YOU KNOW how you put things off. Throughout all the years that I worked in
Ireland, I had the intention of travelling to Armagh to see if I could find any
other Vallelys. For years, I could never find the time.
But one day I got there, to the area along the south Armagh border where
British troops are today dismantling watchtowers and other security
installations. My great-grandfather, like so much of the Irish diaspora, had
left this part of the world in the 1870s to find a job in the steelworks of
What I discovered was that the Vallelys were from such a small area of
Armagh, and of such small number, that, even in other parts of Ireland, many
did not know that it was an Irish name. The Vallelys, I found, included a
distinguished painter, traditional musicians, a US politician, and (the
solitary non-Catholic), a Presbyterian minister. There were also several “bad
boys”, as Irish euphemism put it: IRA Vallelys, then inside the Maze Prison.
Being a Roman Catholic covering Northern Ireland was a ticklish business.
The reporting was straightforward enough; I tried to be fair, and to scrutinise
unexamined assumptions. But comment was more tricky. I was sensitised to the
discrimination against Catholics prevalent in the early years. But I also felt
that, embarrassing though my family’s “bad boys” might be, they added to the
purchase I had to be critical of the IRA, which was responsible for taking 1700
of the 3700 lives lost in “The Troubles”. It was my place, I felt, to formulate
a critique of the Nationalist side, and leave it to Protestants to censure the
Now the IRA has declared that its war is over. Though it regards itself as
undefeated in the field — having survived all that the army, police, and
intelligence service could throw at it for 30 years — the truth is that its
cruel and misguided war retarded its aim of a united Ireland rather than
advancing it. Its declaration is an implicit recognition of that. The British
Government is committed to allowing Irish unity, if majorities both North and
South ever wish for it. Now that the proportion of Roman Catholics in the North
is approaching 50 per cent, that could come this century.
It is this — rather than the IRA’s being on the defensive after the murder
of Robert McCartney, or reaction to Ireland’s biggest-ever bank robbery — that
is behind the decision to disarm. This is what convinced Tony Blair that
Republicans were serious about abandoning violence. It is why, in the face of
criticism that he was appeasing terrorists, he has given them time, and the
repeated benefit of the doubt, in their progress towards embracing pure
Unionists, of course, fear the long march of demography. That is why they
have responded so negatively to what is, in most people’s eyes, a historic
declaration by the IRA.
Of course, we now need to see action, not words, and an end to IRA
recruitment, training, surveillance of targets, robberies, extortion, and
intimidation. But the police and the army feel confident that enough has
changed already for them to dismantle some of the old security apparatus.
So let me break the habit I developed in Ireland, and be critical of the
Unionists. The political reality of the coming decades will require a lengthy
and delicate accommodation between the province’s two biggest and most
hard-line parties, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party. Some form of
power-sharing between these two long-time enemies is inevitable in the long
run. The time has come for the Revd Ian Paisley to stop his huffing and
puffing, and offer a constructive start to this process.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.