John McDonagh and Martin Galvin speak to award winning journalist, author and historian Ed Moloney via telephone about the reaction of the Nationalist community to the results of the recent snap election in The North of Ireland. (begins time stamp ~ 35:02 )
John: And leaving Belfast for The Bronx, not that big a jump, and we’re going to head up there and speak with Ed Moloney, author of many books particularly one, A Secret History of the IRA. Ed, reading some of the analyses about the election, and it surely was a political earthquake that happened over in The Six Counties, but they said what really stirred the Sinn Féin vote was something called ‘cultural Nationalists’ – that they were quite content within The Six Counties as long as they had the Irish language, as long as they could play GAA that they were quite content. But when Arlene Foster came out and said there’ll be no funding and you ‘feed a crocodile’ – for the Irish language and some of the stuff the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) were getting involved with – but that is what stirred up a lot of the Nationalist people.
Ed: Yeah, I think that’s really what the election was about at the end of the day. It was a throwback in terms of the folk memory to many Nationalists, for many Nationalists, to the bad old days of Unionist majority rule where they not only did they rule the roost but they ruled with considerable arrogance and disdain for the Nationalist population and Arlene Foster’s language, her body language, the antics of some of her colleagues in the DUP were all reminders of that and I think acted as a considerable spur rather than any notion that this was all about a united Ireland. I think it was more about civil rights if you like rather than the national question. And I think the evidence is also there in the way that the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) vote did very well as well as Sinn Féin’s vote and that combined, the pair of them, you know came so close to overtaking the combined Unionists votes that people have described it, as you said yourself, as a political earthquake. But I think that’s somewhat misleading. I think it’s really – it was about getting very angry and looking for a way to hit back at the DUP for the way that they had behaved.
John: Yeah also, Ed, it seems elections like this bring out, as I say, the Orange and the Green and it consolidates the very sectarian vote. You know, now I get to listen, because of the internet, about the coverage in The North. There was no talks about you know we want to bring employment to The Six Counties, we want to stop fracking in Fermanagh. When these elections start it breaks down so sectarian it is unbelievable! And the people in The South, you listen to them, it’s sort of: Well, that’s The Six Counties. That’s the way elections are fought there – but it’s such an aberration when you hear the debates and everything. It has nothing to do with improving the economy. It’s ‘us’ against ‘them’ and it seems this election is really going to bring it out – or even the next election – that it is just going to be Orange and Green and that’s going to be the vote.
Ed: Well you see this is, of course, this is the major critique of the Good Friday Agreement from, if you like, a sort of more left-wing perspective – is that it has institutionalised sectarianism and rewards sectarianism and not only that but solidifies power in the hands of two parties, essentially the DUP and Sinn Fein, who manage to climb to the top of their greasy, respective greasy poles over their rivals in their own camps – the DUP beating the Ulster Unionists and the Sinn Féin beating the SDLP – and each election is really about the same thing: You better vote for us because if you don’t ‘themmuns’ are going to get the First Minister’s job and that will be terrible’ and Sinn Féin saying: You know, here’s a chance to get one back at the Prods by voting strongly enough to get the First Minister’s seat – and it institutionalises this and it sets politics in concrete and makes it impossible for the sort of issues that you were just talking about, like job creation, etc, to be raised. I mean this election I suppose was slightly different in the sense that there was a controversy over the DUP’s – the smell of corruption over this pellet fire or ash for cash or whatever it’s called – cash for ash scandal that hit Arlene Foster. But you know look how Eamonn McCann’s vote and the vote for his people suffered as a result of that and that’s an example of just how the Good Friday Agreement has – I mean and I think it’s almost done quite cynically by the British and Irish governments because this was a way to sort of like side-line the thing and keep these people busy fighting their little sectarian conflict as long as they keep it to politics and don’t bring the guns out then that’s fine. Let them carry on like that ad infinitum. And of course we give them a nice big Assembly, wonderful big castle of mention of a place to work in with a fantastic cafeteria and great food and they have wonderful salaries and great expenses and there’s lots of them, and they’re allowed to employ their wives and their sons and their daughters and you know, that’ll keep it going and you know that’s why I suspect that they will probably get this deal back again in some way, shape or form, too – there’s a gravy train and they’re all filling their bellies from it and at the same time very confident, as long as no one reaches again for guns, power is going to be confined exclusively in the hands of these two parties for ad infinitum.
Martin: Well Ed, this is Martin Galvin here. Ed, one of the elements of this deal is that the British government, as represented now by James Brokenshire, they don’t have to take responsibility for anything. You know they have a block grant. They can do what they like in terms of imprisoning Tony Taylor. They can say: Oh, we can’t give funding for legacy inquests – it might show that our hands are dirty in terms of the conflict or our hands are dirty in terms of the collusion because Arlene Foster won’t agree. So they get to stand behind Stormont, say we’re not responsible for anything and just rely on the two parties to exercise a veto against each other so that Arlene Foster, the DUP, don’t have to make moves and they can say: It’s not us – it’s just the DUP. Isn’t that sort of what we have instead of direct rule, instead of the British being responsible for injustices or what goes in in The North of Ireland?
Ed: Well it’s not just that, they’re also in charge of the economy, really. I mean the Assembly and the Executive is allowed to spend money as it wishes within certain limits but it’s given a budget not by…
Martin: …Right. Like a child with an allowance.
Ed: Precisely! They’re given their pocket money every week and away you go and you spend it on what you like and have a good time, guys, and try not to really screw up here. But they’re not allowed to raise taxes and they’re not allowed to raise money in the way that a fully independent government would be able to do. And of course, that means that The North’s economy – and we see this with the decision on Europe as well is, essentially, the powers – the power over the most important things, including those issues you raised there about who killed whom, when and why and how – those issues are all under the control of the British still and one could argue that between that and the economy that’s really what Northern Ireland has been about for the last thirty-forty years.
John: And another topic, I don’t know how much play it had in the elections, is Brexit – with the United Kingdom pulling out of the European Union. A couple months ago I had a conversation with Barbara Jones of the Irish Consulate and she was telling me that the border was in my head – that it didn’t really exist. And I was explaining to her my mother’s from a small town in Donegal called Pettigo – half of it is in Fermanagh – and I remember all the customs checkpoints and everything that’s going on and how this is just not a huge debate in The Six Counties but because of the Green and Orange but with this coming down the pike this is going to be re-setting up the custom posts from Dundalk all the way up to Doire and Letterkenny that the Brexit’s going to have a huge – and it’s having a huge effect there now where people are shopping in Enniskillen or you’re getting your petrol in The South and going back and forth and no one seems to have a plan on what’s going to happen when the borders are a hard border. And there will be a hard border.
Ed: Well we’ll see. We’ll have to wait and see on that. But in relation to things like shopping on different sides of the border – that was going on long before the Brexit vote because currency variations – you know because the British kept the pound and wouldn’t go in with the euro – there was sometimes significant swings, one way or the other, that would encourage people either to shop in Newry or to shop in Dundalk or what have you that was happening Brexit or no Brexit. We have to wait and see what the sort of deal that this woman Theresa May gets out of the European nations for British exit from the EU. I suspect that, from the mood music that’s coming out, that they’re all sort of saying well we’ve got to avoid this hard border because it sort of evokes images of the 1950’s really because you know even when The Troubles were on the border, customs-wise, increasingly became less relevant. You know? And you didn’t have to stop. There were times, long, long ago, when you had to stop at the border and someone would peer into your car and then let you go if you were judged to be ‘okay’. That was gone long before, and during the Troubles that went and really stopping at the border only became necessary for hauliers and trucks and people who were shipping stuff across over to Europe or up to Britain or whatever and they would have to get their customs papers signed and so on and so forth and they would stop voluntarily and the customs posts went from the middle of the road to the side of the road and became increasingly less intrusive in peoples’ lives. Now whether it reverts back to the 1950’s or something like the 1980’s remains to be seen but I suspect they all want to get something that’s equivalent to the 1980’s. The British, of course, are all exercised about the idea of tens of thousands of people from Syria (just like Donald Trump) slipping over to Britain via the Irish the back door – but that’s not going to happen either, I don’t think – realistically it’s just not on. So I just find it hard to take this whole Brexit thing terribly seriously. A) because not everyone in Northern Ireland or indeed round the border areas is that much affected, even by a hard border. And what was – it depends on how you determine or judge or decide what The Troubles were really all about – I’ve increasingly come to the viewpoint that this was not a national liberation struggle really in its essence – that the Provos were never real Republicans in the sense that you know people like the IRA of 1916 or the IRA of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh etc. The Provos were defenders. They came from that different part of the Republican Movement which was really about defending Catholic interests. And because they come from that origin I think it’s so much easier for them to do a deal, like the Good Friday Agreement, which like an old-fashioned Republican could not have done because it accepted partition, accepted the Principle of Consent and so on and so forth. And if it was really about civil rights – and if it was a civil rights campaign or struggle that got out of control – then issues like the border really come secondary to issues like that we have seen being fought over in the recent election in The North which was about relationships between Catholics and Protestants within the Northern Ireland state and that’s not going to be affected that much by Brexit. But I may be wrong – we’ll see.
Martin: Alright, Ed, well if we had time I’d go into all of those things – which I have a very different viewpoint but how and ever – and Brexit, of course, is going to be negotiated by all of the European Community with Theresa May and I don’t know who much of the interest of those who want a soft border in Ireland are going to have but the important question now is: What do you expect to happen? We have three weeks altogether between the time that the Assembly ended and there’s supposed to be nominations and accepted nominations of a First and Deputy First Minister. There are talks going on now. Arlene Foster had campaigned on the basis of stopping Gerry Adams and that Michelle O’Neill was just somebody that he had instructed and put up as a puppet or as a functionary. Arlene Foster’s leading negotiations. Gerry Adams is involved with negotiations. You have Fr. Gary Donegan, some of the people who brought the parade back to Ardoyne and resolved that issue, are getting involved. James Brokenshire’s getting involved. What do you expect to happen over the next few weeks? Are we going to have a Stormont government reconvened within the three weeks or slightly longer period? What do you expect to see?
Ed: I actually think that really events south of the border are going to play a bigger role in this than maybe anything else. And there is a distinct possibility that this government in Dublin, which is a strange government – it’s a coalition government in everything but name – it’s sort of being propped up by Fianna Fáil but they’re not taking ministerial seats etc. But that’s a very shaky arrangement and it could collapse at any moment. And there are stresses and strains on it. Enda Kenny is due to retire or resign as Taoiseach quite soon. He’s more or less made that promise public and you could see an election happening in The South. Now, in the midst of all this business about the ‘cash for ash’ scandal Sinn Féin let it be known that they were going to drop their insistence that the only way in which they would become a member of a government in The South in Dublin would be as a majority party that they were now prepared to take seats on a minority basis – in other words as a minority partner in a coalition government – which opens up the possibility of a Fine Gael-Sinn Féin government, with Fine Gael in the majority or a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin government with Fianna Fáil in majority. Both things Sinn Féin had always said they would never accept. Now they’re prepared to accept that. And I suspect that what is happening here is that – being as you know, Martin, it has been my belief for a very long time that the real goal in all of this peace process has been to get to a situation where Sinn Féin is involved in the government on both sides of the border at the same time. In other words there are Sinn Féin bums on seats around cabinet tables in Dublin and Belfast and that will be Gerry Adams’ mark on Irish history – that is what he will be remembered for – for pulling off that particular trick. And he’s not getting any younger. I mean we’ve seen the condition that his former partner, Martin McGuinness, is in – he may not have much longer on this planet – and Gerry himself must be fully aware that you know his time is finite as well and that if it’s ever going to happen it has to happen fairly soon. And if there is an election and if there is a possibility of Sinn Féin going in as a minority partner in a coalition government – and there will always be coalition governments in The South – no one party has sufficient strength to have the majority by themselves – then what happens in The North then becomes quite important because it’s then in Gerry Adams’ interest to get stability back in The North and also to be seen as someone who is responsible and has negotiated a good arrangement for his people in The North and, therefore, is a fitting partner for one of the parties in The South to go into government with. But we shall see whether that happens or not but I suspect that may play a role in all of this.
Martin: Alright, Ed, we want to thank you for that. We’re going to have to leave it here. We could go on for a lot longer if we had a lot longer to go on but we’re almost out of time…
Martin: …so I want to thank you for that analysis.
Ed: Okay. Bye-bye. (ends time stamp ~ 53:12)