Thursday, March 1, 2007

I rest my hope of the end of the ‘troubles’ on two specific counts – the dramatic change of attitude by Sinn Fein to the police and something that happened or didn’t happen at a recent rugby match.

Are we finally seeing an end to the ‘troubles’, that euphemistic word that conceals the anguish and hatred, the revenge and exploitation, that have dogged Northern Ireland and indeed all Ireland for nearly a hundred years?

My mother grew up in Dublin during the ‘troubles’ after World War 1 as Ireland fought its way to independence. And the ‘troubles’ have been around in Northern Ireland ever since as Catholics and Protestants have searched for a way to live in peace together and equitably.

In recent years there has been a dramatic reduction in violence and death. Suspicions and reservations still run very deep but an overwhelming majority of the people in Northern Ireland want peace to continue and there is little appetite for a return to violence. This has been helped considerably by the economic boom in the South and the increase of profitable joint enterprises. There is a proliferation of men and women on all sides, individually or in groups, who are working for reconciliation often very quietly and after immense suffering. More than ever there is a reaching out to the other, with clergy on both sides praying for the other and working together.

Attitudes from the past which were thought unchangeable have responded to the war weariness of the province as new ways to end conflict are being pursued.

Quite apart from the results of the 2007 elections (and subsequent power-sharing?), I rest my hope of the end of the ‘troubles’ on two specific counts – the dramatic change of attitude by Sinn Fein to the police and something that happened or didn’t happen at a recent rugby match.

My family served for three generations in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. My great, great, great grandfather was the Inspector General of the Munster Constabulary and has been described as one of the founders of modern policing. I am proud of the fact that he was knighted for his service to the Crown. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. He helped thwart an important nationalist uprising and I am very well aware of the terrible things my country did in Ireland over several centuries, the way we used Ireland for our convenience, beginning with the planting of Protestant colonists in a Gaelic Catholic Ireland. ‘Who can doubt,’ as Donald Shriver writes, ‘that the apology of Prime Minister Tony Blair for British irresponsibility in the 1840s over the Irish Famine was another increment of the healing of memories between the two peoples. Shriver has described the Irish as possibly rivalling the peoples of the Balkans as ‘the world’s superspecialists in memory’.

It was exciting in January 2007 was to see Gerry Adams make what one commentator said was ‘the most important speech of his political career’ when he directed Sinn Fein, the party he heads, to support the policing and justice services the Provisional IRA had spent 40 years trying to destroy. Four years earlier another psychological police-related building block was laid, this time by Protestants when, under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, the Royal Irish Constabulary was renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The baggage of the past was being shed. Even as someone whose family is long removed from the Irish scene I can still sense the psychological importance of such change. My affection for the old names and uniforms underlines for me how difficult it has been for present day Irish nationalists to have anything to do with the Police Service of Northern Ireland just as it has been hard for many Protestants in the North to see that rather dull name replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Paddy Joe McClean, with a history of five years internment without trial, being elected Secretary of the Internees Camp Council at Long Kesh prison camp, and Chairman of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, is now Vice-Chairman of the Omagh District Policing Partnership Board. As such he is entitled to go into any police station at any time to check on conditions and what those detained – and the police – feel. In recent unannounced visits to two stations in County Tyrone he found that the officers in charge were, in each case, Catholics from the Republic. ‘With your background do you encounter any difficulties in carrying out your duties with the public?’ he asked each of them. ‘No difficulties at all, we find everything far better than we expected,’ was their reply. Such a situation would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

But let me come to the rugby match.

Croke Park in Dublin is the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association which has been defined by its hatred of the British. You couldn’t play Gaelic sports if you played soccer or rugby or if you were a policeman. Croke Park is also the site of the first Irish ‘Bloody Sunday’ where British auxiliary police fired on the crowd in 1920 killing 12 people with two others trampled to death, in retaliation for the murder that morning of 12 British agents in their beds. It is a nationalist shrine. And at the end of February rugby was played for the first time at Croke Park and the match was Ireland (including Northern Ireland) against England. Every patriotic Irishman should feel ashamed if ‘God save the Queen’ is sung at the beginning of the match, said one Irishman, son of one of the most successful Gaelic footballers of that time.

The Times of London had a headline, ‘The day hatred went missing.’ The national anthems of both countries were sung and there were no incidents. Simon Barnes, the paper’s chief sports writer wrote that although a million anticipatory words were written about it on both sides of the water, ‘it was an occasion that had all the furniture of hate, but hatred itself went missing’. The singing of the British national anthem was ‘preceded by a silence that was almost reverent – not in respect of the sentiments of that terse and tuneless ditty but because freeing oneself from the shackles of history is worth a moment’s savouring.’ Afterwards there was not whistle or a catcall or a boo… ‘Then, extraordinarily, a round of applause that the end of an era was being celebrated’.

The English team played its part convincingly by being soundly beaten by a superb Irish team ‘and the Irish went away with rather more than victory over Ireland; they also had victory over the past and a celebration of Ireland as a prosperous, effective, forward-looking nation. Freed from Britain, now freed from history.’

John Inverdale wrote in the Daily Telegraph, ‘It was one of the most joyous sporting occasions it has ever been my privilege to attend, and when all the revellers woke on Sunday morning (or probably afternoon) it was time to put the hangover of history to bed and embrace the future.’

The Irish Sunday Independent called the match ‘a milestone in the growth of a nation’.