Saturday 24 August 2019

John Downing: 'Why 'Milkman' can deliver vital lessons for leaders holding talks in the North'

Hopeful: Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Hopeful: Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

'Every so often, however, an event would occur so beyond the pale that everyone - 'this side of the road', 'that side of the road', 'over the water' and 'over the border' - couldn't help but be stopped in their tracks."

It was a strange coincidence that I was reading the novel 'Milkman' when news of Lyra McKee's murder in Derry came through. Just hours before the grim news I had been taken by the words cited above, never thinking that another such "so beyond the pale" moment was actually happening even as I read on that Thursday night.

Anna Burns's book is wrongly described as a "hard read". Yes, it does take a bit of reader effort to get stuck in - but that effort is rewarded in spades, not least by the magical quality of the language flows, but also for the human accounts which bear in on you, and above all for its humour.

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The 2018 Booker Prize winner evokes the 1970s horror of the Troubles, when murder and mayhem became a banal quotidian occurrence. Then every so often came the stand-out horror, the atrocity that grabbed headlines across the globe and just whacked us all in the face.

If you're of an age to have lived through it, you can take your pick: the Miami Showband massacre, Greysteel, Enniskillen, Aldershot, Omagh and so on down the list. We could be here for a while.

Suffice to say that 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement we are - yet again - back to the "politics of the last atrocity". And back to hoping it could become a potential driver of fundamental change. It is a question of two parts hope, to one part divided between dread and cynicism, for in the past the backwash of the standout atrocity did not endure - much less deliver.

And, again, more than two decades after long-planned structures were put in place to avoid another atrocity, we find the key players in the North cannot do grown-up politics without outside supervision.

So, 27 months after the North's power-sharing parliament and government were shut down, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and the UK's Northern Ireland Minister, Karen Bradley, have finally taken a hand. The two ministers have acknowledged the huge influence of Lyra McKee's murder on this new move, and the often accident-prone Ms Bradley cited the powerful call to action from Fr Martin Magill at Lyra's funeral on Wednesday.

On Tuesday week, May 7, yet another round of multi-party talks will open and on the following day the Dublin and London governments will meet in a forum provided for under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

This is the so-called British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference which last met in November 2018, and has previously met 26 times in efforts to break big logjams. Both ministers will work over the coming days with the parties on how the talks will be structured.

All the parties - not just the kingpin Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin - will participate. But for now at least there will not be an independent outside chairperson.

Success will depend on the feedback given to the politicians, especially in the two big parties, by the general public across the North.

There is much anecdotal evidence that the overwhelming mood is that there can be no going back to the bad old days.

There are grounds to hope that 20 years of peace, albeit uneasy peace sitting amid ongoing tensions, will steel the majority will in both communities. Everyone knows that peace amounts to more than an absence of war.

Simon Coveney alluded to this by saying: "There are moments in politics when things change."

Therein lies the bulk of all our hopes - one more time.

Mr Coveney was right about the need to carry on regardless of what else is on the political agenda. These talks will start amid two elections, the North's local council vote next Thursday, and the expected European Parliament elections in the North on May 23.

In the North there's often an election posing an excuse to hold everything up.

After the election will come yet another marching season.

Faint hopes flicker and die.

Here's a different suggestion for the two governments sponsoring this necessary new initiative to end the corrosive stalemate in the North. Issue all the participants with a copy of Anna Burns's 'Milkman' and make them all sit a simple quiz on the work before being admitted to the talks.

Irish Independent

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