Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Northern Ireland

A Tale of Two Armies Part Three

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 30, 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/part-three-a-tale-of-two-armies

The main purpose and outcome of war is injuring. Elaine Scarry

 

A man called Johnny Mercer was the subject of many headlines in the UK press recently. This is not the Johnny Mercer who brought us such wonderful songs as Moon River, Autumn Leaves and Come Rain or Come Shine. This Johnny Mercer is a Conservative MP and was a government minister. He made a bit of a splash and some might have seen him as a hero for saying that Boris Johnson’s government was a “cesspit”, adding it was the “most distrustful, awful environment I’ve ever worked in”. He was going to resign from his ministerial post on a point of principle but the man with no principles got his retaliation in first and sacked him. Man with no principles versus a man with principles. One might think that Mercer was the good guy but, hold on. Let us look at what Mercer’s point of principle was.

The Quality of Mercer

Mercer was keen to prevent British soldiers being prosecuted for war crimes. In previous articles, I have discussed a book which is extremely critical of the British army and its operations in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq. Johnny Mercer gets a lot of attention in The Changing of the Guard by Simon Akam.

Mercer was an army man who completed three tours of Afghanistan and retired from service in December 2013 with the rank of captain. He was born in Dartford on 17 August 1981 and is the son of a banker and a nurse. Mercer worked briefly in the City of London before joining the Royal Artillery after graduating from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He became a Tory MP for Plymouth Moor View in May 2015. On 28 July 2019, Mercer was appointed as Minister for Defence People and Veterans. His responsibility included armed forces personnel and veterans’ welfare. In June 2017, Mercer published We Were Warriors: One Soldier’s Story of Brutal Combat, a memoir of his service and time in Afghanistan.

In a previous article I wrote about The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) which investigated alleged war crimes committed by British troops during the occupation of Iraq starting in 2003. Simon Akam writes that Johnny Mercer was a key force in getting IHAT closed down. In his maiden speech in the House of Commons, he set his stall out to concentrate on two main areas, mental health and provision for veterans. The speech had an impact and Mercer started receiving letters complaining about IHAT. Mercer got the impression that junior ranks were being targeted as scapegoats while more senior, well-connected former officers were being ignored. As Nick Cohen put it in the London Observer, “In Johnny Mercer, the Conservatives had a political entrepreneur ready to turn legitimate complaint into political capital.” Mercer was among the majority who voted against a motion calling for the extension of free schools meals.

Another person who has been in the news lately is former prime minister David Cameron who has been accused of corruption. According to the London Observer: “The exposure of Cameron’s links to the fallen financier Lex Greensill have dragged a man once regarded as too privileged to think about earning serious money into the cesspit of financial sleaze which he had said he was determined to root out of public life.”

This is the David Cameron who visited Sri Lanka in November 2013 and told the Sri Lankan government he would join calls for an international inquiry into human rights abuses during the nation’s civil war. In January 2016, Cameron asked the National Security Council to produce a plan to stop “spurious claims” against British troops. Mercer was the chair of a select committee investigating solicitors who were pursuing cases against former soldiers. He was leaking material to the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

Vexation

On March 23, 2021, the House of Commons passed the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill by 345 votes to 260. This is designed to prevent soldiers accused of war crimes being brought to justice. In June, an independent British investigator looking into allegations of misconduct by British troops in Iraq said that all but one of thousands of complaints – which ranged from rape and torture to mock executions and other atrocities – had been dropped.

Mercer claimed that his point of principle was about treatment of soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland. Did he not notice the name of the bill referred to “Overseas Operations”? Northern Ireland is a part of the UK.

To be fair, the legislation got stuck in the Lords as every retired general, admiral and military judge you can name warned the Conservatives they risked bringing “the UK armed forces into disrepute”. Former chief of the defence staff, field marshal Lord Guthrie, said the bill “would increase the danger to British soldiers if Britain is perceived as reluctant to act in accordance with long-established international law”.

Different Rules for SLA

Much of the propaganda against the SLA stems from falsehoods propagated by Gordon Weiss. However, in his book The Cage, even Weiss has good things to say about the SLA. “It remains a credit to many of the front-line SLA soldiers that, despite odd cruel exceptions, they so often seem to have made the effort to draw civilians out from the morass of fighting ahead of them in an attempt to save lives. Soldiers yelled out to civilians, left gaps in their lines while they waved white flags to attract people forward and bodily plucked the wounded from foxholes and bunkers. Troops bravely waded into the lagoon under fire to rescue wounded people threading their way out of the battlefield or to help parents with their children and gave their rations to civilians as they lay in fields, exhausted in their first moments of safety after years of living under the roar and threat of gunfire”.

Killing for one’s Country

In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry writes, “the soldier’s primary goal is not, as is so often wrongly implied, the protection or ‘defense’ of his comrades (if it were this, he would have led those comrades to another geography): his primary purpose is the injuring of enemy soldiers; to preserve his own forces has the important but only secondary and ‘negative’ purpose of frustrating and exhausting the opponent’s achievement of his goal”. Bertrand Russell calls attention to the morally problematic statement, “I am going off to die for my country” rather than acknowledging that “I am going off to kill for my country.”

Scarry writes: “war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’”. She continues, “consenting to kill, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation.”

“War kills; that is all it does,” writes Michael Walzer in the midst of a complex analysis of just and unjust wars.  Walzer reveals that Allied planes during World War II were incapable of targeting their bombs with any more precision than a five-mile radius, yet the misleading term “strategic bombing” was habitually used, and the massive, wide-of-the-mark damage was then designated “unintentional,” even though it was in all instances “foreseeable.” “Being shelled is the main work of the infantry soldier,” writes American poet Louis Simpson about his experience in World War II.

Led by Donkeys

A few from the lower ranks had their knuckles rapped for individual acts of brutality but no one who created the mess was punished in any way. Indeed, as Akam notes they were rewarded for their incompetence.  “All those who ran that blighted campaign continue to move up the promotional system unimpeded.” As a result of the Iraq and Afghan Wars, “Britain developed a globally unprecedented web of accountability measures for individual malfeasance on the battlefield. Yet it did so while establishing almost zero accountability for the high-level decision-making that led to the prosecution of two deeply troubled campaigns”.

Akam explains why he wrote his book. “I thought that perhaps this idea that there was glory in the profession of arms was not just an inevitability of adolescence, but a violent trick, the revenge of old men upon the young. There is little redemption through violence to be had in foreign fields, and legs blown off are gone for good. It was then that I knew I needed to write this”.

Omagh Part Two

Colman's Column3This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Monday September 14 2015

Mandy2

The Law’s Delay

 

On 15 August 1998 at 3.04 p.m. a 500lb bomb exploded in the centre of Omagh, County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland, killing 31 people (including unborn twins) and injuring 220. This was done in the pursuit of a united Ireland by dissident republicans who were against the peace process. There had been a warning call to Ulster Television in Belfast at 2.29 p.m. saying there was a bomb timed to go off in 30 minutes outside the Courthouse on Main Street. There was another call at 2.31 to the Samaritans in Coleraine. That caller said the bomb was about 200 yards up from the Courthouse on High Street. There was another call to UTV at 2.31. The callers used a code word associated with the Real IRA.

Warnings and Hoaxes

Perhaps the various brands of IRA terrorists might seem more “civilised” than the Tamil Tigers – they do tend to give warnings before they slaughter civilians. That is of small comfort to the thousands of people affected by their tactics. At Omagh, the first of three confused warning calls came less than half an hour before the car bomb went off. Superintendent William Baxter told the inquest in September 2000 that since August 15 1998 there had been 68 hoax bomb alerts in the town. Although many thought the warnings on August 15 were a hoax, the police took them seriously and immediately went into action with well-established procedures. The duty sergeant, Phil Marshall, was pleased that they managed to clear 200 premises in the short time available. “My initial thought that it was perfect, that we couldn’t have done better. Omagh was like a ghost town, I thought, if anything goes up now, it’s buildings only”.

There is no Main Street in Omagh. The courthouse is roughly 400 metres from the spot where the car bomb was parked in a stolen maroon Vauxhall Cavalier. It seems that the courthouse was the intended target but the bombers could not find a parking space and left the car outside SD Kells’ clothes shop in Lower Market Street, on the southern side near the crossroads with Dublin Road. The police had, in effect, been evacuating people towards the bomb rather than away from it. The bombers claimed it was not their fault and that they had given adequate warnings. If they had been concerned about loss of life they would have triggered the bomb at 3 a.m. not 3 p.m. on a public holiday when the streets were full of people.

Civil Action

On January 20 1999, Mo Mowlem, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, and Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief constable of the Royal Irish Constabulary, pleaded with the MP Andrew Hunter not to use his parliamentary privilege to name six suspects in the Omagh bomb murder inquiry. They told Mr Hunter, chairman of the Conservative backbench committee on Northern Ireland, that such action would prejudice any prosecution.

Frustrated by delays, the families took action. On 28 October 2000, the families of four children killed in the bombing – James Barker, 12, Samantha McFarland, 17, Lorraine Wilson, 15, and 20-month-old Breda Devine – launched a campaign to bring a civil action against the suspects named in a BBC Panorama programme. On 15 March 2001, the families of all twenty-nine people killed in the bombing launched a £2-million civil action against RIRA suspects Seamus McKenna, Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, and Seamus Daly.  The civil action began in Northern Ireland on 7 April 2008.

Jason McCue

Human rights solicitor Jason McCue fought the case for the families over many years. He has been described as a “rock ‘n roll lawyer” – he married TV celebrity and journalist Mariella Frostrup (her father was Norwegian but she was brought up in Ireland) and they hang out with George Clooney. He wrote of the families: “Their achievement is important for Ireland and for the UK. It is a happy irony that their civil action did more to unite Ireland than the murderers that killed their families. But more than that, the Omagh civil action drew support from across the 32 counties and when the verdict came in, households throughout Ireland raised a toast to their achievement.”

Peace, Compromise, Impunity

The case was not concluded until 2009. Why did it take so long to bring the murderers to any kind of justice and why was it left to “ordinary” people to make such an effort? They had, as historian Ruth Dudley Edwards puts it, “to take on not just a terrorist organisation, but most of the Dublin, Belfast and London police, justice and political establishments, who for varied reasons thought their actions misguided, counterproductive or unhelpful to the peace process”. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness expressed their support but refused to give any information that would help bring the bombers to justice.

Peter Mandelson

Former Northern Ireland secretaries Peter Mandelson, Tom King, Peter Brooke, Lord Hurd, Lord Prior, and Lord Merlyn-Rees signed up in support of the plaintiffs’ legal fund. Mandelson took the lead in coordinating this.

In 1999, Peter Mandelson had succeeded Mo Mowlem as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mowlem was popular with the British media and public; her willingness to speak her mind, often without regard to the consequences, was seen as strength. Mandelson was regarded as a cold Machiavellian manipulator. However, the campaigners warmed to him and he to them. Mowlem wanted to do everything to avoid undermining the peace process which was her monument.

Ruth Dudley Edwards was heavily involved in the campaign and wrote a book about it. She had worked in the British civil service, and was impressed that, soon after taking office, Mandelson had taken the unusual step of writing to her, commending her article in the Telegraph. He wrote that such articles “play an important part in changing the environment in which the terrorists operate”. “I agree with you entirely that everything possible should be done to try and bring those responsible for the Omagh bomb to justice”. He was distancing himself from Mowlem, who had seemed, according to Edwards, more comfortable with ex-terrorists than with victims and whose seeming indifference to the Omagh relatives had been “scandalous”.

Mowlem had discouraged ministers and civil servants from meeting the families and wanted to play down expectations of bringing the bombers to justice. Mandelson insisted on meeting the families. He was so affected by an exhibition of children’s art work. One of the relatives said: “Peter Mandelson is the nicest man, the best man…He cried, he cried in there and he put everyone out of there, even his Private Secretary. All politicians want to do is look after themselves. They don’t care about anything, but Peter Mandelson did care”. The Mail published a picture of his grief-stricken face. He said: “I feel a tremendous sense of loss every day I wake up and find yet another day has passed without these prosecutions taking place”.

Mandelson continued to offer practical help after he ceased to be Northern Ireland Secretary. He played a very active role behind the scenes and with the media. He also contributed generously from his own money.

An End to Terror?

Just two months after Omagh, two planes, flew into the World Trade Centre. That was supposed to change the context of terrorism. Different conditions post-9/11 helped in the defeat of the LTTE. Did Omagh help the Irish peace process? After the carnage many tried to adopt a positive outlook, hoping good would come out of evil. It was thought that the strength of public outrage would shame the Real IRA into giving up an “armed struggle” that was killing unborn babies.

Unfortunately, the Real IRA are still in business. Recent events indicate that the Provisional IRA might also still be active. Eternal vigilance is essential. Could the LTTE also rise like a Phoenix?

More next week about the unraveling of peace in Northern Ireland.

 

Omagh Part One – The Road of Tears

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday September 8 2015

Colman's Column3

roadtears1

roadtears2

After the bombing, Cathy could never settle back into her university studies at Derry and Patsy was often on the road to bring her traumatised daughter back home. In the car mother and daughter would be keening uncontrollably for Aiden, the son and brother forever lost to them. They christened the road from Derry to Omagh ‘The Road of Tears’.

On 15 August 2000 my wife and I were having a post-shopping Murphy’s at Le Chateau on St Patrick Street, Cork City in Ireland. I was going to write “enjoying a pint of Murphy’s” but that would not be appropriate because, like everyone else in the bar, we had tears streaming down our faces. The TV was on and the news programme was marking the second anniversary of the Omagh bombing.

 

On August 15, 1998, just two months after we had gone to live in Ireland, a huge bomb exploded in the centre of Omagh, a small market town in rural County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland. A total of 31 people were to die as a result of the bomb, and 220 were injured. The dead included a  woman 4 months pregnant and her unborn twins girls; six children, three of whom had been visiting from County Donegal in  the Irish Republic and one of whom was on holiday from Spain (Fernando’s mother, Lucrezia, had previously been traumatized when her husband had been seriously injured by an ETA car bomb) and six teenagers. Death was ecumenical; nineteen of the dead were Catholics, eleven were Protestants.

It Was People who Died

Each person who died represented a crushing loss to a wide circle of people. The bombers killed two babies and two about to be born, three schoolgirls, four schoolboys, six students, three shop assistants, a despatch clerk, a shopkeeper, a crane driver, a mechanic, a horticulturalist, and an accounts clerk. These were the targets of the “soldiers” of Éireann, the “freedom fighters”.

It was the time of year when parents and children went to SD Kells or Watterstones to buy new school uniforms. Most of the people in the centre of Omagh on August 15 1998 were from the town or surrounding countryside. It was an uncommonly sunny day for that part of the world and crowds were gathering for the processions that mark the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. The original plan was for the procession to start 200 yards from where the bomb exploded. Thousands would have been close to the explosion if the plan had not been changed.

Damages

Recent horrific pictures of drowned refugees have sparked controversy about the ethics of displaying such images. I want to convey to you the horror of Omagh but I want to respect the sensibilities of my readers and the dignity of the dead. Buses were used to ferry victims to hospital and blood was flowing down the steps on to the road. In the rain, the gutters ran red with blood and rose petals. A young girl sat in the street holding a severed hand saying: “I don’t want her to be alone”. A policeman who had wandered up and down the street carrying a head had to be invalided out of the RUC. Steve Buttle was so affected by Omagh that he functioned badly at work and his relationships deteriorated. Eventually he wrapped himself in a body bag and shot himself in the head.

The poison administered on August 15 1998 did harm not only to those who were present in Omagh on that day. It spread far and wide and for a long period, for generations into the future. Thousands had their lives blighted by intense sorrow, physical pain and depression beyond imagining.

Who Was Responsible?

Unusually, no group claimed responsibility on the day of the attack, but the Royal Ulster Constabulary suspected the RIRA (Real Irish Republican Army).Indeed, three days after the attack, the RIRA claimed responsibility and apologised for the attack. The RIRA had few members and the authorities knew who most of them were and where they lived. Two months after we had been crying in our Murphy’s, BBC put out a Panorama programme called Who Bombed Omagh? hosted by journalist John Ware. The programme gave the names of the four prime suspects as Oliver Traynor, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, and Seamus Daly.

 The Law’s Delay

Daly was not charged with the bombing in a criminal case until April 10 2014. However, a civil case brought by the victims’ relatives was concluded on 8 June 2009. Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly were found to have been responsible for the bombing and held liable for £1.6 million of damages. It was described as a “landmark” damages award internationally.

The Campaign

Because of frustration at the slow progress of the criminal investigation, the families of the victims created the Omagh Support and Self Help Group (OSSHG) soon after the bombing. The organisation was led by Michael Gallagher, who lost his 21-year-old son Aidan in the attack. In the 30 years of The Troubles, there was no precedent for a group of victims challenging the system in this way.

In the tribal society that is Northern Ireland it was surprising that the OSSHG included hard-line and moderate unionists as well as nationalists; there were Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Free Presbyterians, and a Mormon.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

I draw in these articles on the work of,  among others, Ruth Dudley Edwards. Ruth was deeply involved in the campaign and her 2009 book about the Omagh bombing was named the Sunday Times current affairs book of the year and won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award for non-fiction. The book, Aftermath: the Omagh Bombing and the Families’ Pursuit of Justice, should be of interest to Sri Lankan readers. Ruth is a distinguished Irish historian from a distinguished family of Irish historians.  She was born and brought up in Dublin and educated at University College Dublin (UCD), Girton College, Cambridge and Wolfson College, Cambridge. She has worked in the London civil service.

She is also a crime fiction writer and a prolific columnist, often stirring up controversy in the British and Irish press.  She now lives in London and describes herself as British-Irish and is comfortable with being culturally both Irish and English. She takes a particular interest in Northern Ireland and her writings have had her placed in the category of “revisionist”. That is to say, she has no time for myths about heroes and martyrs. She once told a hostile audience: “I wear the badge ‘revisionist’ as a badge of honour! Patrick Pearse had a right to sacrifice himself but not all those civilians! If seven people can determine these things, the Continuity IRA has the right to style themselves the heirs of 1916. There is a flouting of democracy.”

An End to Terror?

Just two months after Omagh, two planes flew into the World Trade Centre. That was supposed to change the context of terrorism. Different conditions post-9/11 helped in the defeat of the LTTE. Did Omagh help the Irish peace process? After the carnage many tried to adopt a positive outlook, hoping good would come out of evil. It was thought that the strength of public outrage would shame the Real  IRA into giving up the  “armed struggle” that was killing unborn babies. How did that work out?

Why did it take so long to bring the murderers to any kind of justice and why was it left to “ordinary” people to make such an effort? They had, as Ruth puts it, “to take on not just a terrorist organisation, but most of the Dublin, Belfast and London police, justice and political establishments”.

More on this next week

Forgetting to Forgive – Amnesia, Forgiveness or Revenge?

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday June 5 2011

 

Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.  Oscar Wilde

 

In cyberspace no-one can hear your virtual scream. There is blood on the blogosphere. I have been contributing to a US-based blog site for the past three years. Mostly, it has been a pleasant experience because there have been a lot of smart, cultured and knowledgeable people putting in their two-cents’ worth. I am trying to extricate myself now because I have attracted the attention of a paranoid stalker who persistently misunderstands and bad-mouths me.

 

One good thing that has come out of this is that someone I had a battle with a couple of years back has leapt to my defence and we have become firm friends.

 

The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in Hollywood movies. One of the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. Movies which show returning harm to those who harmed seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence. Blog-warriors get some satisfaction by keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie.

The poet, Charles Simic, wrote about the genocidal crimes of the Croat Ustashi in the 1940s and the crimes of the Serbs in the 1990s: “Many the world over believe this is the only way; that the survival of their people justifies any crime they commit. They find the scruples of those who cringe at the shedding of innocent blood in pursuit of some noble cause naive and repugnant”.

Events in Sri Lanka in 2009 prompted a friend in the UK to write to me: “Why can’t they forget race and religion and just get on with each other?” People often say similar things about Northern Ireland. Ordinary people generally do want to get along and often succeed in doing so. Unfortunately, there are economic factors and historical myths stoking conflicts.

The non-violent civil-rights protests in Northern Ireland were hi-jacked by the Provisional IRA who appointed themselves protectors of the Catholic community and hitched the issue to their own nationalist agenda of a united Ireland.

On a visit to Northern Ireland the Dalai Lama said: “Some differences, some conflicts will always be there. But we should use the differences in a positive way to try to get energy from different views. Try to minimize violence, not by force, but by awareness and respect. Through dialogue, taking others’ interests and sharing one’s own, there is a way to solve the problems”. He put his arms around a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister and tugged their beards.

Irish nationalists have long memories about the crimes of Cromwell. Gloucester builder, Fred West, and his wife Rosemary murdered an uncertain number of young women in the basement at 25 Cromwell Street. He was charged with eleven murders but there were probably many more. Most of their victims were waifs and strays, but one was from a middle class family, an art student from a loving family who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lucy Partington, the cousin of writer Martin Amis, was waiting for a bus when Fred and Rose offered her a lift. Lucy’s sister, Marian, writes movingly about Rosemary West: “Her story seems to be about the impoverishment of a soul that knew no other way to live than through terrible cruelty. A life deprived of truth, beauty or love. I imagine that the deviant ignorance that fed her sadistic, egotistical crimes was rooted in her ruined, crooked childhood.”

 

I don’t know if I could be forgiving in such circumstances. There is a good deal of research which shows that forgiving is good for the health.[i] When people think about forgiving an offender, it leads to improved functioning in their cardiovascular and nervous systems. The research of Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University shows that forgiveness can be learned. In Northern Ireland, Luskin found that people who are taught how to forgive, become less angry, more optimistic, self-confident. His studies show a reduction in experience and physical manifestations of stress, and an increase in vitality.

Harold Good was President of the Irish Methodist Church 2001-2. Both Jonathan Powell’s book Great Hatred, Little Room and Deaglán de Bréadún’s, The Far Side of Revenge, mention Harold’s discreet but vital role in the Northern Ireland peace process. It was Harold who announced, as spokesman for General de Chastelaine’s decommissioning body, that the war was effectively over and that the IRA had laid down their arms.

Harold served the poor in the Dublin City mission in the 1950’s. In the 1960s he was in Ohio and later served in the largely black Methodist church in Indianapolis. Back in Northern Ireland he witnessed the horrors of the Troubles. “I wasn’t isolated in an ivory tower. I know the pain inflicted by terrorists.” In spite of this, he has referred, in a personal e-mail to me, to his “friend Martin McGuinness” , former IRA Derry Commandant and now government minister. Harold worked closely with both Republican and Loyalist prisoners with a view to their resettlement. He was the Director in the 1970s of the Corrymeela community, a centre for reconciliation between the communities. He was chair of NIACRO (Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Prisoners) and part-time prison chaplain at Crumlin Road prison. A key part of the Good Friday agreement was the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners.

In his acceptance address to the Gandhi Foundation when receiving their 2008 Peace Award, Harold quoted a child who wrote: “I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what they are bombing tonight.” Harold commented: “Today our children see sunsets instead of bombs. As a community we have faced and accepted realities; engaged in dialogue; achieved consensus; accepted compromise and witnessed the signs and symbols of peace.”

Seamus Heaney wrote:

 

“once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

 

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore

Is reachable from here.”

 

My new blogfriend and I  studiously avoid returning to the matter of our previous dispute. We talk about different nuances of American and Asian English. We talk about his experience as a black man in the USA and in the US Marines and the LAPD. If we started to get nostalgic about our old fight, there might be trouble. When I lived in London, I walked to the train station every morning at the same time. Most days I would encounter a mother taking her small son to the kindergarten. One day she was scolding him for  fighting with a little girl. He defended himself by saying: “she hit me back first”. My blogfriend and I don’t want to go into who started it. I doubt if he will accept that he was wrong and I sure as hell know I was damned right. Forget about it!
Is amnesia more conducive to reconciliation than truth?

 

 

[i] http://www.forgiving.org/campaign/research_indiv_1.asp

Britain Teaches the World to Torture

This article appeared on Page 10 of Ceylon Today on Wednesday January 28 2015

Colman's Column3

There was a time when the British army adopted a somewhat superior attitude to the US army’s conduct after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Much was made of Britain’s experience in conducting a war against insurgents in urban conditions in Northern Ireland. To boast about that suggests either supreme arrogance or selective memory. British tactics were not successful in Northern Ireland or Basra and certainly did not have the “moral authority” to which David Cameron referred in his statement about the US Senate report on torture.

 
Britain’s torture laboratory in Northern Ireland

In 1971, Operation Demetrius involved the mass arrest and imprisonment without trial of people suspected of connections with the Provisional IRA. Fourteen of those imprisoned were interrogated at a site formerly known as RAF Ballykelly, which was handed over to the British Army as Shackleton Barracks on 2 June 1971. On their way to the interrogation centre in 1971, the British army hooded the men and threw them to the ground from helicopters. The captors told the hooded men they were hundreds of feet in the air, but the helicopters were actually just a few feet from the ground. Granted, this was better behaviour than that of the Argentinian junta who threw prisoners to their death from helicopters at high altitude.

 
The British security forces during the Irish Troubles developed five techniques of “deep interrogation”: prolonged wall standing, hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, and deprivation of food and drink. For seven days, when not being interrogated, the detainees were forced to wear hoods while handcuffed in a cold cell and were forced to stand in a stress position for many hours. There was a continuous loud hissing noise. They were repeatedly beaten, their heads banged against the wall. The interrogators kicked them in the genitals. The treatment caused long-term trauma.

 
In 1976, the European Commission of Human Rights ruled that the five techniques amounted to “torture”. However, in 1978, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the five techniques were “inhuman and degrading” and breached the European Convention on Human Rights, but did not amount to “torture”. The Court’s ruling, that the five techniques did not amount to torture, was later cited by the US and Israel to justify their own methods. Britain exported the techniques to the military dictators of Brazil.

 
Never again?

In 1972, prime minister Edward Heath promised to the House of Commons: “[The] Government, having reviewed the whole matter with great care and with reference to any future operations, have decided that the techniques … will not be used in future as an aid to interrogation… The statement that I have made covers all future circumstances.”

 
Despite Heath’s promise, the British Army used the five techniques in Iraq. As recently as December 2014, human rights lawyers sent a dossier of claims to the ICC (International Criminal Court) alleging that British soldiers abused and tortured Iraqi men, women and children, aged from 13 to 101. Defence secretary Geoff Hoon told MPs in 2005 that hooding had not been used in Iraq since May 2004. In reality, there were more than 70 cases of hooding between June 2004 and September 2008.

 
There were, the report alleges, dozens of mock executions; many described how dogs were used to attack or threaten detainees. There are also allegations of sexual assault or rape by British soldiers. One man who was “repeatedly beaten” and “electrocuted”, suffered “severe psychological injuries as a result of his treatment”. He set himself alight and killed himself a year after his release.
Phil Shiner, a solicitor with the law firm PIL (Public Interest Lawyers), which is handling the claims, said: “The UK mindset in Iraq appears to be one of savage brutality and a sadistic inhumanity, irrespective of whether it was women, children or old men being tortured, abused or callously subjected to lethal force. The systemic issues must now be dealt with in public.”

 
A long history of torture

Britain has an extensive and unlovely record of brutality in the “war on terrorism” that goes back at least as far as the Tudors. Henry VIII tried to bring all Ireland under his control to prevent its use as a base for a Catholic invasion of England or a haven for pretenders trying to depose him. His daughter Elizabeth had similar fears and thought the Jesuits might try to overthrow her. Some versions of the story of Edmund Campion (now a Catholic saint) have it that the Queen was actually present when Campion was tortured on the rack.

 
Obama tortured by British

Neil Ascherson wrote: “The myth that British colonialism guaranteed a minimum standard of behavior toward ‘natives’ cannot—or should not—survive the evidence of twentieth-century Kenya. In the field, the security forces behaved like Germans on an antipartisan sweep in occupied France. In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.”

 
Hussein Onyango Obama, Barack Obama’s paternal grandfather, was arrested in 1949 by the British during the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya and subjected to horrific violence, which left him permanently scarred and embittered against the British. “The African warders were instructed by the white soldiers to whip him every morning and evening till he confessed,” Sarah Onyango, 87, Hussein Onyango’s third wife, the woman President Obama refers to as “Granny Sarah” said. “He said they would sometimes squeeze his testicles with metallic rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together with his head facing down.”

 
Mau-Mau militants killed 32 British civilians. The British killed 20,000 Mau-Mau fighters and persecuted large numbers of Kikuyu not directly involved in the rebellion. Lawyers acting for Kenyans suing for compensation documented 5,228 cases of abuses including fatal whippings, blindings, castrations and rapes.

 
In 2009, Kenyan victims filed a lawsuit, but the British government asked the judge to throw out the case, saying it had transferred all liability to Kenya when the country gained independence. The Kenya government denied responsibility and stood behind the victims. The three men, including one whom the British had castrated, who filed the original case made numerous trips to London to give their testimony. Britain could not deny the atrocities because there were immaculate records kept by the torturers themselves that revealed systemic human rights violations. The High Court ordered the Foreign Office to produce all relevant evidence, including hundreds of boxes of files, secretly smuggled out of Kenya ahead of independence in 1963. The British government’s defence until recently was that the statute of limitations had expired. Eventually, after four years of dogged resistance, Britain announced a £19.9 million settlement. Many of the beneficiaries, who are in their 80s, will not have long to enjoy the compensation.

 
Extraordinary rendition

In 1971, the British evicted all 2,000 inhabitants of the Chagos Islands from their homes in order to give Diego Garcia to the US as a military base. In his book Island of Shame, David Vine quotes military analyst John Pike telling him that the US military’s goal is “to run the planet from Guam and Diego Garcia by 2015, even if the entire Eastern Hemisphere has drop-kicked us from every other base.”

 
Stephen Grey, author of Ghost Plane disclosed the journeys of a Gulfstream aircraft, registered N379P, as part of a list of more than 3,000 flight logs. The logs show the same aircraft flew from Washington via Athens to Diego Garcia. Though there have been persistent reports in the US that detainees have been secretly held in Diego Garcia, the British government has always dismissed the claims. The then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denied that the Diego Garcia base was used for rendition and torture. “There simply is no truth that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition, full stop.”

 
David Miliband war criminal?

When David Miliband became foreign secretary in June 2007, there were already allegations about possible British involvement in overseas torture. Sami al-Saadi claimed that, in 2004, MI6 handed him and his family over to authorities in Libya who tortured him. Documents show that MI5 gave Tripoli reports on Libyan dissidents living in Britain.

 
Gareth Pierce is a human rights lawyer who had defended Giuseppe Conlon against the flawed prosecution led by Sir Michael Havers. She is dishonoured by the ridiculous caricature of her by Emma Thompson in the film In the Name of the Father. She wrote in the London Review of Books about Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian given leave to reside in the UK. “British intelligence and the Americans and Moroccans for 18 months slashed the most intimate parts of his body with razors, burned him with boiling liquids, stretched his limbs causing unimaginable agony, and bombarded him with ferocious sound.” Techniques seem to have become more brutal since the days of St Edmund Campion. As David Miliband was personal advisor to Tony Blair while Labour was in opposition and played a major role in the election victory of 1997, it seems unlikely that he was unaware of what was happening before he became foreign secretary.

 
As human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, who represented Binyam Mohammed, writes, Miliband cannot avoid charges of complicity demonstrated by his actions as foreign secretary. Miliband personally approved some interrogations involving countries with poor human rights records. He was a senior member of a government that later actively resisted calls for an inquiry. “He put considerable energy into defending a number of claims relating to torture in the English courts against his department.”

 
While campaigning for the Labour leadership Miliband was forced to confront claims that he allowed the interrogation of three terror suspects who allege they were tortured in Bangladesh and Egypt. Faisal Mostafa, a chemistry lecturer from Manchester, who was twice cleared of terrorism offences in court, was detained in Bangladesh. He claims he was hung upside down and electrocuted while interrogators interrogated him about two Islamist groups.

Britain and the US Senate report

There is no reference at all in the Senate’s 500-page summary report to UK intelligence agencies or the British territory of Diego Garcia. There is no reference to Binyam Mohamed, or to the abductions and extraditions to Libya of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami-al-Saadi. Heavy redactions to the executive summary encouraged speculation that references to US allies were deleted.

 
The British government commissioned an inquiry by retired judge Sir Peter Gibson to look at the UK’s treatment of detainees after 9/11. In his preliminary report, he raised 27 serious questions about the behaviour of the UK security services. The Gibson Inquiry was replaced by an investigation handled by the ISC (Intelligence and Security Committee). The ISC’s report will not, however, be completed before the 2015 general election, so it is unclear how many members of the nine-strong panel of MPs and peers will still be in parliament to complete the work. Release of the Chilcot Report into the Iraq war is also being delayed until after the election.

 
Gareth Pierce on the UK’s hypocrisy: “We inhabit the most secretive of democracies, which has developed the most comprehensive of structures for hiding its misdeeds, shielding them always from view behind the curtain of ‘national security’. From here on in we should be aware of the game of hide and seek in which the government hopes to ensure that we should never find out its true culpability.”

 

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/51-83338-news-detail-britains-torture-laboratory-in-northern-ireland-britain-teaches-the-world-to-torture.html

 

Reconciliation Ireland Part 6

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday October 7 2012

On April 27, the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE), an intergovernmental regional security structure comprising 56 states including all EU countries, Russia, the US and Canada, held its annual conference in Dublin. Ireland had a good story to tell about how peace was achieved.

 
On the same day, a Catholic mother on the Creggan housing estate, took her 18-year-old son to an appointment with Republican Action Against Drugs, to be kneecapped for drug dealing.

 
My friend the Rev. Harold Good, together with Father Alec Reid, played a vital role in the Northern Ireland peace process. It was Harold who announced to the press that the IRA had decommissioned their arms. If the IRA had given up their arms, the ‘long war’ waged by the IRA was definitively over. Or was it?

The peace process itself was endangered on many occasions by bombings and shootings which, despite their great stature within the Republican movement, McGuinness and Adams were powerless to prevent. In 1997, Michael McKevitt, the then IRA QMG (Quartermaster General) , who was also a member of the 12-person Provisional IRA (PIRA) Executive, broke away from the Provisional IRA to form the Real IRA (RIRA). His wife, Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, sister of hunger striker Bobby Sands and a founder of the RIRA’s political wing, the 32 County Sovereignty movements, spoke out against the peace agreement: “Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state”.

The RIRA takes violent action against the British military and police and other targets in Northern Ireland, including civilians. The 1998 Omagh car bombing claimed 29 lives and injured hundreds. Dissident groups remain a threat today, fourteen years after the peace agreement. Another ‘new’ IRA was announced on July 26.
To RIRA it is Sinn Fein who are the dissidents for their apostasy in accepting a divided Ireland. In the May 2011 elections, not a single dissident won an Assembly seat, and their combined vote was less than one percent. Republican Sinn Fein (the RIRA’s “political” wing) spokesperson Cait Trainor told Channel 4: “We have a mandate stretching right back to 1798. We really don’t need the public to rubber stamp the republican movement.”
Dissidents have little hope of ‘winning’ in the sense of achieving a united Ireland by force. Meanwhile, they are content to disrupt the liberal consensus and show that the Good Friday settlement has not produced the peace that was promised.

Terrorists often inhabit a murky borderland with organized crime. Part of the RIRA plan is to gain legitimacy as a community police force by acting against drug dealers, thieves and those involved in anti-social behavior. This is hypocritical as they are heavily involved in crime.
In the Republic, police chief Martin Callinan rejected criticism of his officers for failing to intervene when shots were fired by masked paramilitaries at the funeral of murdered RIRA member Alan Ryan on Saturday September 15. Any rational assessment of Alan Ryan would assess him as a hoodlum and extortionist. The RIRA planned to turn him into their very own Bobby Sands.

RIRA godfathers exploited Ryan’s funeral as propaganda despite the fact that they had themselves recently admonished him for his erratic behavior. Ryan threatened tortured, bombed, shot and murdered. His security company was a front for a protection racket targeting legitimate business people and organized the murder of drug dealers for other drug dealers. A foreign hit man was paid €100,000 to terminate Ryan.

Another dissident plan is to agitate in contended situations, particularly during the marching season, to prompt over-reaction by the security forces. North Belfast is a complex patchwork of republican and loyalist districts. For three consecutive nights in early September, embittered loyalists clashed with police, resulting in injuries to more than 60 officers. A planned republican procession had attracted loyalist protesters. Tensions have simmered over trouble close to a Catholic church. North Belfast was the scene of serious rioting earlier this year when republicans attacked police following a loyalist parade through the Ardoyne on July 12. North Belfast resident and writer Daniel Jewesbury said: “There are some groups dedicated to taking offense, but there are some who are dedicated to giving it”.

Belfast-based journalist Jason Walsh writes: ”Sectarianism is built into the very fabric of the peace process that brought the war in Northern Ireland to an end… in elevating parity of esteem and respect for cultural difference above all else, it also turned demands for community respect into the political currency of the New Northern Ireland”. The fear is that this nurturing of difference will explode again into open war.

See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/international/item/11201-peace-

today?.html#sthash.PHjbaxzS.dpuf

 

 

Reconciliation in Ireland Part 5

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday September 23 2012

Peace comes dropping slow

There were too many twists and turns in the road to the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement to be covered satisfactorily in 800 words. Readers wanting to follow the detail should read Great Hatred, Little Room by Jonathan Powell for an inside view by a British government participant. Deaglán de Bréadún, of the Irish Times, followed the negotiations on a daily basis and interviewed key people. In his book The Far Side of Revenge. My favorite quotation in the book is from a republican asked about the decommissioning of IRA arms. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it”.

Why did it end?
The 30-year war had reached a stalemate. Peter Taylor, in his book Brits, provides convincing evidence to show that British intelligence had improved to such an extent that the IRA were well aware that they could not possibly win. On their side, the British were savvy enough to know that they could not achieve a definitive military defeat of the IRA. Behind a facade of British refusal to talk with terrorists and the IRA refusal to contemplate anything short of a united Ireland, both sides were for a long time edging towards compromise.

The actors
De Bréadún provides pithy pen portraits of key participants. Of Bill Clinton, he says: “A needy man met a needy people”. He quotes George Mitchell: “No-one can really have a chance in a society dominated by fear, hatred and violence…a deadly ritual in which most of the victims are innocent”.
PMs Blair and Ahern grew in stature because of their dogged efforts on Northern Ireland before, respectively, Iraq and corruption destroyed their reputations.
Three Catholic Northern Ireland citizens were essential to the peace process. John Hume, of the Social Democratic Liberal Party sacrificed his health throughout his adult life representing the nationalist community’s aspirations for an end to discrimination. Although Hume was a fervent upholder of non-violence, he was courageous enough to maintain dialogue with the men of violence, chiefly through Gerry Adams.
De Bréadún writes of Gerry Adams, “He failed to match the stereotype of the fire-breathing subversive, choosing instead to act as a conduit for the grievances of the grassroots”.

While Adams dealt with the broad strategic sweep, Martin McGuinness proved to be a canny negotiator. According to a senior Dublin civil servant: “The boy revolutionary developed into a mature and skilful politician”. De Bréadún writes: “Mc Guinness got respect in his own right, thanks to his formidable history as an activist and his direct and commanding personality. If Adams was the architect of the republican project, McGuinness was the engineer”.

On the Unionist side David Trimble had been involved with the right-wing, paramilitary-linked Vanguard in the early 1970s before he joined the mainstream Ulster Unionist Party. As the leader of the UUP he could not afford to be too “moderate”. The Reverend Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist party was constantly raising the “No surrender. No popery” ante and Trimble had to be seen to support triumphalist loyalist marches through Catholic areas.

 

Constructive ambiguity
Many regarded the peace process with scepticism concerned that it would bring men of violence into the heart of democracy. Symbolic issues like policing and decommissioning provided obstacles. To carry his party with him, Trimble had to insist that the IRA decommission its arms. McGuinness and Adams had great authority with the rank and file of the IRA but could not sell decommissioning as it would be seen as surrender without achieving the aim of a united Ireland.
To cut a convoluted story short, peace was achieved through a process of constructive ambiguity, which allowed all actors to say they had not surrendered. Talks resumed in 1993 after Clinton listened to Sinn Féin On April 10, 1998, the British and Irish governments formulated the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. After the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, and 2007 elections, the DUP and Sinn Féin formed a government in May 2007. Paisley became First Minister and McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister.
The nationalists could say that their struggle had entered new non-violent phase in which progress would be made towards a united Ireland by developing cross-border All-Ireland institutions and co-operating within the EU. Loyalists could claim that they had preserved their membership of the UK. The constitution of the Irish Republic was amended to give up its territorial claim to Northern Ireland. Trimble lost the leadership of the UUP and mainstream parties like the UUP and Hume’s SDLP lost influence to Paisley’s DUP and Adams’s Sinn Fein. A bizarre aspect was that the indefatigable nay-sayer Paisley became a jovial buddy of McGuinness, who also learnt to smile a lot. They became known as the Chuckle Brothers.

 

– See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/focus/item/10734-peace#sthash.MLLs7DLt.dpuf

 

Reconciliation in Ireland – Part 4

At the time of the Easter Rising in 1916, the British government had more or less decided to grant Ireland Home Rule, but was hoping to get the little matter of the First World War out of the way first. The Ulster Volunteers, the first loyalist paramilitary group, was established under the leadership of Edward Carson. It evolved into the Ulster Volunteer Force in January 1913, receiving a large arms cache from Germany in April 1914. The unionists promised civil war if Home Rule became a reality: “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”.

Irish rebels did not win independence for the whole island. The boundaries of the north and east were gerrymandered so that the six counties which formed the statelet of Northern Ireland would have an inbuilt protestant loyalist majority. Since then, who ruled Northern Ireland saw to it that Protestant loyalists got the best education and the best jobs; the Catholic minority suffered severe discrimination. In Derry, Catholics were in a majority but Protestants ran the city council. The boundaries were drawn to ensure that 14,000 Catholic voters ended up with eight councillors, while 9,000 Protestants had twelve.

Ferocious rioting
By the 1960s, Northern Ireland Catholics were emulating the Civil Rights movement in the USA. The IRA was a spent force. That did not prevent unionists from regarding the NICRA (Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement) as an IRA front. The IRA had given up arms and been taken over by Marxists under the leadership of Cathal Goulding, who admitted that he didn’t have the human resource to obtain a united Ireland by force.  The IRA did not drive the Civil Rights movement. Its members acted as stewards on many marches but to prevent rather than promote violence.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary and its notorious auxiliaries, the B Specials, were almost exclusively Protestant and Loyalist. Demands for civil rights were seen as sedition. In the summer of 1969, the powder keg was ignited in Derry, the conflagration spread to Belfast and engulfed the whole province. The ferocious rioting that lasted for three days in Derry became known as the Battle of the Bogside. One of the young men involved was Martin McGuinness. London’s attention was captured; troops were sent in.

The first RUC officer to be killed was Constable Victor Arbuckle, shot by the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force that was ironically protesting the disarming of the RUC. The bizarre twists and turns of the 30-year conflict are captured in three books by Peter Taylor – Loyalists, Brits, and Provos.

Dissidents
The civil rights movement rejuvenated the IRA. After a so-called “pogrom” in Belfast in August 1969, the graffito “IRA – I Ran Away” began appearing on walls. The Catholic population believed that Goulding’s IRA had deserted them. A group of dissidents emerged which evolved into the Provisional IRA. Initially, the group’s primary objective was to make sure that they would be trained and equipped to defend the Catholic areas of Belfast if loyalists were to attack them. It is ironic now to remember that the British army regarded the IRA as allies rather than enemies. To the IRA, the loyalists were the enemy not the British.
The loyalists insisted on their civil right to stage frequent triumphalist marches through Catholic areas. Both sides became inflamed with sectarian hatreds which the British could not cope with. The Brits became the enemy for loyalists as well as nationalist, victims of the history of plantation and partition.
Even when Ireland became a republic, the IRA continued to “fight” for a united Ireland. Ireland remains divided, though, raising the question, were those deaths worthwhile?

One can appreciate why intelligent young men like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness joined the IRA in 1969 in order to defend the Catholic population. Although initially welcomed by Catholics, the British Army soon alienated them by their actions. The IRA moved from defending Catholics to fighting for a united Ireland, but “fighting” meant setting off bombs that killed babies and other innocent parties.

United Ireland
When Bobby Sands died on hunger strike in 1981, the situation in Northern Ireland was that Catholics had suffered severe discrimination. This was being addressed in the face of recalcitrance from loyalists. However, Bobby Sands was not fighting for an end to discrimination but for a united Ireland. What peace has been achieved in Northern Ireland has come because both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are both members of the EU and much of the Good Friday Agreement was about setting up institutions which covered all Ireland. Although most Irish people are grateful for peace, Bobby Sands’s sister and her husband feel they have the right to interpret his ‘legacy’ by leading the Real IRA in killing innocent people. Some freedom fighters!

– See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/international/item/10177-provos.html#sthash.eqKeP499.dpuf

 

Credit Unions – Banking and Social Responsibility

This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Abacus.

 

Will the conventional banks ever provide “a New Moral World” of happiness, enlightenment, and prosperity?

 

When I called in at Midleton Credit Union just before Christmas, I was immediately offered a piece of cake and a glass of red wine. This was around 10am and there was already a good deal of red-faced conviviality in the branch. Whenever I stopped by to make a deposit or withdrawal, the manager would call me in for a friendly chat.

I have a similarly cordial relationship with my local Sampath Bank manager but one could never imagine such a thing with conventional banks in the UK or Ireland. If one tries to phone the Croydon branch of Barclay’s, one finds that all branches have the same telephone number and when one dials that number, one finds oneself speaking to someone in Bangalore rather than Croydon. Barclays plan to cut 12,000 staff this year. The bank’s total bonus pool for 2013 rose by 10% to £2.38bn, from £2.17bn in 2012, with the investment bank’s bonus pool increasing by 13%.The level of personal service is unlikely to improve.

History of Credit Unions

Credit Unions originated in the 19th century, based on the ideas of Robert Owen in the UK, Herman Schulze-Delitzsch in Germany and Alphonse Desjardin in North America. Owen was born in Wales but moved to Manchester, then to Scotland (where he achieved commercial success operating on principles that became the basis for the cooperative movement in Britain). He then bought a town in Indiana which he renamed New Harmony. Unfortunately, the utopia failed. Owen’s vision was of “a New Moral World” of happiness, enlightenment, and prosperity through education, science, technology, and communal living.

A Credit Union is a member-owned financial cooperative, democratically controlled by its members, and operated for the purpose of promoting thrift, providing credit at competitive rates, and providing other financial services to its members. Many Credit Unions also provide services intended to support community development or sustainable international development on a local level.

Credit Unions in Ireland

Credit Unions have played an important role in Irish society since the 1950s. The Irish Credit Union movement has achieved one of the highest membership penetrations of any country, with over 50% of the Irish population now holding membership. Credit Unions in Ireland today vary dramatically in size, membership and in the range of services they offer. However, they all share a basic philosophy and set of principles.

Ireland in the 1950s could have been a third world country. There was high unemployment and poor housing, which led to sickness and malnutrition. State unemployment benefits were low and did not last indefinitely, leaving many families in abject poverty, relying on loan sharks. Banks and other financial institutions did not advance credit without substantial collateral or guarantees; you had to be a homeowner in order to get a loan and very few people owned their own homes in the 1950s.

Nora Herlihy (a teacher of under-privileged children), Sean Forde (a baker) and Séamus P MacEoin (a civil servant) decided to do something about it. They recognised the root of the problem as the scarce availability and poor management of money and resolved to identify a system that would allow people to gain more control over their finances.

In 1956, a government sponsored savings campaign prompted a co-operative in Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin, to set up a thrift society, which was reformed as the Dun Laoghaire Borough Credit Union – the first in Ireland.

Peace pioneer John Hume and five others pooled their combined savings of eight pounds and ten shillings, in October 1960, to set up Derry Credit Union, the first in Northern Ireland.

The movement advanced through the 1960s in a series of spectacular leaps. By the end of the decade, 180,442 people had joined 336 unions spread throughout the 32 counties and their savings amounted to almost £9 million. Most members of Credit Unions are savers rather than borrowers, which can be a problem for their viability.

Personal Experience

I was a member of Midleton Credit Union in County Cork. Their motto is Not for profit. Not for charity. But for service. Midleton has 18,000 members and provides a full range of financial services to members. Midleton Credit Union was formed in 1968 solely to help its members and aims to offer fair and reasonable rates on savings and loans. It provides loans for cars, holidays, Christmas, weddings and just about anything one can persuade the manager to agree to. Payment periods range from one to five years. Loans are insured at no direct cost to the eligible member. Repayment protection insurance is available as an optional extra. There are no hidden fees or transaction charges. A loan of 10,000 repaid monthly over five years would mean monthly payments of €209.82. The typical interest rate of 9.5% is high compared to the 2% on my Bank of Ireland mortgage, but I found the Credit Union’s flexibility helpful in the refurbishment of my derelict cottage and the refurbishment of my very mouth when I had extensive and expensive dental treatment. Repayments are calculated on the reducing balance of the loan. This means smaller interest repayments as you repay your loan. Repayment terms can be adjusted to suit your particular circumstances. You can repay the loan earlier or make larger repayments than agreed with no penalty. Additional lump sum repayments are accepted with no penalty.

Criticism

It is ironic, in the light of what I have written in these pages about the shortcomings of the Central Bank of Ireland as a financial regulator, that it should publish a report critical of Credit Unions. In Credit Union Prism Risk Assessments, Sharon Donnery, Registrar of Credit Unions, wrote: “Regrettably, we found the majority of credit unions we engaged with needed to make significant improvements. …We also noted in a small number of cases certain attitudes and behaviours indicative of an unwillingness to comply with legal and regulatory requirements and associated absence of appropriate risk management systems and compliance programmes.”

 

Ms Donnery pontificates: “As with all other financial institutions, they depend on public confidence for their success and members need to be assured that their savings are safe.”

 

Despite the shortcomings of the Central Bank, three executives of Anglo Irish Bank are each facing 16 charges of illegal activity.

 

Customer Satisfaction

Research indicates that Credit Union customers are more satisfied with service quality than bank customers are. A survey showed that Credit Unions rate significantly higher than banks on 11 of the 14 service quality questions: access; courtesy; communication; credibility; security; empathy; tangibles; basic service; fairness; fixing mistakes; and guarantees. People between the ages of 18 and 34 have a high regard for the community-owned lenders. Four out of 10 young adults are members of Credit Unions and half of this group would consider a loan of around €6,300. Young adults see Credit Unions as more understanding than banks.

 

Conclusion

The World Council of Credit Unions is the leading international trade association and development agency for credit unions. Since 1971, World Council has increased access to high quality financial services worldwide by strengthening Credit Unions using a well-defined and thoroughly tested development model. In Sri Lanka, the World Council is strengthening Credit Unions in areas affected by the conflict with the intent of restoring financial stability and a broader sense of security.

It would seem that in Ireland the public, chastened by the antics of the casino banks, have more trust in Credit Unions than banks, whatever Ms Donnery might say. Is there a lesson for the rest of the world? Banking (the service that should protect savings and supply loans for social uses such as productive development) is too important to be left in the hands of a small number of private bankers who, by definition seek only to maximise their profits. Credit Unions bring a measure of democracy, cooperation and mutuality to the ugly world of finance. They are an example of what biologist EO Wilson called “the delicate web of reciprocity”.

 

The Arrest of Gerry Adams

This article was published in Ceylon Today on May 14 2014.

 

Colman's Column3

 

The police force of part of the UK arrested a member of parliament of a separate nation in connection with a crime committed 40 years ago. The PSNI (Police Services of Northern Ireland) arrested Gerry Adams, MP for Louth in the Republic of Ireland, under the Terrorism Act 2000, and questioned him for four days at Antrim police station. Adams leads the party that jointly governs Northern Ireland. He was one of the key brokers of the accord that ended what had been a brutal 30-year war.

 

They were investigating his alleged involvement in the murder of Jean McConville in 1972. The IRA dragged Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten, from her west Belfast home and executed her, claiming that she was an informer. Her body was found in August 2003 buried on a beach in County Louth. Forensic tests showed she had been badly beaten and shot in the back of the head.

 

Adams said: “I believe that the killing of Jean McConville and the secret burial of her body was wrong and a grievous injustice to her and her family”. The PSNI released him without charge.

 

Boston College

 

Boston College interviewed several former paramilitaries about the Troubles on the understanding that they would not publish transcripts until the interviewees were dead. PSNI subpoenaed Boston College in 2011. A provision of US law forced them to hand over the evidence, which they did after two years of legal battles. A court last year ordered the project to hand over the tapes to PSNI.

 

Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre ran the project. McIntyre is a former IRA life sentence prisoner. Moloney is a Belfast journalist who published A Secret History of the IRA, twelve years ago. Moloney revealed that in the early 70s Adams had established a unit in the Belfast IRA called the “unknowns”, which conducted several “disappearances”, including that of McConville.

 

Adams and the IRA

 

In interviews for the project, two former IRA operatives, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, confessed to involvement in Jean McConville’s murder. When former IRA commander Brendan Hughes, died in 2008 it emerged that on the tapes he alleged that Adams was a senior IRA leader during the Troubles and had ordered Mrs McConville’s killing.

 

Adams said: “Both Moloney and McIntyre are opponents of the Sinn Féin leadership and our peace strategy and have interviewed former republicans who are also hostile to me and other Sinn Féin leaders.”

 

Moloney says: “…the Sinn Féin leader chose to lie about his past, saying he was never in the IRA. That claim is so absurd, and to many of his former comrades so hurtful, that some were bound to protest.” Brendan Hughes in his Boston interview: “[When Adams denies IRA membership] it means that people like myself … have to carry the responsibility for all those deaths, for sending men out to die and sending women out to die, and Gerry was sitting there … trying to stop us from doing it? I’m disgusted by it because it’s so untrue and everybody knows it.”

 

 

Isn’t Northern Ireland ‘Sorted’?

 

 

Someone asked me: “Isn’t Northern Ireland sorted?” This is not a surprising reaction. When people outside the island of Ireland think about Northern Ireland at all, which is probably rarely, they are comfortable in thinking that the old problem has been “sorted” by the hard-won Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Tony Blair and New Labour and Bill Clinton presented the Northern Ireland peace process as a resounding success in bringing centuries of ‘ancient hatred’ to a close and providing a model for the rest of the world’s ethnic trouble spots to follow.

 

 

I suspect that many in Sri Lanka would see Northern Ireland as a model, like South Africa, for the reconciliation process in this country. The Adams case shows that Northern Ireland is not “sorted”. Why have the hopes invested in the Good Friday Agreement not been fully met, sixteen years after it was signed?

 

 

Ongoing Strife

 

 

There is likely to be a further plunge in turnout at this month’s municipal and European elections, reflecting growing disillusionment with the dysfunctional administration at Stormont. A recent newspaper survey of young people in Northern Ireland found that two thirds did not believe they enjoyed peace and the same proportion wanted to leave to pursue their aspirations.

 

 

Adams and Mandela

 

 

Adams cynically exploited the global wave of emotion surrounding the death of Nelson Mandela to create the impression that he was Ireland’s Mandela. Mandela openly acknowledged his role in orchestrating the campaign of violence against the repressive apartheid regime. His admissions, and similar acknowledgments of culpability from leaders on both sides of the South African conflict to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were fundamental to helping the country move from the horrors of the past.

 

 

Adams has actively concealed the truth of his past and sought to discredit those who have sought to bring light to the subject. Adams told members of the McConville family “Thank God I was in prison when she disappeared.” In fact, Adams was free at the time of the killing.

 

 

Justice or Peace?

 

There are lessons in this affair for other post-conflict situations. Who can argue with victims’ commissioner Kathryn Stone, when she says, “There can be no sustainable peace in Northern Ireland until every victim has true peace of mind”?

 

Ruth Dudley Edwards recently wrote: “The reluctance to dig into the past that has enabled both sides to continue their habit of what in Northern Ireland is called ‘whataboutery’ – in which any allegation by a member of one tribe is answered by a counter -allegation from the other.”

 

Others argue that those who did not live through the horrors of the Troubles do not appreciate the hard bargains that had to be struck to bring the relative peace enjoyed today. Official amnesia allowed fringe figures on the Loyalist side, such as firebrand bigot Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, to acquire legitimacy in order to achieve an ostensibly democratic administration in Belfast. Robinson was convicted in a court in the Republic of Ireland of unlawful assembly, having led an incursion across the border during frequently violent Protestant protests against an intergovernmental agreement between London and Dublin in 1985.

 

Impunity or Therapeutic Amnesia.

 

In the years after the IRA ceasefire, the Irish government had an unofficial policy of playing down IRA violence. Just two years after the 1994 ceasefire an IRA unit shot dead Jerry McCabe, a police officer, in Co Limerick during a botched robbery. The attempt to cover up the IRA’s role in the McCabe murder caused outrage among the Garda Síochána.

 

In March 2014, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly stated that 187 people had received letters assuring them that they did not face arrest and prosecution for IRA crimes.

 

Only a day before Adams’s arrest, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers ruled out inquiries into the British Army Parachute Regiment’s killing of ten mourners at a funeral in Ballymurphy, in August 1971, and the IRA’s killing of 12 people in the La Mon House firebomb massacre, in February 1978.

 

There is little doubt that Adams, whatever the truth of his connections with the IRA, played a large role in ending the conflict. If he was not in the IRA, how did Adams have the authority to persuade the IRA hardliners to agree to peace? Today, people of violence on both sides sit down and discuss sewage plans, pension problems and how to invest in infrastructure. As Peter Hain, the former Northern Ireland secretary, said: “Adams and [Martin McGuinness] have been indispensable in moving Northern Ireland from the evil and horror of the past to the relative tranquillity and stability of today.”

 

In the Good Friday Agreement, approved in 1998 in referenda north and south of the border, there was no amnesty – only a concession to the perpetrators of Troubles-related crimes that if found guilty, they would serve only two years in jail.

 

How does Northern Ireland confront its past without undermining peace? Should politicians from all parties in Stormont, Dublin and Westminster to talk seriously about whether they can establish South African-style truth and reconciliation hearings, in which individuals can publicly declare their crimes and express contrition, in exchange for freedom from prosecution?

 

 

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