Wednesday 22 May 2019

Future of peace is tangled in the nets of Brexit. Not waving but drowning

STRONG LEADERSHIP: John Hume, who helped bring about peace in the North, on a rooftop overlooking the Catholic Bogside neighbourhood of Derry in 1970. Picture: Leif Skoogfors/Getty Images
STRONG LEADERSHIP: John Hume, who helped bring about peace in the North, on a rooftop overlooking the Catholic Bogside neighbourhood of Derry in 1970. Picture: Leif Skoogfors/Getty Images

Fergal Keane

In the Republic we labour under two essential schools of historical thought. One says, "it was desperate". The other, "sure it wasn't that bad at all". We look back in anguish. Or we are revisionist?

In my much younger - and to quote F Scott Fitzgerald - "more impressionable days" I was occasionally a pupil of both schools at the same time.

I went from fury at English perfidy to outrage at the latest IRA atrocity in the space of the same hour. Then I very quickly forgot all about it and went back to making up excuses for the homework I hadn't done and to fancying the girls from Scoil Mhuire and Mount Mercy.

That was how it was for an impressionable, but easily bored southerner, who grew up with no knowledge of the North or any interactions with its people.

In as much as I took any interest at all in our island story I had my family's tribal myths to nourish me: the heroism of relatives in the Tan war, them giving the Republicans the kicking they deserved in the Civil War and then the denial of our natural right to rule by de Valera and his crowd of yahoos (memorably described by the late Breandan O'hEithir as the "Paudeens west of the Shannon") for most of the rest of the time.

Or that was it how it felt.

Our North was the North of the RTE News bulletin. The record that played on and on. A menacing and forlorn litany of murdered policemen, soldiers, IRA men, INLA men, UVF men, UDA men, assorted other fringe paramilitaries, Catholics, Protestants, fathers, mothers, children, infants. Anyone and anything that could be killed. They could be killed anywhere.

Years later I saw blood being washed from the floor of a Catholic-owned bar near Lough Neagh, blood on the car of a UDR man in Co Fermanagh. And bits too. Those horribly human bits that are made by big bombs and high velocity rounds. Brain matter on a sidewalk in Belfast. A little piece of a man's flesh and bone in a farmyard near the Border.

The other day in Clifden I met my dear old friends, Paddy and Patricia McEntee, southerners like me who had lived in Belfast during the 1980s. Paddy reminded me of how during the bad days, when killings followed killings, I would come around to their house and we would play music and read poetry aloud. The poets we loved were mostly northerners: Mahon, Longley, Hewitt, Heaney. Praise them again and again. They were in that time and place, truly, in Shelley's famous phrase, "the unacknowledged legislators of the world".

We knew that for all the incomprehension we had arrived with, the North had changed us. It had given us a clarity about how we looked at the world that would never go away and a quick ear for the bulls**t of killers and bigots.

Sitting under an autumn sky in Connemara we looked back with joy for our friendship but without the faintest tinge of nostalgia for that world of death and intolerance in which it was forged.

The bad bloody days went away. Not by magic. Courage, compromise, patience ended the killing.

How quickly we have moved on. It is as if the killing never happened. Except that it did and to people whose families still live in the same small place and who pass each other in the street every day and must watch their politicians squabble and waste the precious opportunity of healing.

This weekend I am in Derry at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the start of the Civil Rights movement. Yesterday there was a moving presentation in the Guildhall to John Hume. President Higgins spoke. Some of the founders of the movement spoke. I said a few words myself about the global struggle for human rights. And I paid tribute to John.

He was the one who never picked up a gun or planted a bomb or threatened anybody with anything other than the force of his energy and the power of his logic. How sorely we need that logic and energy now.

The future of peace is tangled in the nets of Brexit. Not waving but drowning. Too many of those who pontificate on the subject of the Border have no idea about the dynamics - historical and contemporary - of life in Northern Ireland. Others are blinded by atavistic loyalties. The Good Friday Agreement was an imperfect solution of course. Any solution to the mess made by centuries of history was going to be imperfect.

But it is the best deal possible for the foreseeable future. The current politics of direct rule infantilises the North. It leaves a vacuum where fear feeds and grows stronger. The political leadership that could re-energise the agreement is missing. As so often before in history, Ireland becomes a bit-part player in the larger dramas of Britain. This never ends well.

Peace came about 20 years ago because the leaders of that time - Hume, Blair, Ahern, Trimble, Adams, McGuinness, and others - worked tirelessly under the wise and patient stewardship of Senator George Mitchell.

Where is that vigour and determination now? The British government is preoccupied with Brexit. But that saga will be resolved one way or the other. Deal, or no deal, a deadline looms. Something will be done about the Border that either defuses the tension or provides political - and potentially something more lethal - ammunition to dissident Republicans.

But there is no deadline for a return to cooperation in the North. We have drifted instead. And without a return to power-sharing government, the dark shadows will continue to multiply.

Those who say there is no longer the support for and appetite for violence need to take a deep look at Irish history. Maybe not now. But give it time.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw long periods of 'peace' in the North but the old fears invariably erupted again.

The politicians of this generation will be tainted for posterity if they allow the great prize of Good Friday to be lost.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent and Africa editor

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