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26 December 2016

Around world and back here at home, there is still much we should be cheerful about

The imperfect Executive is better for Northern Ireland than direct rule, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Former Secretary of State Peter Hain
Former Secretary of State Peter Hain

I hope you had a good Christmas and forgot all about politics, which can leave us simultaneously bogged down and het up. We need to keep a sense of perspective.

Last week, reflecting rather gloomily about the RHI farce and the Stormont antics that are bewildering and enraging many good people, I was cheered up by a recent contribution from that fine satirical website, theulsterfry.com.

Headlined: “Northern Ireland not at centre of the universe, discover scientists”, it broke the news that “Co Tyrone boffins have apparently spent the last few months observing the movement of things called planets, and come to the shocking conclusion that they do not, as previously thought, revolve around Northern Ireland”.

Amazingly, there was reason to believe that “there may indeed be other stuff going on beyond our borders, things which may also have an impact on our planet.”

The scenes in Aleppo, the chief scientist pointed out, “show us the terrible consequences of sectarian strife, and we should be grateful that we seem to be moving on from our own conflict”.

“However they should also remind us that there are people, usually themuns, who would like nothing better than to drag us back into that kind of s****,” it added.

I admit to having a cheerful disposition, which contributes to my fundamental belief that on the whole, the world is getting better rather than worse.

The media focuses on tragedy, which is telegenic and dramatic, and fails to get across the message that in most of the world, every year there is a steep fall in the percentage of people enduring hunger, extreme poverty and premature death. 

But enough of the big world. What about Norn Iron itself?

I looked back to see what I was writing about it a decade ago. 

A pre-Christmas Sunday Independent column in 2006 was decidedly gloomy. 

“There are signs of life among us Northern Ireland Watchers (NIWs),” I wrote. “Greyed and wrinkled after years of service, over the past 18 months we have either slumped into near-catatonia or have transferred our attention to wondering what’s to be done about our little Islamist chums.”

Well, we’ve still plenty to worry about in relation to Islamism, but what had woken up the NIWs was Mr Justice Girvin’s denunciation of Secretary of State Peter Hain’s “improper political motive” in circumventing the rules governing appointments.

Mr Hain’s record, I wrote, showed “an arrogance and contempt for the law that would have horrified any unionist Prime Minister of an unreformed Northern Ireland”. 

Zealously following the instructions of his Downing Street masters, Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell, to do whatever it took to force a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein, Mr Hain had used “political bribery and threats” that flouted “honour, sense, morality — and now it emerges, the law”.

As a negotiator, Martin McGuinness completely outclassed Ian Paisley, so concessions to the DUP were mostly cosmetic, like the appointment of a Victims Commissioner that landed Hain in court.

Among the achievements of Sinn Fein was the replacement of the 26 district councils by the seven super-councils rather than the 15 wanted by everyone else, which produced the sectarian carve-up the province is now stuck with.

Another was the disgraceful secret deal over the on-the-runs.

Such trips down memory lane should be salutary for the decent man and woman in the street who has been saying in the last few weeks that the province would be better under direct rule.

It’s time to think about politics again.

I agree with Brian Walker, the former BBC journalist, who wrote on the invaluable website sluggerotoole.com that despite all the system’s deficiencies, the recent Stormont drama showed that power-sharing is working and is becoming more accountable. It’s a great advance that the burden of opposition is no longer exclusively the responsibility of Jim Allister.

So may I suggest that those of you who have been guilty of abstaining from voting in the past should make a New Year resolution to do your bit in future to hold your political rulers to account.

You couldn’t have done it to Messrs Blair, Powell or Hain. But you’ll be able to do it to the Northern Ireland Executive.

Happy New Year!

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards