Politicians need to get a grip on our current dire situation, or the consequences could be horrendous

Posted By: August 16, 2019

In August 1969  British troops were deployed onto the streets of Northern Ireland as part of Operation Banner.

Alex Kane.Irish News. Belfast. Friday, August 16, 2019

Operation Banner began the day after my 14th birthday.

Fifty years on and the headlines in Northern Ireland are dominated by Martina Anderson’s use of ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá [Our day will come]at a Hunger Strike commemoration; the Clyde Valley flute band wearing a Parachute Regiment symbol on their uniforms; Unionists and Loyalists accusing the PSNI of operating a two-tier policing system; accusations that there is a re-booted pan nationalist front; complaints about Unionists ‘blocking’ key rights still continue; and regular ding-dongs [squabbles] between Unionist and Nationalist politicians are never far from the front pages or social media.

On August 13, Michelle O’Neill tweeted: ‘The inclusion of Soldier F and British Army Paratrooper emblems have been seen in Derry as a deliberate attempt to goad and antagonize the Bloody Sunday families. The decision of senior DUP representatives wearing Apprentice Boys regalia to pose for photographs under a Paratrooper regiment banner is seen in exactly the same light.’

A few hours later the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly responded: ‘I rarely comment on others, but I genuinely am astounded at the hypocrisy. You LITERALLY (sic) speak at and commemorate IRA terrorists on a regular basis. You ACTUALLY appointed convicted IRA terrorists as Junior Ministers with responsibility for victims. People need to #WiseUp.’

Both tweets were followed by dozens of comments of the usual us-and-them variety.

In August 1969 there was a government sitting in Stormont, with the newly installed Major Chichester-Clark as prime minister. The Downing Street Declaration of August 19, concluded: ‘Finally, both governments (the UK and NI governments) are determined to take all possible steps to restore normality to the Northern Ireland community so that economic development can proceed at the faster rate which is vital for social stability.’

Almost 50 years to the day since that conclusion we have no government, but we still have calls from all sides to take the steps required to ‘restore normality.’

Fifty years ago nobody could have imagined that Sinn Féin MLAs (many of whom had backgrounds in the ‘Provisional’ movement that was to begin a few months after the start of Operation Banner) would be part of a power-sharing government with Unionists in an Assembly that met in what was once the lower House of the Northern Ireland Parliament; and did so at a time when Ireland remained partitioned. Twenty years ago few people would have imagined that a new generation of dissident republicans and loyalists would have emerged, or that there would be growing concerns about political stability and the peace process.

It would be wrong to conclude that Northern Ireland hasn’t changed over the past 50 years; and changed for the better. All those changes are to be welcomed, not least the fact that murder is not a regular occurrence. We don’t gather around the radio and television at 11pm to hear about the latest atrocity; and nor do we need to sit in an armchair in the front room or kitchen until we hear the sound of loved ones returning home safely. That said, it would be wrong to conclude that those days will never return.

There is still a belief in the civic/political/business/community mainstream, along with key elements of both the British and Irish governments, that a return to the bad days and bloody ways remains unlikely. I don’t share that belief. In exactly the same way that few people predicted what followed the seismic changes in 1968/69, few people seem willing to admit that the road ahead could be dreadful.

Government has collapsed. Increasing numbers of people believe ‘normal’ politics isn’t possible. There is a growing political/electoral underclass which has no attachment to the Good Friday Agreement institutions or ambitions. Both Sinn Féin and the DUP prioritize ‘ourselves alone’ agendas rather than collective, cooperative strategies. Security/intelligence analysis suggests that the threats of violence and terrorism are increasing. Political/societal integration seems to have rowed back rather than forward since 1998.

You’ll know I don’t ‘do’ optimism. That’s not my role. But even I am surprised by the number of people, albeit in private comment, who now share my gloom and fears. If the political mainstream doesn’t get to grips with what Albert Steptoe used to describe as the ‘bleeding obvious,’ then we may discover that August 2019 will be remembered as the kick-starting of the next cycle of full-blown violence.