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Normality, policing and Northern Ireland May 6, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland.

Paddy Healy made an interesting point here in comments.

British secretary of state has confirmed this morning that the communication lines were on fire between here and Dublin and London during the detention-she made 5 calls to Eamonn Gilmore!
This supports my analysis. So much for a normal police matter!!!!

Of course there is an absurdity to the idea that the North has anything approaching ‘normal’ policing.

But for those still fond of the idea it belies the reports that were issuing from the media at the weekend. For example, the Sunday Business Post:

Sources confirmed that Sinn Fein had been in regular contact with government officials in Dublin, though political leaders in the coalition maintained publicly that the arrest was a policing matter, not a political one.

Note that ‘publicly’. And what of this?

It is believed that Kenny has not discussed the matter with Cameron, while political sources in Dublin said that while there had been contact with the Northern parties by officials, political leaders here had not become involved. ”There is no role for us, said one senior source.
Senior sources in both Fine Gael and Labour confirmed the government’s approach.

But now we learn that if not quite a ‘role’ there was communication. Perhaps that was inevitable. That doesn’t imply intervention. But it is not what would take place in a ‘normal’ context.

But then this isn’t a ‘normal’ context.

The flag ‘protests’ alone, the attacks on Alliance, and the PSNI response to both demonstrates that quite perfectly. One doesn’t, by the way, then have to see the PSNI (or not all of it) entirely at fault for that response. The environment is one where policing – indeed the issue of consent – is imposed cautiously as the PSNI attempts to determine what and where it is possible for it to be imposed. But it is one where there has been a sapping of the political will across recent years.

This, again, from the SBP:

Sinn Fein sources were highly critical of the Dublin government hands-off approach, not just to the Adams detention, but to broader Northern issues in recent years.
”This would never have happened under Balir and Ahern, said one senior Sinn Fein source. ”Republicans are very frustrated with the Dublin government.

And it is difficult to disagree with that broad assessment.

But it is the, essential, lip service to this idea of normality that has been also most irritating in the last week, as if the situation in Northern Ireland is analogous to that found in Dublin or London. It is not that it cannot at some point be so – though what passes for normality in this period is difficult to be sure about.

And what of this? From Gerry Moriarty in yesterday’s Irish Times:

.. right now a cushioned landing is what Northern Ireland needed.

Had Adams been charged in connection with the 1972 murder of Jean McConville the political temperature, already at a dangerously high level, would have been pushed beyond boiling point. Keeping the lid on republican anger would have been difficult.

Had Adams been freed unconditionally, the firing of the “political policing” charges would have switched direction and started blasting from the unionist and loyalist side – rather than from republicans as has been the case for the guts of the past week.
Serious questions would have been asked, such as how come the Public Prosecution Service isn’t even going to be asked to determine is there a judicial case that could hold up against the Louth TD.

I find this line of argument fairly bizarre from a paper which over the last few days was arguing that all was well with the police investigation (that would be Noel Whelan and Stephen Collins amongst others). If all is well with policing then all is well with policing and a decision to dismiss an individual in a case is as valid as questioning them in the first place. But of course what it is is an implicit recognition of what has been noted above – that the terrain upon which this is contested is not at all ‘normal’.

Meanwhile some of us found the idea that there was a contradiction between SF critiques of the Garda and the PSNI, the latter coming out much more favourably, some months ago and current critiques of the PSNI to be indicative of an appalling lack of understanding of the differing contexts. As noted previously, it is possible to see the PSNI as having structural aspects that are superior to the Garda without believing that it is entirely optimal or not itself inflected by aspects of the conflict. How could it be otherwise?

What does this mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that the past should be forgotten, but what it does mean is that a decision has to be taken at the political and societal level both within the North, and in Britain and Ireland more broadly. That is whether to proceed with an approach that will uncover the truth of what happened in a myriad of instances or to let that drift into the past, uncovered and unacknowledged.

Perhaps that decision was taken already, and implicitly so, at Christmas during the Haas talks, that for all the stuff about reconciliation and truth neither is going to be achieved, that the status quo – a sort of ignoring that past for the most part and with no actions taken, at least for the most part – will remain.

That seems unsatisfactory, in the extreme. But perhaps that is the very best that can be hoped for, at least at this juncture.

Perhaps the events of this last week and weekend will concentrate minds. But one would have to think not. The fracture lines between political and ‘constitutional’ unionism and nationalism and republicanism remain very very close to the surface, those beyond those areas even more so. Without suggesting for a moment that Northern Ireland would tip back to open conflict it seems to me that proceeding cautiously and slowly is the only serious way forward, whether in relation to policing or politics as a whole.


1. Phil - May 6, 2014

We don’t often see political reality being constructed as plainly as in NI at the moment. Policing is always ultimately by consent – look at the British riots a few years ago – even while it wears the image of unchallengeable authority. The authority of the PSNI in particular is very clearly still a work in progress – even as everyone from Robinson to McGuinness claims to support them implicitly. Lurking behind the current crisis is the belief that the paramilitaries were the only thing standing in the way of peace and normality – an absurd idea to anyone who knows anything about the Province, but one which it seemed necessary to believe in so as to create a normal society.

Interesting post on the LRB blog here; not sure about the conclusion, but the idea of truth being superseded by honesty is thought-provoking.


eamonncork - May 6, 2014

The last sentence suggests Patterson hasn’t been paying attention at all. With respect Phil, and it was a good idea to post it up and thanks, the piece itself just reads like the standard boiler-plate Irish writer gets a few bob writing something about the Troubles which says nothing. I can’t detect the substance of the argument at all. And that line out of Longley, good and all as the poem is, is as much of a cliche in articles in poems about the Troubles as the Heaney one about hope and history.
Though, as far as I can make out through all the waffle, Patterson does seem to be one of the few people who’s quoting it in the proper context. It’s often evoked as a call for forgiveness but in the poem it’s Priam who’s saying it and anyone who knows the story of the Trojan War knows that he’s kissing the hand because he has to. He doesn’t like to do it but he has lost and can only get the body of his son back by placating the killer. So it’s less ‘we must all forgive and move on’ than ‘For the sake of peace we must abase ourselves in front of these murderers.’
Which is probably how Longley, a great poet, feels about the Peace Process. And how Patterson feels about it too though who knows? The Grossman quote is just thrown in there to pad the thing out and make it look weighty.


2. ringacoltig - May 6, 2014

So we are going to have more Haas talks and the “Peace Process” rumbles on for what seems like an eternity. Does anyone know if the various governments / parties have parameters set by which, some day, they can decide the peace process is over and a normal society has been achieved? How long will this process take? The peace process as I understand it has been going for well over 20 years (26 if you accept the Hume/Adams talks as the start). Surely there is a yardstick for measuring progress and a timetable? Meanwhile the main parties and their tribal camps continue to be spoon-fed and pandered to.


Phil - May 6, 2014

I wrote a paper once about the disputed Italian “transition” (post-93) which concluded that, far from the post-93 period being too long to label a “transition”, if anything it was too short – Italy had been evolving towards a stable, law-governed democracy since 1948 (evolving rather slowly for most of that time).

I’m afraid the Peace Process may end up being counted in decades rather than years, too.


Michael Carley - May 6, 2014

The problem surely is that the point of a `peace process’ is to bring about `normality’ which in this case means waiting for a few generations of people to die so that nobody has too strong a memory of what happened. The actually-existing peace process has the function of keeping a lid on things while people learn to get along.


eamonncork - May 6, 2014

Exactly MC. Very strange to see someone getting exasperated about the length of the Peace Process when it has ended a conflict regarded as intractable for many years. That rhetoric about ‘spoon-feeding’ and ‘pandering’ is very manly, isn’t it? I feel the throb of stern purpose behind it. Why can’t the Nordies be normal like us? Is there some even in their recent history which explains why their society works on different lines? Mind you, I’m not particularly sure this country counts as a normal society either.


Michael Carley - May 6, 2014

For me, the problem with the peace process is that it aims to resolve a notionally sectarian conflict by dividing up power on openly sectarian lines, but given the alternative, if it keeps things quiet for long enough for something better to develop, we’ll all have to put up with it.

The issue on things like the Adams arrest, or Bloody Sunday, or Ballymurphy, or whatever, is that if we decide a blind eye needs to be turned, it needs to be turned to everything.


3. roddy - May 6, 2014

Eamon, you just saved me from getting revved up at ringacoltig there.Your reply to his “spoon fed” nonsense was very apt.


4. Séamas Ó Sionnaigh (An Sionnach Fionn) - May 6, 2014

Normal policing in an abnormal society will always be an impossibility. And in terms of modern Irish policing a paramilitary police force is far from normal. SF and others should have pushed for an unarmed PSNI. In general given the nature of partition and the continued British presence the “peace process” is simply a rather inadequate plaster slapped across a festering wound. Sooner or later it will fall off and the next plaster will be applied, and the next after that until the wound itself is sewn up and allowed to heal. And that is enough metaphors for one day 😉


5. CL - May 8, 2014

Richard Haass, President of ‘The Imperial Brain Trust’, the Council on Foreign Relations, is meeting Gilmore in Dublin in a few weeks.
Haass claims progress has been on the past.

But Eamonn McCann writes in today’s I.T.
“The debate is futile because there can be no agreement on how to handle the past until there is agreement on how to characterise the past. And there’s no sign of a consensus on that matter emerging.”
McCann also has this “But if there is a softness within you and you have come to believe that what you did was all for nothing, you might feel shredded at the core of your being, your sense of yourself destroyed, and stumble half-bewildered into ill-advised confessions, allegations, regrets, defiance. You will then be rubbished as a tout and regarded as dirt by those who have been able to shrug the memories off. ”

Martin Mansergh in today’s I.T. also, writes.
“The Boston tapes… have been a complete debacle…Anthony McIntyre has engaged before, during and after the project, in repeated polemical attacks on the Sinn Féin leadership’s conduct of the peace process, suggesting a more immediate political, and not just a long-term scholarly, intention.”… and
“What possessed Paul Bew, now Lord Bew, distinguished historian, former unionist adviser, and present chairman of the British-Irish Association, to recommend people who were more crusading journalists than academics to manage it?”

At least Mansergh has moved from the barmy notion that the Adams’ arrest was ‘a sophisticated British sting operation’.

The Boston Tapes archive was ostensibly established to help historians deal with Ireland’s past. But the tapes, ironically, have become part of the debate, and part of the problem, of how to deal with the past. The fiasco of the tapes and Adams’ arrest shows that the past is not past at all.
Can a modernized imperialist, Richard Haass, and Eamonn Gilmore make a contribution to the solution?

Only one thing is certain: the spectre of the past haunts Ireland’s dubious peace.


6. CL - May 9, 2014

Here’s a historian who backs the PSNI and their investigation of Adams, and makes the case that harmony and political stability should not prevail over justice.

” Today, the “appalling vista” that confronts Lord Denning’s heirs is that, if they pursue their investigation, the Northern Ireland Executive may fail, and that the power-sharing agreement may collapse.

But if Stormont falls, it won’t be because the police have been doing their duty, but because Northern Ireland’s politicians haven’t been doing theirs. In a normal country, the idea that an investigation might topple a government would be no business of police or prosecutors, whose duty would be to pursue those they believe to be guilty of criminal acts, whether they be terrorists or teachers, soldiers or statesmen.”


Ed - May 9, 2014

“Historian” *grins broadly*

Headline there should be “Woman who wanted war to go on indefinitely wants war to start again”. RDE probably considers Aznar and Rajoy to be towering figures for the way they handled the ETA ceasefire.


Jonathan - May 9, 2014

It seems to me that any article which uses ‘Northern Ireland’ and ‘normal’ in the same sentence has pretty much rendered itself worthless as analysis…


7. EamonnCork - May 9, 2014

Remember the many articles written by RDE, Harris, Myers, O’Callaghan, the Cruiser, predicting that the peace process was in fact a cunning Provo plan, (Anyone remember TUAS?) which would lead to Bosnian style civil war and carnage. In their tiny minds and cold little hearts they still cherish the fantasy that the whole thing might start up again.
The suffering it would cause would be nothing compared to the more important purpose of proving them right. There is also a morbid fantasy there of total British Army triumph over the IRA, the kind of thing they were urging back in the day because ‘you can’t talk to these people.’ Such is their lust for this outcome that they are willing to portray the IRA members who wanted the war to go on as nobler figures than the republicans who brought it to an end.


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