Monthly Archives: September 2014

Peter Taylor On The IRA’s Lost War: When Yesterday’s Heresy Becomes Today’s Conventional Wisdom

Don’t get me wrong. I’m delighted to see that the BBC’s Peter Taylor has finally come to terms with reality and pronounced the British and the Unionists the victors in their war against the IRA.

He will broadcast this analysis in a BBC documentary to be screened on Monday evening. I am delighted not at his conclusion but at his honesty in eventually saying something that has been obvious to anyone with half a brain for years. He is doing his job as a journalist, telling the truth to shame the devil, unlike the bulk of the Irish media.

Given his status, the respect grassroots republicans have for him and his impressive track record reporting on the Troubles from the 1970’s onward, Taylor’s conclusion will be a devastating blow to the SF leaders who prior to this were able to isolate the one or two journalists saying the same by dismissing them as “anti-peace process” whose reports gave aid and comfort to dissidents.

What are they going to say to this programme? Peter Taylor is a dissident? Peter Taylor wants to return to conflict? Peter Taylor is an enemy of the peace process?

There’s no doubt in my mind that the prospect of being maligned in public in such a bullying way by the likes of Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness or Mary Lou McDonald terrified many of my erstwhile colleagues and shaped their coverage of events over the last twenty years.

I am not condemning them – the experience, as I can testify, is distinctly uncomfortable and lonely and I can understand their temerity – but rather reproaching them. Journalists should never be frightened of telling the truth; otherwise what is the purpose of their professional lives? If they believe and know they are right then vindication will come, even if it takes years.

What Peter Taylor apparently says in his documentary, according to this Belfast Telegraph report below, has been evident for most of the last two decades. Is it too much to hope that Ireland’s media might pay some attention? Or is that a silly question?


Clifford Smyth Asks The Question: Who Was Ian Paisley?

Amongst the many Loyalist zealots who allied themselves with Ian Paisley over the decades only to be discarded when their value to the Big Man had been drained and exhausted – think Major Bunting, the Rev Billy Beattie, Ernie Baird – few ever attempted afterwards to assess the man who had courted, used and then ditched them. Clifford Smyth is an exception.

Clifford Smyth, standing as a DUP election candidate for a Sunningdale Assembly seat in North Antrim, Ian Paisley's bailiwick, 1973.

Clifford Smyth, standing as a DUP election candidate for a Sunningdale Assembly seat in North Antrim, Ian Paisley’s bailiwick, 1973.

In the early to mid-1970’s he was one of Paisley’s closest confidantes, first failing to win but then inheriting a seat in the ill-fated Sunningdale Assembly of 1974,  getting elected to its successor, the NI Convention and becoming secretary to the powerful United Unionist Coalition, a brief experiment in Unionist unity which, with Paisley as a leading member, was a living contradiction in terms.

In 1976 he fell out with Paisley and was expelled from the DUP in circumstances that yet have to be fully explained and which followed a kangaroo court presided over by Paisley and his then new favorite, Peter Robinson, the only deputy to the Big Man wily and ruthless enough to survive the experience and to eventually wield and plunge the assassin’s dagger himself.

Clifford Smyth, a history teacher by trade, then joined the Ulster Unionists but after a couple of failed attempts to get elected to Westminster his political interest switched to Orange history and he embraced the cause of the political integration of Northern Ireland with Britain, an objective that has over time won the support of luminaries like Edward Carson and Enoch Powell but never caught fire amongst the Unionist grassroots. In 1988 he published a study of Paisley, “Ian Paisley: Voice of Protestant Ulster”.

I have known and have considered Clifford Smyth a friend since the mid-1960’s when we were members of the same political science tutorial group at Queen’s University, Belfast. Here, in a guest posting, is his take on the late Ian Paisley:

Death has transformed Lord Bannside, Ian Paisley to you and me, from a political colossus into a ‘family man’. This assessment of Ian Paisley underlines the enigma that is Paisley.

His political career reaches back to the 1960s when a tall, gangling , youthful preacher on the fundamentalist wing of Ulster Protestantism began to make a name for himself on the fringes of Northern Ireland’s stable and peaceful society. Contemporaneously, Irish Republicans were reflecting on why the IRA campaign waged between 1956 and ’62, had failed, and how a reshaped strategy might succeed.

Paisley’s trajectory would carry him through a succession of opportunistic political adventures, any one of which could have ended in ignominious failure, to emerge six decades later as First Minister of a power-sharing devolved assembly at Stormont. And with whom did Paisley and his DUP party share-power , but none other than the loyalist and unionist population’s arch enemies Sinn Fein, led by Martin McGuinness, formerly the Provisional IRA’s commander in Derry. This reconciliation took place between polar opposites, Sinn Fein articulating Irish Republican demands, and the DUP, voice of Ulster’s Protestant and unionist heartlands.

These conflicting forces didn’t exactly inherit the kingdom. The small geographical area of Northern Ireland contrasts markedly with the horrendous scale and intensity of the civil disturbances, that held the Province in their grip for nearly forty years. Against this background, the reconciliation achieved between opposing forces was, by any stretch of the imagination, remarkable.

In the moments after Ian Paisley’s death was announced, the eulogies started to flow. Eamon Mallie described these new arrangements for the governance of Northern Ireland as ‘miraculous’; though Paisley’s pragmatic manoeuvrings had previously delayed a resolution of the conflict. There were though, to be few challenges to the themes of peace and reconciliation.

In the succeeding forty-eight hours the term ‘ colossus’ became so over- worked that more reasoned assessments languished in its shadow. Paisley was a ‘faithful preacher’, and a ‘man of deep faith’, who, it appeared, had almost single-handedly launched Northern Ireland on the road to peace. Questions about the destruction of the middle ground in Northern Ireland’s sectarian landscape were never asked, while the unsettling reality that the current power-sharing assembly is in a state of stasis wasn’t even aired.

Meanwhile, the Paisley family announced, to the astonishment of many onlookers, that the funeral arrangements were strictly private and that Dr. Paisley would be interred in a discreet burial ground in rural County Down. The contrast between Paisley’s death and his life couldn’t have been more pronounced. This was a larger- than- life personality whose adult career appeared, at times, to consist of one publicity stunt after another.

Ian Paisley’s death left so many major questions unanswered. Here was a life that had made a formidable impact on Northern Ireland’s Roman Catholic and Protestant population. Everyone had an opinion of the man, for good or ill, but the task of arriving at a fair and balanced understanding was proving elusive.

The most immediate of these questions turns on why the unionist leader, indelibly marked with saying ‘No!’, reinforcing the finality of that word with a declamatory ‘never,never,never’, found it expedient to ultimately say,’Yes!’

And so it came about that the street orator, who had so antagonised and demeaned his Roman Catholic neighbours, ended his career by driving a wedge between himself and the Free Presbyterian Church, which had grown over the years until most of Ulster’s towns and villages had their very own ‘Free Church’. These churches played an unseen, but vital, role in Paisley’s rise to prominence. On election day church buses, mission halls, telephones, and even the congregations, were all mobilised to get the voters to the polls.

Feeling betrayed by ‘the Big Man’s’ compromise with Sinn Fein, ministers and congregations of the Free Presbyterian Church, were deeply alienated. These Free Presbyterians were not alone. Their ranks were swollen by the humble and unsophisticated loyalist followers of Paisley who had vociferously identified with his traditional unionist campaigns.

Some commentators said that Paisley had had an ‘epiphany’, a moment of spiritual insight, in which he had recognized the need to make peace with the public representatives of a terrorist organisation that had entered into a process to decommission its extensive armoury. Others though – and this is where cynicism and realism become bedfellows – held to the opinion that a politician shaped by a heady mixture of ruthlessness and pragmatism, was coming under irresistible pressure from the British, Irish and American governments to do the deal. And the prize of ‘ First Minister’ held its own temptations for a man driven by the need to be top dog.

Other questions arise and call for answers if a more complete understanding of the man is to be achieved. The most penetrating of these is how Ian Paisley succeeded in smashing the hegemony of the Ulster Unionist Party which had dominated Northern Ireland’s politics since the inception of the state in 1921? Not only did Paisley destroy Ulster Unionism as a credible political movement, but he succeeded in mobilising a phalanx of newcomers, who entered the political fray winning seats in local , Westminster and even the European parliament.

The answer is that Paisley almost single-handedly, built his own power structures which mimicked, and soon supplanted, those of the organizations which he set out to rival. His main targets were the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Orange Order. Paisley created his own, ‘Free’ Church, his own party, the Protestant Unionists and the sash- wearing Ulster Protestant Volunteers. Onlookers would have dismissed these movements as comical or of no consequence, but they proved to be a battering ram that opened the gates to much greater things. Paisley didn’t hesitate to jettison elements that had served their purpose. Neither the Protestant Unionist Party nor the UPV lasted, but out of them emerged a party shorn of religious zealotry, the Democratic Unionist Party, that would appeal to a much wider electorate.

The structures that Paisley forged were tightly disciplined, lacking in transparency, energetic and unscrupulous. There were many casualties on Paisley’s drive for power: internal dissent was not tolerated, and a degree of loyalty demanded from followers that fringed on idol worship. Paisley used the tactic of ‘coalitions’ with those who shared similar aims, to undermine them and grab their supporters.

Paisley’s divisive approach to unionist politics would eventually ensure his triumph but his methods guaranteed that a fractured unionism would never negotiate from strength but only from weakness because, try as he might, Paisley could never capture the affections and support of all the unionist electorate.

Meanwhile Northern Ireland had entered ever more deeply into the nightmare years of ‘The Troubles’. And had not Paisley warned us all that these things would come to pass, that the ‘B’ Specials, Ulster’s locally recruited part-time constabulary to back up the RUC, would ‘go’ and that even Stormont would fall.

The term’ colossus’ has its roots in this Paisley phenomenon, the sense that here was a man who came out of nowhere and seized his destiny to be leader of Ulster whether people liked it or not. And to validate this destiny, all that was necessary was to top the poll in the European elections. And Paisley did that, with heaps of votes to spare!

Among the many tributes paid to Dr Paisley, the warmest came from a close religious colleague, the Rev. David McIlveen. The Rev. McIlveen stressed Ian Paisley’s ‘walk with God’ and asserted that this was ‘a man of Faith’, who read his Bible at every opportunity and prayed without ceasing. Sitting next to David McIlveen in the BBC radio studio, as the Irish writer Ruth Dudley Edwards launched a relentless verbal attack on Paisley, you could see the shock, sadness and grief well up in the minister’s face as he attempted to come to terms with such fierce criticism. Were there actually two Ian Paisleys?

One of the most startling and unsettling aspects of Paisley’s DUP is the party’s addiction to ‘spin’. Given the origins of the DUP, with its historic links through the ‘Free Church’ and the Protestant Unionists, it comes as a surprise to find that the Party is skilled in the use of all of the black arts associated with contemporary media management. Nor has the party modified the methods of control that shaped it: tight discipline and a code of silence.

Northern Ireland is riven by a series of sectarian fault lines, and this beautiful place, at the edge of British Isles, carries within it a parochial mindset that often finds expression in unusual ways. Graffiti on a gable end in a republican estate near Newry used to read: ’local informers will be shot!’ Presumably informers in some other locality weren’t their problem.

Given the divisions over religion, politics, culture, education and even sport, people have to ask themselves whether they can learn to live together as neighbours despite being beset by such differences or whether, as in so many instances in Ulster’s turbulent past it is only a matter of time until violence emerges from the pit once again.

Ian Paisley had a choice to strive for political dominance or to become a preacher of world renown. Paisley chose politics at a time when Northern Ireland needed to hear the greater message: ‘love thy neighbour’.

Why Scotland Will Never Vote For Independence

This, or rather its absence, is the reason why Scotland will always be tied to England. It explains why Wales is Wales and why the Irish are different from them all. Simple really…….

On The Runs: The Revenge Of The Neocons

You would not have noticed this if you were a regular subscriber to the Irish Times or Irish News (both of which newspapers managed entirely to ignore the story)or if you expected Sinn Fein to respond to alarming setbacks to that party’s peace strategy – but last week the Cameron government reneged on a small but symbolically important part of the peace accords negotiated in the two decades since the first IRA ceasefire and by so doing have arguably set a precedent that should set the tocsins ringing in Nationalist Ireland.

Theresa Villiers

Theresa Villiers

The formal announcement by NI Secretary Theresa Villiers that the letters of comfort given by the Blair government to some 200 IRA fugitives – so-called ‘On The Run’s’ – guaranteeing that they would not face prosecution are now not worth the paper they were written on and that fugitives who once thought they were safe now could be prosecuted, amounts to the first major retreat by the British from assurances given during the peace diplomacy.

The backpedaling is all the more significant since the assurances to the IRA fugitives were well known about at the time they were given and attempts by opponents to now justify their withdrawal on the grounds that these were secret promises held back from other participants in the process are simply bunkum.

It would not be going too far to say that Villiers’ action is just what it seems to be, a blatant appeasement of hardline Unionism and, arguably, a return to the mindset of war (on the basis that the British fought their war against the IRA primarily by prosecuting its members in court).

And nor would it be presumptive to suggest that taken in combination with other happenings – for instance David Cameron’s cozying up to the DUP for electoral reasons and the increasing clamor to return welfare powers to the Westminster parliament – that more defaults and withdrawals from the Good Friday Agreement and its associated arrangements are unlikely to happen.

The significance of the Villiers’ retreat lies in two directions. Firstly, she has broken the ice by choosing an unpopular concession to revoke – unpopular in these days of ISIS beheadings with her own party, the British media and probably British public opinion as well. As precedent settings go this was a sure thing.

And secondly the lack of protest and fightback from Nationalist Ireland – symbolised by the silence on the issue from major Irish media outlets – can only encourage those, especially in the DUP, to press for more backtracking from London.

It is no secret that large swathes of the DUP were only persuaded in the first place to accept power sharing with Sinn Fein because they were assured that it would be temporary and replaced by some form of majority rule when conditions allowed. If the Villiers move is a precedent then its import in Unionist eyes may lie in the hope or belief that it is the first of a thousand cuts whose combined effect will be to end or fundamentally alter a system they detest at heart.

Nowhere has this Nationalist silence been more profound than in the leadership of Sinn Fein, in sharp and complete contrast to the warm welcome given by Unionists, not least among them Martin McGuinness’ partner in government Peter Robinson.

I deliberately refrained from writing this commentary for the best part of week in case it took that long for the party to put its protest together. Even though Villiers retracted a solemn promise given by the Blair government and by so doing set a precedent for other similar actions, there has not been one word of criticism from Sinn Fein and it doesn’t look as if there will be.

On one level that is understandable simply because there is really nothing Sinn Fein can do, short of tearing up the Good Friday Agreement, to reverse the British move. The truth is that Villier’s reneging exposes a fatal flaw in the Sinn Fein peace strategy which until now no British government was ready to exploit.

The strategy was based on the idea that Sinn Fein would trade away the political, ideological and physical ingredients of the IRA’s war machine (the principle of consent, the Mitchell Principles, IRA decommissioning, accepting the PSNI and so on) for political concessions that would on the one hand make the whole business less unpalatable to the republican base – the ‘On The Run’ letters of comfort fell into that category – and on the other enable Sinn Fein to dominate Northern Nationalist politics and become a force to be reckoned with south of the Border. The British would go along with this trading because every concession they made weakened the IRA and diminished the potency of armed struggle while transforming Sinn Fein into a respectable and dependable political party.

It worked but there would always come a day when the Provisionals had no more to trade with the British and the IRA had been fully defanged, so reduced politically and militarily that it posed no threat worthy of the name. At that point, having achieved the defeat of the IRA and with the dissidents going nowhere, the British could have put the machine into reverse gear. That they didn’t is down to a combination of factors, including lingering Blairism, self-interest, common sense and Cameron’s indifference.

But events are moving ahead. A British general election beckons, the UKIP is challenging Cameron’s right flank and the prospect of Scottish independence is a spanner that may do untold damage to the political system. The Liberal Democrats will not be a partner in another coalition with Cameron and to retain power it is not beyond possibility that the Tories may look to the DUP phalanx in the House of Commons for support, hence those cozy soirees at Number Ten.

And Cameron has rediscovered the electoral potency of terrorism, of the Islamic variety that is, along with the lure of an aggressive policy on Ukraine, so aggressive in fact that Cameron has outflanked Obama on Russia and emerged as the leader of the war party in NATO.

The truth is that Cameron’s party and cabinet are choc full of neoconservatives, members of or fellow travelers with the Henry Jackson Society, so-named after the hawkish Democrat Senator for Washington state widely regarded as a founding father of modern American neoconservatism.

Pursuing jihadists in Syria, meddling in Libya, threatening war with Russia are all favorite neocon themes – and so too is the conviction that government must never, ever make deals with terrorists, least of deals that launch them into government. That is why the neocon core of Cameron’s Tories never had any appetite for the NI peace process and energetically peddled the notion that the Sinn Fein strategy was trickery, designed to weaken British resolve and aimed at relaunching the IRA’s military offensive from a position of strength.

Stuff and nonsense of course but the point is that reneging on aspects of the peace process diplomacy is something that would be meat and drink for many in Cameron’s ranks. We will see if there is more to come.