The dogs in the street know that

Nick Laird

Growing up in Cookstown in County Tyrone, I would occasionally wonder what it would be like to be Martin McGuinness’s son. He was infamous for being Sinn Féin’s number two, and for being the officer commanding of the Derry brigade of the IRA, a position he assumed, as he recently admitted, in February 1972. He was born the same year as my mother, and my parents used to live in Londonderry. If instead of meeting my dad at a dance in Dublin, she had met a young butcher called Martin from the Bogside, maybe I would be Martin Jr. There was an Oedipal twist to my unlikely fantasy, because I also used to imagine killing him. And it wasn’t just me. At lunch in the school canteen, between telling stories about armalites or girls, exit wounds or telly programmes, we’d all go on about how much we’d love to fucking kill McGuinness. To blow him up. To gun him down. To do to him what his crowd had done, and was doing, to other people, to people we knew. Then, in the 1997 general election, after I had left home and gone to university in England, Martin McGuinness became our MP.

He never could have been my father, of course. Even the words I use betray my upbringing: Derry or Londonderry? Full disclosure might be proper, though it is unusual in writing about Northern Ireland. My father, schooled in Dublin, is a member of the Church of Ireland and is from Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland. I think he has voted Unionist in the past though he is an SDLP voter now. My mother was raised a Covenanter – a Reformed Presbyterian sect that doesn’t allow music in churches – but joined the Church of Ireland when she married. Both have always had Irish and British passports, though my father, because he was born in Donegal, is designated a ‘British subject’ and my mother, who is from South Armagh, is a ‘British citizen’. She votes SDLP. If someone calls us British we rankle slightly. If someone calls us Irish we do the same. We are both and neither. It’s not quite as simple as making a choice and sticking to it regardless. Our nationality is always qualified. We live in County Tyrone, specifically in the townland of Orritor outside Cookstown. Tyrone is one of the six counties of Northern Ireland, which itself makes up two-thirds of Ulster, one of Ireland’s four provinces. I could go on, like a bored child writing his address on his schoolbook: Ireland, the British Isles, Europe, Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way. I have always looked to the poet John Hewitt’s manifesto in order to salvage a coherent identity. He wrote:

I’m an Ulsterman of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and as far as I’m concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.

You would know he was an Ulsterman by that needless bristle at the end, a prickly little warning.

Northern Ireland (for which you may of course read the ‘North of Ireland’) has 18 seats at Westminster, and has recently seen two events with significant political ramifications: the robbery of £26.5 million from the Northern Bank in Belfast on 20 December, and on 30 January the murder of Robert McCartney in Magennis’s Bar. A few months ago it had seemed that the IRA might be on the brink of disbanding. One IRA source was quoted in Ireland’s Sunday Business Post: he said that he had been visited by a member of the IRA leadership, ‘and told that the whole movement was going to be dismantled – the structures, the lot. I was asked if there was anything I wanted, anything they could do for me. There would be just a small team left to protect the core leadership from assassination.’ It looked as though Ian Paisley’s DUP and Sinn Féin were about to do a deal on decommissioning, and that Stormont, the Northern Irish Assembly, would be resumed.

In October 2002 four Sinn Féin government officials (one of them the party’s chief administrator at Stormont, the former IRA prisoner Denis Donaldson) had been arrested for allegedly stealing and copying hundreds of official documents ‘useful to terrorists in carrying out acts of violence’. The incident had made the Assembly unworkable, and on 14 October it was suspended, for the fourth time in its brief history, to prevent the resignation of the first minister, David Trimble. Just over a year later, on 26 November 2003, the much postponed Assembly election took place, with the DUP and Sinn Féin emerging as the largest parties, gaining ground from moderate unionists and nationalists. A review of the working of the Good Friday Agreement involving all the political parties began at Stormont on 4 February 2004. After several rounds of talks and much stalling, the parties appeared to be close to agreement late last year. There was a sticking point, however: Paisley insisted on seeing photographic evidence of weapons being decommissioned, and gave his now infamous speech in Ballymena, demanding that the IRA, having sinned publicly, repent publicly and ‘wear sackcloth and ashes’. Sinn Féin refused to allow photographs, and the talks fell apart.

The English media delighted – again – in representing the disagreement as being somehow indicative of the Northern Irish, of their childish inability to see a major triumph behind a minor concession. In the Guardian, David Aaronovitch wrote an article suggesting that the photographs issue had something to do with castration anxiety. This all showed an enormous underestimation of the canniness of the operators involved. They didn’t agree because they didn’t want to agree. If the issue seemed like a red herring, that’s because it was one.

On Saturday evening, at ten to six, listening to a programme about Jimmy Cagney on Radio 4, I drive into Cookstown from Orritor. It is a long straight dipping road and the sun is sinking behind me. The fields are in shadow but, out in front, is a little shining city on a hill. All the west-facing glass catches the light. I am on my way to meet the Ulster Unionist chairman of the local council, who lives next door to my friend Steve. The chairman is a gaunt man with a heavy moustache that gives him a doleful, hangdog look. He lives in a neat, detached, over-decorated home on a small estate. We go into the living-room. On the occasional table where I set up my tape recorder there are Hummel ornaments and photographs of children from the local high school, wearing my old uniform. The piano has a book of 101 Disney tunes open on it. I ask him what he thought about the deal that was almost done before Christmas.

‘As an Ulster Unionist I couldn’t believe the stuff the DUP were agreeing to. I mean, they had promised to “smash Sinn Féin”. That was their slogan, and to do away with all-Ireland bodies, but here they were agreeing to sit down with them. The sad reality is that a lot of people left the Ulster Unionists and joined the DUP because they couldn’t take the peace process. Round this neck of the woods, which has seen massive IRA activity over the years, people now have to see the terrorists lording it about, all in high and mighty places. They’re in negotiating teams. They’re mayors of local councils, and these people carried out the most hideous crimes. Sickening crimes. It hit home when McGuinness became minister of education, and Alex Maskey, who was convicted of robbing a bank, got made lord mayor of Belfast. I mean how do you take that? And now the process is dead. I can’t see it getting back up again – no one believes Tony Blair anymore in the Unionist community – and I can’t see that anyone in the two Unionist parties could go back into government with Sinn Féin, after the bank robbery and now this McCartney murder. Both Blair and Ahern have been left with severe egg on their faces. That robbery had been in planning for 12 months.’

I write ‘severe egg’ in my notebook and ask whether he thinks Sinn Féin’s vote will drop in May.

‘Well, you look at the Westminster election last time. Four out of five nationalists voted for McGuinness. In a town like Cookstown four out of five nationalists voted for a murderer, a gunman. Your next-door neighbour, who you always took to be a moderate, might have voted for him.’

I say the argument would be that he’s not been convicted of anything.

‘Well, he’s admitted that he’s been in the IRA, that he was the OC of Derry, and he wouldn’t answer questions at the Bloody Sunday inquiry because of a code of honour. I mean, the dogs in the street know he’s on the army council.’

I ask him about Sinn Féin’s election campaign.

‘What people don’t realise is that the marked registers are available after an election to political parties, showing whether you’ve voted or not, and those registers are being used by the Sinn Féin political machine. I’ve heard they would go to people’s houses and say: I realise you didn’t vote at the last election. It’s a very thin line between canvassing and threatening. They’ve been exposed now, but McGuinness’ll be returned, though it’ll be interesting to see which way his vote goes.’

I ask about his own party.

‘There has been a demise of the Ulster Unionist party. I’ve been in the party almost thirty years and I’ve never seen morale as low. We have a situation where there are meetings which might once have had forty or fifty people, and now have twelve or so. The seeds were sown when the Ulster Unionists changed their policy from no guns, no government. I voted against the Good Friday Agreement. A lot of my friends were murdered by the IRA and I voted against it because under its terms the people who had murdered them were going to be released. I couldn’t hack that, so I voted against it. The DUP avoided taking all the flak by walking out on the agreement, yet now they are making more concessions than the Ulster Unionists did. There have been more barracks and police stations closed, more troop reductions, and the DUP have backtracked on their position on the Maze.’

I ask him which issues he thinks local people are concerned about.

‘To be honest, the biggest thing on people’s minds is water charges. It’s going to work out at £400 per year, and they’re talking about charging your water rates according to the value of your house – even if you live alone. It’s crazy. The council are totally against water charges.’

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