Peter Robinson urges the DUP to drop their ban on an Irish Language Act and get real about restoring Stormont

  Elder statesmen a.k.a. retired politicians often grow wiser in retirement after shedding the burdens of office and the cares of  party management. Sometimes their advice is welcome; sometimes it’s a stalking horse for a change of direction by their successors; sometimes it’s an embarrassment to them. We will soon know which it is this time. Conforming to type, Peter Robinson, for over forty years the usually steely self- disciplined deputy leader  then leader of the DUP  has offered some … Read more

Is it possible to be friends with someone who has opposing political views?

I have watched John McDonnell’s interview on Newsnight and the question of being friends with a member of the Conservative Party. Now it’s important to point out this exists across politics and not just here. Surveys in the United States have shown some people who are Republicans wouldn’t marry a Democrat and vice versa. In the age of politics becoming more polarised between differing factions it’s disheartening to see such tribalism. Why, I hear you ask? Because in the same … Read more

DUP take care. Unionism needs UK support to develop a viable vision

Alex Kane’s position as the voice of reasoned unionism is confirmed by the remarkable fact that he’s invited to write for all the main papers which are read in Northern Ireland. He has just delivered the latest version of his message to encourage the creation of Unionist Unity (my caps) to meet the challenges of special status for Northern Ireland with the EU against the background of the coming potential nationalist majority.  If that means killing off the last illusions … Read more

Unionist objections to the backstop are more than DUP paranoia and need to be addressed

Cabinet approval for Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal proposals, is again delayed as demands mount from inside the cabinet and without to have sight of the Attorney General’s legal opinion in full. (I’m not sure why is meant by “legal.” What they’re really looking for is  a navigation chart around the treacherous rocks).   The idea of ministers trooping in like junior officers to a “ secret” room in the Cabinet Office like the general’s study  to view  a summary of the … Read more

For the sake of British-Irish relations also, the backstop gap must be bridged

The urgent task now is to close the gap between Leo Varadkar’s idea of a review clause for all-UK temporary membership of the customs union and Theresa May’s. The essential first move is to discover what each means.  Both leaders are under domestic pressure for compromising already. Both sides are desperate for a deal, both economies would suffer severely from the chaos of a crash-out no deal. Both leaders would experience the bitter taste of failure affecting their own positions … Read more

The case for the Union is far broader than the DUP’s. But is it compatible with a good deal?

Nobody can doubt that Brexit has challenged the stability of the Union, not only in Scotland and Northern Ireland but in England too. In a lecture in London last night he entitled “The Nightmare of History, Brexit, Ireland and the English Revolution,” Fintan O’Toole warmed to his theme, familiar to Irish Times readers, of pouring scathing contempt over the Brexit case, which he dismissed as post imperial “imaginings.” If he’s right and  Brexit is creating a revolution at least in … Read more

How historians can provide correctives to “memory wars” in dealing with the past


The Ulster-born, Oxford-based historian Ian McBride has published what I take to be the essence of his evidence to the government’s consultation on dealing with the past. He discusses the potential role for professional historians in the proposed institutions prescribed for dealing with oral history, information retrieval and identifying themes and patterns in events.  He takes for granted that Sinn Fein are winning the battle of the narratives. This is hardly surprising. In a new era where “equality” between peoples and traditions is a legal requirement, unionists persist in playing a zero sum game they’re bound to lose, in which every nationalist or republican gain is written down as a unionist loss. The answer is not merely to provide a contrived balance but to tell fuller stories with an open mind. Thus, the exposure of collusion is complemented by an account of success in infiltrating the IRA.

While the suggested list of themes is far from exhaustive, it goes straight  to the heart of many controversies and follows the line of the best investigative journalism. However while concentrating on the causes celebres on all sides of the conflict,  he fails to mention the essential political contexts behind them, without which many of them might seem “random” or “mindless”. The absence of other than self serving insider accounts of state strategy and tactics is also  a yawning gap waiting to be filled.

McBride argues for a bigger role for historians than the  government envisages.  They have prescribed fairly tight control by government or government appointees for all the usual reasons, plus the additional one of  trying to allay fears that the local parties would lose all control over the process.

While McBride incidentally challenges  these restrictions, he is  more concerned here to establish historians’ credentials than describing the essential requirements for exercising them. His appeal is professional and non-partisan, while insisting (over- apologetically perhaps, to head off partisan retorts), that everyone brings a background to their work, consciously or not. His case can credibly  be set alongside the high reputation of the writing of contemporary Irish history. His one anxiety is that a professional approach would be too dull (my word) for the general reader and register little impact on political debate. He would redress this in part by being unafraid to make moral judgements – in other words, concluding who on the basis of the evidence in different cases bears the greater blame. Risky as this would be, it brings the themes down to human level. But it raises the fundamental question: can history, especially recent history,

Read moreHow historians can provide correctives to “memory wars” in dealing with the past

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

Can we manage the challenge to our identities created by Brexit?

There’s no doubt Brexit is creating fresh and unsought tensions over how to manage as well as express national identities. Two pieces today are vivid examples of the problems created by Brexit on these islands. Newton Emerson develops a theme raised here several times, but has  yet to reach  the top of the political agenda. How do Northern residents born and bred assert their continuing rights as EU and Irish citizens? Sinn Fein naturally want voting rights for Northerners in … Read more

The Agreement can only be amended with cross-community support

20130410 GFA 15

Eyebrows were raised on the 2nd October when Arlene Foster commented that the Good Friday Agreement wasn’t sacrosanct, hinting that she would like to amend it to accommodate Brexit. Her words been praised but also widely condemned. Leo Varadkar responded by saying that “the Good Friday Agreement is not up for renegotiation” in the Dail. Anyone paying close attention will notice that Foster’s comments are very similar to statements made by her party colleagues, Jim Allister and Jamie Bryson over the … Read more

Theresa May’s version of the Union is as dangerously limited as the DUP’s

That ebullient and creative academic Pete Shirlow recently wrote a piece in the Belfast Telegraph discouraging the indulgence of Northern Irish whinging about ourselves as “ a place apart”, and unloved in GB.   You can argue this either way. As he says: “ The idea that most people in Britain do not give a monkey’s is as true as it is false… I am sure most people in Britain never think about Northern Ireland, but they probably never think much … Read more

Future Ireland / Northern Ireland and the Humpty Dumpty World of Schrödinger’s Cats

Apparently you follow the rabbit down a hole and you emerge in a wonderland …. Ken Clarke – House of Commons “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” Lewis Carrol – Alice in Wonderland The … Read more

A second referendum will sadly become an orange and green issue in Northern Ireland

As the fallout from Salzburg continues, there has been a renewed focus by remain voters in Great Britain to push for a second referendum.  Campaigners want a rerun of the June 2016 referendum or a vote on the Brexit deal. Jeremy Corbyn is currently under pressure to back another vote at the Labour conference. There’s a perception that a second referendum would be relatively straight forward in Northern Ireland because it voted ‘remain’. In an ideal world, that would be … Read more

From the London broadsheets, rare interest in Irish developing positions is to be welcomed

The criticism  is well made that  British  interest in Irish positions is generally self serving and fails to recognise their independent validity. Any slight shift in this is to be welcomed. The London broadsheets  have paid Sinn Fein the rare compliment of taking seriously the party’s think-in at Cavan. It’s worth noting that they have yet to broach the notion that a  Brexit solution would  be so much easier if Northern Ireland were to join the Republic.  Quite apart from … Read more

Less talking over the heads of Unionism, more recognising the political game has changed in Northern Ireland

I read with interest Micks piece earlier today on Unionist experiences and perspectives in the recent border poll debate and felt the need to offer a different view. When one of my political heroes, then Taoiseach Sean Lemass addressed the Oxford Union in late 1959 on the topic of Irish Unity he said his concern wasn’t about dwelling on the past, but rather it was about looking to the future. That is something that has always motivated me in this … Read more

Why do the DUP persist in ignoring the interests of their own supporters?

For decades, Barry White was a great part of the voice of the Belfast Telegraph, sometimes in his own name, as often in anonymous editorials. He was one of a trio ofsenior journalists, Roy Lilley, Ed Curran and himself who steered a difficult editorial path for the paper from 1970 arguing for the centre ground mainly from the standpoint of liberal unionism.   The voice was  that of reasonableness, by definition so often ahead of the real thing, although Barry wrote … Read more

RTE’s celebration of John Hume feels like nostalgia for a time that has gone

RTE have just screened a documentary In the Name of Peace; John Hume in America by Maurice Fitzpatrick which the film maker has kindly drawn to my attention. Being in London I cannot access it yet nor have I read his accompanying book. But from the YouTube trail, this is a major celebration of John Hume’s life and work. Anybody who was anybody is in it, led by Clinton and Blair, although Jimmy Carter was not quite so dazzled.  As … Read more

Unionists could lose out if they don’t talk about a united Ireland

Many unionists have been given a ‘lundy bollocking’ over the past few years but it’s bizarre to see it happen to Peter Robinson. Robinson’s crime was to suggest that unionists should prepare for a united Ireland.  He said, “I don’t expect my own house to burn down but I still insure it because it could happen.” Robinson’s words have generated outrage with unionists like Sammy Wilson and Reg Empey lining up to tell the former First Minister to put a … Read more

My first trip to the Museum of Orange Heritage

Yesterday I ventured over to the Museum of Orange Heritage for the first time with Christopher Stalford. I have gone past this building many times without ever really desiring to go inside. Last week, Christopher very kindly expressed an offer to me to experience some parts of the culture of the Orange Order and we were able to get some time yesterday afternoon to visit the museum. Growing up, the Orange Order was something I was afraid of. I still … Read more

The old battle lines and loyalties in Northern Ireland will not last forever. Unionists should be wary.

During yesterday’s drama in the Commons Theresa May accepted four amendments proposed by Jacob Rees Mogg’s European Research Group. A few of those amendments arguably put the ‘backstop’ agreed by the UK and the EU in the Joint Report in doubt. One of the amendments states that, “It shall be unlawful for the HMG to enter into arrangements under which Northern Ireland forms part of a separate customs territory to Great Britain.” This seems to conflict with the EU’s interpretation … Read more

What should I tell my kids about the 12th July?

My kids always ask me what the flags are about. They find the black ones scary. But this year they were very impressed by the bunting and fresh Union Jacks in our area. ‘It’s making me feel very British’, said my five year old. ‘Me too, it makes me proud to be British’, added the seven year old. ‘That’s interesting,’ I said, thinking about their Irish passports in the drawer. And the fact that they tried to turn bath water … Read more