Protestants need to change, too

02 November 2006


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 Middlesbrough.

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 Loyalists.

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 politics.

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.

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