Diary

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.

I spent most of Thursday morning listening to the radio, waiting for the British Government’s formal response to the IRA announcement. It came at 1p.m. John Major gave the ceasefire a cautious welcome, but noted that there was nothing about this being a ‘permanent’ end to the IRA campaign – the formula the British and Irish Governments had demanded, in the Downing Street Declaration, that Sinn Fein sign up to. Until the British Government received a signal from the IRA that their campaign was permanently at an end, the ‘clock would not start’ on the three-month decontamination period that would have to elapse before Sinn Fein was invited to the conference table for talks about talks. Cue for eager interviewers to rush headlong up this blind alley, and most of the news airtime for the rest of the day was given to the question of whether ‘complete’ meant ‘permanent’. On The World at One, Sir Patrick Mayhew was invited to respond to a (dubbed) interview with Martin McGuinness in which Sinn Fein’s vice-president had said the ceasefire would endure ‘in all circumstances’. Mayhew said he thought what Martin had had to say was of great interest. Martin? Does this signify something?

Meanwhile, in Belfast, reporters were pressing Adams on the ‘permanent’ issue. Adams observed that ‘complete’ was enough for Albert Reynolds, Dick Spring and President Clinton. A Sunday Tribune journalist at the scene described a British reporter badgering away on this point. ‘Adams watched, amused, as he tried to put the question again and some brief squabbling broke out among the journalists. “He’s answered that,” snapped one ... “It’s just a distraction,” Adams observed, “you could call it the storm after the calm.”’ On Newsnight, an exasperated John Hume produced five synonyms for ‘complete’: ‘whole’, ‘finished’, ‘ended’, ‘perfect’, ‘concluded’.

On Day Two, Friday, the media found what they had been looking for since the IRA announcement – evidence of a secret, behind-the-scenes deal between Sinn Fein and the Government. The story they manufactured – carelessly at best, wilfully at worst – centred on four Republican prisoners serving sentences in English jails. Headlines announced that IRA killers had been ‘sent home’ (‘home’ being another maximum-security prison in a different part of Britain). Major, we were told, was ‘livid’ and demanding an inquiry. Lord Tebbit was outraged. It was a ‘reward for evil men’ (Sun). Friday’s Guardian editorial announced: ‘The return to Northern Ireland of four high-profile IRA prisoners – including the man who tried to blow up the Conservative Cabinet at Brighton ten years ago – is the clearest possible evidence that a complex and cold-eyed process is under way.’

Actually, it was nothing of the sort. In the late Eighties, the British Government signed the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners, an international treaty by which signatories agree to transfer prisoners to serve out their sentences in their home countries. The convention’s laudable and humane intention is to help to keep families together (the implications for rehabilitation are obvious). Ordinary Decent Criminals – ODCs – from the North of Ireland, as well as from the Irish Republic, are routinely sent back to the Six Counties to serve out their sentences. The Home Office, however, refused to comply with the terms of the convention when it came to the transfer of Republican prisoners, in spite of recommendations to the contrary made by Lord Ferrers in a report commissioned by the Home Office and delivered nearly two years ago. Republican prisoners applying for transfer had their applications pending for two years while the Home Office dithered. Two prisoners then applied for judicial review of the Home Secretary’s failure to comply with the recommendations of the Ferrers Report; the issue was also raised with the UN Committee on Human Rights. Perhaps realising that Britain was about to be criticised yet again by an international body for its human rights record in Ireland, the Home Office, in June, told almost all the prisoners from the North who had applied that they would be transferred. The first four went, on a six-month temporary transfer, in July. The timing of the second batch may have been cack-handed, but the transfers were nothing to do with the ceasefire. How difficult would it have been to check the facts? Could the Guardian leader-writer not have consulted the reporter on his own paper who had first written about the transfers on 1 July? Of Friday’s broadsheets, only the Independent thought there was a more important story: the assassination of a Catholic man in North Belfast by Loyalist paramilitaries. The first victim of the ceasefire.

None of this poor stuff would matter if there weren’t so much at stake. But the media bear a responsibility in all of this. Looking over the coverage of the first week of the ceasefire, I began to suspect that the sour tone is there because, at bottom, politicians, commentators and journalists do not like the way things have turned out. They would have preferred an IRA surrender. They would have preferred Gerry Adams to be in jail instead of shaking hands with Albert Reynolds in Dublin. A lot of them would have preferred, as Brian Hitchen put it in the Sunday Express, that the prisoners had been transferred back to the North in coffins. They like it even less that the breakthrough has come, not from the British, the side that always claimed for itself the distinction of being peacebroker, but from the Irish – and from the nationalist Irish at that. We are talking – to put it bluntly – about prejudice.

That prejudice – and all the clichés it spawned – helped sustain the twenty-five-year-long convention that the conflict in the North of Ireland was insoluble. It was an article of faith, a mantra intoned in leaders and op-ed pieces and profiles and special reports: the British presence, although often awkward and heavy-handed, was essential to what prospects of stability existed; the IRA were a bunch of mindless psychopaths; Gerry Adams was a cunning and devious liar.

What about the man at the centre of the ceasefire – the man whom Guardian columnist Edward Pearce describes as ‘a corporate assassin’ with ‘more to answer for than John Wayne Gacy, executed in the US for a couple of score killings ... a coffin-filler strategically deciding to desist from filling coffins’? There have been some sober assessments of Adams – in the Sunday Tribune, published in Dublin, and in Scotland on Sunday – but generally the picture remains of a cynical terrorist godfather pursuing his evil mission in the guise of a respectable politician.

The prevailing view of Adams seems to me to be worth questioning. A couple of years ago, I had arranged an interview with him in Belfast. As I arrived at the Sinn Fein Press Office in the Lower Falls, Adams and his bodyguard were hurrying out of the building. Something had come up and Adams was on his way to attend a meeting in Andersons-town, a couple of miles away. ‘Come with us in the car,’ Adams suggested, ‘we can talk on the way.’ There was some small talk to begin with: books and publishing, about which Adams, an author, is very interested; holidays in the West of Ireland; people in the news. One of these was Brian Keenan, the Lebanon hostage. Keenan is a Belfast Protestant but during his captivity he had stressed his Irishness – something Republicans had noted, though it made Keenan’s Loyalist sisters uncomfortable. When I saw Adams, Keenan had just accepted an OBE from the Queen. Adams’s bodyguard didn’t like it and said so. Adams shook his head and said: ‘He did it for his sisters. They had had to put up with him going on about being Irish all that time. It was a gesture for them. It was the right thing for him to do.’

A couple of weeks ago, at a Republican function in West Belfast, I watched Adams on the stage to celebrate people in the nationalist community who had suffered in the conflict. There was Emma Groves, the housewife and mother blinded by a rubber bullet fired at point-blank range by a paratrooper; there was the sister of a Sinn Fein worker killed by Loyalists; and many more. The whole show could have descended into Republican solipsism had not Adams, quieting his audience’s applause for Mrs Groves and the others, taken the microphone again and said: ‘But it’s important to remember that we have done wrong things. Republicans have done wrong things.’ This wasn’t a media event; what he had to say was for consumption not by the public but by his own supporters.

For nearly ten years, Adams has been saying to anyone who would listen that he was working to take the gun out of Irish politics. Adamant that IRA violence was only one part of the conflict’s violent equation, he began using the term ‘demilitarisation’ to insist on a disarming by all sides, including the British Army and the Loyalist paramilitaries. He was, he said, working for peace. Hardly anyone in the media believed him, but with the ceasefire it now seems possible that they got Adams wrong: if so – and I believe so – they misinformed the public, they misinformed themselves, and therefore when the IRA announcement came they didn’t know how to react. As Roy Greenslade, a former editor of the Daily Mirror, writing in the Guardian about the ‘grudging’ coverage, put it, ‘the speed of change which occurs when armed conflict ends ... often leaves the media exposed as ideologically backward.’

There are few signs that, having been so exposed, the British media will re-examine the core beliefs on which their coverage has been predicated for a quarter of a century. At the Dublin meeting with Albert Reynolds and John Hume, Adams put his name to a statement reading: ‘We are at the beginning of a new era in which we are all totally and absolutely committed to democratic and peaceful methods of resolving our political problems.’ Afterwards, John Hume was still being pressed about the ‘permanent’ issue by Peter Snow on Newsnight. Hume, only just keeping his temper, reminded Snow that the British Government had talked to Republican representatives last year, when there wasn’t even a ceasefire, let alone a permanent renunciation of violence.

Of the failure of the Loyalist paramilitaries to announce their own ceasefire there has, by contrast, been virtually no media discussion. But at least the much-predicted Loyalist backlash has not yet materialised. I have never believed that the paramilitaries had the capacity, stomach or psychology for a campaign that would inevitably bring them into conflict with the British Army and the RUC. John Major’s humiliation of Ian Paisley in Downing Street was surely evidence of the British Government’s recognition that since the high point of Loyalist power – the UWC strike in 1974 – Loyalism’s political and military muscle has been in decline. The Government, sensibly, has simply decided to cut the irreconcilable Paisley out of its calculations.

The war in the North of Ireland is not yet over. We will undoubtedly have to endure ever more dire warnings of holocausts and Ireland-tumed-Bosnia from those, like Conor Cruise O’Brien, who are being beached by a tide they spent a professional lifetime predicting would never go out. But we have a ceasefire. That ceasefire is holding. The chances of peace have never been better.