Former Minister of State Dr. Martin Mansergh delivered a lecture to the Fethard Historical Society in theConvent Community Hall, Fethard last Friday.
It is a great pleasure to be here in Fethard again as a guest of the Historical Society. A fine walled town, it is also distinguished by an old friary and an old church as well as the Tholsel, and its long and interesting history is highlighted by an Historical Atlas by Tadhg O’Keeffe published by the Royal Irish Academy as well as by Michael O’ Donnell’s very substantial volume on the town. Only recently I discovered a tenuous connection to the part of Tipperary my family come from. In 1644, the Marquis of Ormond mortgaged the castle and lands of Grenane outside the town of Tipperary to his kinsman Pierce Butler for £400, which were subsequently leased to an ancestor of mine in 1662 after Ormond had recovered his estates at the Restoration. Pierce Butler was the Governor of Fethard in 1650, when it obtained more favourable terms from Cromwell than any other town in Ireland. Cromwell commented in his written report on the good horse meat available between Fethard and Cashel, a space distinguished today by some of the best live horses bred in the world. I suspect Andrew Lloyd Webber has repaired any remaining depredations caused by the breach in the walls of the nearby castle of Kiltinan.
2014 has seen the passing of three towering figures in the peace process, Fr. Alec Reid, former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, and lastly, though he only
changed his mind about it late in life, Dr. Ian Paisley. I would like first to say a few words about each of them. Fr. Alec Reid was probably the key facilitator and mediator in the early stages of the peace process leading up to the first IRA ceasefire. He embodied a moral and religious dimension to the quest for a peaceful alternative. He had the strong backing of Cardinal O Fiaich, while he was alive. In respect to the Trinity, while most Christians put their faith in God or in Jesus Christ, Fr. Reid was unusual in that he almost always invoked the help of the Holy Spirit.
As wewere told by the Head of the Redemptorist Order at his funeral mass, when Fr. Reid was challenged as to who he represented, he replied: ‘The next person who is going to get shot’. Though the important years of his ministry covered the whole period of the Troubles and were spent in Clonard Monastery in Belfast, he was actually born in Dublin and brought up in Co. Tipperary in Nenagh. From many conversations with him, I believe his understanding of the IRA was partly derived from the traditions of Tipperary, which was true in my case also, mediated through my father who was a historian. During the war of independence and the civil war, the IRA were very active in both parts of the county, but yet were seen as having acted, at least by their lights, with integrity, and, generally speaking, their word could be relied on. Certainly in recent times, there has not been the same level of historical controversy In Tipperary over certain of their actions during the Irish revolution between 1916 and 1923, as can be found in some other parts of the country.
Fr. Reid had very close dealings with the IRA not just Sinn Féin. He did not agree with their actions, but he understood where they were coming from, and in his dealings with them he worked on the presumption of good faith. There were and will be no doubt many who will regard him as naïve in that regard, but there is little doubt that he gained their trust. In the 1970s, he was much involved in mediating between factions in internal republican disputes. At considerable risk to himself, he briefly came to world attention as he knelt over the body of a British soldier, who had just been shot in the very fraught atmosphere in West Belfast in March 1988. At talks in Duisburg in Germany in 1989, he was there representing as best he could the thinking of the Republican Movement. He wrote many papers extrapolating from that thinking based on exploring different political formulae that might create an alternative to violence, built on the dignity and respect that he felt members of the Nationalist community had too long been denied. He was indefatigable and rarely discouraged, knowing the importance of both patience and persistence, and he not only shuttled between John Hume and Gerry Adams and between the Republican Movement and Dublin, but also, when the time was ripe, provided discreet venues for secret meetings at Redemptorist monasteries in Belfast, Dundalk and Dublin at a time when the political orthodoxy was that governments do not talk to terrorists. The main political champion of that orthodoxy in Ireland was Dr. Garret FitzGerald, who felt strongly that ill-thought out approaches to the IRA by British or Irish politicians were counter-productive and in danger of encouraging them in the belief that they were winning. To be fair to him, he accepted, and I have this from a personal conversation with him, that we had chosen the right time to enter into dialogue. Today, the international orthodoxy is mostly based on the opposite principle, that it is always right to find some way of talking to terrorist organisations, and I am not sure that is correct either. The problem, as Fr. Reid well knew, was not going to be solved by another political or religious sermon delivered from a safe arm’s length. Republicans, beginning with the leadership, had to be persuaded that it was in their interest to change fundamentally their strategy and that assurances from governments on various key issues could be trusted.
At a much later stage, he was their nominee to witness the final act of decommissioning. Fr. Reid was along with the Presbyterian Minister Roy Magee a co-recipient of the Tipperary Peace Prize given to behind-the-scenes mediators, following the IRA ceasefire. The US Ambassador at the time Jean Kennedy-Smith presented the awards at the Aherlow House Hotel, a venue incidentally where at a breakfast meeting in August 1994 Fr. Reid took soundings from me about the type of language that the Government might expect to see in a ceasefire statement.
Charles Haughey considered Fr. Reid as a person who deserved much credit for the ceasefire, and once remarked to me that he was ‘straight out of the Army Council’, which he did not of course mean literally. Much the same was true of Rev. Roy Magee, who actually sat in on parts of meetings of the Combined Loyalist Military Command, or CLMC. He had, like the young David Trimble, once been a member of Bill Craig’s militant Vanguard Movement in the mid-1970s. He supplied text of freedoms that Loyalists could accept that were incorporated into the Downing Street Declaration of 15 December 1993, concluded between then British Prime Minister John Major and the Taoiseach Albert Reynolds.
I tend to divide the peace process into three phases. The first, beginning in the late 1980s, was the quest to establish a basis for ceasefires that would last. The ceasefires on 31 August and 13 October 1994 were the successful conclusion of the first phase, even if there were some later breaches, and in the case of the IRA a seventeen-month temporary and partial breakdown in 1996-7. The second phase was the negotiation of a political settlement to underpin the peace. This phase resulted in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and its subsequent ratification in referendums on both sides of the border. The third phase was the implementation and fleshing out of the Agreement, beginning in 1998 and in my opinion broadly concluded in 2010 with the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly, though of course there remain issues to be resolved, which were the subject of the talks conducted by the former US special envoy to Northern Ireland, Richard Haass, who incidentally was this year’s recipient of the Tipperary Peace Prize. In other conflicts, peace efforts have broken down over a failure to obtain a ceasefire that would allow for negotiations, or, following a ceasefire, over a failure to engage in negotiations to underpin a ceasefire let alone reach a settlement, or, when there is an agreement, a complete failure to implement it. Of course, as we can see, even when all phases of a peace process are successfully completed, this is not a guarantee that there will be no future difficulties, it is not the end of history, and in real life as opposed to fairy tales everyone does not live happily ever after.
Albert Reynolds was a driving force behind the political effort to obtain an IRA ceasefire. Coming onto office in February 1992, he regarded the continuing loss of life, running at 80-100 deaths a year, as a moral affront. Taking over the baton and the threads of an initiative that John Hume had brought in the autumn of 1991 to Charles Haughey after discussions with Gerry Adams, Reynolds drove forward using his friendship with John
Major dating from the days when both were Finance Ministers. He was prepared to take serious risks in his search for a formula for peace, including authorizing secret talks, which, as Martin McGuinness confirmed on RTE television news the day of his funeral, I was engaged in as Reynolds’ representative involving face-to-face meetings every month or two, with Fr. Reid as a witness. McGuinness was always accompanied by a colleague. Personally, I had no fears that the secrecy of the dialogue would be compromised. Albert Reynolds also maintained a written correspondence both with John Major and the leadership of the Republican Movement. He was not willing to be diverted from his intended course, and he kept up the pressure on all concerned. He was an indefatigable persuader for peace, and I cannot recall any instance where he put a serious foot wrong. Not everyone was equally persuaded of the feasibility of what he was trying to achieve. As the British Ambassador in Dublin said to me, ‘he bullied us and he was right’. There are two iconic photographs of Reynolds and Major on the steps of Downing Street on 15 December 1993, and then another of himself, John Hume and Gerry Adams shaking hands on the steps of Government Buildings on 6 September 1994. As we now know, he also met Gusty Spence and David
Ervine of the UVF shortly before the Loyalist ceasefire. The warm tributes paid to him at his death show that his contribution in this regard was widely appreciated across this island. What is one then to make of the statement Desmond O’Malley’s recently published memoir Conduct Unbecoming that personally he does not think Reynolds was ‘up to being Taoiseach’, and that all four of his immediate predecessors as Taoiseach both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were ‘head and shoulders above Reynolds, politically and intellectually’? Be that as it may, they would all have given a great deal to have achieved what he delivered, an end to the violence in the North, broadly speaking. To be fair to Desmond O’Malley, he held the line as Minister for Justice in the early 1970s, when violence in the North reached its peak and when the Provisional IRA was in its most aggressive phase, and this period left its mark on him, as is evident from his book.
One could of course ask the question, as many did at the time, did President Reagan have the intellectual capacity to be President of the United States? One might not like his simplistic approach to economic policy or his support for right-wing Latin American dictatorships. Yet he is credited with bringing the Cold War from the US point of view to a triumphant end, and only recently we have been reminded of his call to Mikhail Gorbachev when visiting Berlin to ‘tear down that wall’, a couple of years before it actually was brought down. My favourite Reagan story goes like this. In the midst of some seriousinternational crisis, the White House Press Spokesperson was asked how the President was bearing up under the strain. He replied that the President had been having sleepless afternoons.
In casual conversation before the start of a meeting around St. Patrick’s Day in the White House in 1994, I mentioned to President Clinton that I had been in Oxford at the same time as him in the late 1960s, though I did not come across him. Clinton said: ‘But I did no work’, to which Reynolds replied quick as a flash: ‘That’s why you are President of the United States, and he is an adviser!’ Political leadership requires goals people can relate to, the pursuit of means to achieve them, and communication skills above all able to explain both opportunities and difficulties; other skills can be supplemented by colleagues and staff. On the peace process, Albert Reynolds displayed outstanding vision, judgment, and communication skills.
I first encountered Rev. Ian Paisley sitting in the audience at an Oxford Union debate in the late 1960s before the Troubles began, when I was struck at first hand by his rhetorical ability to strike the chord of prejudice. The 19th century French politician and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville once remarked that the most dangerous moment for a régime was when it began to reform, obviously referring to France before the revolution. Northern Ireland which began to change in the 1960s under NI Prime Minister Terence O’Neill is another good example. Paisley whipped up opposition to every compromise initiative, till late in the day he finally won a majority amongst Unionists. When we came back to government in June 1997, Paisley and McCartney, alongside whom sat and spoke the forlorn figure of Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien, were still at the talks, but they did not come back in September when Sinn Féin joined the talks. David Trimble and his colleagues from the Ulster Unionist Party re-entered the talks flanked by the two small Loyalist parties, the UDP and the PUP. The next time we saw Paisley was a noisy evening when he appeared with members of his party outside the buildings at Stormont where negotiations had been taking place, as the Good Friday Agreement was being concluded, and was confronted by Loyalist politicians who told him in no uncertain terms that he was an anachronism.
While Northern Nationalists voted overwhelmingly for the Agreement to the tune of about 97%, the Unionist verdict was fairly evenly divided. From here on, Trimble was under virtual siege in his own party for several years. With substantial defections to the DUP, it was only a matter of time before the became the lead party in Unionism, and they began to prepare for that. They took up their ministerial quota in the Executive, when it was established inDecember 1999, but without attending Executive meetings. In 2001, Rev. Ian Paisley sought a meeting with the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Government Buildings, ostensibly as a religious rather than as a political leader. The occasion was an arson attack on a Free Presbyterian Church in North Monaghan. Paisley explained that firewood had been placed in the wooden pulpit and set alight, adding: ‘Of course, there should always be fire in the pulpit’. When he finally won majority status amongst the Unionist electorate in 2003, I always felt on the basis of political first principles that now having a political mandate from the Unionist community he would be expected to do something with it. The reason both Unionists and Nationalists had chosen hard-line political representatives was not because they wanted no peace but because they wanted them to drive a hard political bargain with the fewest possible concessions from weakness. Even though a Senator at this stage, I attended and observed the Leeds Castle talks in 2004, at which Paisley was present. Leeds Castle incidentally is in Kent, not the North of England. It came very close to an agreement in 2004, but failed over the demand to have visible, transparent and humiliating sackcloth and ashes decommissioning, as demanded by Paisley.
After some well-known security setbacks, the Northern Bank robbery and the McCartney killing, it took time to bring parties together again and to settle decommissioning, but in late 2006 a reworked version of the Good Friday Agreement to which the DUP could subscribe without loss of face, the St. Andrews Agreement, was signed. In May 2007, the Executive was inaugurated, with Paisley as First Minister, working in apparently cordial harmony with the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, as the wits put it, the so-called chuckle brothers. There was a consensus then and since that only Paisley could have pulled off this feat, though there was a personal price to pay for this, when he lost first his political leadership and then the leadership of his church and suffered with some bitterness the alienation of his followers. He would visit at least three times the site of the battle of the Boyne at Oldbridge (on the last occasion I accompanied him around as OPW Minister of State). I was also present when he came one 11 November to say prayers in his booming voice in the area of Glasnevin Cemetery, where a number of Commonwealth War Graves are situated. On the same occasion, he also visited the Daniel O’Connell monument, and went down into the crypt. I doubt if Rev. William Cooke, who ensured that O’Connell was confronted when he visited Belfast to address a Repeal meeting in 1841, or another fiery 19th century preacher Roaring Hanna would have been impressed.
While Paisley’s contribution to the consolidation of the peace process was vitally important from the point of view of inclusiveness, I am not confident that it outweighs or compensates for the destructive nature of his politics at earlier stages, which served to reinforce a strongly anti-Irish and anti-Catholic outlook amongst too many members of the Protestant and Unionist community in Northern Ireland, sometimes with lethal consequences, and which too few leaders were able to stand up to. It also helped to kill off or stultify many initiatives that involved compromise and might have achieved more progress. Both at home and abroad, he and in tandem the Orange Order were allowed to put their stamp on the Protestant and Unionist community in Northern Ireland and define its identity and culture.
On the other side, it ought not to be said either that the outcome of the peace process justified the Provisional IRA campaign. One of the problems in evaluating historical outcomes is that we know what happened. We cannot speculate with any certainty about how any alternative might have turned out. Often unfair comparisons are made, which compare the outcome of a conflict over say forty years with the situation at the outset, as if it were frozen and nothing at all would have happened. There is a false piety in suggesting that violence achieved nothing. The real question centres round the high cost of what was achieved, which fell far short of what was originally sought, and what might have been foregone as a result. Garret FitzGerald used to argue that the campaign killed off any hope of Irish unity and copper-fastened partition. This assumes Unionists would have been more amenable on constitutional matters to an ongoing street campaign or a more nuanced extension of civil rights politics, which is an uncertain proposition to say the least.
The peace process is based on an acceptance, reluctant perhaps on the part of the Republican Movement, that a united Ireland cannot be brought about by armed struggle, and by Nationalist Ireland that it cannot be achieved by any form of political coercion. One can of course argue that partition was wrong in principle and also wrong in the way in which it was carried out. Except perhaps in 1922, few Nationalists thought they could impose their will directly on Unionists, but there was long a belief that Britain could be persuaded or shamed into abandoning them and/ or pressurizing them into a united Ireland.
Neither de Valera nor Seán MacBride were able to muster any significant international support outside the diaspora for the proposal that Britain whose jurisdiction over Northern Ireland was accepted in international law should reverse partition Latterly, it took the milder form of asking the British to be persuaders for unity. The couple of times they tried in November 1921 during the Treaty negotiations and in the summer of 1940 after the fall of France in the Second World War, when Britain was under imminent threat of invasion, were not very encouraging. It is not clear otherwise why they would have tried. Up to the end of the Cold War, Northern Ireland was deemed to have a certain, albeit diminishing, strategic value. Since then, it may have been regarded as an outer bulwark of the union that really mattered, between England and Scotland, and a case of not encouraging the development of a full-scale independent Ireland as an alternative model on their doorstep. There are relatively few modern examples of States abandoning a territory, where a majority of the people living there strongly want to stay.
The micro-paramilitary groups still in action presumably would like the conflict to re-ignite, but why they should imagine there might be a different outcome is quite unclear. The notion that the British and/or the Unionists can be worn down by sporadic and only occasionally successful terrorist actions over a longer period of time has no evidence to support it. Security cooperation is well able to contain a threat that, for Britain today, pales into insignificance compared to the likes of Isis or al Qaeda. Realisation that an approach that worked once in very particular circumstances
for aims that won an overwhelming democratic mandate outside of North-East Ulster will not work there means a lot of things: drawing a line under the
physical force tradition in Irish politics, accepting the logic that future progress requires constructive engagement and a gradual rebuilding of trust to the degree that can be achieved, and achieving an acceptable life and co-existence on the basis of a maximum of equality in the here and now, without prejudice to whatever future may evolve and without closing off either of Northern Ireland’s constitutional options, remaining in the United Kingdom or joining a united Ireland.
In place of what was purely a Unionist veto, both communities effectively have vetoes, which is why there can be from time to time a stalemate or slow progress in the Executive. The only way to make progress is via mutual accommodation, where this is possible. There have been systemic blockages, originally over support for and participation in policing and its devolution, and also weapons decommissioning. These were resolved. Richard Haass last autumn chaired talks about three other contentious issues, flags, parades, and how to handle legacy issues from the past. Proposals were put forward, accepted by Nationalists but not by Unionists. Since then, the two Governments have accepted that they too need to be more directly involved.
National flags are flown in Northern Ireland and even painted on pavements far in excess of what one would see in most countries that are secure in their identity. They both demarcate territory and identity often defiantly, but they also represent the official flag of the jurisdiction under which by majority the people have decided to live, or alternatively the jurisdiction under which a substantial minority would wish to live. Nationalists would like complete parity of esteem. Unionists are not willing to countenance an arrangement that might symbolize creeping acceptance of joint sovereignty. This subject was kicked to touch for further discussion. It is possible to reach some agreement in this area, as shown for example in the accord on the PSNI badge.
The number of commemorative events principally associated with the battle of the Boyne in 1690 is incredible by any international standard. Even the First World War is in second place. The Boyne River of course is now on the other side of the border, though the Irish State has made great efforts in recent times to preserve the site and to make it visitor friendly. Orange parades maybe celebrate more the way things were than how they are, a dash of triumphalism to offset all the strain of having to live by parity of esteem. If it were purely a traditional cultural festival, few would mind, but the element of aggro probably helps to prop up a membership that is in long-term decline. The reality is that some system of independent adjudication is necessary to minimize the potential for inter-community confrontation, and one was proposed.
As we have seen earlier this year, the unresolved legacy of the past is a difficult and divisive issue. It has cropped up in least three ways, controversy over the disappeared, assurances given to the on-the-runs, and most recently the handling of child sexual abuse cases where paramilitaries were involved. While in theory a truth and reconciliation commission such as was established in post-apartheid South Africa would have much to recommend it, the reality is that no party, not the State, and not paramilitary organisations either Loyalist or Republican, is any way prepared to put its cards on the table. Latterly, paramilitary organisations have been reasonably helpful in trying to identify the location of remains, and have also admitted what happened. They are very careful however to avoid any admission that could be construed or used as self-incrimination, beyond in most cases not contesting past court convictions. If one were to rely solely on those, one might conclude that the IRA was an organization that had very few members and much of the time practically no publicly known leaders, or alternatively that not the least of their arsenals was a wide range of convenient fictions which are far from decommissioned.
According to peace activist Ciaran McKeown, obtaining information as to whether a named volunteer was wanted by the RUC goes back as far as the
late 1970s, and was originally given to those who wanted to cease being paramilitaries and move outside Northern Ireland. One of the provisions of the
Good Friday Agreement was that anyone convicted or to be convicted of any offence before then would be released within two years, which was of course a qualified de facto amnesty. The administrative arrangements put in place discreetly by the Blair Government and stood over today by former Labour NI Secretaries of State and strongly supported by the Irish Government under Bertie Ahern continued to be operated by the present British Tory Government, till a mistake in one instance came to light and a wanted person was able to win an appeal in the British courts on the basis of previous assurances. As a result of the publicity and ensuing controversy, the arrangement was rescinded, at a stage where it probably makes little difference.
The most recent child sex abuse controversy, the subject of huge debate in the media and the Dáil highlights the deeply unsatisfactory nature of parallel or shadow justice systems by paramilitary organisations that of their nature lack any human rights culture except when tested against the State. The gulf has widened over time. Back when the Troubles started round 1970, corporal and even capital punishment occasionally were practised and accepted in most European States. Today, both are absolutely incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and physical punishments of any kind are a flagrant human rights abuse. It is not good enough to say that only State authorities have human rights obligations. Paramilitary organisations, whose ideology claims for them quasi-State authority, are hoist by their own petard. I was reminded during recent controversy of Dick Spring’s acknowledgement one time that ‘the moral high ground is a lonely place’. A reprobate former French bishop and foreign minister, Talleyrand, during the time of Napoleon once gave the good advice ‘not too much zeal’.
The families of victims will always seek justice, and it is very difficult to ask them to move on. They exist naturally on every side of the conflict. At the same time, if new beginnings and fresh starts are to be made, politics cannot be held entirely hostage to the terrible events of the past, particularly when prosecutions will only have enough evidence to be possible in isolated instances. A new factor, not foreseen at the time of the Agreement, was that testimony would emerge through research projects and otherwise from within organisations from persons profoundly disaffected from their present political direction.
The basic premiss of the peace process was that if paramilitary organisations renounced violence for good their associates with an electoral mandate could fully participate in democratic politics. Essentially, that offer was taken up. Because everyone knows that that was the quid pro quo, continuing recriminations and reminders about the terrible events that preceded the ceasefires do not have the effect on public opinion that is sometimes anticipated. The charge is sometimes made by the critics that the peace process is an appeasement process. The original appeasement of Hitler in 1938 notoriously by Neville Chamberlain did nothing beyond a few months to halt the drift to war and if anything increased his appetite. Tens of millions died in the Second World War. The peace process did not lead after a short interval to an intensification of conflict and an increase in casualties. On the contrary, it brought both to a virtual end, even taking into account short-term breakdowns and the single massive exception of the Omagh bomb for which dissident organisations were responsible. I do not remotely subscribe to the editorial view of the Sunday Independent that it would have been better to wait till the IRA could have been ground down further, however many deaths later that might have been.
The issue in recent months that has most caused the Executive to stall has been the application of British Government cuts. The view was that fear of cross-border read-across and taunts from the Government side in the Dáil contributed to an impasse, which now appears to have been eased. The truth is that it is not in the interests of either the DUP or Sinn Féin to allow the institutions to collapse. For the DUP, British Government direct rule in consultation with the Irish Government is an unattractive option. For Sinn Féin, it is important to be able to demonstrate responsibility in Government, even if the Executive’s functions are much narrower and do not at present include mainstream taxation. Smaller parties such as the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party debate the option of withdrawing from the Executive and going into opposition, which may happen at some point. We all keep a wary eye on external developments, such as the recent Scottish referendum and a potential referendum in Britain on continuing EU membership. The Government here steers well clear of any association with British Government Eurosceptic-inspired demands, while being very concerned that Britain should stay in the EU. Interestingly, Sinn Féin in the North has indicated it would vote against quitting the EU, despite being on the Eurosceptic side in every referendum so far here.
To conclude, we are at present in the midst of the decade of centenaries here, and most people want to honour those who made great sacrifices for the achievement of Irish independence. That does not of course mean that we need another Easter Rising now, and the State has never accepted the view held both by some republicans and backed by revisionists that the IRA campaign in the North was simply a continuation of what happened here earlier. Connolly and Pearse summoned the leaders of the Belfast Volunteers to Dublin in March 1916, before what was intended otherwise to be a countrywide rising, and made it clear to them that they did not want a rising in the North or anything that might turn into a sectarian civil war. When control had been gained of the rest of the country, they would then address the problem of Ulster Unionism. If the Northern Volunteers wanted to take part, they should go to Sligo. While every attempt will be made to be inclusive, the State cannot be neutral about its own existence, and as the President said in South Africa it does not mean that we have to confer equality on all different versions of the past.