Northern Ireland: Which side are you on Tony?

Between January 1923 and June 1933 I went to Ravenscroft School in Belfast. It was bombed out of existence in 1941 by the Luftwaffe. Although I wasn’t very good at football I played one game – as a substitute – against another school in Woodvale Park as there was a man short that Saturday morning.

Sometimes on a Tuesday afternoon we went to a school playing field, North Road, (we hadn’t one of our own). Under the control of Mr. Kirkpatrick, who acted as referee, we formed two teams from our class – we had at least 30 boys in a very large mixed class.

During the course of the match with the teacher refereeing things were never certain – except when he blew the whistle – for he sometimes played for one side or the other, changing direction as the whim took him.

Mistakenly thinking he was on my side at the time he pushed me off the ball and charged down to our goalmouth to score. The next time he had the ball I managed to get my legs so entangled that he came a cropper, but without any injury. He didn’t seem to realise that I had intended it so I didn't have any comeback, even in class.

On Thursday 17 October, when I listened and read the account of Tony Blair’s speech, I thought of the occasions when Mr. Kirkpatrick, for his own reasons or agenda, had switched sides. I wondered why, on such an occasion, at such a critical moment, the Prime Minister had made such a skewed effort to land himself so squarely behind the Unionist agenda, not only that of Ulster Unionist Trimble, but indeed that of Ian Paisley.

I wondered too why, when all the indications were and had been for some time that, following their ceasefire, the Republican movement had been moving towards phasing out any kind of paramilitary action. Although punishment beatings within their own community were still evident I think that as the Agreement was functioning more firmly these would disappear also.

Although confrontations between the two communities have taken place at interfaces in East, North and West Belfast most of the recent and ongoing feuds has been among and by Loyalist paramilitaries.

Despite the acclaim from some sections of the press and from Tory opposition leader, I.D.Smith, I think the speech was ill advised and inopportune (except that, as intended, it paved the way for Trimble at his party’s annual conference on Saturday 19 October). It was, as I have already indicated, biased in one direction with perhaps a little reference to the courage of Adams and McGuinness in trying to bring their supporters into the democratic process.

When Trimble made his demand for the disbandment of the IRA, supported now by Blair, he did so with the full knowledge (as did Blair) of how difficult it is to achieve but especially now that they have demanded it.

For Trimble to do so is to some extent understandable as he fights his dissidents and Paisley and wants to create a macho image. However it is crass stupidity for the Prime Minister to do so, if the objective is to strengthen the Peace Process.

Republican dissidents will be watching to see whether Sinn Féin will press the IRA to stand down and the party leadership at their meeting next weekend will thus be questioned about resisting the Unionist agenda. There will also be questioning about the fact that although Loyalist paramilitaries have been asked to cease their activities it has not been a demand in the same terms.

Unionists say that of course Loyalist political organisations do not hold executive posts in government. One knows however that there is a seamless connection between security forces and Unionists via cultural affinities and viewpoints and that information is available without any need to set up some sort of spying action, if that turns out to be true in respect of Sinn Féin.

There have been many instances of collusion being alleged in this regard. I can recall Ian paisley boasting of being in possession of official documents. Also, according to the expected contents of the Stevens Report on the assassination of solicitor Finucane there was in fact clear involvement by security undercover agents in his (Observer, 20/10/2002).

For whatever reason, whether he also wanted to have a macho image as part of his ‘war against terrorism and Saddam Hussein’, Tony Blair's speech was ill judged and (I hope I’m wrong) has stopped the peace process for an indefinite period by making it more difficult for the Sinn Féin leadership to move or speed up the decommissioning and dtanding down of the IRA. This is and has been part of their participation in the institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement.

In his speech Tony Blair said a ‘fork’ had been reached on the road. That is not the position. I myself would say another ‘crossroad’.

The road Tony has taken in his speech is the turn to the right which will take him into a Unionist bog. Had he taken the turn to the left he would have gone into a Nationalist one.

There is a path forward - on solid ground – the full implementation of all the institutions promised in the Good Friday Agreement. All the other things will then happen. So, he should ensure that they are included in the legislative programme in the Queen's Speech.

If necessary (although I would regret it) the Assembly elections could be postponed in case that, if held, they would delay such legislation.

If on the other hand, on the basis of such legislative proposals,those parties still in support of the Agreement could come together and, demands being turned into requests, perhaps they could go ahead.

Tony Blair could think, as I do, of Hugh Kirkpatrick and remember which side he is really on – peace and reconciliation. Otherwise, like my old teacher, he also will come a cropper.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, 20 October, 2002.

Samuel H. Boyd