Robert Fisk: Where else but Northern Ireland would a killer on a school board even be mooted as a possibility?

The day-to-day reality of post-conflict Northern Ireland as detailed in Fionola Meredith's Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined  is more X-Files than The Fall


The Brits have always been sending their experts to Northern Ireland to show the locals how to do their job. The G8 summit is going to have 3,600 of the boys and girls in blue arriving from the mainland in a month’s time to teach the Police Service of Northern Ireland – or the poor old “PSNI” as we are now enjoined to call it – how to do their job.

Back in the early days of the “Troubles”, the Special Branch lads used to arrive in Belfast to catch the Provisional IRA rogues whom the RUC dimwits were too slothful to spot. Or so the story went. The Brits eventually retreated to the safety of London. At least one of them came a cropper when he went home (but that is another story).

Now fiction follows reality, and we have Det Supt Stella Gibson of Scotland Yard with her scruffy London accent, in the latest TV series The Fall, arriving in Belfast to teach the PSNI dumbos how to hunt down a blindingly obvious serial sex-killer. So far there’s not much sectarianism – not yet – but the genre is set by the blurb for the series. Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson, pictured, has arrived to “help” the PSNI with unsolved murders. Personally, I’d rather see a series in which a Belfast cop turns up at Scotland Yard to clean up the Met’s corruption and unearth a killer or two on the Mile End Road. Well, dream on.

But does it matter in the end? I was struck by this thought not long ago when I was talking about the Middle East in, of all places, the offices of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. This imperial building boasts stained glass windows bearing the coat of arms of imperial Russia and the Kaiser’s Germany – and a table made for the Titanic’s first-class lounge. Still unfinished when the vessel set sail, it remains the only piece of unsunk furnishings from the great liner. Did I touch the table? Of course I did! But I was slightly more impressed by the genial grey-haired chap who asked a very relevant question about the Syrian civil war – and who turned out to have been involved in a very diabolical IRA murder.

So history floats past us. Killers become gentle old men and we must look back nostalgically to that perspicacious fellow – soon to be war criminal – Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara, who actually did help to create the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and a sort of “peace” in Northern Ireland. Would that he had settled for “Lord Blair of Belfast”. But 15 years after this mini-Versailles, there’s a new reality in Northern Ireland: that the two major parties in power – Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists – are the most extreme parties in the province. And that the Brits, who cared so much about the agreement, are now far more interested in surviving their own economic crisis than throwing even more cash at the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone. Rarely have the political ironies been better expressed than by the writer Fionola Meredith. In the fourth issue of the British Council’s Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined, she condemns the growing secrecy of government in Northern Ireland. How come Stormont now has 161 press officers to smother freedom of information requests? And how come the old Paisleyite creationist nonsense is now being peddled by DUP ministers? The former “culture” minister, who believes Northern Ireland’s Protestants are descended from the lost tribes of Israel, demanded that the Ulster Museum include Young Earth creationist accounts of the World’s origins in its evolution displays.

The great DUP hero Bishop James Ussher calculated in ages past that the date of the creation was “at the beginning of the night which preceded 23 of October in the year 710 of the Julian period”. To you and me, that’s 4004 BC. When the National Trust opened its visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim, it included a reference to young earth creationism. Richard Dawkins understandably accused the Trust of surrendering to “intellectual baboons”.

Then we have Sinn Fein – or “Ourselves” if we haven’t yet forgotten the English translation of the party’s Irish name. Its Education Minister appointed IRA bomber Paul Kavanagh to the board of governors of one of Northern Ireland’s highest performing grammar schools. Kavanagh had been convicted of killing three people, one an 18-year-old. While not denying the right of Sinn Fein leaders to exercise their democratic mandate, Fionola Meredith writes: “Where else but Northern Ireland would a killer on a school board even be mooted as a possibility? If convicted murderers can pass the test, what kind of criminal record would result in debarment from a school board?”

Yes, says Meredith, people are grateful that the shootings and bombings have come to an end, that the dark, dirty, ignoble war is finished, the threat long since “dissipated”. But, she says, the “springtime honeymoon period is over, the cherry blossom blown away, and we are now living in the day-to-day reality of post-conflict Northern Ireland”. That’s what I thought when I realised the grey-haired fellah with his question on Syria was a killer. I guess the truth is that the people of Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, must realise that they are “ourselves” alone. Send Det Supt Gibson home.

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