Tuesday 11 December 2018

Joe Brolly: The result of all of this insanity is that a United Ireland is now inevitable

Northern Ireland is a dysfunctional entity, its politicians unable to move on from the past

Former PSNI constable Peadar Heffron with Joe Brolly Photo: Stephen Hamilton
Former PSNI constable Peadar Heffron with Joe Brolly Photo: Stephen Hamilton
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

The elderly Jewish comedian Barry Cryer tells a story about making a pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. It is the holiest public place in the Jewish tradition, believed to be built on foundations laid by King Solomon himself. I have been there. People line up in queues, then when it is their turn to pray, they kneel or stand, often with their foreheads against the wall, praying.

Cryer arrived on a searing hot day and found himself behind an ancient Jewish man, who prayed for almost an hour. As Cryer was turning to leave, the old man finished his prayer, slowly got to his feet, and turned to face him. "I am sorry young man," he said, "I am a very old man and it takes me a very long time to pray." Cryer, unsure what to say, blurted out a variation on that male standard when embarrassed. "Do you pray here often?"

At this, the old man became very animated. "Every day, for 40 years, I come here. And every day I pray for the same thing. I pray for peace, between the Palestinian and the Jew . . . I might as well talk to the fucking wall."

Peadar Heffron's story, told by him for the first time last weekend, has caused a lot of shock and dismay across the island. But in the North, it has had a profound effect. All week, it has occupied the news, with columns, editorials, phone-ins and discussion panels. It has also been a constant topic of conversation. I listened back again to the tapes of his interview this week. One of the things he said was: "Nothing has changed. We were promised a new start. A new society. But nothing has changed, Joe. Nothing." This is the real question.

There are some undeniable, fundamental changes. We are no longer killing each other. There is a genuine peace. These are massive turnarounds. But 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, it is hard to disagree with Peadar's bleak assessment. Northern Ireland is a dysfunctional entity, a pretence.

The consensus that existed around the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has disappeared. It is worth remembering the crux of that agreement. The signatories accepted that the majority of people in the North wished to remain part of the UK, that a substantial proportion of people in the North and the majority of people on the island wished to bring about a United Ireland, and that both these views were legitimate.

The agreement specified that the North would remain part of the UK until a majority of both the people of the North and the South voted otherwise, at which time both the UK and Irish governments have a "binding obligation" to implement a United Ireland. Crucially, the right of people in the North to be treated as "Irish" or " British" was specifically recognised, with "parity of esteem . . . and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities."

Unionism, in particular the now all-powerful DUP, has systematically squandered that opportunity. They have had almost 20 years to sell the idea of a fair, pluralist, respectful Northern Ireland. Twenty years to make us comfortable with the new state, to create a proper partnership, basically to do what they had signed up to do both in the Good Friday Agreement and later with the St Andrews Agreement.

At that point, nationalism, particularly middle-class nationalism, was open to the idea of a modern, pluralist Northern Ireland. Instead, they destroyed that consensus. Peter Robinson did his best to modernise their thinking and behaviour, and could clearly see what was going to happen if they didn't. He extended the hand of friendship to the GAA and generally behaved the way a modern head of state ought to. I believe he will be remembered well by history, but in the end he was overwhelmed by the bigots.

Since Peter's resignation, the party, under the hard-line Arlene Foster, has gone back to being comfortable in its own skin, an old-style triumphalist, sneering, bible-thumping party of creationists, where the Irish language is something to make fun of, homosexuality is an abomination inviting the curse of God, gay blood is poisoned and cannot be donated, and the Catholics can wait in line.

Instead of them recognising, even tactically, that they should accommodate nationalists, they have chosen short-term electoral gain and gone right back to the old-style unionism that brought about the civil rights movement in the first place.

At their 2014 party conference, Gregory Campbell (who once brought a motion to Parliament to censure the carmaker Kia for building a concept car called 'Provo', the Italian word for 'test') received a standing ovation when he said: "On behalf of our party let me say clearly, and slowly so that even Caitríona Ruane and Gerry Adams understand, we will never agree to an Irish Language Act at Stormont and we will treat their entire wish list as no more than toilet paper."

You get my drift? Never mind that an Irish Language Act was specifically agreed by the parties in the St Andrews Agreement of 2006. Sinn Féin specifically undertook to support the PSNI, the courts and the rule of law, and the DUP specifically committed themselves to an Irish Language Act.

The Irish Language Act is a pretty basic thing you may think. It would merely bring the North into line with European-wide protections for minority languages, allowing for things like bilingual street signs where they are wanted, government funding for promotion of language initiatives etc. There is a similar Scots' Gaelic Act in Scotland and a Welsh Language Act in Wales. But the DUP, instead of showing a little leadership, have relentlessly mocked and sneered and vividly demonstrated to the wider Catholic population that doing business with them is an embarrassing waste of time.

"Curry me yoghurt can coca cola," said Gregory Campbell (mocking "Go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle") in the Stormont chamber in 2014, to gales of laughter from his party. His party leader Arlene, a passionate Glasgow Rangers supporter, referring to the Irish Language Act earlier this year, said "if you feed a crocodile, it will only come back for more." Dearie, dearie me.

A few days before last Christmas, Paul Givan, the DUP's Communities Minister (you couldn't make it up), stopped the tiny £55,000 Liofa scheme which awarded Irish language bursaries to people from poor backgrounds. The decision flew in the face of advice from government officials who wrote that "the advantages of running the scheme were many," just days before he killed it off in a letter which ended with the heart-warming message, "Happy Christmas and happy New Year."

The DUP's Edwin Poots, as health minister, banned blood donations from the gay community, saying: "I think that people who engage in high-risk sexual behaviour in general should be excluded from giving blood." Gregory, meanwhile, said gayness was an abomination that "invited the curse of God" and Iris Robinson said homosexuality could be cured.

Most of these nut jobs are fervent believers in creationism and think a man in his 90s went to the North Pole, brought back two polar bears and squeezed them onto a ship he had built that was 20 times bigger than the Titanic.

The result of all of this insanity is that a United Ireland is now inevitable. Within a decade, Catholics will be in the majority in the North and the statutory mechanism will be activated. But in the meantime, we will be in limbo. Maybe direct rule, maybe a pretence of a government at Stormont.

What happened to Peadar Heffron, from the time he joined the PSNI, has been down to this wider dysfunction. True, the GAA didn't do anywhere near enough to promote the new police force at community level, even if the political backdrop was hardly confidence-inspiring. Sinn Féin, as a whole, did nothing to stand up for any young Catholic who joined. It must be said that Martin McGuinness was a champion of reconciliation and consensus-building, but Gerry Adams, who has become a positive obstacle to progress, did little or nothing, satisfied with rhetorical condemnation of the attacks on Constables Peadar Heffron and Ronan Kerr.

So, in almost quarter of a century since the peace deal, and in the 15 years since the PSNI Gaelic football team was formed, captained by Peadar, they have played only a few challenge matches against club teams. When Peadar was attacked, public figures made all the right noises. When Ronan was murdered the following year, Mickey Harte and his Tyrone team stood in solidarity with the dead boy and his family. His friends from the Beragh Red Knights club helped to shoulder the coffin. The following day, things went back to abnormal. As of this moment, in a force comprising almost 7,500 officers, there are a grand total of 35 Gaelic footballers.

The fact that society here is entirely dysfunctional doesn't absolve Creggan GAA club, where Peadar played. They have been lambasted since last Sunday, but are any of our clubs in the North any better? Would we have done any different if he had been a member of our club team? All of us are guilty. All of us in the GAA in the six counties have been part of a culture of silence, of cowardice, of not doing the right thing.

Peadar's decision to tell his story has, inevitably, for the first time, put a national focus on the Creggan club. Particularly striking was the cruelty of the club's boycott of him, the way the team manager completely ignored him at training, leaving him out when teams were picked for training, the silent treatment in the changing room, the permitting known republicans to hand out anti PSNI leaflets at training and all the rest. When he asked senior officials to back him, they refused, saying he was making life very difficult for the club. None of these matters are in dispute.

Yesterday, 15 years after they hounded him out, seven years after he was attacked, and under huge pressure they have brought on themselves, the club issued a statement that does them no credit. Seven years late, for the first time, they condemn the attack and encouraged anyone with information to bring it to the PSNI. Seriously?

The statement speaks of the great work done by the club in the community over the years, which is not in dispute. It goes on to say that some club officials went to the family home after the attack (as described by Peadar in his story last week) then concludes by saying that any insinuation that members were in any way involved in assisting the attack on Peadar is untrue. How can they be certain that this is the case, and why did they not convey this to Peadar at some stage over the past seven years?

But the crux of the thing, the boycott, the cruelty over ten long weeks when Peadar tried to cling on, and the way he was finally intimidated out of the club, is ignored.

Creggan GAC is indeed a fine club and has done great work over the last 20 years, but instead of this sort of insult to intelligence, they have an opportunity here to make amends. It is not a defence for those who were involved to think privately: "This isn't what I want but I'm not going to rock the boat." As Edmund Burke put it: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

When the team manager didn't pick him in the training games, leaving Peadar standing there alone, humiliated and hurt, did you stand there like sheep?

When local republicans entered the dressing room (clearly by prior arrangement) to hand out fliers targeting Peadar, did you say to them "Jesus lads he is one of our own, we can't do this." Or did you stand there like sheep?

When his arse was blown off, did you go see him in the hospital? Did you apologise to him, and explain you were too afraid to step out of line at the time, but bitterly regret it now? Or did you stand there in O'Boyle's bar like sheep, saying nothing, glad that nobody mentioned it as you drank pints and talked about something else.

And when two committee members went to visit Peadar's devastated father and mother when their beloved boy was in a coma, was it really necessary for you to say "We are not here to represent the club, we are only here in a personal capacity." You know who you are. Where is your courage? Where is your honour?

Rather than a self serving statement that avoids the issue, an apology would be a start. Perhaps the club could establish a scholarship in Peadar's name. There ought to be some recognition of their terrible disloyalty and cruelty to a decent human being. A club delegation should ask to go meet him, to apologise and listen. They could absorb his terrible hurt, accept what they did, and take it from there. Who knows? Such a reconciliation might lead some day to him being able to come home, even to take a team, or have a pint in O'Boyle's with the boys. Or his club and community can continue to take the cowards' way out and stick with a bland statement that could have been drafted by a PR firm.

Peadar was a sacrificial lamb. His only fault was to believe the illusion that was sold to all of us. Arlene won't have to feed the crocodiles any longer. And the Fenians can stop talking to the fucking wall.

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