The republican rosenkavalier hangs up his boots

Gerry Adams: rebel to peacemaker on an unfinished journey

Gerry Adams is a charmer. He once gave my wife a flower, a red rose I think it was, as a gift. He’d plucked it from a floral arrangement in Belfast City Hall. The occasion was the formal dinner to mark Alban Maginnis’s election as Belfast’s Lord Mayor – 21 years ago.

I was the Irish News editor at the time, and had been seated beside Gerry and his quiet, warm and down-to-earth wife Collette.

It’s fair to say that Gerry and I didn’t normally see eye-to-eye on how best to create an Ireland at peace with itself. The table plan, I assume, had been signed off by someone in the SDLP with a sense of humour.

It was a historic evening.

The first Catholic Lord Mayor was some achievement. This was an orange-coloured glass ceiling, well and truly shattered by one of the gentlemen of Irish politics.

There’s nothing the Irish like more than being present at a moment of history. The craic, as they say, was good – and Gerry was entering into the spirit of it. I’d like to think that I reciprocated with a rose for Collette. But I have no memory of that.

I’ve known a few politicians over the years; and one of the common threads I have noticed is the difference between their public persona and their private one.

In a television studio once, Ian Paisley went as close as he dared to saying I’d wanted him shot. (An editorial that week had suggested if he didn’t have anything useful to say, a period of silence was called for. This he translated as “you said you wanted me silenced!”) When the lights went down, he turned into avuncular companion and joked away with me.

Behind the scenes in City Hall, DUP and Sinn Fein members were working together quietly on a ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ basis years before they dared be seen together in public. It might have been “a putrid little statelet”, but in truth both of them saw it as their own putrid little statelet.

This weekend saw another of those moments of history. Mary Lou McDonald’s assumption of the presidency of Sinn Fein brings the curtain down on Mr Adam’s remarkable career. It is a career that has taken him from armalite to ballot box in the space of a generation.

Those of us who never bought the legitimacy of the armed struggle find it hard to give the Sinn Fein leader much credit for the peace process. John Hume, a visionary prepared to put country before party (a rare quality in a politician), was the one true author of the Good Friday Agreement. But Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness did a lot of the heavy lifting – and deserve credit for that at least.

It is just a pity the agreement came so late – when so many voices were raised in the seventies and eighties pointing out the futility of trying to coerce a million unionists into a political union with the Republic.

Those attending Sinn Fein’s special ard fheis in Dublin’s RDS felt the hand of history upon their shoulders – as we did at Alban’s installation dinner – accompanied by fine words and grand statements; a tear or two perhaps at the passing of the Easter Lily to a new generation

At the time, Alban Maginnis’s elevation seemed momentous. But the world did not change much for the unionists who felt the loss of the lord mayoralty. And, in truth, it did not change much for the many nationalists who struggle still with poverty, unemployment and a nagging feeling that they do not fully belong in their own city.

The world without Gerry Adams at the helm of Sinn Fein will not be that much different – even if Mary Lou is bringing her own shoes.

If we always do what we’ve always done; we will always get what we’ve always got.

Adams remains an enigma. Charming yet ruthless. Loved and loathed. Public and private. There are many – and not just unionists – who will never be able to reconcile Gerry the Peacemaker with the leader of a movement that for so long put ideology before human life.

In a much-celebrated observation, Enoch Powell noted: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.”

Having, in 1984, narrowly avoided being “cut off in midstream”, the jury is still out on whether Gerry Adams’ political career can be judged a success or failure. Final judgment depends on his successor’s ability to break the current deadlock.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News

The rise of Little England marks demise of UK


Wrong call: Cameron will go down in history as one of the most calamitous leaders in British history

Electoral disappointment is an inevitable part of the democratic process. The United States politician Dick Tuck put it succinctly making a concession speech in 1966. “The people have spoken, the bastards.” Many a defeated politician has muttered those words sotto voce.

But in the case of the European referendum, it is not quite as simple as that.

Northern Ireland – now the frontier between the UK and the European Union – voted to remain. Scotland, already conditioned to the potential of independence, voted to remain. Almost half the United Kingdom voted to remain.

The fault lines are clear. They can no longer be disguised.

Let us be in no doubt, this vote marks the end of the United Kingdom as we know it. The Little Englanders (and their fellow travellers in Wales) might think they voted for a return to Britain at the centre of a world map coloured in red; but they have hastened Scotland’s inevitable exit from the Union and they have laid bare the fact that Northern Ireland has more in common with the Irish Republic than with this disunited kingdom.

It is hardly surprising that the UK lost its position as the fifth largest economy in the world within hours of the vote. Billions were wiped off shares and the pound nose-dived. The markets will be up and down in the weeks and months ahead, they are fickle and motivated purely by self-interest. But the long-term trajectory is down, I hope I’m proved wrong.

Cameron’s speedy departure – the only thing he has got right in this saga – will not be enough to halt the country’s slide to ruin. He made a brave face of it, but his legacy is a Britain crippled economically and politically.

By failing to stand up to the Tory right, Cameron has put intolerance at the heart of the political discourse, and single-handedly he has destroyed the notion of one nation conservatism.

This was a referendum we did not need to have. And this result is not just a disaster for the United Kingdom and for Ireland – partners in a peace process inspired in large part by Europe’s capacity to transcend centuries of conflict – but it is a disaster for the EU too.

There is now a crack in the European body politic that cannot be repaired; and Britain’s hubristic decision will fortify sceptics in France, Germany and across the continent. Robbed of one of its strongest, albeit truculent, members the European voice is diminished in the world.

I know it is futile to play the blame game – but blame must be apportioned. My list includes Cameron, not up to the task of being prime minister; Jeremy Corbyn and his party leadership team who gifted the Labour vote to Nigel Farrage; and the EU too, an institution that has clearly lost the trust of ordinary men and women.

Large organisations lose the capacity to listen, and the EU has been turning a deaf ear to scepticism across the continent for years, consequently it has opened its soft underbelly for attack.

Yes, I am angry about the lies and half-truths spewed out by the leave campaign; but this was not a battle where the facts played much of a part. It was clear that leave voters were determined to pursue their course in spite of the facts.

All’s fair in love and war, it is said. Leave executed its battle plan well, and with ruthless efficiency. It is a pity Remain did not do the same. It failed to find its voice until too late in the day.

From Northern Ireland’s perspective the top priority now must be to secure the peace process. Short-sighted unionist Brexiteers may have brought back the prospect of the border – but at the price of the union they say they cherish.

One thing is clear, this decision cannot be allowed to undo the hard work and determination of people and politicians here to transcend the divisions of the past. The pressure for a border poll is unsurprising, but fraught with risk. That boil will have to be lanced, but timing is everything.

An independence referendum in Scotland, and there will be one, should be the catalyst for a border poll – not this.

I am prepared to bet the next vote in Scotland will be a yes to independence. In Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP has a much cannier political operator than Alex Salmond, and a more persuasive one.

Independence Day or Armageddon? The wrong movies. Brexit is more a case of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

  • This column appeared in The Irish News on June 27 2016

A nation once again: Easter and the 1916 Rising


A sovereign nation: leaders of the Easter Rising 1916

Easter Sunday is one of the most potent days in the Christian calendar, and for someone brought up as a Catholic in Ireland it assumes an even greater significance. In a nation where, for so long, Church and State walked hand in hand, the religious symbolism of the day was amplified by its association with an insurrection that is seen as the foundation stone of Irish independence.

Politics is dangerous when placed in the hands of poets, and the Easter Rising was shaped by people with a deep understanding of symbolism and its potency. That is one of the reasons why its memory has endured.


The Resurrection: Piero della Francesca

One one level the rising itself was an abject failure. The British mobilised, and within a week it was quashed. Pearse surrendered, and his men followed suit. In a grim yard in Kilmainham prison, he and his fellow leaders were executed by firing squad. Soldiers shot by soldiers.

But Pearse forged a narrative that became the foundation story of the Irish State, a narrative that (for all the revisionism of recent years) persists – as we have seen in the commemorations in Dublin this week. And it is a myth from which successive generations have drawn sustenance. Irish paramilitaries, freedom fighters, terrorists – call them what you will – justify their deeds because of what happened in 1916.

We will never know what went through the minds of the 1916 leaders in their final hours – though we do know what they wanted us to think.

It’s there in Pearse’s final letter to his mother. This a document every bit as considered as the Proclamation of an Irish Republic read on the steps of the General Post Office.

“We have preserved Ireland’s honour and our own,” he wrote. “Our deeds of last week are the most splendid in Ireland’s history. People will say hard things of us now, but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations. You too will be blessed because you were my mother.”

The dignity he displayed in the face of death must be seen as evidence of his conviction that he had struck a mortal wound at the heart of the Union; that he was right and would be vindicated.

Remembered by posterity, he and his fellow leaders have been.

Quite what Pearse would have made of the Ireland which emerged is anyone’s guess. The political class that took power after the War of Independence and the civil war was not up to the task. Generations of Irishmen and women were failed by them – betrayed it could be said. The Church, pernicious and conservative, held the forces of progress at bay. It controlled education, health and social policy. The Archbishop of Dublin was a de facto member of the cabinet.

Poverty and discrimination was fine as long as it was Irish poverty and discrimination, not British.

And worse, the Republic turned its back on the north.

There is a passage in the Proclamation – redolent of the American Declaration of Independence – which says: “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

The Republic’s failure (and the failure of republicans) to come to terms with the realities of Ulster Unionism, and to demonstrate religious and civil liberty in action, became a mirror image of unionist isolationism. Both – unionists and republican – fostered the conditions for the appalling violence that erupted in Northern Ireland in the late sixties, and which was ‘settled’ only after some 30 years on another Easter – Good Friday 1998.

History is full of what ifs – what if the first world war hadn’t happened, what if the British had not reneged on home rule, what if the rising had happened as planned on Easter Sunday, what if the British had not responded in such an insensitive way… but we only have the history we have. Brutal, messy, contradictory history. A history where fact and fiction are intertwined, and where the heart can often rule the head.

Emotionally it relatively easy for someone from my background and upbringing to see the Easter Rising as a noble act, and to be seduced by the poetry of the revolt. ” I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge/My two strong sons that I have seen go out/To break their strength and die, they and a few,/In bloody protest for a glorious thing.” And I feel the tug.

But in my head I know that – like most conflicts – the pain is more often borne by the innocent. The majority of those who died in Dublin that fateful week were civilians. I remain convinced that there are better ways of effecting political change.

And somewhere, in the mind of someone who finds it difficult to come to terms with the human notion of god, the Catholic in me is conscious that Easter Sunday marks the day when a good man – a revolutionary in his own way – demonstrated that life can transcend death. Blessed be the peacemakers.



Ian Paisley and the Zelig Complex


One of the downsides of the explosion in blogging, micro-blogging  and online publishing is the emergence of the Zelig Complex. Those of a certain age will remember the Woody Allen film in which his character inserts himself into historic events. Zelig so yearns for approval that he changes character – chameleon like – to blend into whatever situation he finds himself in.

Allen, who seems to have the inside track on modern neuroses, knew instinctively then that we were entering a period of human history when mankind was so self-absorbed that we would lose sight of where the line between reality and celebrity lies. Photo-bombing and the Selfie are the most recent manifestations of this.

In journalism, the equivalent is the retelling of stories of close encounters with statesmen and women, stars, writers and artists and anyone else likely to earn for themselves a footnote in history. Often the source of anecdotes for dinner parties, or bar room banter, these stories can assume mythic proportions. Their currency is highest at the moment when the subject of the story passes into history.

I have led a sheltered life, and these moments for me are few and far between. When news came this week of the death of the Rev Ian Paisley I was presented with one of those moments. Nervous of betraying my Zelig-like tendencies, I initially stayed my hand. But it is impossible to let this passing of an era go without committing some thoughts to the page.

There is an old Irish tradition of never speaking ill of the dead. For some it’s an easy stricture to observe. Others test it. With the passing of Ian Paisley, it is a rule of etiquette that has been pushed to the limits and beyond.

Ironically, it was a former leader of the consensus-seeking, polite and middle class Alliance Party who couldn’t withhold his negative judgment on the ‘Big Man’ of British and Irish politics. John Cushnahan expressed astonishment at the way history was being rewritten. Paisley’s life was marked by “nakedly sectarian acts and deeds”. For the majority of his political life, Paisley had inflicted “pain and suffering” on the people of Northern Ireland throughout his political life.

As an antidote, the handwritten words of Paisley’s political foe, and then job-share partner, Martin McGuinness has a poignancy alongside a continuing political charge. “In rising above old enmities we pointed the to a better and peaceful future. The peace process and I have lost a friend.” (Zelig-ologists will notice the intrusive ‘we’ in his comments.)

The irony is that, for Ian Paisley, his 2007 conversion to the principles of power sharing came too late. By that time thousands had lost their lives, and many more had lost their belief in a positive future for Northern Ireland. He achieved his life-long ambition of being First Minister, but as a leader of a party that had a Pavlovian response to the prospect of working with republicans and nationalists.

Ian Paisley had trained them in the art of saying No. And he trained them well. His successor as DUP leader, Peter Robinson, has proven unfit to the task of peacemaker, and the so-called peace process is running into the sand.

In a balanced and compassionate editorial, which did not pull its punches, The Irish News summed up his legacy well. “Today the party which he founded is constrained in policy and politics because the theory and practice of Paisleyism lives on. For him that represents an unfortunate political legacy. For the rest of us it is a burden which we have not yet learned to unload.”

On reflection, it’s difficult not to believe that there were two Ian Paisleys operating in Northern Ireland at the same time. There was the anti-Catholic bigot, and the MP who worked as hard for his Catholic constituents as the Protestant ones; there was the man who opposed violence, and the firebrand who used paramilitarism as a weapon. There was the fundamentalist fire and brimstone preacher, and the loving husband I once witnessed patting his wife on the bottom as they queued for food at a carvery. (Zelig moment there).

I did not know him well. But I met one Ian Paisley who went for me in a television interview, implying I had suggested in an editorial that he should be shot. “You said you wanted me silenced… silenced.” In fact what the paper had said was if he had nothing constructive to say “a period of silence was recommended”.

On another occasion, at a dinner party, I met another Ian Paisley who put a comforting arm around my shoulder and praised the work of Imagine Belfast 2008 – the company that failed in its bid to bring the European Capital of Culture to the city. I was its chair and that day the Northern Ireland Audit Office had issued a mildly critical report on how we went about it. I was expecting a ribbing, but not a bit of it.

He was, it must be said, the life and soul of that particular party. Relaxed, supremely self-confident, and cracking jokes. He could easily have had a career on the stage (and perhaps he had).

Yet this was the same Ian Paisley who, a generation earlier, had been preaching at the end of a street while a mob was intimidating my in-laws out of their home. My wife became a refugee in her own city. Yet she sat beside him laughing and enjoying the crack. Such is the journey some have made in Northern Ireland.

Reflecting now a few days after his passing, the Ian Paisley I see in my mind’s eye is an ordinary human being, like the rest of us afflicted by the Zelig Complex.

He inserted himself in history, and changed it irrevocably. But for all Martin McGuinness’s fine words (and he carries a lot of baggage of his own) I doubt that Paisley’s lasting legacy will be a positive one. Northern Ireland remains the land of: “Never, Never, Never.” There are people engaged in sectarianism today who never experienced the Troubles. I hope history proves me wrong.

May he rest in peace.