Don’t swap your guns for begging bowls

By Tim Hames (THE TIMES, 29/01/07):

When I was a child Irish jokes were the absolute staple of humour. That was as true for television comedians as it was in everyday banter. Looking back, it must have been an irritation for those who paid their licence fee in Northern Ireland (and viewers who did not do so in the Republic but could receive a BBC signal anyway) to have to put up with the likes of Ken Dodd implying that they were collective idiots.

You rarely hear an Irish joke these days and for my son’s generation (aged ten) they are a meaningless notion. When I tested one on him yesterday — “heard about the Irish woodworm, found dead in a brick” — he not only failed to laugh but looked at me as if I were slightly deranged (rather disturbingly, he tends to do this more and more often).

Yet, as far as I can recall, Irish jokes were never outlawed by legislation. Nor was there a rash of Irish Nobel Prize winners that forced a reassessment of the Emerald Isle’s IQ. The economic transformation of the Irish Republic might have had a subliminal impact, but there is no innate incompatibility between wealth and stupidity (as Celebrity Big Brother has spectacularly demonstrated). Irish jokes just faded away without attracting comment.

In a strange way the same is true of the Northern Ireland peace process. It has dragged on for so long — it will be a decade this summer since the IRA ceasefire began — and been through so many political twists and turns that eyes in mainland Britain (and possibly many in the Province itself) have long glazed over. It has appeared like an endless circuit of crises and conferences. That, allowing for past form, hundreds of people have been saved from violent death and Belfast, especially, has been totally reborn as a city scarcely appears to merit a mention. The restoration of devolution in Ulster when it comes at the end of March will probably be greeted with a weary “yeah, whatever”. It really shouldn’t be.

For the better part of 30 years a corner of the United Kingdom was riven by the most brutal civil unrest experienced by any part of western Europe in the 20th century. That violence periodically manifested itself in England. It claimed far more lives in our nation than Islamist fundamentalism has done.

In 2005 the IRA decommissioned a vast arms stockpile. Yesterday, by accepting the authority and legitimacy of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the judicial system more broadly, Irish republicanism as it has been known for more than a hundred years essentially decommissioned its own ideology. In 1998 Tony Blair spoke of a “hand of history” and a little later of a “seismic shift” in Sinn Fein/IRA thinking. It was premature hyperbole then. It is a matter of solid fact now.

At a time when it is fashionable (if not entirely accurate) to lament an absence of bold political leadership, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the distance that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have moved and managed to take their supporters with them. Irish republicanism today is unrecognisable from that of a relatively short time ago.

If it had been suggested in 1981 that Bobby Sands was starving himself to death so that Mr McGuinness could eventually serve as the Rev Ian Paisley’s deputy in an executive drawn from a Northern Ireland Assembly, the idea would have been deemed ridiculous. But unless the Democratic Unionist Party insanely draws back at the last minute that is what will happen. It is change of a scale to rival the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In a sense it could and should have occurred much sooner. The IRA had, to be frank, won the intellectual argument by about 1972, in that London had conceded that the political arrangements in Ulster that had been there since partition were unsustainable. But the IRA carried on with its bloody armed struggle for an utterly senseless 25 years. Most of the institutional arrangements of the present peace process were foreshadowed by the Sunningdale accord brokered in 1973 but which imploded 12 months afterwards. It could not survive because both the Paisleyites and the republican high command stayed out of it. A DUP-Sinn Fein Executive and Assembly, by contrast, once it is created can run the course.

The curse of sectarianism will not disappear from Ulster instantly. Yet a DUP-Sinn Fein alliance is not quite as bizarre as one might imagine. Both are populist parties that traditionally appeal to voters on low incomes, in contrast with the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, which are middle-class enclaves (and destined to be marginalised).

The Rev Paisley and Mr McGuinness will find little difficulty making common cause in asking for ever larger public spending to be showered, equitably, on their constituencies. This despite the reality that state expenditure as a proportion of national income in Ulster is almost 60 per cent, which must be the largest such percentage in modern Europe.

The danger for Ulster, therefore, is that it will shortly trade sectarianism for socialism. This is despite the evidence that the astonishing emergence of the Republic of Ireland as an economic force to be reckoned with has been on the basis of rampant Thatcherism. Low tax rates and a benign entrepreneurial climate explain why prominent companies have, or are considering, relocating their head offices from London to Dublin. The last thing that Northern Ireland needs is the peace dividend it is about to receive to be squandered in a shared orgy of spending by DUP and Sinn Fein ministers out of Stormont.

The core question facing Northern Ireland’s politicians of all stripes once devolution returns is whether the model for the Province should be Eire or Scotland. For permanent peace might prove surprisingly easy to achieve, while permanent prosperity may be elusive. Exchanging sectarianism for socialism would be the ultimate, deeply unfunny, Irish joke.