Of Cats and Men; History in the Making: An Eventful Year.

Part 2: The cats are bagged – And a comparison

Although, during the modern ‘Troubles’, a period of tension between communities, seeing the beginning of the so-called “marching season” (the annual Protestant parades commemorating the events of 1688 – 90), the opening month of the second half of the year 1998 marked a notable departure in the history of the North of Ireland itself as it began with the first of six first ever Ireland‑associated events which the writer has been able to list and count in that historic year. Although receiving less publicity than the subsequent events and tragedies of that July at Drumcree (Armagh) and Ballymoney (Antrim), the less publicised event at least takes a place as an example of something having a potential for good to supplant the tension of the overshadowing events.

Ulster’s first ever bipartisan and therefore democratic parliament, and the region’s first legislative body since 1972 when Britain abolished a provincial parliament, the first meeting of the 108‑member Northern Ireland Assembly July 1 was the historic event which opened that list. This was the gathering which elected UUP leader David Trimble to head the power‑sharing administration, as First Minister‑elect, with Seamus Mallon of the SDLP as his Deputy‑delegate, SDLP leader John Hume declining to stand on the grounds of workload. In a tribute to Mr. Trimble, Mr. Mallon framed the most memorable speech of the session when he said: “There came to Unionism a time when one man had to take responsibility for its people and the country in which he lived.” Mr. Trimble himself, at the first working session of the assembly Sept. 14, spoke of “embarking on one of the most novel and challenging journeys in the annals of democratic arrangements.”

While too it is the Battle of the Boyne which has attracted notice from an Ulsterman writing in July’s issue of one Cardiff parish magazine, another unique aspect of Orange history and Britain‑Ireland interlinking has been its provision of Britain’s only prime minister not born in the UK, a circumstance which invites comparison between relations between the peoples of Northern Ireland and those between groups in his homeland, in the eastern provinces of Canada including the Atlantic Provinces. While the Southern Irish render as anthem The Soldier’s Song and it is a battle or conflict which is marked in Northern Ireland – as do the French in commemorating as national day, le quatorze juillet: July 14, the fall of the Bastille in the French Revolution – it may be noticed the Americans on July 4 celebrate rather the final adoption in Pennsylvania of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress of the 13 American colonies. The French Canadians, however, take Catholic feasts, the Feast of St. John Baptist June 24, for the Quebecers [Quˇbˇcoise], or the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (usually titled Blessed, so BVM) August 15, for the Cajuns’ ancestors and returned modern relatives, the Acadians [Acadiens] of old Acadia, Acadie, of Longfellow’s Evangeline memory. The “usurping” New Brunswick Province (as well as Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island), is the birthplace too of Lord Beaverbrook of the Daily Express and of the second‑generation son of Ulster‑stemming immigration and Presbyterian ministry, staunch assailant of Irish Home Rule (and of the disestablishment of the Welsh Church), Andrew Bonar Law – for Mr. Law is that premier from outside Britain.

While chiefly divided by politics without undue strife, Canada, like Northern Ireland, is a country of two cultures, called ‘Anglophone’ and ‘Francophone,’ characteristically Protestant and Catholic respectively. Occasionally the equilibrium between the ‘Two Solitudes’ will be disturbed – as when one will snub the other, e.g. (echoes of Northern Ireland!) nationalist Guy Boutilier from Montreal refusing to appear on the same platform as journalist William Johnson from Ottawa for a radio programme on Quebec, Monsieur B. calling Mr. J. “a buffoon,” “a clown,” and U.S. jazz composer and trumpeter Miles Davis’s biographer Jack Chambers saying Quebec separation was intolerable (‘Turning World,” BBC Radio 4, Mond. 12 Oct. 1998).

While the then‑forthcoming first Northern Ireland Assembly meeting escaped notice in the preparation of the July parish magazine that, over a byline, noticed the Boyne battle, this escape was not unique for such occurred also in the newspapers from many front pages. A Jeremy Paxman – or Newsnight‑style glance over the London papers of July 2 shows that only two of them (one Irish‑owned) celebrated the event as their lead story and banner headline source, The Daily Telegraph of the Canadian Conrad Black with “Leaders take up reins of power in Ulster”, and Tony O’Reilly’s ‘Indie’ (The Independent) splashing the desirable “Historic handshake for peace” [between David Trimble and Seamus Mallon].

It is an appalling commentary upon some of the British press that the day The Mail on Sunday of Lord Northcliffe’s then still‑living great nephew Lord Rothermere and son of the latter, Jonathan Harmsworth, raised its price to 90p., it had shrunk to the left hand half and reworded the front page wide banner of the early edition that appeared in Wales (‘Yes, it’s a vote for peace’ to ‘Peace has a chance’) in order to expand and ‘tweak’ up to the right hand half of the page and to page 3 in later editions a page 1 right hand corner and page 2 right hand column Brooke Shields story from a reward‑seeking Paris paparazzo. For this, the then editor Jonathan Holborow had to eat crow and dedicate the same space in the next issue to a groveling apology with his own name voluntarily attached, and pay damages of £100,000 (or 111,111 cover prices!) and legal costs.

Similar criticism applies to British press coverage of President Clinton’s Irish visit and, on Thursday 10 September, the first ever face‑à‑face between a Unionist and a Sinn Féin head, which is sad when again it has been the history of Ireland and of our islands and their proper reporting without squeezing which has been the victim. It approaches the disgusting that even before the release of the Starr Report on the Internet, every single British national led across the front page top in its anticipation and ousted reportage of the David Trimble‑Gerry Adams encounter, because it had been one without rancour, to the inside pages. Except again The Daily Telegraph and The Independent which retained the story in the bottom halves of their front pages, ‘First‑name terms as Adams and Trimble meet’ (Telegraph), and ‘Trimble and Adams make history’ (Indie). Daily Mail Clinton critic Peter McKay called the hoo‑ha “the present pantomime on the Potomac” (14.09.98) It’s my own belief that for a living fellow man and even for a public figure it’s been quite unseemly and contra bonos mores – compounding the trespass – to drag his shenanigans and peccadilloes, his venial sins, to such an unprecedented extent through the Internet and front pages, and footnote‑provided paperbacks of the Starr Report at $10 a throw to be riffled through on The Late Review, his having been forced to fib through total private life embarrassment. Perhaps one of the most sensible commentators, prodded by Chris Evans on his TFI Friday 18 September, was Clinton’s fellow Southerner Dolly Parton who hoped America would be stronger than titillation and return to business. I wonder what the iconoclastic Schroedinger would have made of the situation!

Using the British papers any reconstruction of the Irish speeches of Clinton, Trimble, etc. depended for their significance on sometimes out of order and badly juxtaposed or telescoped together sentences and snippets from here and there. But the Irish are a fair people and I’m so pleased that they gave Mr. Clinton a proper welcome, the Taoiseach bemused as the President was badgered by non‑Irish reporters, and America’s Newsweek magazine reflecting the travelling Washington press corps’ hostility to Clinton in confining Clinton in Ireland to a comer of its Periscope news review, unlike Time magazine with a proper feature. Mr. Clinton did work tirelessly upon the Irish question before his visit, he knew all the players and their psychologies, and perhaps one of the most telling insights into the enthusiasm of his staff for all to see came when, as he stepped off the plane from Moscow Thursday 3 September, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger was seen on the newsreels dashing up to Clinton to hand him a copy of that morning’s British Indie carrying, next to a half front page‑wide photo of Mrs. Clinton, a half page‑wide headline ‘Trimble agrees to meet Adams for peace talks.’ The Indie’s vanity in highlighting the newsreel clip as a short TV ad that night and in a picture inside the Friday edition was understandable. “This is the headline we wanted to see,” Berger told a beaming Clinton, and only the surliest can argue with what Tony Blair said to Clinton at the airport: “The people of Northern Ireland owe you a deep debt of gratitude. No President of the United States has done more for peace in Northern Ireland than you.”

Against criticism of the press it is only fair to insert at least a note of contrast. We may note in passing that on the July 2 of which I’ve spoken The Guardian took courage into its presentation to put religion (and Catholicism if quoting criticism) on the front bumper of its page‑wide chief headline, “Pope turns on liberal Catholics.”

In a fascinating and apposite interview which was given before but published after Mr. Clinton’s visit (and without any specific mention either of his name or acknowledgment of his situation and errantry) Ireland’s Belfast‑born President (Uachtaraacute;n) Mary McAleese told a British Christian magazine that leaders and heroes with feet of clay and unable to recognise their faults did not set healthy examples nor teach us critiquing skills, and without being asked to choose one, she put forward St. Peter, “chosen by God to take forward the name of Christ into the unknown of the AD world” (Mary McAleese, ‘High Profile: an Open Hand’, Third Way, Harrow, Middlesex, St. Peter’s, Third Way Trust Ltd., Oct. 1998; interview conducted 24 July). Mrs. McAleese had been asked: “How can our leaders admit to their faults without spreading disillusionment in society?,” and had said: “I am very uncomfortable around people who never make a mistake… I think there is a danger, if the public refuse to accept human weakness, that the person who wants to get on in life may represent themselves as something other than they truly are and may go to a lot of trouble to prevent the truth from coming out. It’s important that we accept the authenticity of the people who offer us leadership.”

Completing her answers to the same question, Mrs. McAleese observed: “People who make mistakes very often are people who can learn, and do, and their mistakes are the very things that pack the integrity and the character into them, and the determination to change. There is evidence, thanks to God, that the human person is always capable of change. And one of the things that we have to bring about in the north,” she added with regard to Ireland, “is change. Without it, there is no hope.”

In further questioning, Mrs. McAleese said of outreaches to the Orange Order south of the border that “It’s almost creating a virtual reality of the world that we could be living in in seven or ten years’ time,” and that Northern Ireland didn’t become a Bosnia or a Rwanda because “it’s pockmarked with steeples and spires” and that peoples’ prayers “do outcrop: they have stopped us from getting worse.”

In the opinion of the former Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, Cathal Brendan Cardinal Daly, the Good Friday Stormont Agreement “marks a significant moment in the development of methodologies for resolving conflict, and will long be studied by historians and analysed by political scientists” (‘On Easter Eve,’ The Tablet, London, 25 April 1998). In other words, the settlement as a model possesses a significance of an ultra‑Irish dimension. In an elaborate freedom of the city‑granting ceremony on O’Connell Street in Limerick, Sat. 5 September, President Clinton said as much. “This is Ireland’s best day,” he told an estimated crowd of 50,000, “you stand as a model of what can be achieved.” It is a model being used by the Americans in international negotiations in war zones in Rwanda, the Balkans, and the Middle East. It also operated in Europe’s longest conflict, in the Basque country in northern Spain, to put pressure on the separatist movement ETA, which granted a ceasefire 17 Sept., allowing the Spanish PM, Jose Maria Anzar, to agree, nearly seven weeks later, 3 Nov., to open contact with the separatists (after regional parliamentary elections Sunday 25 Oct. that saw ETA’s political wing, the Herri Batasuna party, as well as the moderate Basque Nationalist Party, making gains).

In Ireland itself the Agreement serves to knit the Framework For The Future document of February 1995, torn up by Unionists at a press conference, into a bag to contain as it were the Kilkenny cats of terrorism and sulky squabbling politicians. The question is whether the bag will be strong enough to sustain some tearing, whether any rifts in the lute of sweetness and light will be caulked to save the music. “Despite many flaws”, the writer, Mr. Nigel Spinks, a church musician, noted in the parish magazine, “it looks as though it may work” (Roath News, Church in Wales, Cardiff, July 1998). And Cardinal Daly points out: “If the agreement is flawed it could be argued that this is because Northern Ireland is flawed; if the agreement fails, it could be argued that Northern Ireland has failed. No self‑respecting unionist could accept that Northern Ireland is either a flawed entity or a failed entity.” One may well ask whether the new Northern Ireland approaches a Rankish state, a ‘spiritual entity’. The opponents of the agreement (or of any government) cannot function from a “policy‑free zone” as characterised by the position of Deputy Leader of the House offered, before his resignation, to Britain’s then first Minister of State for Welfare Reform, Frank Field, once portrayed as Tony Blair’s John the Baptist [‘The World at One’ BBC Radio 4, Wed. JuIy 29; Ian Duncan Smith, Tory Shadow minister of Social Security, panelist, ‘Any Questions’, Radio 4, Friday July 31 & Sat. 1 August].

Cardinal Daly was later to share the focal point in a powerful piece of ‘candid camera’ television with a Protestant lady from his audience when both were recorded on Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show (Radio Telef’s Éireann, RTÉ). This was the first Late Late Show of the last season of the reign of “King Gaybo” and the revealing moment was to be recounted upon the front page of Ireland’s ‘Indie’, Tony O’Reilly’s Irish Sunday Independent, 6 September, by reporter Gene Kerrigan under the title ‘Daly confesses to Gay,’ below the lead story of President Clinton’s last day in Ireland. The Cardinal had already caused some surprise by asserting that the bishops “never asked, as you know, that moral teaching be incorporated in civil law – we have never asked for that.” But later in the show the lady was given air time with a complaint, and during the Cardinal’s reply the camera cut back to her face. He hadn’t come to the ex‑insurance man’s TV show with his own insurance policy. Her complaint? Her mother, a convert to Catholicism from Protestantism, had died in April. The mother had still desired a Protestant element in her Catholic funeral only for her body to be removed from the church before Mass next morning and any Protestant clergy debarred. And Cardinal Daly – with no little courage in the circumstances – spoke of history, and dogma and why the parish priest was right to do what he did... “He couldn’t know that we were looking at her as we listened to him, and every word the Cardinal spoke came like a doctrinal whiplash across that gentle face.... Such moments are rare…”

But to me it speaks of the fairness of the Irish in transmitting the contrast and reporting it in the press, and prompts the question, given such fairness, as to the degree of justification for Orange fears.

Part 1

Part 3

Part 4

Part 1