Sorry I wasn’t able to get to Tuesday’s discussion of the media’s role at the time of the Belfast Agreement, it would have been a pleasure to be back in the company of many audience members with whom I had shared some great moments since that time.
Hearing them speak you realise how long and isolating the process of waiting for some or any product was back then. And also how well resourced the media was. Would the modern day BBC NI have such huge affordance these days? It seems unlikely.
As resource in the mainstream media dropped, new digital platforms forced many local news operations to go online for much less cash. Then, much more damagingly, the microblogging ecosystems arrived to swipe whatever money was left on the table.
The conversation was of a golden age or what became the beginning of the end of one that had lasted a very long time. Ex Irish News man William Graham reminded us he had started in the profession just before the troubles at the tender age of seventeen.
These days – long retired – he works from ground up far from the lights of journalism in the hope that with enough privacy something of value may grow safe from the infectious sectarianism that hangs around our public square like stale CS gas.
It was good to see Ken Reid there. Apparently he had written to say the week before that he couldn’t make it as he was receiving treatment in hospital. However when he heard George Mitchell’s speech, wild horses wouldn’t keep him away from the place.
I’m glad, whatever his discomfort, he made it. Ken is a journalist’s journalist. He’s direct, doesn’t mess around with speculation and tells you what he thinks. As their point man on politics for UTV for years, he never let a briefing direct his reports.
In response to one of the outstanding contributions of the evening from David Kerr (where I’ve started the video on the Slugger YouTube channel below), Ken reflected on the alienation of ordinary people from the actual business of democratic politics:
The part of the agreement that people don’t pay enough attention to is there was there was room in there for a review. The fact is that the centre ground is growing and yet it’s not catered for in terms of the agreement. That’s something that can be sorted out within the auspices of what has been agreed.
Now that’s important because one of the things that would worry me is a turn off of politics, with people not being interested. I mean at the hospital, at the moment, talking to nurses and various people doctors, you know, I get the impression a lot of them just aren’t that interested.
He referenced Kerr’s point which is that this was never meant to be a project of limited duration. Yes, we’ve hit problems but Kerr argued that “in order to move away from the trauma of the troubles that we lived through we have to have perspective”.
The perspective he outlined is only likely to be properly found a full 50 years on from the original agreement:
Over the next 25 years we’re going to have to be brave and we’re going to have to push the boundaries and we’re going to have to take risks again to make this society the place that we all know it can be.
Kerr pinpointed a general lack of assertiveness on the part of both the moderates and the governments back in 1998 when it came around to having to impose conditions on the ongoing autonomy of paramilitarism.
He recalls that…
…instead of the government’s pressing for IRA and Loyalists for decommissioning they put the pressure on him [Trimble] to go into government without any decommissioning. That [then] led to huge political instability in those years and it caused no end of problems and ultimately it cost Trimble his political career.
So I do blame the two governments for being soft and paramilitarism at that time and they’re still being soft on paramilitaries. We have a problem today because we weren’t assertive enough as a society at that time to say to thesepeople ‘enough’. And to resource the police and the security services to put these people out of business.
Henry Patterson argued in the News Letter earlier this week, with considerable justification, that Trimble’s genius (too often ignored or sideline to the more obvious virtues of his partner in peace making, John Hume) remains only poorly recognised.
He notes the nature of the fault line between Trimble and his rivals in the DUP and those others who lay to his right:
The bedrock of Trimble’s proactive and confident unionism was a conviction that the IRA was being defeated. He expressed it clearly in an interview with a Spanish academic in 1995. The ceasefire was an admission of the failure of armed struggle: ‘Even though the ceasefire may be merely a tactic, the fact that they have had to change their tactic is an admission that the previous tactic has failed…the republican movement is being defeated slowly …from our point of view we have to ensure that while it is winding down that it does not cause any political or constitutional change that is contrary to the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.’
However, it was precisely in the Blair government’s managing of the process to ensure a soft landing for republicans that Trimble’s opponents in his party and the DUP would find the material to destroy him. Trimble seriously misjudged the effects of the early release of paramilitary prisoners on unionist support for the agreement. Even Martin Mansergh, the key adviser on Northern Ireland to successive Fianna Fail Taoisigh, had surprised Quentin Thomas, the Political Director of the NIO, when he said that he did not expect prisoners to be released until two to three years into a well established ceasefire.
To an extent the governments tolerant view of what Mo Mowlem once chillingly referred to as “domestic housekeeping” worked. With a few notable exceptions inter-communal violence all but ended. Paramilitary discipline broadly held.
But it came at a price of some complicated and often highly compromising moral algebra, which once settled was rarely, if ever, admitted in public. A widely observed form of omertà grew around the small but ongoing breaches of the accord.
What’s unacknowledged publicly becomes very difficult to manage publicly. For instance for many years the was a policy in housing in cases of loyalist paramilitary intimidation of families and/or youths to move them on to territory held by rivals.
Effective it might have been, but it was also a very subtle form of state collusion whose very secrecy only multiplied the direct damage to families who often found themselves working their way deeper and deeper into the mire of coercive paramilitary control.
Recently we saw on the Blue Lights series a brutal variation of that form of social policing on the Republican side where paramilitarism is not as fractured as it is in loyalist areas, where families are forced to make appointments to have their kids shot, humanely.
This is an ill wind that has blown those shivering on the fringes of society little good. I can think of one ongoing investigation in which loyalist figures charged with brutal murder are out on bail and allegedly making the lives of their victims families hell.
Families of victims of state violence are no nearer learning the truth of what happened, whilst for the much larger number of victims of paramilitary violence, prosecutions have been rarer than hen’s teeth. This deal for peace doesn’t protect the innocent.
Also massively under-discussed is how the effects of intra communal violence (housekeeping in the old parlance) have sometimes been enough to de-stablise the institutions on the Hill.
Take the behaviour of the Provisionals, firstly in setting up an inquiry into the shooting of their man Jock Davison in April 2015, before shooting a street gang rival dead later in that summer.
These events triggered the first of three successive waves of institutional destabilisation (the current one is presently ongoing) from which Stormont is still struggling to recover. At the time, Suzanne Breen caught the moment perfectly:
It may be argued that the events leading to this chaos matter not a jot to people in the Republic. IRA men killed an ex-IRA man. Big deal. Get over it. Sure gangland killings are a regular occurrence on the streets of Dublin. They don’t bring down the government.
This argument is shallow, flawed and deeply dangerous. Those who cherish democracy should reject it wholeheartedly. Excuses that the killing of Kevin McGuigan doesn’t merit a punitive political response amount to saying that the state should collude in murder.[Emphasis added’]
That’s not to suggest that things have not worked out. On the whole, my native home has recovered superbly. But Kerr’s argument is that the democrats amongst us were not (and still are not) assertive enough with paramilitary culture and politics.
And yet I agree with the broad thrust of Dominic and Brendan’s argument that winding up the criminal end of paramilitarism is far from easy. Perhaps the truth is that, as Kerr suggests, we have to start working on the supply side of policing and justice.
On one hand that means giving the police the tools and the resources to do proper policing regardless of where it occurs or who is behind it. That means proper even-handedness and not hopscotching around corrupt “top men agreements” with the state.
And it also means calling out mealy-mouthed attempts to muddy the waters, especially when young men and women are putting their lives on the line as with this now ‘retired’ Sinn Féin MLA a few years before the party removed him from his seat.
That means, in some degree, that the apogee of post modern fantasies (the unproductive and imaginary clash of ‘narrative warfare’) is what needs to be got beyond, the boundaries which have to be broken over the next 25 years as the old war guard fade from sight.
Aaron Edwards and Cillian McGrattan closed their book The Northern Ireland Conflict as far back as 2010 with the typically blunt observation that…
…despite the tendency of the Peace Process industry toward monopoly, we are confident that the platitudes and conceits upon which it is based are time bound… [and] that the old narratives will not shape the future of Northern Ireland [because] a new generation of adults is taking its place in the public sphere for whom the old stories will not stand.
In the time since it has become clear that the new generation no longer cleaves to the old ‘two tribe’ certainties. Two censuses later the number of those identifying as Protestants has dropped while those doing so as Catholics has barely grown.
This fact, barely acknowledged in the Northern Ireland’s now sparsely attended public squares, has changed everything, and changed it utterly. Maybe it will take 25 years for gentle winds to blow away the stench of 1969, and after. It’ll be worth the wait.
It is past time to grow up. As Gerry Moriarty said on Tuesday night, the euphoria of 1998 arose from the fact we’d all fallen into the fatalism of thinking war and death and injury was all we’d ever write or talk about. I look forward to more such surprises.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty