A coalition of nightmares

By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 12/03/07):

It's a romcom ending tacked on to a Strindbergian tragedy you stopped reading years ago. Yes, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, big winners both, can finally plight their political troth. Yes, this is devolution at last. Yes, Northern Ireland has voted for low water rates, mobile phones that work both sides of the border - and a warm bath of southern comfort. Yes, this is Tony Blair's legacy (with a nod to John Major). Yes, we mainlanders can relax, switch off and concentrate on global warming, not Belfast hot air. And no, Nuala O'Loan isn't welcome at the wedding breakfast.

But let her in for a moment, because she matters. O'Loan, you may recall from two months' back, is the Northern Ireland police ombudsman who produced the devastatingly detailed report that made headlines around Britain (for at least 15 minutes). She and her team revealed how police informers in one Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) gang had been shielded by RUC officers as they murdered 10 or more Catholics - some of them total innocents. These loyalists were, in effect, sanctioned killers who the forces of supposed law and order left to get on with their grisly business.

You couldn't find a more damnable indictment: in Spain, in similar (Eta) circumstances, they locked up the interior minister for letting such things happen. But in Northern Ireland? These killings took place. Because only one UVF mob was targeted, there may well have been more the ombudsman never got round to. And, as she investigated, she got shamefully scant police cooperation.

Serving officers said nothing. Retired officers said nothing. Even the chief constable of the time - now Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, if you please - found nothing to say. But, jobs unaffected, pensions intact, they've just been allowed to carry on as though nothing untoward had occurred. That - the time of police-approved murder - was then; this is now. And never the twain shall come within touching distance, apparently, while the policing board chews six months of cud.

Peter Hain makes one of his "totally unacceptable" speeches, but then shrugs in silent, tacit acceptance. O'Loan begins an inquiry into Special Branch tolerance of IRA killer-informers who enjoyed similar immunity, as though two wrongs could equal a right. Nobody wonders why MI5, so deeply ingrained in this woodwork, allowed such slaughter. (Indeed, one of the top spooks of the time has just been promoted to rule Thames House.) Ian and Gerry head the polls. Assorted expressions of hope become standard issue.

So why not be sunnily cheerful? Why be glum? Because nothing good can be built on such poisonous foundations. Ask seasoned, decent, humane loyalists what they think and their voices drop. "It's Nuala," they say: meaning she's one of them, not one of us. The war of survival and truth, in their minds, is still to be waged across a canyon of distrust. Northern Ireland can't play the justice game yet. Justice follows later, if at all.

So order a few pints of bleak and bitter in this last-chance Stormont saloon. The moderates of history, the ones who stood against violence and won Nobel prizes, didn't win. Their moderation is history now. Of course Paisley and McGuinness can hobble along together for a while in a nightmare coalition of twisted motives, but don't for a moment believe that four-party rule is anything but an illusion. Where else in the world would such a construction work?

In reality, it's a no-party system, designed to operate in the sectarian bunkers, giving voters no great alternative (just a little Alliance somewhere in the middle). If the flaw that's blighting devolution in Scotland is that things were subtly rigged to keep the Nats out of the action, so the flaw here is that Stormont is rigged for "normal" stagnation, disillusion and recurrent crisis at the whim of any supposed partner. The centre cannot hold because there isn't a proper centre to begin with. What of the next election and the one after that? Chant "more of the same" until supplies of sameness run out? What if Ulster's general election vote holds the British balance? Chant "chaos is come again".

The awkward truth, demonstrated yet again as the legacy-makers depart, is that mainland UK wants shot of this problem. Hold on to Scotland at all costs, but let Northern Ireland go its own sweet way as the troops head home. Been there, done that, had enough. But the coalition we leave behind isn't a way forward, more a full stop: an agreement to play politics for a while rather than play demagogues or gunmen. And the underlying craving for justice in a fresh, non-sectarian land? Ah! It's party-party time. Pour one for Nuala.