The publication of the Saville Report yesterday marked an end for many in Derry to years of waiting to be vindicated, for it to be clearly stated on the public record that the 14 protesters shot dead on 30 January 1972 were innocent and had been unlawfully killed. The publication yesterday was followed by a humble apology from David Cameron:
But what happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day – and a lifetime of loss. Some members of our Armed Forces acted wrongly. The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the Armed Forces. And for that, on behalf of the Government – and indeed our country – I am deeply sorry.
This is a significant admission of culpability on the part of the state in the actions on that date, and from the reception to the report and the state in Derry itself is a sign that it is one more step in the process of healing.
This report should also act a reminder to those of us who would condemn the actions of the IRA during that period. It is, of course, just to condemn those who took up arms against their fellow citizens, and the vindictiveness and the intransigence of those in the higher ranks of the IRA for many years, including the current leadership of Sinn Féin. And tribute must be paid to those leaders of nationalism in the SDLP, Gerry Fitt, John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Eddie McGrady, Mark Durkan and others, who consistently sought peaceful, constitutional and conciliatory approaches to settlement.
But in the context of Bloody Sunday, and perhaps more particularly of the Widgery Report which initially followed it, in which the army was exonerated, and accused of having “bordered on reckless”, that so many young Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland felt so alienated from the institutions of the state, with such a report that embodied the arrogant attitude that the state could do no wrong. At this distance, we should at least be able to comprehend and appreciate the part the British Army played in escalating the division and conflict in the years of the Troubles.
But most importantly now, while acknowledging the hurt of the past, Northern Ireland needs to move on to governing itself effectively, and it is thankfully managing to do so most of the time given the context of events like this.
Image from CAIN
Great news from East Belfast, where the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long has taken out First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson. Great to see an Alliance Party MP elected after 40 years, and 36 years after Stratton Mills, who had left after being elected from the Ulster Unionist Party, retired in 1974.
The Alliance are avowedly non-sectarian, though it has been difficult for them at times for them to maintain their identity. I look forward to seeing how they can shape themselves now on the Westminster stage. It is also a gain for the Liberal Democrats, with whom the Alliance are aligned.
Peter Robinson won his seat here in 1979, in a close three-way contest against the Ulster Unionist Party’s William Craig and the Alliance Party’s Oliver Napier, with less than a thousand votes separating the three candidates, and till tonight, it was considered a solidly safe seat for the DUP. As a hung parliament is likely, and the DUP will need someone to be able negotiate any arrangements, his leadership may well be on the line quite soon.
Well, ding dong, the witch is dead.
The Times/Ladbrokes seat predictor currently put the Conservatives six seats short of a majority. Suppose this prediction is accurate. It ignores a few details about Northern Ireland. They predict a seat for Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, standing in alliance with the Conservative Party, which really puts the those elected as Conservatives at 321. South Antrim should really have been coloured as blue as any Conservative predictions in Britain. They also predict a seat for Rodney Connor in Fermanagh–South Tyrone, who has pledged to take the Tory whip under a loose arrangement. Add to that then the four predicted Sinn Féin seats. By their abstention, they bring the figure required for a majority to 324, rather than the standard figure given of 326.
The Conservatives would then be only two seats short of a majority, and could very reasonably expect to form a government. But to be secure, to sure of not losing any confidence motion, especially if the predictions are a little high for the party, they could turn then to the eight predicted seats of the Democratic Unionist Party. They would most likely guarantee some measure of relief from the expected public sector cuts to Northern Ireland. It would be a major turn around in Peter Robinson’s fortunes, whose position was in doubt only a few months ago. It would also consolidate the Conservative government’s Unionist stance on issues of disagreement in Northern Ireland, which could potentially have repercussions for any further negotiations.
In today’s new episode of Doctor Who, set in the 29th century, the Doctor refers to the still extant United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, now located on a single big spaceship (though there’s reference later to Scotland going their own way). Of course the very British Who would.
On the other hand, in the Star Trek universe, by 2024, according to Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The High Ground”, Irish unification had been achieved, sadly as a result of terrorism.
Lady Sylvia Hermon, who has represented North Down as an MP for the Ulster Unionist Party since 2001, did not really surprise anyone by not seeking to be reselected as the party’s candidate for the upcoming election. She has been vocal in her opposition to the alliance between the Ulster Unionists and the Conservative Party, under the label Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force, from the start. Lady Hermon herself has been much more closely aligned with the Labour Party in the House of Commons, and had never considered herself to be a Tory.
Having now confirmed that she does not intend to stand down, it would make sense for her to officially stand as a candidate for the Labour Party. This would give a refreshing choice to the electorate of North Down, between two parties not primarily defined by their position on the national question. Of course, it would do no good for the long-term chances of a united Ireland for them to get used to thinking in terms of British political parties, but it should be welcome nonetheless.
Politics in North Down has long been exceptional, given that the population is so Unionist that it matters less to them than to others in Northern Ireland, such that they elected the only Green Party MLA in 2007, or that political mavericks have been consistently elected at Westminster. From 1970 to 1995, the constituency was represented by James Kilfedder, one-time auditor of the College Historical Society, and leader of the one-man Ulster Popular Unionist Party. He died in 1995, on the day that the Belfast Telegraph featured an article outing him as gay. He was succeeded by Robert McCartney, leader of the one-man United Kingdom Unionist Party, an anti-devolutionist party briefly supported by Conor Cruise O’Brien. Mr McCartney proved that he was no gentleman when he stepped in front of Lady Hermon to speak on the day of the count of the 2001 Westminster election, rather than allowing her give her victory speech.
So North Down politics is not really representative of Northern Ireland, but an election between Lady Hermon for Labour and Ian Parsley, who had stood for the Alliance in the 2009 European election, for the Conservatives, would definitely be one to watch.
David Cameron has shown himself aware of Conservative Party history on the Irish question, such as when he declared in 2008 that he had a “selfish and strategic interest” in Northern Ireland.
With apologies for going on about the recent meeting between these parties while more serious negotiations are ongoing, the history of the location came to mind. One might wonder about the symbolism of Hatfield House as the location for the talks between the Conservatives, the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists. This is the home of the Robert, 7th Marquess of Salisbury. In no way do I mean to impugn the marquess’s character, a political figure in his own right as a Conservative MP between 1979 and 1987. But it is interesting to remember that his great-great-grandfather, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, led the first Unionist government. When William Ewart Gladstone, then leader of the Liberal Party, gave his support to Home Rule in 1886, his party split, with the Liberal Unionists, led by Lord Hartington and Joseph Chamberlain, aligning themselves with the Conservatives. Gladstone’s government fell and Salisbury led a Unionist government until 1892. It would not be far fetched to think that discussions between Unionists on both sides of the Irish Sea happened in 1886 in Hatfield House, just as they did this year.
Or at least, they say it was about both. First off, they defend Ben Brogan’s piece on the Telegraph site David Cameron is a Unionist, remember?, as if to say that even if that was what it was about, that would be ok. Then they say that it was about the Tories putting pressure on the UUP to support the DUP in the event of a deal on policing.
The piece claims “After all, Irish political parties will sometimes discuss politics from a nationalist view with both Sinn Fein and the SDLP, and at the same time”. We do have to concede this in part. Members of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour have maintained informal associational ties with members of the SDLP, and all four parties did meet in 1984 at the New Ireland Forum. There have been secret service talks, from the Hume–Adams talks in the early 1990s to discussions on decommissioning in more recent times, something both governments engaged in. What we have not seen is an opposition party south of the border negotiating with both the SDLP and Sinn Féin to discuss politics from a nationalist point of view.
For equivalent reasons, I would be critical of Fianna Fáil moves to establish itself North of the border.
But even if we suppose that they discussed matters like policing, which presumably was on the agenda given the current deadlock, are Conservatives going to claim that the talks in Lord Salisbury’s residence in Hatfield House were “all about trying to bolster peace and security”?
If either of the Unionist parties do stand aside in marginal nationalist constituencies, such as Fermanagh–South Tyrone or South Belfast, will they maintain that this was not discussed at all during these talks?
That this has nothing to do with securing every possible vote in the Commons after the election to avoid the possibility of a hung parliament? I don’t think anyone really believes that.
In 1990, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Brooke, declared that the Conservative government had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. This marked a significant step for his party, still formally titled the Conservative and Unionist Party, and it paved the way for the Downing Street Declaration issued by An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Prime Minister John Major in December 1993, leading in turn to the IRA ceasefire of the following year.
In his speech to the 2008 Ulster Unionist Party Conference, Conservative Party leader David Cameron chose words to deliberately suggest that was repudiating Brooke’s sentiments, saying that he wanted to include Ulster Unionists in his government, expected to come into office later this year, “It’s in my own selfish and strategic interests, too”.
This week, reports emerged of talks between the Tories, the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionist Party on electoral strategy. These will presumably aim to raise the total Unionist representation in the Commons with the parties standing aside in marginal nationalist constituencies. The Ulster Unionists could stand aside in Fermanagh–South Tyrone in favour of Acting First Minister Arlene Foster, targeting Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew, and the DUP could stand aside in South Belfast, giving the UUP a better shot against the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell.
There has been a shift in recent elections in the community division of representation in Westminster, with 13 Unionist and five nationalist MPs in 1997, whereas two elections later in 2005 there were 10 Unionist and eight nationalist MPs, a ratio that is somewhat more representative of the division across Northern Ireland.
While nationalists had long assumed a level of understanding between the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists (they took the Tory whip in the Commons until 1974), it is a step too far for them to stomach such favourability towards the DUP. That David Cameron is willing to be perceived as taking sides in the divisive politics of Northern Ireland for the sake of a few extra votes in the Commons can most kindly be described as foolish, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown is right to chastise him. Some of the comments on Conservative Home seem to show how little British Tories really understand the politics of Northern Ireland. Trust is all-important in the delicate political process of Northern Ireland, unless the parties believe that the governments can do what they can to put aside their instinctive sensibilities on tribal loyalties, negotiations will be ever more strained.
The best hope for moderate Unionism will be in the re-election of Lady Sylvia Hermon, MP for North Down. She opposed the electoral alliance with the Conservatives, and has yet to agree to stand under the Conservative label. Her votes in parliament show her far closer to the Labour Party than the Conservatives. Alas, this could also have the effect of furthering the identity crisis within Unionism, with a four-way division from the civility of Hermon to the hardline stance of Jim Allister.
We tend to instinctually think that it is the right and honourable thing for a Minister to do to resign if there has been a hint of wrongdoing. It’s frequently said of Irish Ministers that they don’t take fall on their sword and take that ultimate responsibility, often for faults that are later forgotten. People wonder why it is that we don’t have this in our culture; after all, Peter Mandelson does it all the time.
Sometimes, though, it isn’t the best thing to do. In the case of Peter Robinson, after hearing that had left some of his wife’s financial dealings undisclosed and only revealed them now that he was being investigated by Spotlight and Panorama, many people felt that his position was untenable. Then, we wondered if it would be worth it, given the instability that exists already in the process of devolution. Given that there is at least some professional relationship and understanding between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, this would be set back if a new DUP leader were to succeed him. This new leader would not as strong a figure within Unionism as Mr Robinson. And he would have to be put to a vote of the Assembly, jointly with Martin McGuinness, which could not be secured at this impasse.
Then consider the human element of the story. Iris Robinson’s affair and the financial impropriety that followed cannot be laid at the hands of her husband. When he found out about it, she was in a state of mental distress and suicidal.
Under these circumstances it should really be enough that he did everything mostly right. As I said elsewhere, I would not like to think that I’d have acted much differently in a similar situation.
Also, given the increasing suspicion that Gerry Adams concealed knowledge of his brother’s paedophilic abuse, the Robinson affair has been put in some perspective.
The six-week break from his duties, with Arlene Foster now as Acting First Minister (progress as some small level to have a woman in the office), he can allow the investigation to continue. The report may find minor misdemeanours, but nothing to warrant his resignation. He might be subject to censure by the Assembly, but nothing more. This will bring us up to 22 February, with the Westminster election expected in May. Hopefully enough time to put this behind, and allow the DUP and UUP/Conservatives to focus on minimizing the impact of Jim Allister and the Traditional Unionist Voice, which does not really have the manpower to launch a serious attack on a unified DUP.
It looks likely now that Peter Robinson will have to resign as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and as First Minister of Northern Ireland. SDLP leader Mark Durkan suggested as much this on Morning Ireland today, and given the cover-up for ten months of his wife’s inappropriate financial dealings, this seems a reasonable assessment. That they are both MPs makes his position more politically unviable. Even if Mr Robinson were cleared of any wrongdoing, it would be difficult to continue to govern while such suspicions remained.
My own clear preference for his successor is Jeffrey Donaldson. He was first elected as MP for Lagan Valley in 1997 for the Ulster Unionist Party. He opposed the Belfast Agreement, against the will of then party leader David Trimble. After the 2003 Assembly election, he eventually left the UUP, and soon joined the DUP.
I had presumed that he might be close-minded, and was surprised and encouraged when I heard him speak in person for the first time. It was a debate of the Hist, Trinity College’s debating society, in October 2005, with the motion That Unionists have been let down by the process. Despite the favourable wording from his point of view, he gave quite a conciliatory speech, in which he apologized on behalf of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland for the wrongdoing and discrimination against Roman Catholics. He spoke twice more in the Hist since then, was always warm when meeting students in the college, and has appeared a number of times on Questions and Answers and other programs, showing a genuine interest in engaging with those south of the border.
While Nigel Dodds is the party’s Deputy Leader, we would have much more to hope for from Jeffrey Donaldson, and he do hope there is a contest for the position.
I was reluctant to make any comment about the Iris Robinson story when I first heard it, particularly given the background of mental instability. But as the facts emerged, and particularly the timing of events, I do think it worthy of comment. Whatever sympathy I do have is tempered by the fair criticism of hypocrisy.
We know from Peter Robinson’s statement that the affair happened before March 2008. It was then on 30 July that Iris Robinson, MP, MLA, said in a House of Commons committee (at 5.38 p.m.) on sex offenders, “There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children.” Though she deservedly got the flack for that, her husband, First Minister Peter Robinson, later backed her up, saying, “It wasn’t Iris Robinson who determined that homosexuality was an abomination, it was the Almighty”. At the DUP party conference in November, Peter Robinson made light of his wife’s tendency to ignore political correctness.
I can’t but be reminded of senior US Republican Party figures who fell into disgrace last year after their adulterous affairs emerged. We had Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, both of whom admitted to having affairs in June 2008. Both were members of the religious organization, The Family, which has a record of helping its members cover up affairs, covered by Jeff Sharlet. Both voted to impeach President Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky affair. Both oppose allowing gay couples to marry or granting them any legal recognition, leading them to be termed supporters of family values (though neither made comments on the issue as bigoted as those of Mrs. Robinson).
Of course there is no necessary contradiction between opposition to homosexual relationships, either in the absolute sense or in legal recognition, and having an affair, except, of course that the same book cited to condemn the former includes a prohibition on the latter in the Ten Commandments. What really came to mind about Mrs. Robinson’s subsequent comments on hearing of her affair with a 19-year-old man were words from the scripture, the Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 7, Verses 1–5:
1Judge not, that ye be not judged. 2For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. 3And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 4Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? 5Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
She made her bigoted remarks, which her husband backed up, after they had come to terms with her affair. Was it a warped case of the lady doth protest too much?
I wish the Robinsons no particular ill will. What I would particularly hope is that those who had previously listened and paid heed to Iris Robinson in condemning the relationships of others will think carefully about and re-evaluate such reckless utterances.
Correction: It being the beginning of the year, when I read that she’d made her comments about homosexuality in 2008, I put that in the category in my mind of “last year”. It is, of course, nearly two years (it didn’t feel as recent as that), before her husband found out about her affair, but after she had started it.