ALL victims were cried for with tears that held an equal amount of salt. All victims missed – and were missed on – the best days in their families’ lives: the births, the marriages, the bursting-with-pride days. Every single lost life mattered. We don’t have to agree on our narratives of conflict to recognise that. While those who took lives reconciled those actions in a conflict context, for bereaved families that reconciliation was and remains impossible. That chair is never filled, that grave is always calling out, that photograph is always reminding us. It doesn’t go away, there is no line to be drawn. Since the ceasefires, families bereaved during our conflict have been told that their rights and their loved ones’ lives don’t matter. They knew that when the Good Friday Agreement didn’t pay attention to them.
I WAS stopped in my tracks.
IT is 100 years since the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. A treaty Michael Collins called a “stepping stone to Irish freedom”. It was, of course, no such thing and its effect was to create a century of shame, where the northern six counties were condemned to a living nightmare. The next treaty signed, the Good Friday Agreement, was not framed with such words. It was framed as the end to the nightmare, the beginning of a new era of peace. Ironically, it did provide the clear and definite stepping stones that had been missing – unity is possible if Irish people vote for it. 77 years later, nationalists, unionists and the two governments secured what Collins and Griffith did not. In advance of using that pathway, we all agreed to share power. We did so on the basis of human rights frameworks and European norms and laws. Sadly, this opportunity was squandered.
I LOVE Belfast’s Black Mountain. And I love how it is now a living billboard to send out international messages of solidarity to people experiencing repression, to give voice to campaigns who feel censored and ignored, to assert the legitimacy of an Irish experience in a Belfast which remains in the British jurisdiction but free in its minds and actions. The use of the mountain prompts all of Belfast to think about the matters of the day, even if it feels uncomfortable. And being an environmentally aware bunch, the stimulating letters come down nearly as quickly as they went up, allowing the grass to grow green and the birds to feed on the insects buzzing about, as though nothing had ever taken place.
POOR old Edwin Poots. Here he is with the sun shining looking like Santa forgot him on Christmas morning. Who would have thought he could be so glum after winning his coup d’état? He succeeded in building the gallows and getting Arlene Foster to self-guillotine herself from power. He managed to see off Jeffrey Donaldson’s challenge for leadership, with, if reports to PSNI are to believed, a little help from the DUP’s stakeholding friends. He got his show of hands at the party meeting to ratify his election, despite some of the lowered hands walking out to the glee of the waiting media. And yet poor Edwin stands like Pyrrhus himself after winning at Asculum. As though one more victory will surely be his undoing. And that is just within the DUP itself.
A FEW years ago, I got given a lovely planter box for Christmas. Inside it were lovely red and white flowers, a tiny little Christmas tree, and some ivy.
WHEN the New Decade New Approach (NDNA) ‘Deal’ was put up to the parties by the British and Irish governments the British government had an annex in which they pledged to implementing the Stormont House Agreement legacy mechanisms within 100 days and to appoint a Veterans Commissioner to act as an “independent point of contact to support and enhance outcomes for veterans in Northern Ireland”. While the commitment to the legacy mechanisms for all victims and survivors certainly created hope and optimism for a few weeks, in a place stuffed full of commissioners and quangos the position of Veterans Commissioner got little attention and was pretty much ignored in the discourse. Except that it perpetuated the false narrative that victims’ rights are a concession and something to be balanced. Of course, we know what happened to the commitments to the bereaved and injured. In January 2020 they had their hopes raised and in March the British government ripped up the international, cross-party Stormont House Agreement. By contrast, the British government was as good as its word to the veterans and appointed their commissioner in August 2020. The UUP’s Danny Kinahan got the job. The section on veterans in NDNA is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Committing to the Armed Forces Covenant, a review of aftercare services for veterans and promoting a War Memorial Trust and the Commissioner for Veterans, it is deliberately blind to the history of the British army in our shared region. Of course, veterans with needs arising from psychological or physical injuries should be supported. But to pretend that those needs exist in a vacuum is ludicrous. British army veterans share this space with others injured by our conflict, a great many of whom were injured by the British army itself. To have only partial schemes enacted supporting only the British army while disregarding the rights of victims and survivors would be breath-taking – if we had any breath left to be taken. Last week the hitherto elusive Danny Kinahan supported the notion of amnesty legislation for all conflict-related harms. His starting point is an amnesty for British soldiers, but being the sensible chap he is he recognises this would have to apply to all actors and all harms. His comments came in the wake of the resignation of Jonny Mercer MP as the Westminster Veterans Minister. He feels very affronted because his bosses have not yet legislated for a cloak of impunity around all British soldiers who served in Ireland. And all of that commentary forced the DUP to tell it as it is. They want legislation that gives impunity to British soldiers too. But not to anyone else. And that tells us the real motivation behind it all. This is about the British government and unionism refusing to countenance any challenge to their own narrative of the conflict. Which, of course, is a bit ludicrous when their narrative lies in tatters on the floors of courts in Belfast, Derry, London and Strasbourg. But there is that cognitive dissonance again. Last week, however, the media debate generally focused on the British government and unionism and if they would “concede” an amnesty to all actors or just pursue a singular amnesty. Victims were generally absent from the debate. Just as their codified and enshrined rights are absent from this self-serving discourse.
SO the place is in a meltdown over Bobby Storey’s funeral again. We have Arlene Foster calling for the Chief Constable to go. We have a respected commentator saying the whole Executive will have to come down. And we have the stoic Simon Byrne at a podium saying he is staying where he is, with the background predictable, unfailingly flawed narrative that the PSNI is “caught in the middle”. Well, this time Arlene is right – but not for the reasons she thinks she is. Byrne is not caught in any “middle” and should go. Simon Byrne’s position as Chief Constable has been fundamentally called into question in the context of dealing with the past. In recent months his response to the murder of a human rights solicitor and the response to the assault of a dignified and socially distanced memorial service and the subsequent arrest of Mark Sykes have placed him full square in the public eye. And his position with it. Or should have. Following the appalling vista on the Ormeau Road Byrne asked to meet the families affected by the atrocity in which five people died and seven were injured. They said they would meet him if assured of the status of Mark Sykes, and that he was not under threat of prosecution. The Chief Constable refused to give such an undertaking. He refused to say that Mark Sykes was not guilty of any offence on the day he was laying flowers at the Sean Grahams bookmakers and officers of the PSNI double-handcuffed him, drove him around Belfast in the back of a car for an hour and released him without charge. The families refuse to meet him with such mendacity hanging over their dignified heads. Simon Byrne had in November reacted to the Secretary of State’s egregious response to the UK Supreme Court with eye blinking patheticness. When Brandon Lewis made his statement to the House of Commons refusing a public inquiry and saying the PSNI would look into the killing, Byrne’s chop suey of a response was to try to be all things to all people. Ultimately, he sidestepped his human rights obligations to the Finucanes and the rest of us.
I WRITE this piece in the sure and certain knowledge that there has never been a time in my memory that constitutional change on this island was more possible. Monday night’s RTÉ Claire Byrne special on a united Ireland was unprecedented in content and in tone. To have the three largest parties interviewed live on a prime time spot – the leader of the opposition, An Tánaiste and An Taoiseach – with the words United Ireland in 10 foot letters behind them was breathtaking. We ain’t in Kansas now, Toto. But far more interesting than the optics was the content. There was considerable care and concern for those for whom this debate will feel less comfortable, those with British and unionist identity and background. The voices of Sarah Creighton and Andrew Trimble were as informative as they were important. But more than that all of the panellists took time to acknowledge what they were hearing from them.
Our columnist Andrée Murphy wrote this article before the shocking scenes on the Ormeau Road when the PSNI arrested Ormeau bookmaker's massacre victim Mark Sykes.
THIS week the British government responded to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) commentary on legacy. The Committee’s pre-Christmas commentary on the unilateral move by the British government to tear apart the Stormont House Agreement was surprising as it was actual criticism.
THE anniversary of Stormont’s resurrection this week came as the tensions and frustration were visible for all to see. There was no New Year’s cheer with Covid rates soaring, hospitals creaking under pressure, the DUP messing around with kids’ exams, and supermarket shelves going bare as Brexit kicks in. But then came the intergovernmental, inter-party meeting on the anniversary and everyone released statements to say five-party government is tough, but it is an achievement that we can do it at all and we do manage to make local things happen. That is true and reasonable, but for many people the lack of enthusiasm towards Stormont hasn’t been assuaged by the past 12 months.
THIS is the winter our souls and bodies will be tested. And coming out the other side needs to be more meaningful than the number of boxsets we watched. I realise I’ve never felt less rested after a Christmas, or less energised facing into the challenge of a New Year. And I say that as someone who spent many Christmases with toddlers, a few with fresh grief, quite a number with work deadlines and more recently with the heaviness of ill health.
2021 what will it bring? In these uncertain times I suppose we have got used to just rolling with whatever comes up. There is such little point in planning at this stage we just have to go with change, as worrying about it hasn’t helped a great deal.
THE next Assembly election is May 2022. Since the last time we gave MLAs their electoral mandate the Assembly remained collapsed for nearly three years and then within weeks of its restoration there was a pandemic. By now we might have expected every political decision to be framed by electorally diverted eyes. The last 18 months of mandates can imply that no decisions are made in case they imply electoral disadvantage. Big politics are often sidelined, as making strategic decisions can risk constituency displeasure. Hence the failure to implement the Bengoa Report in healthcare – political cowardice pure and simple. Perhaps we will see Robin Swann, a man whose political gravitas has grown exponentially, grasp the nettle once Covid passes. It can certainly do his ailing party no harm and courage may well be rewarded. Indeed, strategic politics may well build a head of steam for parties more widely.In particular for Sinn Féin. They are in power in the north and are within a hair’s breadth of power in the south, on the basis of promise of radical transformation. Their political opponents in the south regularly point north and ask questions about delivery and the party’s capacity to make change. Of course, those comments are infuriating as they never acknowledge the limitations to make change due to Westminster legislative and monetary constraints, and the obvious issue of sharing power with the DUP. Nonetheless the attacks sting. For the current incumbents in the Department of Communities, however, strategic thinking is the standard. There was no napping with Covid. The immediate and hands-on response won praise from all quarters as application for benefits became remote and streamlined. There were also initiatives to complement the Hurculean community efforts to support the vulnerable. But this week’s announcement on housing leaves that looking like small potatoes. The statement by Minister Carál Ní Chuilín was billed as radical by her party and it is no hyperbolic claim. If by the elections in May 2022 even a third of those reforms are passed and there are JCBs and cranes on building sites with social contract and affordable homes being built, and tenants in the private sector are protected to the extent she envisions, she will have demonstrated commitment and delivery on those radical policies in an unprecedented way. And it will chime with the southern political platform of delivery on housing perfectly. It is as politically savvy as it is badly needed. If implemented, the Ní Chuilín housing reforms will deliver in meaningful ways to the most in need in our communities. Housing allocated on the basis of need. Security of tenancy for all of those renting. Decent standards of housing for all renters. And most of all, significantly more homes in areas where they are desperately needed. Like the very best policies they will be understood by everyone, recognised for their significance, embraced by all and will be impossible to reverse out of by anyone who occupies the chair after her. After nine months in the department it is possibly the most important policy piece since devolution 2007 and a marked statement of intent in the No Return to the Status Quo Assembly. If these reforms and Bengoa are under way by May next year, it would mark this short term of sitting devolution as the most successful to date.