Alan Watkins: They must say one thing and do something else

The Long View
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One of the little-regarded achievements of South Wales in its imperial age was the happy way in which it absorbed the immigrants from Ireland. True, there were anti-Irish riots in Monmouthshire in the 1880s. But in Cardiff and Swansea there was nothing like the hatred and bitterness, Irishness being mixed up with Roman Catholicism, which afflicted Liverpool, Glasgow and, to a certain extent, Manchester. These emotions persist to this day, even if in a much less extreme form, with the different "traditions" - to use the modern, emollient word - represented by football teams.

Quite why Wales remained relatively free of the tensions which manifested themselves in various parts of Scotland and England is a question largely ignored by historians, as far as I know. Perhaps the Welsh regarded the newcomers as fellow-Celts or (a slightly different notion) as people who were likewise being oppressed by the English. Perhaps the Roman Catholic Church was no match for the might of Nonconformity, then available in a variety of different though equally forbidding forms. Or perhaps, as Enoch Powell used to say, it was a question of numbers, and those coming to the industrial coastal strip could be absorbed more easily than the immigrants to the north-west of England and the lowlands of Scotland.

And yet, by the middle of the last century, anti-Irish feeling had largely disappeared in England and Scotland, except for the football tribalism in a few towns. The IRA bombings in the 1970s and 1980s did not lead to any attacks on the Irish pubs of North London. The Irish continued to be regarded as the most amusing and charming people in these islands. The inhabitants of Northern Ireland, certainly the Protestants, were not viewed in quite the same way. They were looked on more as dour and humourless, with funny glasses and all three buttons of their coats tightly done up.

Nor did the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church suffer in any way, even if the utterances of some of its bishops in the Republic had, to begin with at any rate, been distinctly on the equivocal side. Cardinal Basil Hume led the campaign against the false conviction and imprisonment of the Maguires and the Guildford Four. His church and the position he held in it were no impediment to the campaign's success: far from it. As Mr Anthony Howard points out in his excellent recent biography of Hume, the public concluded that if someone so obviously sensible and intelligent as the Cardinal thought these people were innocent, there must be something in it. It is fair to say that the principal, perhaps the only, element of anti-Irishness was supplied by the police. It may be that this was inevitable, given the political requirement to find some obvious suspects and to make some quick arrests.

Various governments successively talked tough but behaved in a more accommodating fashion as far as the IRA was concerned. There was once an intelligence man called Frank Steele, now gone to a better place. He was a popular figure in clubland, where he would regale the assembled company with tales of his doings as a spy. One of his favourite turns concerned his effort, comic but ultimately successful, to bring the IRA's higher command secretly to England to confer with William Whitelaw. How we all laughed!

It always seemed to me that a small concession would tend to follow any outrage on the mainland; the more so if the City of London had been involved in some way. The Anglo-Irish Agreement (which, among other things, removed the possibility of integration between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK) was signed by Margaret Thatcher in 1985, the year after the IRA had tried to blow up her and the rest of her Cabinet, and very nearly succeeded. The terrorist who had planted the bomb was released as the result of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the achievement, if such it is, of which Mr Tony Blair is said to be proudest. Indeed, there had not been such a prodigal release of prisoners since the opening night of Fidelio.

At around this time a noted journalist agreed to write an article for the Daily Mail after some outrage or other. Having worked himself up into that state of high moral indignation which the Mail requires of its contributors - and which, alas, or maybe happily, I have never been able to attain - he was told sternly by Ms Veronica Wadley, then a functionary on the paper: "Please remember we on the Mail are in favour of the Peace Process."

Admittedly there was an apparent setback in 1988 when a bus full of troops was blown up. The result was that, acting under Mrs Thatcher's instructions, a somewhat shamefaced Douglas Hurd tried to prevent the terrorists from inhaling "the oxygen of publicity" (one of her few memorable phrases). The then Home Secretary imposed a petulant ban under the Broadcasting Act on the direct transmission of the words of terrorists. The broadcasting authorities timidly accepted the order and the only protests were left unavailingly to the National Union of Journalists.

But the prohibition was ineffective as well as childish, because it allowed the quoting of direct speech by someone other than the original speaker. The result was that various actors turned an honest penny pretending to be Mr Gerry Adams, Mr Martin McGuinness or whoever it might be. Today Mr Adams sits for Belfast West and Mr McGuinness for Mid-Ulster but play no part in the proceedings of the House; while both of them are persons of pomp and power in their native land and, indeed, outside it. The actors who attempted their voices until 1994 are now back with EastEnders, Coronation Street or The Bill.

The object of the foregoing is not to demonstrate that history will repeat itself with Muslim terrorism. For one thing, its demands are more diffuse and accordingly more difficult to meet, halfway or even a quarter of the way. For another thing, its leaders are harder to locate and to deal with because they are not part of a structure as we would understand the word (the IRA was modelled on the British Army). They cannot be transported secretly to this country for discussions with the present- day equivalent of Whitelaw, who would not be the Northern Ireland Secretary but, presumably, Mr Charles Clarke.

Mr Clarke has had a good crisis because he exudes an air of gravitas. What, I should like to know, is the point of being Mr Clarke's size if you do not possess gravitas? Mr Blair has been in his element. Mr Charles Kennedy has repeated the tendency he showed in the Iraq war: he is disinclined to use his punch, if he has one. But in all these situations, the tendency of all democratic politicians is to say one thing and then to do something else, as the history of Northern Ireland from 1969 to the present day has demonstrated convincingly.