Why I [Almost] Stand With Squinter

The Andersonstown News’ Robin Livingstone-aka-Squinter put the cat among the pigeons with a tweet attacking Fr Martin Magill for his piercing criticism of the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders at Lyra McKee’s funeral. His claim that the leaders of our two largest political parties are “unwitting women” was ridiculous, but I agree that Magill’s intervention was problematic; in particular, it obscures the key role Loyalist paramilitaries played in collapsing the January 2018 agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP. Ironically that deal would have suited Magill and similarly ecumenically-minded but socially conservative clergy in the Protestant churches perfectly, with Sinn Féin caving to the DUP on marriage equality and abortion liberalisation while getting a fairly weak Irish Language Act in return for a restoration of the Executive. That was too much for Loyalist Paramilitaries, as well as the Orange Order, and so that deal was stillborn.

Identifying the role of Loyalist paramilitaries in the sustained failure of the institutions matters a lot; firstly on a human basis, as sustained peace means breaking the power of Ian Ogle’s murderers as well as Lyra McKee’s. Loyalists have enormously more political influence than the arrogant fantasists at Junior McDaid House. That influence in turn begs the question of whether we will have another negotiation process where the DUP’s position is deflected by the UDA and UVF. Yesterday, Arlene Foster responded to Magill’s sermon by calling for the Assembly to be restored immediately in parallel with a talks process to “resolve outstanding issues” between the parties. I think something like that is sensible, and is going to happen sooner or later anyway. It’s entirely possible that Loyalist paramilitaries, along with the hugely influential loyal orders, could scupper another deal, and huge pressure will be put on other parties not to walk out of institutions once they’ve restarted even if DUP’s reneges on agreements on social issues or the Irish language.

The really tragic thing is that we don’t get broad-based condemnation of Loyalist paramilitaries; DUP and many UUP politicians are deeply evasive. We don’t get clerics attacking politicians when Loyalists kill, we don’t get demonstrations. We just shrug our shoulders. It’s even worse across the water; you’d think in a British media culture where every ten-year-old stale tweet by a European Election candidate was a front page headline that some high-end British investigative journalist, somewhere, would have had a good poke at the relationship between the party propping up the British government and Loyalist paramilitaries, but they couldn’t care less. It’s just Paddies doing crazy Paddy things.

As for the Catholic hierarchy, they have developed a cosy relationship with the DUP leadership that would once have been unimaginable because of their common cause on social issues. This has provided the DUP with great succour that there’s a well of socially conservative Catholic votes to draw on even in the event of political failure. Let’s face it, it has been an occasional but recurrent theme in Irish political history for the Catholic hierarchy to cut deals with Westminster and Stormont governments that suited an ultramontane agenda but flew in the face of broader Catholic opinion. If Martin Magill feels it’s fair to ask Arlene and Mary Lou hard questions about why it took a the murder of a 29 year-old woman to bring people together, then he needs to ask hard questions of himself, the Northern Catholic Bishops, and the leaders of the Protestant Churches. They might also want to ask about their own role, over many, many, generations, in sustaining a segregated society riven with national and religious supremacisms.

I feel in all this, I’m striking a jarring note with a lot of what I’ve read from moderates on social media over the last 18 hours or so; even with people at the radical progressive end of that world. Lyra McKee’s murder is a bloody disgrace and had those who killed her succeeded in their aims and murdered a police officer, that would have been every bit as much of a bloody disgrace.

It is tempting, in that dismal light, to buy into the idea that with the two main party leaders publicly spanked by a standing ovation, they’ll be pressurised into being nicer to each other, a bit less sectarian, and compromising. But that says that the only thing that really matters in Northern Ireland is the sectarian conflict, and that people who seek to bridge the sectarian divide must always be seen to be even handed in their criticism. It is not, however, the case that the DUP and Sinn Féin have been equally culpable for the failure of the political institutions. The initial collapse came as a result of the DUP’s Cash for Ash scheme and public revulsion when its mismanagement became public; the failure to restore institutions in January 2018, as noted above, came when the DUP reneged on its own deal as a direct result of Loyalist paramilitary and Orange Order influence. I didn’t hear any churchmen, Catholic or Protestant, calling for an end to paramilitarism then.

Lyra was also more than capable of sounding a jarring note and trampling on a few toes when she felt it helped get her narrative out, so I felt that was the spirit I had to write in. I’m very dubious that the murder of an openly gay, pro-choice, woman is going to be used to steamroller the continued stonewalling of reforms dear to her heart and where the majority of people in Northern Ireland, across the community, are in favour of change.

I want to believe Lyra’s death won’t be in vain; I firmly believe it needn’t be in vain; she has friends whose imagination and sheer courage have inspired us all in these dark days. I don’t however think that a sticking plaster over our political problems, for which there will be enormous pressure now, is a fitting tribute. We need to be honest about why we ended up in this dark political pit of the Spring of 2019, if we’re to reach solutions that don’t bring us back here again a year or two down the line.