Normally I would have expected to be looking back at the 20th anniversary of the IRA ceasefire in a mood of affectionate nostalgia towards the events and the people I engaged with both in the run up to, and after, that historic occurrence.
But, while some of that feeling does still exist, as I indicate below, honesty compels me to admit that nostalgia is increasingly having to contend with a growing sense of irritable exasperation at the scale of the frittering away of the golden opportunities which the ceasefire offered north and south of the border.
The great boon of the ceasefire was twofold. It stopped the killings, some 3,000, to the time of the ceasefire. And it paved the way for a new co-operative era in Anglo-Irish dealings, north-south relationships and in economic development on both sides of the border.
But that era never dawned.
While, ironically, Anglo-Irish relationships did improve, in the south corrupt, greedy politicians, bankers, developers, lawyers, accountants and stockbrokers, and civil servants combined in a general traison des clercs to create elevated levels of suicide which over the past seven or eight years have exceeded the North’s war time death toll.
And the suicide rate still grows, as this is written volunteers patrol the banks of the Shannon, and other places, in an attempt to dissuade people from taking their own lives.
In addition, it is too depressing to attempt to discuss the appallingly elevated levels of emigration and unemployment which the unregulated property boom has visited upon the Republic. Suffice it to say that they daily remind us of the waste and suffering which have so diluted the peace process dividend for a generation.
In the North tourism has boomed. The most noticeable, and appropriately symbolic development, since the shooting stopped has been the parleying of a major disaster into an equally major tourist attraction—the Titanic experience.
But what about progress on cross-border bodies, parades, flags, the past? To say nothing of that other inconvenient reality—the present, and its ominous offspring, the future?
I’m sorry to have to record that where the foregoing are concerned I find that Unionism is as mean spirited and un-generous as ever.
The DUP would re-institute gerrymandering and discrimination in the morning if its leadership thought it could get away with it.
Even David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has so clearly lost patience with the DUP over the parades issue that he rounded on a DUP spokesman who tried to make capital out of the issue in the House of Commons recently by telling him bluntly that the only way to resolve such issues was on the basis of the Haas proposals. Cameron said this in the full knowledge of the fact that the DUP has rejected the proposals by the American peace negotiator Richard Haas, which Sinn Fein are prepared to accept. Cameron’s statement was significant because the Conservatives have recently been wooing the DUP because their support could be vital in forthcoming tight votes over Europe and other contentious issues. Giving vent to his exasperation so publicly is a measure of the seriousness of the North of Ireland situation.
But even more serious is the public call by Martin McGuinness recently for the Americans to re-engage with the situation. No one knows better than he what the present dangers to the peace process are.
But why is he appealing to Washington and not Dublin? The answer is that part of the collateral damage caused by the Republic’s financial excesses was that Dublin took its eye off the Northern ball, thus compounding the foot-dragging effect that always affects Dublin’s policy on the North when there is a Fine Gael administration in power.
Memories of the Civil War and the influence of right wing figures like the former Taoiseach John Bruton make the party, at best, uncomfortable and, at worst, hostile to engaging with the republicans.
Albert Reynolds, who died recently had no such inhibitions. He understood the central truth about the North of Ireland situation:
If the Irish prime minister does not engage actively and constructively with the issue, then no amount of goodwill in Washington or London can resolve the issue and he acted accordingly, making the ceasefire possible. I will always remember him from an afternoon not long before August 31, 1994 while peace still hung in the balance. A secret IRA meeting was being held in Letterkenny. A ceasefire depended on its outcome.
Albert had sent for me to help him try to work out the result and to while away the tense hours as the debate raged. We sat alone, drinking tea, trying to work out who would vote how. All other Government business stopped outside his door.
We could have been mortal enemies had Albert held grudges, because I, unwittingly, had once embarrassed him publicly.
He had given me the use of Dublin Castle to launch my de Valera book and had agreed to do the honors himself. The invitations had been sent out when the Irish Times started to serialise extracts from the book. Martin Mansergh, Reynolds’s Northern advisor, drew the Taoiseach’s attention to the fact that the extracts indicated a less than favourable assessment of his party’s founder and icon.
Crisis ensued, Albert’s name was on the invitations. Eventually, an obscure European bun fight in Vienna was found to be taking place in Vienna on the same day and the government jet whisked Albert safely out of the firing line. The historian, Professor Tom Garvin, of UCD stood in for Albert and the launch was a huge success—too huge.
I was kept busy signing books as the wine flowed, but both Tom and I imbibed copiously all the while. Then Tom showed up unexpectedly at my elbow seeking my autograph.
I incautiously inscribed it:
“To Tom Garvin for courage in the face of a retreating dog food manufacturer.”
Tom then proceeded to preface his otherwise felicitous speech by reading out this inscription which made the papers.
However, Albert bore me no ill will. I subsequently presented him with a leather bound edition of the book (inscribed somewhat more gracefully) and we remained friends.
I will always feel privileged that he chose me to spend that vital moment in Irish history with him. Albert Reynolds’s work for Ireland should have been put to better use.
* Tim Pat Coogan is Ireland’s best- known historian who has written many best sellers including definitive biographies on Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera and on the IRA.