As the year limps towards a conclusion, there’s some looking back and some looking forward.
Jim Allister the Traditional Unionist Voice leader, is a forward-thinking man – in one respect at least. He’s made that clear with his response to the Stormont House Agreement: “Another few months down the line it will maybe need another bailout and another heap of sticking plaster to keep it [the Assembly] going again. So it doesn’t address the real issue of why Stormont isn’t working and won’t work, because structurally it’s built on sand”. We mightn’t say it but a lot of us quietly think he may have a point.
As I write I’m listening to John Bowman on RTÉ , where he’s talking about the recently-released 1984 papers concerning Anglo-Irish relations. It’s a fascinating talk, with clips of the political leaders of the time airing their views. There’s Charlie Haughey’s comment about the change in “the totality of relations” between Ireland and Britain: a comment which drove Thatcher somewhat wild and resulted in the famous “Out, out, out” speech. On her watch, she made clear, there’d be no new arrangement for Northern Ireland. Needless to say she was lying through her teeth, for the next year she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which led eventually to the Good Friday Agreement, which brings us to where we are today.
Which is, according to Jim Allister, an Assembly built on sand. The one phrase that I haven’t heard from John Bowman was another of Haughey’s famous phrases, in which he described Northern Ireland as “A failed political entity”. To even suggest that Haughey had a point is to trigger a howl of protest – but consider the facts. It’s thirty years since Thatcher’s “Out, out, out”. Go back from there to any decade since the foundation of the state and you’ll find a large section of the population here either in sullen compliance with the existence of the state or actively involved in trying to change it, some by peaceful means, some by violent. You may conclude that such efforts haven’t succeeded in almost one hundred years and you’d be right. But if you attempt to suggest that since its foundation this state has been a settled place, a successful political entity, you’re asking to be laughed off the stage.
Charlie had his flaws and sins, but he had a keen eye for the reality of situations.