One of the real unsung heros of northern politics Republican Labour MP Gerry Fitt entered a bookie shop in West Belfast 40 years ago this week. He made a phone call that changed Irish politics irrevocably. He spoke with Jim Callaghan in Downing Street and asked him to send British soldiers into protect nationalists in Belfast who had been the victim of a retaliatory pogrom in response to the Battle of the Bogside. Callaghan said to Fitt it was no problem but replied 'Gerry, I can get the army in but its going to be a devil of a job to get it out'
Nobody who was present in 1969 could have forecast how the troubles would have developed. The Taoiseach Jack Lynch made his famous “won’t stand by” speech. As a child I remember the tension, especially as I had close family connections to the north. A few days after the Battle of the Bogside, my Dad brought us to Derry or Free Derry corner as it had become. Callaghan had come to speak to the people of the town. He walked briskly past us as he came down from Rossville St flats at Butchers Gate towards the two up two down houses that are now long gone. He spoke from an upstairs window to the crowd as the British army looked on from the walls above.
40 years on it’s timely to reflect on what transpired and perhaps how the north has missed the boat so many other times before and ended up with an executive which has less powers than the Scottish Parliament that was delivered without so much as a minor injury and an over populated political class. Much of the problem stems from the reality that northern politicians never had to take a decision for which they had to account to the electorate for. It was easy to say no. Northern unionists often looked down on the south as poor. But by contrasting the sunshine of Fermanagh and South Tyrone with the grey bleak rain of the Irish Free State they missed the reality that Irish ministers actually made decisions that had huge impact.
When you compared how farmers in the south milked the EEC in the 70’s with the poor subvention extended to their northern counterparts or how the south’s economy benefited from ongoing EU infrastructural investment for 25 years, the real impact of political decision making can be seen. Southern politicians had to account for decisions and blunders they’d made. Politics in the south has always been about being in power but politics in the north has been about being in opposition. While politics in this state was dominated by economic decisions and the impact of cabinet decisions on daily lives for most of the 40 years of the troubles, northern politics became stale. It did not attract trade unionists, business people or community activists that influence politics here. Many Sinn Fein MLA’s spent long periods in prison. The SDLP became identified with the civil rights generation. The UUP parroted for many years whatever Paisley thought and Paisley spent most of his dysfunctional life ruining the lives of others who had the misfortune to cross his path.
So I watch First Ministers Question time on BBC Parliament with great interest. I’m struck by the culture, half Daíl half Commons. SF members address the chair as Ceann Comhairle, ceisteanna trí gaelige, members use the acronym OFMDFM to shave seconds into their speaking time, Robinson speaks for McGuinness and vice versa, you couldn’t separate SF from the DUP on any issue. Robinson often turns to speak directly to his own side when answering their questions but looks at the chair when answering a SF question. Robinson and McGuinness sit opposite one another not together, the opposition Alliance sit in the middle! The Irish solution to the Irish problem is certainly better than the alternative.
And yet at the back of it all you ask yourself have some of the key players fundamentally changed? If crookery can co-exist in a slightly constitutional party in the south for decades can a complete personality transformation be performed over night up north? Somehow I get the feeling that civil servants are choreographing and writing speeches like there’s no tomorrow up north. DUP ministers like Nelson McCausland or Sammy Wilson are to put it mildly rough around the edges. They see themselves as manning the gap as the apprentice boys did over 300 years ago. They cannot be allowed to fail and the luxury of having a world view isn’t needed. No Surrender has re-morphed into “the terms of the GFA”.
So long as Sinn Fein feel they’re making progress recent events have shown they’ll stick to any agreement that they sign up to. But what happens after Adams? If a southern leader is elected as Uachtaran Sinn Fein and shows as lamentable knowledge about economics as Adams did in GE 2007, how will SF MLA’s react if they lose seats? Fitt delivered Sunningdale in the 70’s Hume delivered it again for the slow learners in the 90’s. And in the background there’s still from time to time “The Shadow of the Gunman” looking for the remedial version.