Ronan Bennett

I am listening to the radio, only half awake. Some hammy old actor is camping it up in one of those overblown plays about the ‘Troubles’. In tones of high theatricality he sets the sinister scene: the Falls Road, Belfast, just after midnight; one of the most dangerous corners in Europe if you happen to be unaccompanied and of the wrong religion. I assume it’s an adaptation of some Gerald Seymour novel and reach over to turn the radio off. Then I recognise the voice – it’s John Humphrys on Today. I concentrate. On the Falls, apparently, men with hard, cold eyes used to stare sullenly from behind the iron railings that surround the pubs and clubs, planning their next operation.

It is Day One, Thursday 1 September. The IRA ceasefire, announced at midnight on Wednesday, seems to have taken just about everyone, including John Humphrys, by surprise. Why else this dreadful stuff? I leave Humphrys to pursue his Birtian mission to explain and go to check the newspapers. The Independent has a well-informed and balanced piece by David McKittrick on the genesis of the ceasefire. He seems cautiously optimistic. Not so that other old ham, Conor Cruise O’Brien, writing on the same newspaper’s opinion pages. O’Brien sees the timing of the ceasefire as evidence of a Machiavellian plot to divert attention away from the Dublin Government’s domestic difficulties. Why is the IRA helping out? ‘This is the best government in Dublin the IRA has ever had, and it wants to keep it there.’ Detecting a cynical IRA manoeuvre designed to trap Protestants, he envisages Catholic demonstrators provoking Protestants by rampaging down Belfast thorough-fares. The IRA will then defend Catholic areas against the Loyalist violence it has itself excited. In this way, the security forces will be drawn into conflict with the Protestant community. It will look as though the IRA and the security forces are on the same side, withstanding Loyalist aggression. Such an alliance could not last, however, and the ceasefire will not be prolonged. ‘None of this bodes any good at all for peace in Northern Ireland. Except, of course, in the Orwellian sense: Peace Means War.’ There’s a great deal of talk about inflexibility in Irish politics; this is inflexibility personified.

I had watched Dr O’Brien on Newsnight on BBC 2 the night before, peddling the hard line he has been pushing for a quarter of a century. O’Brien, one of the most vociferous opponents of Irish nationalism, has for years been advocating a no-compromise position. His preferred solution is internment, saturation patrolling and censorship. Especially censorship. In 1976, when he was Minister of Posts and Telegraphs in the Dublin government, O’Brien was one of the main architects of the Criminal Law Bill, which, he admitted in a rather incautious interview with a US journalist, he intended to use to ‘cleanse the culture’ of nationalist influence. If necessary, the Bill would be used against anything from nationalist ballads to teachers of history who glorified Irish revolutionary heroes. O’Brien was forced to backtrack on these ambitions, but he still managed to get the infamous Section 31 passed, the Republic’s prefiguring of Britain’s broadcasting ban. (Section 31 was allowed to lapse earlier this year.) This is not a liberal man. His present pessimism is, one suspects, the disillusionment of someone whose self-promoted wisdom is foolishly no longer heeded by those in charge. The only role left to him is that of the reactionary Jeremiah.

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