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12 January 2013

Grow up! The world is fed up with you

Unionists polititians have to stop playing the victim. It's time for Northern Ireland to get its house in order, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Why the rest of the world doesn't give a damn about our flag riots

Since I first became involved in the tribulations of Northern Ireland, baffled outsiders have been asking me to explain what seems to them wholly irrational behaviour in a corner of an otherwise mostly comprehensible country.

The first question is usually some variant on “Can you explain why the Catholics, republicans,
dissidents, Protestants, loyalists, Orangemen are so angry?”

This week I did my best for viewers of a German television station, and listeners to the BBC’s
Today Programme, who wanted to know why loyalists were getting so worked up about a flag. While I
know the BBC has to pay attention to all parts of the UK, I was surprised that Germany still cared.

Inevitably, the interviewers ended up asking: “What has to happen to end the violence?” I talked of the need for unionist politicians to take responsibility and tell disaffected loyalists that they are constitutionally the winners and not the victims their misguided local leaders tell them they are.

“Very interesting as usual but depressing,” e-mailed an English friend. “Next time give us hope!!”

That reaction sums up why so few outsiders give a damn any more. They’re depressed, they’re bored and having thought the problem was solved in 1998, they’ve given up. Unless they’ve had personal experience of its beauty and its nicer people, the words ‘Northern Ireland' elicit a groan, a yawn or an expletive.

Sometimes I get completely fed up myself and wish that instead of obsessively following events I could shrug and walk away, but I’m intellectually and emotionally in thrall to the province and I
love my Northern Irish friends, so I’m stuck.

The outside world used to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to Northern Ireland for a variety of reasons. The UK was known to be a civilised country, so the mayhem afflicting part of it was surprising and intriguing. The protagonists spoke English, the roads were good and it was much less dangerous than one’s family and friends thought so a visit conferred street-cred.

The place became a magnet for foreign journalists, photographers, historians, sociologists, demographers, novelists, meddling politicians and Troubles tourists looking for excitement but not
wishing to risk their lives.

I remember in the early 1990s having a drink in London with a comfortable American academic
who had been given a grant to spend a year studying a troublespot. “I had the choice of Bosnia,
Rwanda or Northern Ireland,” he told me, and then explained that he had chosen Northern Ireland
because it was more convenient for commuting.

I first became closely involved with matters Northern Irish in 1982. From a largely Catholic nationalist
background, I had been brought up and educated in Dublin, but I had emigrated to England at 21. Though in the 1970s I wrote a biography of Patrick Pearse, leader of the 1916 rebellion, my interest in Northern Ireland was mostly confined to hand-wringing.

My only clear views were hatred of the cruelty and viciousness of all paramilitaries and contempt for
the domestic and foreign (mostly Irish and American) bigots who gave succour to killers. But the
IRA atrocities in England made me realise that I couldn’t stay detached. If people kill in your
name, I believe it’s your duty to disown them publicly. So when I was asked to join the committee
of the London-based British-Irish Association (BIA), I agreed, and became involved in organising
weekend conferences that provided a forum for diplomats, journalists, opinion-formers of all
kinds and constitutional politicians from Belfast, Dublin, London and sometimes Washington
to argue face-to-face.

I listened, I read and I struggled to understand. While I knew where my own tribe were coming
from, it was through the BIA that I began to make friends with unionists. I liked that they had
such a variety of views: most Irish diplomats and nationalist politicians at the time slavishly followed
instructions from John Hume. In America, the State Department and most interested politicians followed suit, though the so-called representatives of Irish-America regurgitated the IRA-as-freedom-fighters myth.

As the British and Irish governments began to try to find common ground, I realised they faced real difficulties even in understanding each other. Even politically sophisticated Irish people could turn tribal overnight over nationalist deaths, while the English had, and have, a touching belief in reason, compromise and the dangerous conviction that “the truth always lies in the middle”.

But the Irish and British establishments developed an understanding that led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985— allowing the Republic an advisory role in the governance of the province —
which went through the delighted Commons with a majority of 426. I remember a conference not
long after at which there was huge applause for a speech by an English intellectual explaining
that the Troubles were now over and Northern Ireland would be at peace. The majority of the Irish,
British and American audience clapped enthusiastically because that was what they wanted to believe. I didn’t clap. All I could think of was that an Agreement that brought hundreds of thousands of unionists protesting onto the streets did not seem like a solution to me.

Subsequent horrors brought back some sense of reality and the prolonged negotiations that led up to the Good Friday Agreement at least had the merit of educating British and Irish officialdom about the
difficulties of dealmaking with intransigents. By now I had become a journalist and was in the middle
of the huge media scrums at various parade flashpoints and on innumerable programmes trying
to explain to foreign and domestic audiences why Orangemen cared so much about the right to
walk down particular roads.

But the worst of the violence passed and in 1998 the world saw Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and Bill
Clinton hailing an historic peace and it breathed a sigh of relief that it would no longer have to
think about this troublesome little place.

And then, not long after the Agreement was endorsed in referenda north and south, came the
Omagh bomb, which pulled in the foreign press all over again to show pictures of carnage and tell
stories of unimaginable sadness.

And then — eventually — came the Chuckle Brothers and Northern Ireland politicians began flying round the world to lecture others on peace-making.

Today the assurances that Northern Ireland is a wonderful investment opportunity seem hollow.
In a few weeks, people who passionately care about being British have done as much to wreck the province’s economic prospects as the Provos did in the days when they murdered foreign

It is time for Northern Irish leaders to grasp that this time no one much cares what’s made a couple of hundred people behave badly. The EU is preoccupied with the fate of the Euro, appalling
unemployment figures, the fear of civil war in Greece, the possible political disintegration of Spain,
and, if they’ve any appetite for looking outside, they’re worrying about the new horrors being thrown up by the Arab Winter.

President Obama isn’t much interested in Europe, let alone Ireland. Now he’s no longer running for election, St Patrick’s Day in the White House is just a duty.

Hillary Clinton is retiring and, while no doubt she and Bill will occasionally pop in to say ‘Hi', they won’t be getting involved. Even those elements of Irish- America who once worshipped the ‘freedom-fighters' are bored. Gerry Adams can no longer attract A-listers to his fund-raisers and the press don’t care about a few mysteriously disaffected Prods. Today’s worries are slow growth, a huge national debt and the fiscalcliff. The Irish Republic no longer cares either.

Aspirations towards a United Ireland expired along with the Celtic Tiger, and the electorate are focused on trying to pay their bills.

On the mainland, it is only a few romantic unionists who have any sympathy for the rioters (left). And, apart from a few sectarian nutters, Scotland couldn’t care less.

Alex Salmond is too concerned with trying to keep the independence banner flying at a time of economic insecurity to worry much about flags on Belfast City Hall.

Newspaper coverage is for the most part sketchy and grudging. Reading any day's Daily Mail, which had virtually ignored the six weeks of protest, one can only gather that the vast sway of its constituents, ie. Middle England, care nought for Northern Ireland.

There are impatient voices demanding that the British Government sort the problem out, but
David Cameron is too sensible toget involved. He knows that Northern Ireland politicians were
infantilised by being able to run to secretaries of state and prime ministers whenever they weren’t
getting their way and that they must now deal with local issues.

Theresa Villiers rightly said the other night: “To those who are worried that their Britishness is being eroded — I’d say that Northern Ireland’s position within the UK is arguably more secure than
it has been for decades.''

Unionist politicians have to stop playing the victim card, bring to the disaffected the message that
their future in the UK is secure, teach them that violence doesn’t pay, and learn from the Shinners
how to get supporters to recruit, register and vote.

The world doesn’t care any more. It’s time for Northern Ireland to get its own house in order.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards