I’m using my privilege as a poster here to try to sum up a couple of posts by Frank Schnittger and myself which are about struggling to find meaning in the chaotic and long draw out course of the Troubles. I’d better be careful as this could lead to endless exchanges but I’ll draw the line here. Eventually we all have more urgent topics to cope with like a rudderless government during an economic convulsion.
I suppose I was trying to make sense of a huge chunk of my life before I finally abandoned it for England. In many ways for me Frank’s is the secondary question. War war always trumps jaw jaw as a favourite topic. We all get drawn into the historical obsession. I’m as guilty as anybody else. But at least I tried to concentrate on two things which were generally ignored in the usual flood of comment.
First on the limits Michelle O’ Neill set herself. She said what seemed inevitable “at the time”, namely at the outbreak and not the whole course of the Troubles. She was actually distancing herself just a little from the traditional position, discreetly and significantly in a way which expresses Sinn Fein’s position south and north.
Secondly I believe there were clear political alternatives. But these would have involved politicians on both sides of a divided community coming together for the first time in some form to cope with the scale of the emergency. It’s worth stating this counter factual not because it nearly happened – it most certainly didn’t – but because the same characteristics apply today..
It’s not as if nobody realised what was at stake right at the start. Terence O’Neill’s “Ulster at the Crossroads” TV address in 1968 delivered in excruciating sub-Churchillian tones, showed he realised it. The BBC gave airtime to the Chancellor of Queens’ the great theatre director (and BBCNI’s first announcer) Tyrone Guthrie to urge: “Why Don’t We Catch Ourselves On?”
But the O’ Neill moves towards reform were overshadowed by demos and riots which were regarded as a challenge to the state which quite obviously lacked the authority resources and techniques for dealing with them. The great mistake both sides made was to confuse the survival of the regime with the far greater cause, the safety and security of the whole community. And this was at a time when nationalists were carefully not calling for a united Ireland.
Later in 1974 and more tragically when nearly 800 violent deaths made the scale of the crisis even clearer, the obvious radical “wartime ” solution, power sharing, was decisively rejected by a considerable if not a total unionist majority. The truth, appalling to many unionists when they weren’t in denial ,was that permanent majority rule based on sectarian division however dressed up could not survive determined pressure from a one thirds minority whether supported by violence or not. And so much the better if not.
It probably would have required coherent, consistent pressure from London rather than on- off political alternating with security “initiatives” linked to sympathetic support from Dublin. For almost 30 years the scale of the problem was never quite big enough for successive UK and Irish governments to swallow their national pride and come together to deal with it on its merits rather than their own limited self interest. Sunningdale in 1973 may have shown good intentions but it also exposed how far apart the two governments were.
However the main fault lay in ourselves. Middle class leadership surrendered to working class groups right at the start which clung to mutually hostile, highly sentimental versions of their identity for lack of anything better, like a joint political sense of purpose On the nationalist side they incubated more talent and commitment than the middle class to wage a political revolution which may have failed in its ultimate objectives, but has made its enduring mark on the shape and content of politics ever since.
From the mid 1970s at the latest, the paramilitaries – overwhelmingly the IRA – held the initiative right up to the GFA and beyond until the IRA effectively disarmed. Why they were allowed to do so is the abiding question which remains to be properly addressed. Everybody else danced round them adjusting their shape in synch to their rhythm. The question has been lost in the orgy of self congratulation since the 50th anniversary of the GFA up to the recent death of David Trimble. It was amazing to observe how they ignored the supplanting of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP by the DUP and Sinn Fein, the very outcome it was hoped the GFA formulae would forestall . Meanwhile the question remains as urgent as ever, as politics remains as divided as ever.
The Alliance party on the present basis will never be big enough to transform politics. Some reformers keep wheedling ” civil society” to get more involved. Yet they stay apolitical even with their creative strategy for solving the Protocol for fear of annoying the deadlocked politicians. The mould will never be broken by standing aloof. Meanwhile votes leech to the political polar opposites in a way they never did in the past.
Photo: The power sharing Executive of 1974
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London