A week after the whole furore had calmed down, the View programme on Thursday evening was still talking about James Downey. To be honest, the whole thing sounded like one of those contrived crises that you imagine takes place in Eastenders. I have never watched Eastenders so I am only surmising that it makes up contrived crises, but you know what I mean.
The reaction of the unionist and nationalist people to the James Downey affair tells us a lot about the state of play in Northern Ireland; our attitudes towards the past and our attitudes towards justice.
What does it tell us about the current state of play in our wee land?
It tells us that our politics are still the politics of belligerence. There is no community here, there is no country to which we can all owe allegiance. Politics in Northern Ireland is still about dominance and power, about us and them.
This week the ‘them’ happened to be the Catholics but at other times, particularly when we are objecting to marches, the ‘them’ can be the Protestants. But there is always a ‘them.’ We couldn’t do politics on an ‘us’ basis that includes the whole community.
For the nationalist, the whole period from 1969 forward was a reaction to unionist injustice; it was a popular uprising against a system which was so embedded that it could not be moved by ordinary politics. You can agree or disagree with this premise if you like, but for the most part, Catholics held that the unionist government would never willingly give equality to their neighbours.
The unionist, on the other hand, has to hold that pre 1969, Northern Ireland was as near to Utopia as you could get and that everything was fine if only the Catholics knew their place. Unfortunately it got to the stage where the Catholic wasn’t going to take it anymore. One man saw the writing on the wall and he spoke openly about what he observed in a speech in December 1968.
As Captain Terence O’Neill said:
“In Londonderry and other places recently a minority of agitators determined to subvert lawful authority played a part in setting light to highly inflammable material. But the tinder for that fire in the form of grievances real or imaginary had been piling up for years.”
A few sentences later O’Neill continued:
“That is why it has been my view from the beginning that we should decide - of our own free will and as a responsible Government in command of events - to press on with a continuing programme of change to secure a united and harmonious community. This indeed has been my aim for over five years.”
From O’Neill’s speech we can deduce that Northern Ireland was not a ‘great wee place’ and that there were many obvious reasons why the nationalist uprising should occur.
In a divided society ‘grievances real or imaginary’ to use O’Neill’s phrase, take on a power of their own. Now that the underdog nationalist has attained reasonable equality we need to be careful not to heap grievances upon our unionist neighbour.
All the Civil Rights movement, and belatedly Sinn Fein, have ever asked for was equality. If we turn that equality into dominance in areas where nationalists have a majority then we become guilty of exactly the same behaviour which we accuse the unionists of carrying on for fifty years.
The third difference I mentioned earlier was about the unionist and nationalist attitude to justice.
It appears that the nationalist mindset is more prepared to move on from the past and is ready to try to build a future. But this is only a reading of the situation taken from listening to politicians. At street level, while there are still many hurts and bad memories, people are more willing to move on. On this one, the politicians appear to be behind the times.
So while unionist politicians this past week have continued their rant against the letters to the On the Runs, the nationalist politicians and people have quietly went on about their business. I think that herein lies the best possible answer to Northern Ireland.
We need to ignore the whinging of the unionist politicians the way a wise mother learns to ignore the selfish whinging of a spoilt child. Let them have their temper tantrum all they want; we should ignore them and go on with building our lives.
Northern Ireland does not need peace. We are just over ninety years old and for all of that time we have been in a state of semi or all out war. At the minute we are fighting a war of words, which by any way of counting, is better than a war of bullets.
You see, the peace process was never fully embraced by unionism. From the very beginning, right back when Sinn Fein and the IRA were only talking about a ceasefire, there were voices in unionism that were quite openly against ‘peace at any price.’
We don’t often hear this mentioned but if you think back carefully, there were plenty of calls that peace should not come if the price was too great. It was never explicitly stated what “too great” a price would be, but looking at what has happened in the intervening years, it appears that simple equality of the Catholic was too great a price for some politicians.
I don’t believe that the ordinary unionist person saw equality as too great a price because in everyday life people have to get on together and work as best they can in the situation that they are in. We have more important things to worry about.
Did you ever stop to ask yourself, ‘how can a small province of one and a half million people enjoy a good standard of living, a good education system, free health service and pensions for the elderly, and yet be at war or semi war the whole time?’
Almost twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed we still cannot speak civilly to each other.
Why is this?
The reason is very simple. Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg do not get the ‘Block Grant;’ they had to rebuild their countries after the war.
Northern Ireland, on the other hand, receives a ‘Block Grant’ from the rest of the United Kingdom. Read this from an economic report of 2006/7: (www.isitfair.co.uk)
“Relative to its population, Northern Ireland gains the most from the unequal regional composition of the UK public finances, with a net balance of spending over receipts of more than £4,000 per person.”
This means that each one of us receives a gift from the rest of the UK of £4,000 per year, over and above what we pay in taxes. We don’t need to stop fighting; we are guaranteed an income and a good standard of living whether we are at war or not. The deal works something like this:
“Listen, you guys in Northern Ireland are an embarrassment to the rest of the UK. We don’t want you but we can’t get rid of you. You are like an alcoholic brother who shames the family but we keep you as long as you don’t cause too much bother. We hide you over the Irish Sea, give you a few quid to keep you quiet and ignore you the rest of the time. You are condemned to spend your days in perpetual adolescence, never growing up and taking responsibility for your own actions.”
We are like a young drug addict afraid to take charge of his life and hoping all the time that others shall make his decisions for him. As it stands today, we will never grow up. Even Captain O’Neill knew this way back in 1968 for in his speech he also said:
“Moreover I knew full well that Britain's financial and other support for Ulster, so laboriously built up, could no longer be guaranteed if we failed to press on with such a programme.”
The deal was the same then and O’Neill knew it: ‘run your wee province any way you like and as long as we aren’t brought into your petty little squabbles we don’t care.’
The moment the thing got out of hand Stormont was closed down and we were given over to a period of direct rule. Had we been a country we would have seen this as an invasion but since they kept the ‘Block Grant’ coming we could put up with it. Like charity, the Block Grant, covers a multitude of sins.
And the Block Grant continues to grow. Last December we were promised another 136 million for producing nothing!
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) said it would mean the executive would receive an additional £136m in funding.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, said: "The autumn statement comes at a time when there is increasing evidence that the UK's hard work is paying off and the economy, in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the country, is recovering.
So I strongly welcome today's statement by the chancellor and particularly the additional support for business and hard working people in Northern Ireland," she said.
An additional £136m gives the Northern Ireland Executive the flexibility to invest further in line with their own priorities.
All of this is clear evidence of this government's continuing commitment to Northern Ireland.”
Did you catch the last bit? The UK government is talking about having commitment to Northern Ireland reflecting how Northern Ireland is always seen as an add-on to the union. England does not talk of commitment to Scotland or Wales; they are all seen as one.
The Block Grant is the biggest curse in Northern Ireland. While we are receiving this gift from Britain we have no need of peace, we do not need to stand on our own feet and we can enjoy a standard of living which is not as high as the rest of the UK but is much better than we could achieve if we had to stand on our own.
Remember, there is an acceptable level of violence here as long as it does not impact on the rest of the UK.
All 1.75 million of us now (our population has grown) are caught in a poverty trap. We are all living on benefits and we don’t even want to face up to it.
Sinn Fein in government have become nothing more than distributors of the English handout. We all buy into it, we all accept these handouts and woe betides any politician who would say that such a scheme is destroying Northern Ireland.
At the end of the day we don’t need peace in Northern Ireland. The security of the Block Grant means that we can rant and rave about James Downey and his letter; we can riot and hold business in Belfast to ransom as much as we want—as long as we work within our Block Grant.
At the beginning of every tax year some wee man in a grey suit in an office at Westminster writes a cheque saying “Pay the squabbling hordes of Northern Ireland the sum of eleven billion pounds” and under his breath he goes on, “and maybe that will keep the beggars quiet.”
Being a nation means standing on your own feet. Ireland, North and South, is a long way from that point yet.
The last piece I quote from Captain O’Neill’s speech of December 1968 should ring loudly in our ears:
“And now a further word for you all: what kind of Ulster do you want? A happy and respected Province in good standing with the rest of the United Kingdom, or a place continually torn apart by riots and demonstrations and regarded by the rest of Britain as a political outcast?”
Let’s face it: we’ll accept being political outcasts as long as they keep the Block Grant coming!
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