The Maze and dealing with the past in Northern Ireland

If ever a country was defined by a punctuation mark, it’s Northern Ireland and the forward-slash. A history of conflict has produced some awkward semantic contortions: Catholic/Protestant, Nationalist/Unionist, and, of course, Derry/Londonderry, that waggish ‘Stroke City’. Less celebrated, but no less contentious, is another double take, the Maze/Long Kesh.

Last week it was revealed that the European Union had, in December, approved a £18m funding package to establish a ‘peace-building and conflict resolution centre’ at the Maze, where the notorious H-Blocks once stood. What to do with the 360-acre site on the outskirts of Lisburn, about ten miles from Belfast, has been a recurrent source of political discord since the prison, built on the former RAF Long Kesh base, was closed in September 2000.

In 2002, the Maze Regeneration Unit was created within the devolved Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Three years later, after a lengthy, torturous consultation process, A New Future for the Maze/Long Kesh was published. The Maze/Long Kesh: Masterplan and Implementation Strategyreleased in May 2006, consolidated the main proposals for the site, chiefly the construction of a sports stadium and an International Centre for Conflict Transformation.

The stadium – a 40,000-seat affair to be shared by Northern Ireland’s three main sports, football, rugby and Gaelic Games – was shelved in the face of significant unionist opposition. Comprehensive plans for the site have yet to be released on foot of last week’s news, but are now expected to include a more palatable, at least to unionists, scheme to rehouse the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society at the Maze, alongside the conflict resolution centre and a residential development.

In October, following a testy exchange in the House, the Stormont Assembly passed a motion recognising ‘the potential social and economic benefits which the utilisation of former security sites, such as the site of the Maze prison, can bring to Northern Ireland’. The motion called on First Minister Peter Robinson to progress development at the Maze, including a conflict resolution centre on the site where ten republican hunger strikers died in 1981, a move previously opposed by Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party.

Last week, Jeffrey Donaldson, erstwhile anti-Belfast Agreement Ulster Unionist and now DUP MP for Lagan Valley, gave the planned centre a surprisingly hearty endorsement. ‘Far from it being seen as a shrine, it is about looking to the future. The peace building centre can help us look and focus towards the future,’ he said. However, many unionists, including the Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott, are opposed to the proposal, which Traditional Unionist Voice’s sole MLA Jim Allister dubbed ‘a Provo victory’.

The Maze conflict resolution centre, as Laura McAtackney has written, is an attempt to replace the site’s ‘negative associations’ with a ‘physical expression of the ongoing transformation from conflict to peace’. In that respect, the recent fracas over the centre reflects the incomplete nature of Northern Ireland’s own post-Troubles transformation. Almost a decade and a half after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Stormont still has no functioning anti-sectarian strategy, despite the country’s well-published, sclerotic divisions. Meanwhile, the threat of prosecution from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team has stymied any prospect of an authoritative account of what took place during the Troubles, as researchers at Boston College recently found out to their peril.

How, or even if, the Northern Ireland’s fractious past is to be acknowledged and commemorated is not just a question for historians and archivists. This year marks the start of a succession of distinctly live centenaries: the Ulster Covenant, signed in 1912; the Battle of the Somme; the Easter Rising; the Civil War; and, finally, the partition of Ireland. As Hegel famously observed, ‘the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’

Could Direct Rule be the Answer to North's Problems?

This comment piece appeared in The Irish Times on Thursday 4 February. It was intended as an attempt to start a discussion about what needs to be done to move Northern Ireland forward. In it, I advocate a possible temporary return to direct rule as it existed during Stormont suspensions over the last decade. But it certainly got a few folks hackles up, judging by the vitriol in my inbox….

Politicians are often traduced for being out of touch with reality, but rarely has the charge rung so true as in Northern Ireland today.

Early last month, the North’s finance minister, Sammy Wilson, announced cuts in government spending totalling £367 million (€420 million) in the coming fiscal year. Since then the putative leaders of the Stormont Executive have spent the best part of a week and a half locked in discussions about policing and justice, parading and the Irish language. Not exactly core economic issues.

Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists, the main protagonists in the protracted farce at Hillsborough, are playing gesture politics at a time when what is required is a bellyful of bread and butter.

But then again, in the three years since devolution was restored, neither party has proved particularly adroit at quotidian politics. In education, Sinn Féin’s Caitríona Ruane dedicated significant amounts of time and money to abolishing the controversial 11-plus exam. The move was highly divisive, bitterly opposed by unionists and ultimately futile: the transfer test for children from primary to secondary schools has been retained by a growing number of rebel grammar schools.

Ruane – or whoever inherits her portfolio if the current talks break down – is unlikely to be in a position to indulge such whims again. The education budget for next year has been slashed by more than £73.3 million. Over in Michael McGimpsey’s health department, the situation is even bleaker. Northern Ireland’s already understaffed health service is being asked to achieve spending reductions in the region of £113 million.

There is a relatively straightforward solution to the hole in the Executive’s budget – water charges. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, residents in Northern Ireland pay regional rates instead of council tax. At present, these rates are, on average, 50 per cent lower than in England. The introduction of water charges, which have been deferred for next year, would add an estimated £210 million to the treasury’s purse. Doubtless such a move would be met with resistance among sections of the electorate, but in times of crisis elected governments need to act collectively and decisively – two qualities absent among the squabbling Northern Executive.

There is, however, a large breach in Northern Irish society that cash alone will not solve and which neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP have shown any willingness to address. Sectarianism remains a serious problem in many working-class communities: since the peace process started in 1994 the number of peace walls in Greater Belfast has trebled.

Remarkably, Northern Ireland currently has no anti-sectarian policy. It did – A Shared Future, which was launched by then direct rule minister, Des Browne MP in 2005 – but on reaching office in 2007 both Sinn Féin and the DUP decided to abandon the policy. Instead, a draft of a new strategy, Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, was circulated – and almost as quickly forgotten.

On leaving office last September, Hugh Orde, the outgoing chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, criticised both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness for their “lack of a coherent and credible strategy” for tackling sectarianism. Ruffled, Sinn Féin quickly published what was effectively a retitled, cut-and-paste version of Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, while the DUP responded by simply reissuing the original strategy.

One document, no matter how well intentioned, will not eradicate generations of sectarian division, but the coalition partners’ inability to even agree on a policy is indicative of the stasis that has gripped Stormont.

Of course, the current crisis is hardly unique in the intermittent history of the North’s devolved administration. In 2007, when Sinn Féin and the DUP argued over the various sections of the St Andrews Agreement in advance of Assembly elections, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland Peter Hain issued both parties with an ultimatum – reach agreement or face a return to direct rule.

Direct rule has long been used as a stick to threaten the North’s unruly devolved assembly, but perhaps the time has come to seriously consider it as an option.

Since devolution was restored in 2007, Northern Ireland has either stood still or gone backward in many areas. The bickering and brinkmanship that have characterised Stormont’s current incarnation have fuelled a growing apathy, especially in civil society. The North is not going back to the dark days of the Troubles, but neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP have been able to articulate any coherent vision for the future.

Under direct rule, career politicians appointed from Westminster overseeing (reasonably) impartial civil servants would replace the present ineffective, bipartisan administration. The benefits of the switch are manifold: policies would be produced and actually enacted; water charges could be implemented, going some way to solving the North’s budget crisis; and, probably most importantly, Northern Ireland would finally be in a situation where decision-makers are no longer hamstrung by a divided Executive.

As the arguments continue to rage at Hillsborough, a return to direct rule – at least temporarily – might be the reality check that the North’s political classes need, and its general public deserve.

From Family Robinson Woes to Affairs of State

I wrote a comment piece on the political fall-out from the Robinson affair for The Scotsman last week: (Published 13/01/10)

A leading unionist politician in Northern Ireland laid low by a lurid sex scandal splashed across the red tops. Accusations of backhanders from property developers. Political unrest in Ulster’s bible-belt. The plot of The Bad Book Affair, a new novel by Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom published next week, must have sounded pretty far-fetched when it arrived on his editor’s desk – but in the parallel universe that is Northern Irish politics truth really is stranger than fiction.

The scandal that has engulfed Peter Robinson threatens not only to cut short the political career of the Democratic Unionist party leader but could yet bring down the entire Stormont administration. But, unlike so many Northern Irish crises, this one began calmly when, just over a week ago, a select band of journalists were invited to Robinson’s East Belfast home. Briefings are part and parcel of political life but this was no normal ‘meet the press’ evening: instead, holding back tears in his front room, the First Minister explained that his wife of over thirty years, and fellow parliamentarian, Iris had attempted suicide following an affair.

Initially, revelations of Iris Robinson’s infidelity were received with a mixture of incredulity and black humour on the streets of Belfast but politicians from both sides of the tribal divide maintained a respectful silence. It was only with the accusation, made on a BBC current affairs television program, that Iris had borrowed two sums of £25,000 each from property developers to set her 19-year-old lover up in business that what began as a straightforward sex scandal – albeit with Mrs Robinson’s odious statements on homosexuality and hard-line Christian views adding extra spice – morphed into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

That the personal problems of a politician – even the devolved assembly’s most senior – should imperil devolution itself reflects the wider impasse on the issue of policing and justice powers that has paralysed Stormont in recent months. Sinn Fein want control of policing and justice to be transferred from Westminster to Belfast now, if not sooner; the DUP (their erstwhile coalition partners) have thus far resisted such moves, despite Gordon Brown pledging £900 million to smooth the transition.

Amid much publicity on Monday, the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds announced that Peter Robinson has resigned ‘temporarily’ as First Minister, designating Arlene Foster to take over his duties for the next six weeks. In invoking the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in this way, Robinson has repeated a familiar tactic of his predecessor but one, David Trimble. But while the media clamoured over themselves to admire Robinson’s political nous and speculate on whether or not he has saved his head, two crucial points were widely missed: first, Sinn Fein have given the DUP three weeks to resurrect a deal on the devolution of policing and justice, and, second, Robinson has nominated himself to head the negotiating team to meet their republican counterparts.

Reaching a deal with Sinn Fein is crucial to the short-term future of both the DUP and the current incarnation of Stormont. If no agreement on the transfer of policing is forthcoming then there is every possibility that Sinn Fein will collapse the assembly when Robinson returns from his six-week sabbatical by simply refusing to re-nominate Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. Under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing only works if both nationalists and unionists can agree to it. In the absence of the majority player in the nationalist bloc the assembly would automatically dissolve and fresh elections held.

Before events of the last week overtook them, the DUP could have faced such elections in reasonably buoyant mood. Despite growing internal dissent from the right of the party and the prospect of losing votes to former Democratic Unionist MEP Jim Allister’s anti-agreement Traditional Unionist Voice, Robinson’s colleagues would have expected to profit by positioning themselves as the party that refused to hand control of policing to former terrorists – a rather spurious claim, incidentally, given that Sinn Fein members already sit on the Policing Board and numerous District Policing Partnerships.

Now the situation facing the North’s largest party is very different. Grassroots DUP supporters include many evangelical Christians who, shocked by the salacious tales emanating from the Robinsons’ door, are likely to abandon the party in droves for Allister’s TUV, while more mainstream voters could return once again to the Ulster Unionist party. Such a split in the unionist vote could quite conceivably see Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party in Northern Ireland, an honour that brings with it the right to nominate their choice for First Minister, almost certainly McGuinness. An administration with the former IRA man from Derry at its head would be anathema to any unionist – triggering another, this time potentially fatal, crisis in Northern Ireland’s fledgling experiment in devolved government.

So what are the prospects of avoiding this doomsday scenario? Relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein, rarely anything more than icy, have plumbed new depths in recent months. The power-sharing partners’ continuing inability to agree a joint anti-sectarian strategy has been decried by David Ford, leader of the moderate Alliance party, and last month McGuinness used a meeting of the North-South ministerial council in Limavady, County Derry to publicly lambast the First Minister for the failure to devolve policing. Robinson, who was standing barely five feet from his deputy on the same platform, looked stunned.

Nevertheless, an agreement on policing is increasingly in everyone’s best interests. And not just to save Peter Robinson or the assembly. In the early hours of last Friday morning, before the radio phone-ins had started to hum with chatter about Mrs Robinson’s dalliances, a car bomb seriously injured an off-duty policeman in Randallstown, outside Belfast. The victim, who was lucky to escape with his life, was a Catholic policeman, the perpetrators dissident republicans hell bent on catapulting the North back to the dark ages.

Regardless of its eventual fall-out, the Robinson affair will not spell a large scale return to violence – indeed on the very day the First Minister was briefing reporters on his wife’s indiscretion the loyalist Ulster Defence Association finally announced that it had decommissioned. However, the next few weeks are certainly crucial for the stability of Northern Ireland. Peter Robinson has bought just enough time to make a deal to save its current political process, though whether he can save it or himself remains to be seen.

Peter Geoghegan