The recent debacle over the Ulster Defence Association decommissioning process –or the lack thereof- and its being a prerequisite to the green-lighting of the Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI) has got me thinking. Does anyone in mainland Britain know about this developing story at all? If I threw either of these acronyms at the typical tabloid reader would they be able to tell me what they stood for? I am doubtful that they would: no one cares about Northern Ireland.
Allow me to take a more prosaic example. This June I was preparing for my A-Level exams at home, and consequently that involved a lot of daytime television. Switch abc1 on between the hours of 9am and 4pm and all you will see, aside from the questionable US sitcoms, are adverts telling you to get a personal loan, sue your employer or get some form of insurance. Of course all of these claim to be British companies, yet if you check the small print, as I always do, you will notice that a vast amount of them exclude Northern Ireland, especially those trying to sell you insurance. Northern Ireland is just far too complicated for them. Despite the arguable success of the Peace Process, big business still gets the jitters when thrown the ‘Ulster card’. But in addition to this, the people of Britain are woefully ignorant of the political goings on in Northern Ireland. This isn’t entirely our fault though. Like all the best contentious issues, a large store of blame can be left at the media’s door. In studying the UDA debate recently I discovered that very few of the country’s papers reported on the issue at all. The tabloids were silent on the matter, as was the Telegraph, Times, and even The Independent. The Guardian was the only broadsheet to give it column space. I checked my good friend the New Statesman as well, yet they too failed to report on the issue. Perhaps I’m not being fair. When Aer Lingus faced trade union strike action it wasn’t that big a deal in the UK because after all, the Royal Mail strike was a little bit closer to home, and likewise the water charges story a little further back; a very regional issue, it was of no real concern to the rest of the UK. Nonetheless, in the first major fracture the Stormont Assembly has seen under power-sharing, the reporting has been lacking. Should I have to subscribe to The Irish Times in order to hear about the politics of a (technically) British devolved Institution?
Allow me to have a moment of cynicism then. When the stories used to be about the provos hamstringing or murdering someone outside a Belfast Pub, or attacking Orange marches, the right-wing press couldn’t get enough. The McCartney murder not too long ago, and the alleged robbery of several million euros two years ago are good examples of such bias. True they were worthy of print, and of condemnation, but when the loyalist paramilitaries did the same, very few in the press would comment with such alacrity and so acerbically. When it became clear that the Royal Ulster Constabulary was still working with the Ulster Volunteer Force as recently as 1997 no one batted an eyelid. How many people could name any loyalist paramilitaries anyway? What are the UDA or the UVF, or the UFF, or Red Hand Commando to most people? Whilst happy to call the Provisional IRA murderers in their time, it must be stated that the IRA decommissioned fully, and decommissioned first. The loyalists have only just spoken of reciprocating. The £1.2 million that would go to deprived loyalist areas in Belfast had been withheld by Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie because the UDA has failed to hand over a single bullet in the 60 day period outlined at the start of August. The UDA remains involved in drugs trafficking and sectarian violence. Its infighting during the summer resulted in the death of at least one policeman. And now the issue has moved on, surrounding the legality of withholding such funding, of a conspiracy to edge the SDLP and UUP out of the executive in a power carve-up, of votes held or not held, and other such allegations.
In any case, it is the first major fracture in the nascent assembly since its reestablishment following the 2006 St. Andrew’s agreement, and what attention has been paid to it this side of the Irish Sea? Such lack of concern drives large holes in the argument for continued unity with Britain, as neither its businesses nor its people want anything to do with this most fascinating of provinces.