelmed by tens of thousands of Protestants living in East Belfast.

These myths cushion the shock of the changed context for people like those who read the Guardian for guidance on Northern Ireland. These myths reassure people that they were not wrong to trust in Gerry Adams and the IRA through the decade since the first ceasefire. They allow people to imagine that, had Robert McCartney been disembowelled seven years ago that would have scuppered the Good Friday Agreement.

It would not have damaged the Agreement at all.

The McCartney sisters would have gone up to Stormont or Hillsborough and Mo Mowlam would have lent them a hanky to dry their eyes with and gone back inside to discuss the way forward with Martin McGuinness. Do you think it is crass to suggest this?

Three months after the Good Friday Agreement, in circumstances remarkably similar to those in which Robert McCartney died, an IRA man who had quarrelled with Andrew Kearney sent a squad to his home in a block of flats on the New Lodge Road. They shot him in the legs and left him to bleed to death, ripping out the phone so that help could not be summoned and jamming the lift so that no one could get to him.

Maureen Kearney, Andrew’s mother, was a Republican from Twinbrook. She picketed the talks at Stormont in 1999, when Blair told us there had been a seismic shift in IRA attitudes, and Tony Blair drove past her, Bertie Ahern drove past her, no one paid a blind bit of notice.

Why the McCartneys and not the Kearneys? Because the entire political climate is different now. When Maureen Kearney sought justice for her son, the broad political consensus was that the best way to put an end to violence was to complete the political process. By the time the McCartneys were calling for justice, all faith in that project had virtually collapsed.

Charlie Bennett. Trussed and shot in the head. In July 1999, on the eve of a review of the agreement chaired by Senator George Mitchell. Mo told us that to the IRA ceasefire had been breached but not broken.

Consider the broader implications of the changed context.

One is that the IRA is seriously challenged to go away. It is responding to that challenge with increasing bullishness. It can only go so much further in asserting its legitimacy and its right to kill who it pleases before it will have to end the ceasefire.

Maybe that bullishness will cost Sinn Fein votes.

Consider the implications if it does not. If Sinn Fein ascertains that it does not need to get rid of the IRA in order to thrive electorally, it will never get rid of the IRA. It will be free to argue that the IRA itself has a mandate and that argument will be more plausible the more visible the IRA has been in the run-up to the election.

Remember 1996. The IRA ended its ceasefire in February and went on to fight four elections: to the Forum, in Westminster, local government and the Dail and it raised its vote in all four. That enabled Republicans to argue with their colleagues that the IRA was not an electoral liability and for all we know it was to test this very question that the ceasefire was suspended and not for the much less plausible myth presented at the time, that John Major had ditched the Mitchell principles, which he hadn’t.

Our peace and welfare may depend on Sinn Fein suffering a reversal in the coming elections.

If the Catholic majority vote for Sinn Fein, knowing that the IRA is in bullish form, that will be taken as an expression of a lack of civic responsibility on the part of that community. They will have voted for spy rings and robbery.

What brought the Catholic community into assertive protest politics was their sense of being alienated within Northern Ireland. Brookeborough had asked if it was wise to have one about the place. Others will be asking the same question now in a new environment of suspicion and fear.

There is another implication of the recent political collapse which would be exacerbated by an increased Sinn Fein vote. Catholics came into political discussion in Northern Ireland from a position of disadvantage and moral authority. As the people who had been discriminated against they were the ones with the prior claim to have the political setup adjusted to their needs.

If the majority of Catholics vote for Sinn Fein — that party having scuppered every political prospect available to it in defence of the IRA’s right to carry on — where then will be the moral authority of a disadvantaged people?

When it came to it, even Ian Paisley was ready to make a deal that would put IRA leaders into government. It was Republicans who were found wanting and if their failure is endorsed by the electorate, then it will never again be possible for nationalism to refer to its history of disadvantage and discrimination in arguing for political change.

The negotiations between Nationalism and Unionism will be weighted as a simple contest of arguments, a contest of ideas not inherent principles or ancient grievances.

I don’t think for a moment that this reality has sunk in with either Sinn Fein or the SDLP. In a divided society both sides harangue each other. The SDLP and Sinn Fein routinely attacked the Unionists and the DUP for their obstructive approach to the Agreement. But it would be a cavalier reading of our recent history that would say that Republicans were ready and Unionists were not.

Now, where does that leave those of us want to defend the middle ground?

It leaves us better positioned to say that the case is no longer moral or historical but rational and political.

The Alliance party is not going to take power in Northern Ireland. I suspect you already know that.

No one is going to take power in Northern Ireland. The credibility of Sinn Fein has been squandered. Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair would, no doubt, like to take Gerry Adams by the hand into a new round of talks. There is no point.

The SDLP insisted that will not take part in any executive which is not inclusive. It announces therefore that a vote for themselves translates into a vote for lying, scheming, murdering Sinners in office. Mark Durkan tells his colleagues that to negotiate an executive without Sinn Fein would be political suicide. But none of them has seen fit to persuade him emphatically that it will simply be impossible to negotiate an executive with Sinn Fein. Seven years ago I imagined that the middle ground would be secured by the SDLP and Ulster Unionists working together. They hadn’t the bottle for it. Today there is only one middle ground party of any importance and that is yourselves.

None of you will ever be ministers in Stormont but neither will any one else from a local party.

In this new political context in which society is polarising and parties that we could once invest hope in are falling apart, it will not be by electoral office that people of political imagination will influence others. It will be by argument.

The Stepford Sinners will go on reciting their robotic party lines and those who believe them will do so by choice motivated by nothing other than sectarian solidarity.

The DUP will be insufferably smug, having been let off the hook. In private they may reflect on how much damage they would have sustained had they blundered into an agreement with Sinn Fein and the bank robbery had then gone ahead. They will not risk that again.

And you?

You will have to be a vehementally anti sectarian. You will have to assert the primacy of political thinking in the political world. Never again should we be asked to suspend our political faculties by the likes of Mo Mowlam and Tony Blair and Gerry Adams and to put our faith in some kind of spiritual transformation instead.

But after such a long drain on our reason this society will need to be educated in politics and responsibility.

Look around you. If these are the only people fit to speak sanely, and with untarnished credibility in a political wasteland, then so be it.

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