The arrest of the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, in connection with a 40-year-old murder was unsettling enough. You did not need to be an arch-conspiracist to question the timing, in the run-up to European and local elections, with a large constituency of loyalists exercised about flags and non-prosecutions for old crimes. Nor did you have to be an incorrigible alarmist to fear that this one arrest, of an individual now regarded as a relative “goodie”, could risk the whole, still fragile, order in Northern Ireland.
Yet even this disturbing turn of events had nothing on the interview given by Michael McConville, a son of the murdered woman, which was broadcast yesterday on the BBC Today programme.
It was unsettling not so much for what McConville said about how he witnessed his mother Jean’s abduction when he was just 11 years old or how he was then forcibly warned by the IRA not to divulge the identities of the culprits – though both were harrowing enough – but for what he said, quite consciously and eloquently, about Northern Ireland today.
“Everyone thinks,” he said, “it’s over. It’s not over.” Pressed by the interviewer, Sarah Montague – and hats off to her for her exemplary questioning and unerring tone – he went on to say that, although he knew some of those responsible for abducting his mother and still saw them around, he would never name them to the police for fear of the recriminations that might follow.
So, while he broadly welcomed the arrest of Gerry Adams and the prospect that the abductors and killers might belatedly be brought to book, he was not about to help the judicial process along.
It is perhaps worth spelling this out. Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, a country that we like to consider the model of a law-governed state and invite others to follow. Yet in this part of the kingdom there is at least one witness to a heinous crime – Jean McConville was a widow with 10 children, suspected, wrongly as it emerged, of being an informer – who still fears the consequences for himself and the next generation of his family if he turns the culprits in.
What happened to Jean McConville is little different from what we call “disappearances” when they happen under military regimes in Latin America or in and around Chechnya. She was simply taken away, never to be seen again.
As her son told it, the family knew she was dead because her rings and her purse were returned to them, but they did not know until years later where she was buried. Michael McConville kept his secret for all that time and intends, it would appear, to take it with him to the grave. What does this say about the quality of justice in a part of our country? Popular confidence in the police and the civil authorities to keep order?
But the McConville murder and its enduring aftermath says something else as well. Most of the UK has been very settled for a very long time. With the exception of Ireland, there have been no disputed borders. As a result, we tend to be dismissive of other people’s civil conflicts.
Very many countries or regions of countries, though, are not so fortunate. The sort of choices and compromises that the McConvilles and so many others were required to make, the state of polarised loyalties in which they lived their lives, will be far more comprehensible to those who live in countries with more chequered pasts (or presents) than they are to us.
People have ways of dealing with this. Some are genuinely able to consign past hostilities to the past. Probably more dissemble, ducking and weaving in an attempt to navigate their way through complexity. Even more, I would suggest, keep silent. But old suspicions and allegiances lie very close to the surface for far longer than most individuals and nations would care to admit.
The speed with which the conflict in Ukraine sprang up has been compared by some to the way in which much of Yugoslavia descended piece by piece into civil war. Successive generations of Russians have existed in a world of secrets and lies: about the revolution; about Stalin; about the Soviet collapse. It is not impossible to envisage a time, perhaps quite soon, when a Russian’s attitude to Ukraine will be a touchstone of his or her patriotism.
But such awkward compromises are not unique to the communist and post-communist world. There remains a reticence in France to talk about Vichy, or the deportations. “What did you do in the war” is not a question previous generations of children were encouraged to ask in either part of divided Germany. There are many ghosts in Argentina and Chile that have yet to be laid. And these are only the most obvious examples.
As an “island nation”, the UK has mostly been spared the misery that can come from contested borders and competing identities. It is regrettable – no, tragic – that Michael McConville feels he cannot contribute to the justice he would undoubtedly like to see. But it is a predicament that is part of daily life, even now, for many more people than we British appreciate. And in all sorts of ways it takes a toll.
Farage isn’t frit, he’s a politician with nous
For months, so it seems, our political congnoscenti have been inflating the political significance of the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage – whether malevolently, in the hope his balloon will burst before this month’s European parliamentary elections, or just because he is one of the few politicians of genuine character around. When it really mattered, however, those aficionados gravely underestimated his genuine political nous.
No sooner had Patrick Mercer MP announced he was resigning his seat after falling for a lobbying set-up than Westminster was all a-flutter with the prospect of Farage contesting the seat – and winning. Where would we all be then? Crisis in the Conservative Party; David Cameron’s leadership in jeopardy; the Europe question posed with more urgency at the highest level...
The venerable Ken Clarke, no less, was called on to supply the Tory’s too-early-to-panic response to the anticipated crisis. Then Nigel flummoxed them all, saying straight out that, after a night of reflection, he would not stand, and offering a clutch of eminently sensible reasons why not. First, he had no links with the constituency, Newark. Second, his candidacy would be a distraction from his party’s European election campaign. Third, win or lose, it would only reinforce the view of Ukip as a one-man band.
Fourth, I will be so bold as to add, a victory was by no means a foregone conclusion and defeat could have pricked his largely media-inflated balloon; fifth, over-reaching is often a politician’s downfall, and sixth, why get blamed for precipitating a crisis in the Tory Party, when it is tearing itself apart quite well on its own?
In ruling himself out of the contest, Farage has shown not that he is “frit”, but that he is a practical politician to be reckoned with. Like the egg yesterday broken over his head, Mr Farage will brush off the furore and keep moving.