THE COALITION OF CHAOS

Once politicians cease to be politicians, it’s interesting how they belatedly come across as human beings; flicking between BBC and ITV coverage on Thursday night, I found the Saint & Greavsie double-act of George Osborne and Ed Balls on the latter quite entertaining and almost forgot why both provoked such loathing in me when they were in power. Perhaps there is a human being lurking somewhere in Theresa May and we won’t see it until she’s out of office; I would imagine most right now are thinking that day can’t come quick enough.

Anyone watching events on TV since Thursday night, albeit with the volume muted, might have found the images misleading. They could have come to the conclusion that Jeremy Corbyn had been elected Prime Minister and that both Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon were reflecting on relegation to the opposition benches. The expressions of the three party leaders mentioned were more a reflection of results catching them all by surprise. Jezza clearly never expected to do so well; May and Sturgeon never expected to do so badly. At the end of the day, Labour may still be in opposition and the Tories and SNP may still be the biggest parties in England and Scotland respectively, but the latter two both misjudged the public mood and paid the price. May is worse off now than when she called the Election and Sturgeon’s obsession with a second Independence Referendum has seen her lose 21 seats.

If the result of last year’s EU Referendum should have taught party leaders anything it was that the electorate don’t take kindly to condescending, smug, self-righteous arrogance in their elected representatives, and given half a chance they’ll reject being told what to do and how to vote by a pampered Parliamentary elite totally detached from their own lives. It would also appear that the antiquated assault on Corbyn by Fleet Street, utilising tired old tactics that seemed to work in the distant 80s, utterly backfired; our newspapers, like our politicians, still labour under the belief that the Sun can win it; it can’t. Few under 40 even buy newspapers now and the huge increase in the youth vote facilitated by Labour’s canny employment of the cyber language the majority of youth speak resulted in the highest turnout since 1992.

Jezza may have provided Labour with what was apparently the party’s biggest increase in the share of the vote since Clement Attlee, but it’s seats that count when it comes to a General Election. Sorry to take us back to February 1974 again, but it’s always worth remembering that Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals received the largest share of the vote in the party’s history in that Election – greater than even the share they had in the Liberal landslide of 1906 – yet that only resulted in a paltry 14 seats. Similarly, May’s Conservatives won their largest share of the vote since Thatcher’s 1983 landslide this time round, yet their majority was wiped out. A good deal of these statistics could be attributed to the fact that the vote has been less thinly spread in 2017, with the two major parties claiming 82.4% of it, the first time since the 1970 General Election that Labour and Tory could claim such dominance over the other parties.

Were it not for the fact that the Brexit negotiations are imminent, I’ve no doubt Philip May would never have to put the Downing Street bins out again; as it is, the Tories are postponing Madame Guillotine for the moment, but it’s only a postponement. Theresa May is a dead woman walking after Thursday’s result, our own equivalent of a lame duck US President midway through a second term, knowing re-election is out of the question. Yes, her two toxic advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill have walked the plank today (May ‘laying down her friends for her life’, perhaps); but their ex-boss’s brief speech after visiting Brenda yesterday, bereft of any acknowledgement of the disaster she’d presided over, spoke volumes. Theresa May is in serious denial of her own shortcomings, refusing to accept what is evident to everyone else, her own party included.

For all the success Labour managed, the fact remains that this is the third General Election in a row the party has lost; it now has more seats than it has been able to boast since 2005, but had it managed to push the Tories as tight it did under Harold Wilson in February 1974 the outcome of this Election could have been far closer and Jezza could have a more legitimate claim to form a Government than contemplating a half-arsed coalition comprising Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP that still wouldn’t constitute a majority. However, for all the scaremongering stories about Corbyn’s good relations with Sinn Fein – standing alongside Adams and McGuinness well in advance of all the Prime Ministers that have done just that from the Good Friday Agreement onwards – the irony that Theresa May is having to reach out to the Democratic Unionist Party to prop-up her minority administration, a party whose past association with Loyalist paramilitaries is hardly spotless, can’t have escaped Corbyn.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has been in chaos for months now, and the Tories throwing their lot in with the Unionist side, regardless of the traditional ties between the two, hardly looks like fair play from a Nationalist perspective. Playing the impartial broker of the peace process has been the British Government’s role ever since 1998, and May’s desperate move to cling onto power will merely add to the political turmoil in Ulster at a time when the border with the Republic in the wake of Brexit has already provoked enough uneasiness across the Irish Sea. As for the DUP’s conservative stance on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, which has received the most coverage on social media, they’re largely typical of the hardline Protestant mindset in Northern Ireland, just as they are of the hardline Muslim mindset in the rest of the UK (Ooh – Islamophobia!); but that shouldn’t be the reason why this awkward alliance is a worry.

Yet, regardless of how both last year’s Leave vote and the inconclusive result of Thursday’s General Election have served as evidence of just how disunited this kingdom really is, the PM is content to keep churning out the vacuous slogans and sound-bites she thinks will save her own skin at the expense of the country. Considering I avoided predictions when the snap Election was called, I still imagined a Conservative landslide would be the outcome and said as much. I’m glad to have been proven wrong, but God knows what comes next. Only a fool would be a betting man right now, and I can at least admit I’ve never set foot in a betting-shop.

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THE HISTORY MAN

It’s an old saying, but it seems especially applicable today – one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Martin McGuinness, who has died at the age of 66, will be remembered as both warmonger and peacemaker, a visionary who paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement and a murderer who prolonged the bloodshed until he belatedly realised there was nowhere left to run. In a divided community, few figures continue to generate more division than the mass of contradictions that was Martin McGuinness, and it’s doubtful that death will alter any fixed opinions of someone whose remarkable journey took him from the Bogside to Stormont, from IRA Commander to Deputy First Minister.

Even when he was regarded as a dangerously intransigent paramilitary by the security services, he and Gerry Adams were flown to London for top-secret discussions with the British Government at a house in Chelsea’s exclusive Cheyne Walk. The talks, chaired by then-Northern Ireland Secretary Willie Whitelaw, were undertaken during a brief IRA ceasefire in the summer of 1972; they collapsed in failure, but McGuinness had already been earmarked by MI5 as a man the Government could work with. Many might say it was a pity it took another twenty-five years, and the loss of hundreds more lives, before that came to pass.

That McGuinness could rise through IRA ranks with such speed and reach such a prominent position when still in his early twenties is testament to the dangerous life he’d chosen for himself; one-by-one, his superiors were killed in the line of duty as the violence intensified following the formation of the Provisional IRA in 1969. A Nationalist community under siege from Loyalist mobs strongly opposed to Catholic calls for civil rights had welcomed the British Army as peacekeepers in the absence of their traditional protectors; the effectively defunct IRA had been mocked as I Ran Away. The new Provisional wing embarked on a bombing campaign in Belfast and Londonderry, targeting city centre businesses to draw troops and the RUC away from the neighbourhoods where the organisation had to rebuild trust and support. It worked, aided by the increasingly clumsy joint policies instigated by both Stormont and Westminster.

A string of disasters during the early years of the Troubles, from Internment to Bloody Sunday, served as effective recruitment drives for the IRA, and while the abolition of the Unionist stronghold at Stormont may have provoked cheers on one side of the sectarian divide, the imposition of Direct Rule and the continuing presence of the British Army on the streets of Ulster galvanised the Republican call to arms that eventually crossed over to the mainland and brought the war to London and Birmingham. A year after the British Government had hoped McGuinness was someone they could work with, he was behind bars on terrorism charges in Eire; after his release, he took his first tentative steps into the political arena by becoming involved with Sinn Fein, a position that gave him indirect contact with British intelligence during the 1981 Maze Hunger Strikes. He remained someone with the potential to bring about change without the bomb, but there was still a long way to go.

The IRA ceasefire of 1994 marked a turning point both in the life of Martin McGuinness and the politics of Northern Ireland; there suddenly seemed a viable way forward that didn’t involve Armalite. In 1997 he was elected MP for Mid-Ulster and was Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator during the peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement. When the power-sharing executive was established at Stormont, he became Minister for Education, but it was his ten-year tenure as Deputy First Minister, establishing an unlikely and unexpectedly convivial working relationship with his one-time nemesis Ian Paisley as First Minister, that suggested McGuinness’ progression mirrored the progression of the province as a whole.

Another indication of the will to move on came with his regular condemnation of Republican dissident splinter groups and their recurrent attempts to revive the tactics of old. McGuinness’ landmark 2012 meeting with HM the Queen was potent with symbolism for both parties, though the fact it happened at all speaks volumes as to how far both McGuinness and Northern Ireland itself had travelled in two decades.

The understandable cries of betrayal on both sides when the Northern Ireland Assembly was formed in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement nevertheless failed to sway the determination of former enemies to work together for the common good; and men laying down their arms in favour of portfolios wasn’t necessarily unprecedented. The immediate post-war governments of France contained many who could once have been labelled terrorists, as did the first government of Israel; and there’s always post-Apartheid South Africa. Martin McGuinness was pivotal to the peace process, whatever his past activities had done to prevent peace, and this has been recognised in the statements issued by British politicians today, particularly those who played their own part in it.

Many feel (as with Gerry Adams’ similar comments) that the repeated denials by McGuinness as to the degree of his involvement with the IRA long after he claimed to have left it amounted to evasive revisionism designed to enhance his newfound status as a respectable politician. Many can never find it in them to forgive his role in a campaign of carnage that killed and maimed hundreds over a quarter of a century. One could argue most significant political leaders have blood on their hands, though it tends to come with the elevation to political power; McGuinness did it in reverse.

In death, as in life, he will always be a controversial character, albeit one that undoubtedly made an indelible mark on his times, for good or ill. Where Martin McGuinness is concerned, it seems the jury is permanently out.

© The Editor

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DERE’S MORE TE OIRLAND DAN DIS

Those in the know will rightly credit Alan Partridge with the title of this post, a suggested tagline for the doomed TV comeback of Norwich’s premier broadcaster, which he intended to come ‘live from the Blarney Stone’. To be honest, though, there’s a veritable Partridge-esque upsurge of ‘Oirish’ clichés in England today – you can’t pass a pub or a supermarket without being bombarded by images of shamrocks or leprechauns; were I Irish myself (and there’s probably a bit in me somewhere, belonging as I do to these islands’ mongrel breed) I think I’d be a tad annoyed; at what point did an Irish festival become one more marketing opportunity for the British retail sector ala Christmas, Easter and Halloween? Somehow, I can’t imagine the streets of Dublin on St George’s Day are crammed with stout yeoman clad in Union Jack waistcoats, yet the plotlines of English soap operas from Walford to Weatherfield will no doubt be marking St Patrick’s Day.

I’m not planning to jump on the emerald bandwagon today, but as it’s been a long week with a lot of posts, I figured it was the easiest/laziest option to issue a list. As an alternative to the glut of stereotypical tat decorating your local neighbourhood O’Neill’s, I thought I’d recite some Irish names that I’d rather figured on a day such as today than the aforementioned clichés. In the interests of harmony, I include both sides of the island, and to avoid any accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’, you might be relieved to hear I don’t particularly care for Guinness.

When it comes to the Arts, Ireland has produced an impressive roster of writers, playwrights, poets and musicians over the years. Many had their artistic fingers in more than one pie, though if we stick to dramatists for the moment, we could name the likes of Oliver Goldsmith in the eighteenth century, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (who had a foot in both the eighteenth and nineteenth), Oscar Wilde in the nineteenth, and two cultural giants who crossed over into the twentieth – George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey. Like his illustrious predecessors, a notable twentieth century name such as Samuel Beckett was a dramatist who didn’t reserve his entire oeuvre for the theatre. What is especially fascinating about so many Irish artists is how their artistry covers so many different fields, and Ireland has unleashed a remarkable number of genuine Renaissance Men.

That colossus of seventeenth and eighteenth century satire, Jonathan Swift, was a true polymath – still chiefly remembered by the wider public for ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, Swift was also an essayist, political pamphleteer and a poet. Beckett was also a poet, as well as a novelist; Yeats probably had ‘poet’ stamped on his passport, though he dabbled with drama as well; Joyce’s major artistic contribution was to the novel and short story, though he was also a poet; Wilde’s reputation was built on his plays, yet he produced the iconic novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, the celebrated children’s stories published as ‘The Happy Prince and Other Tales’, the poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and the lengthy letter, ‘De Profundis’.

Poetry seems particularly suited to the way Irish artists can paint pictures with words, with just a small few of the most celebrated poets being the obligatory WB Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, Cecil Day-Lewis, and far too many others to mention. But there is a poetic rhythm to much of the prose that has illuminated Irish literature, and novelists have served to put Ireland on the literary map as much as its poets. I mean, where does one start? The aforementioned Swift, Laurence Stern, Bram Stoker, Liam O’Flaherty, CS Lewis (born in Belfast), Iris Murdoch, Brian Moore, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, Patrick McCabe, Roddy Doyle…the list often seems bloody endless, to be honest – so we’d best move on.

Music has always mattered either as an artistic pursuit or simple entertainment in Ireland, though if we put ‘traditional’ Irish music to one side and glance back over the last fifty years of popular music’s ascendancy, Irish names figure quite highly. The first true Irish rock band to make an impact were Belfast’s Them during the Beat Boom of the early 60s, and they were led, of course, by Van Morrison, whose subsequent solo career eclipsed anything he achieved with his original bandmates. Many Irish musicians struggled to emerge from the shadow of the ‘Show Bands’, but in the early 70s Rory Gallagher was certainly a top live draw on the rock circuit and a critically acclaimed recording artist, though in terms of Irish exports he was usurped by the mighty Thin Lizzy and their roguish romantic leader, the late great Phil Lynott.

While singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan was the mainstream face of Irish pop in the early-to-mid-70s, the Punk era certainly produced its fair share of significant bands, from The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers to the far bigger commercial monster that was The Boomtown Rats. The late 70s also saw the arrival of a band that would go onto become not just the most successful Irish rock band of all time, but one of rock’s greatest successes full stop, U2. And after U2 came The Pogues, Sinead O’Connor, Enya, My Bloody Valentine, The Divine Comedy and all those bloody boy-bands. But having skimmed across the surface of Irish music, let’s move on to the Eurovision Song Contest.

Ireland have won the Eurovision on seven separate occasions, beginning with Dana’s ode to ‘All Kinds of Everything’ in 1970 and including two triumphs for Johnny Logan and three successive victories in the 90s. The financial strain of staging the Eurovision in Ireland year-after-year inspired the classic episode of ‘Father Ted’ in which Ted and Dougall’s terrible entry is picked to represent the nation because there’s no way it can win. For many in the UK, ‘Father Ted’ is not just the greatest work of comedy genius (other than Dave Allen) that Ireland has ever produced, but it is up there with the best sitcoms of all time. Let’s not mention ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’.

And what (I hear you ask) of actors and directors, of great inventors, of politicians and sportsmen and women? How can you not mention George Best or Alex Higgins? There, I just did. Well, I’ve only got so much space, after all – though I won’t go without honourable mention of two people you’ve never heard of called John and Noeleen Doyle; they were a couple who knocked about with my grandparents when I was a child, whose house I sometimes stopped at and whose children I sometimes played with; and because of them I still can’t hear an Ulster accent without slipping into a warm bath of aural nostalgia. Anyway, considering I’m an Englishman, it’s hard not to marvel at the sheer volume of greats that have emanated from that little landmass, and long may it continue.

© The Editor

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A TALE OF TWO ISLANDS

chuckle-brosTwo divided islands have been back in the headlines this week, and we – that is, us Brits – have something of a history with both of them; in fact, we maintain an interest that means neither has never really fallen off our national radar. I’m talking about Ireland and Cyprus. One has been a crucial, not to say a controversial, element of this little land mass’s story for centuries, whereas the other is a military legacy of our imperial adventures when we began punching above our weight on a staggering scale. One appears poised to descend into depressingly familiar factions as another shaky coalition collapses, whereas the other finally seems to have reached a point whereby some form of reunification is being cautiously discussed.

In the case of Northern Ireland, the structure of the power-sharing Executive at Stormont means the resignation of decade-long Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will have to be followed by the resignation of First Minister Arlene Foster, thus triggering an election. Sinn Fein have seven days to nominate a replacement for McGuinness, but they’ve dug their heels in and refuse to do so. One of the ironic consequences of the veteran republican’s decision is that, as of Monday, direct rule from Westminster will return to Ulster as the Northern Ireland Secretary takes charge; James Brokenshire then has six weeks in which to call an election.

Since the Northern Ireland Assembly was established in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, every election has seen the DUP win the majority vote, relegating Sinn Fein to second place on each occasion. But the fact that running Stormont is a joint office means they can still bring the Executive to a standstill if they so wish; and they have.

This latest disagreement between the two parties has been brewing for quite some time. It stems from the Renewable Heat Incentive, a 2012 policy instigated by Arlene Foster when she held the post of Enterprise Minister; she introduced the ‘green energy’ scheme that became something of a black hole for the Executive’s limited funds and could eventually cost taxpayers an estimated £490m; Sinn Fein understandably reckoned she should take some responsibility for the disaster, while the DUP have responded by accusing Sinn Fein of deliberately sabotaging the continuation of the Executive with McGuinness’ resignation.

Despite the unexpected cordiality of relations between McGuinness and then-First Deputy Ian Paisley when they first worked together in 2007 (AKA ‘The Chuckle Brothers’), tensions are never far from the surface at Stormont; indeed, it’s been something of a minor miracle that the Executive has survived this long considering the intractable differences between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Having said that, the traditional enmities dividing Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland have at least been put aside for the sake of the country over the last decade-and-a half; the same can’t really be said when it comes to an island in the Mediterranean with an equally troubled history.

In the aftermath of the 1877/78 Russo-Turkish War, Britain’s mistrust of Russia led to a clandestine deal between the UK and the Ottoman Empire in which the running of Cyprus was ceded to Britain; the Ottomans needed an ally in the region to provide military support in the face of repeated Russian aggression, and Cyprus was a handy stop-off point on the route to India. Both parties were apparently happy until the outbreak of the Great War, when the Ottoman Empire threw in its lot with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria), prompting Britain to annex Cyprus and make it a Crown Colony. Its significance as a military base proved vital over the following forty years. As the majority of the island’s population was Greek, long-held grievances over Turkish domination meant that British rule was deemed the lesser of two evils.

However, it didn’t take long before the Greek Cypriots began demanding the island be unified with Greece, leading to several violent protests in the 1930s not eased by the repressive regime instigated by the colony’s governor of the time. The Second World War suppressed such protests, with 30,000 Cypriots joining the British war effort; but the post-war era saw Greece drumming up international support for unification with Cyprus, something Britain resisted as the island’s Turks feared the worst.

The formation of the Greek Cypriot guerrilla organisation EOKA in the mid-50s unleashed a bloody campaign that became Britain’s key colonial battle in the Mediterranean following the withdrawal from Egypt. After Suez, Britain decided it would be preferable to grant Cyprus independence if it could maintain its military bases and this eventually came to pass in 1960. Britain’s military presence was called upon during a fresh outbreak of Greek-Cypriot violence in 1964, but the situation deteriorated further a decade later when Greeks overthrew the Cypriot President in a coup, prompting Turkey to invade Cyprus. The ultimate outcome of 1974 was the effective division of the island into Northern Cyprus (Turkish) and Southern Cyprus (Greek); and this state of affairs has been upheld ever since.

As Britain maintains Sovereign Base Areas in both Northern and Southern Cyprus, our commitment to the island lingers and, along with Greek and Turkey, we remain guarantor powers of Cyprus’ independence. Talks in Geneva at the moment are intended to review the situation and discuss possible reunification of the island, but the legacy of past clashes between Greek and Turkish Cypriots is a grim one that will take a considerable effort to resolve.

Over 2,000 members of both communities have been officially listed as missing persons for almost half-a-century; in recent years, the remains of more than 700 bodies have been exhumed, all victims of the atrocities that events in both 1964 and 1974 led to. If there is to be a resolution to Cyprus’ troubled history, there is still a hell of a lot to resolve.

On one hand, it could be said Northern Ireland is further along the road to recovery than Cyprus; and then we have to remember that we’re talking about just one half of a country that has been officially divided for ninety-five years, and the picture suddenly doesn’t seem much better at all. There’s a long way to go yet.

© The Editor

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BIRMINGHAM 6 WEST MIDLANDS POLICE 0

74Barely have the South Yorkshire Police finished their failed attempt to wriggle out of responsibility for one disaster than a fellow Force with a past record of equal ineptitude are faced with answering questions surrounding another. In 1974, the West Midlands Police received two warnings that the IRA mainland bombing campaign – one that had claimed 5 lives in Guildford on October 5 – was poised to strike in Birmingham; they didn’t heed the warnings and two horrific explosions at two separate city centre locations killed 21 on November 21. Their response, admittedly under tremendous pressure from both government and public, was to round-up six available Irishmen and ensure they were sent down for the massacre, a notorious wrongful conviction that led to half-a-dozen men serving 16 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit whilst the guilty parties remained unpunished.

In the aftermath of the Birmingham Six’s release in 1991, a fresh investigation was opened into the pub bombings, led not by an independent body, but by the Chief Constable of the West Midlands at the time, Ron Hadfield – aided and abetted by the ever-dependable DPP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, officers investigating a Force headed by a man in charge of the investigation came to the conclusion that there was no case to be heard after all. However, the news that a fresh inquest into the deaths of the 21 in the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 has been given the green light by coroner Louise Hunt has raised the kind of concerns that will be all-too familiar to any copper on duty at Hillsborough in 1989. Even before any such inquest has begun, the coroner’s decision has been disputed by the West Midlands Police, claiming her to be without jurisdiction to oversee an inquest. One would almost think they had something to hide.

The original 1974 inquest was abandoned before reaching its conclusions after the wrongful arrests of Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker, something that handily prevented any unwanted information leaking into the public domain. Repeated doubts over the convictions of the Six were aired by investigative journalists for years, but politicians prevented any possibility of a fair hearing until the Court of Appeal finally quashed those convictions in 1991. Although three officers involved in the case were later charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, none were prosecuted.

The public outrage over the bombings in Guildford and Birmingham led to emergency legislation being rushed through Parliament, resulting in the Prevention of Terrorism Act, something that gave police the right to hold those suspected of terrorist activities for seven days – effective Internment, as utilised so disastrously in Ulster since 1971. This created the ideal climate for West Midlands Police to beat confessions out of arrested suspects, something that enabled the actual perpetrators of the bombings to get away with them as well as preventing the families of those who died from receiving a full inquest into their deaths.

The prospect of another drawn-out hearing into an event that took place decades ago may not be to everyone’s taste; but there’s no denying that the families of the 21 have earned the right to hear what really happened. Alas, the passage of time and subsequent deaths of many who could have provided them with answers may well leave them no more knowledgeable than they are right now; but the possibility of potentially-damaging information as to the nature of collusion between the British Government, Special Branch, MI5 and the IRA itself being uncovered, not to mention exposing the dubious tactics of the West Midlands Police, is enough to vindicate the course of action announced by Louise Hunt.

Birmingham Six member Patrick Hill has publicly given his support to Justice for the 21, the campaign group formed five years ago to demand a fresh inquest; he claims the identities of those who carried out the Birmingham pub bombings have long been known to highly-placed British politicians as well as senior members of the IRA. The latter have always publicly denied responsibility for the atrocity, though Hill states they have privately admitted it and that the bombers have evaded prosecution as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Two of the alleged five are now dead, whereas two more have been promised immunity. Justice for the 21 even claims one of them was a British double-agent. Whether any of these claims will be confirmed in the legal proceedings to come remains to be seen.

What is evident, however, is that we are in for one more exposé of the endemic corruption running through the British Police Force at all levels; and how long before the whole rotten edifice is dismantled from the top on down? We can but hope.

© The Editor

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PAST AND PRESENT ARMS

WallWhen the general consensus declares a decade to be hip again, the difficult truth that a ten-year period is not a self-contained entity in which everything and everyone adhered to a specific train of thought forces the fashionista to cherry-pick the highlights. Therefore, whenever the 1960s are in vogue, we get mini-skirts, Beatle hair and hippie threads; we don’t get 60s-themed fancy dress parties with guests turning up dressed as Vietnamese peasants with their napalm-fried flesh hanging off. The 1970s have been periodically dipped in and out of for the last twenty-five years, but again it’s a very narrow vision of afro wigs and platform soles. At one time, this could be attributed to the fact that those quick to embrace the image weren’t actually there; post-Yewtree, it could be down to a need to pluck the positive from a barrage of retrospective negativity perpetrated by hypocrites who actually were there.

One aspect of the 1970s from a British viewpoint that could do without being revived is one that spanned the whole decade and beyond, only officially ending a couple of years away from the dawn of the twenty-first century. Whilst the dress sense of its practitioners during their 70s peak seems unlikely to be seen on the catwalk this summer (unless a top designer decides tank-tops are chic), the activities of Irish Republican dissidents have slowly edged back onto the periphery of the headlines.

With Sinn Fein politicians having held prominent posts in the Northern Ireland Assembly since its inception and former IRA bigwig Martin McGuinness having gone so far as to play host to the Queen, any resurgence of old-school Republicanism does seem reminiscent of Japanese soldiers still hiding out on remote Pacific islands because nobody told them the Second World War was over. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of non-sectarian political systems that followed in its wake has served to transform Northern Ireland for the better in the space of a generation, and the PR that has promoted Ulster in the last fifteen years has been almost wholly positive. Anyone old enough to recall even the 80s will remember how no national news bulletin was complete without the announcement of another callous assassination on the streets of Belfast or Londonderry or in those rural outposts the British Army referred to as ‘bandit country’. Thankfully, casual murder in Ulster no longer forms part of the daily headlines.

However, this is a corner of the United Kingdom where some communities remain physically divided by huge Berlin Wall-like edifices given a collective name that Donald Trump’s team might consider when it comes to their plans for Mexico – Peace Lines. Erected to replace the makeshift barriers of burnt-out cars and old furniture hastily shoved together at the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, the Peace Lines separate Catholics and Protestants in the notorious interface neighbourhoods of Derry and Belfast. Some are as high as 25 feet, some are as long as three miles, and – rather remarkably – more have been built since the Good Friday Agreement than before it. They both represent and perpetuate an Us and Them mindset that continues to fester in the poorer quarters of Ulster despite the progress of the past couple of decades, building on the bigotry passed down the generations to communities on both sides of the divide.

It’s no real surprise that the worst excesses of Nationalism live on in such neighbourhoods; I doubt there’s much else that can provoke passion when former Republican heroes like McGuinness are seen lording it up at Stormont. Most would be of the opinion that McGuinness has done his bit for the Cause, but if your daily existence revolves around the limited opportunities on offer in a sink estate as bad as any in mainland Britain – with the additional grim feature of a 25-foot wall greeting you first thing on a morning – the sight of Martin McGuinness being driven in a Ministerial limousine en route for tea and scones with Her Majesty probably feels less relevant to Republicanism than a mural marking an incident that occurred in the seventeenth century.

The various IRA splinter groups that have continued to operate on a small scale since the Provos decommissioned their arsenal have often filled their time either controlling the illegal drug supplies in and out of Northern Irish cities, indulging in bank robberies and petty crime, or simply ‘policing’ their areas with the same ruthless notions of law enforcement that are characteristic of the dark days of the 70s. Recent attacks on individuals in Northern Ireland have sounded distinctly paramilitary in nature; when someone is shot in the legs, one cannot help but remember the horrible punishment known as ‘knee-capping’.

The language used by the group calling itself ‘The New IRA’ – a method of distinction presumably along the lines of what distinguishes The Seekers from The New Seekers – has a ring of the bad old days about it and yet also possesses an inherent and curious quaintness that renders it almost comical, declaring its members are ‘determined to take the war to the age-old enemy of our nation’. One could positively wince at the clichés. Just as some political parties seem happier in permanent opposition than in government, there are clearly many disgruntled diehards in Ulster who will never accept what is good for the province as a whole and can only relate to what makes their lives feel fulfilled, thriving on chaos rather than submitting to order.

That their activities have apparently caused the threat of mainland Republican attacks to rise up the charts for the first time since the 90s must have made their day and vindicated their futile attempts to drag the British Isles back forty years. Expecting this deluded little outfit to compete with the blood-chilling professionalism of the new kids on the terrorist block, however, is a bit like watching the corner shop take on Waitrose. The majority of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland have moved on. As have the British troops that provided the paramilitaries with their violent raison d’être. Wake up and smell the century, chaps.

© The Editor

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THE GREEN GODDESS

001Amidst the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, one name hasn’t been mentioned as much as one might expect, though her absence from the siege at the Dublin Post Office and the fact she evaded execution perhaps excludes her from the roll-call of Republican martyrs. Countess Constance Markievicz was a remarkable woman in more than one respect, however. The fact that she was the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons should be enough to ensure her place in history, even though she didn’t take her seat on account of refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the King, representing Sinn Fein in the 1918 Parliament when it was the third largest party with a tally of 73 seats.

She was an unlikely rebel, emanating from Anglo-Irish aristocracy and yet bearing the distinction of being the only uniformed woman officer of the Irish Citizen Army in 1916 and being posthumously honoured with a statue in Dublin, the sole female participant in the Easter Rising to receive such recognition. When Sinn Fein MPs formed the first Dali Eireann rather than head for Westminster, she was awarded the post of Minister for Labour, one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position.

Although I had delved into Irish history for many years, perhaps inspired by lingering childhood confusion at the reasons behind the Troubles and IRA mainland activity, the name of Constance Markievicz was totally unknown to me until I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a 1934 biography of her in a second-hand book shop around a decade ago. The book, written by an acquaintance of hers, Sean O’Faolain, opened a window onto a world when born beneficiaries of the British Empire questioned the right of Britain to rule over its nearest neighbour and were sufficiently enamoured with the rise of anti-imperialist socialist nationalism as a political force to sacrifice their social standing for the romanticism of rebellion. Markievicz could count the likes of poet WB Yeats and playwright Sean O’Casey amongst her closest friends and was prepared to take up arms when many of her class and upbringing would have run a mile.

Eventually labelled ‘The Red Countess’, Constance Markievicz entered the world as Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in the capital city of the Empire, London, in 1868. Her father, though an Anglo-Irish Baronet, had an independent streak that manifested itself as adventures exploring the Arctic; though a prominent landowner in Ireland, he had an unusual (for the time) sympathy with the workers on his County Sligo estate and distributed free food to them during one of Ireland’s periodical famines in 1879-80. His altruism made a deep impression on his two daughters Constance and Eva, both of whom developed an affinity with the perennial struggle of the poor and oppressed that was unconventional for their privileged status.

Whilst studying painting at London’s Slade School of Art, Constance joined the nascent battle for women’s suffrage; she was clearly a woman in need of a cause and the women’s movement seemed tailor-made for her. However, relocating to Paris removed her from the Suffragette frontline and it was in the French capital where she met her future husband, artist and Polish exile Casimir Markievicz, who styled himself ‘Count’ even though there was no concrete evidence he possessed such a title. Nevertheless, Constance Gore-Booth was known as Countess Markievicz from the moment of their London wedding in 1900.

The newlyweds set up home in Dublin and ingratiated themselves with the Irish artistic intelligentsia, picking up on the then current fad for reviving traditional Gaelic culture, which quickly morphed into nationalistic passion opposed to British rule; Constance found the circles she was mixing in revitalised her rebellious streak and she returned to the Suffragette cause. Her most notable contribution to the cause during this period was publicly opposing the re-election of Winston Churchill to Parliament during a Manchester by-election in 1908; that Churchill failed to be re-elected was attributed to the Suffragettes hounding his hustings campaign. By now a member of Sinn Fein, Constance’s political activities were growing increasingly radical and she suffered imprisonment for the first time in 1911 after speaking at a meeting of the Irish Republican Brotherhood opposing the Royal visit of George V.

Seeing the native poor as the most evident casualties of British imperialism on home soil, Constance joined the Irish Citizen Army, which was initially set up to aid striking workers combat the actions of police brutality in 1913. Her involvement with the paramilitary elements of the Nationalist movement meant that when the Easter Rising erupted she was at the forefront of the action. She held the rank of lieutenant during the six-day siege at St Stephen’s Green, which ended when news of the surrender of the Post Office reached the 200-plus insurgents holding out in the Dublin park. Evading execution purely on account of her sex, a sentence of life imprisonment ended at Aylesbury Prison in Buckinghamshire the following year when the British Government granted an amnesty for survivors of the Rising.

Her historic election to Parliament in 1918 tends to be overshadowed by Nancy Astor, the second woman MP (elected in 1919), largely because Astor took her seat at Westminster; ironically, Constance was more eligible to be there in that Astor had been born in the US and she had been born in London, but the new Irish Republican Government was her political destination. She was a member of that Government until 1922, when she left as a protest over the Anglo-Irish treaty that created the Irish Free State, and also left Sinn Fein for the newly-formed Fianna Fail party in 1926. Despite further spells behind bars during this period, she also played a part in the Irish Civil War and seemed set to remain a distinctive fixture on the Irish political scene until her untimely death as a result of complications arising from appendicitis at the age of 59 in 1927.

Constance Markievicz may well be revered by Irish historians, but she really deserves wider recognition as a key figure belonging to a generation of brave and groundbreaking women who broke down barriers that presented a far more imposing obstacle to female emancipation than the trivial concerns that so preoccupy certain sections of feminist thinking today.

© The Editor

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