Grand Marshal George Mitchell
Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
9 January 2016
(begins time stamp ~ 25:26)
SB: We have on the line Ed Moloney, who's the author of A Secret History of the IRA. Ed, thanks very much for being with us.
EM: No problem, Sandy.
SB: Ed, George Mitchell's claim to fame is that he brought the two irreconcilable forces together, the Sinn Féin and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), who signed the Good Friday Agreement – and you covered all that and I have no doubt that's how it's going to go down in the history books.
EM: Well, to a certain extent it already has you know and even for a while after the Good Friday Agreement was signed it was called by the media The Mitchell Agreement sort of thereby bestowing upon it the idea that George Mitchell himself had been responsible for this thing. But the truth is a little plainer and not so exciting I'm afraid and it is, quite simply this: that George Mitchell's role, and while I don't want to understate being able to put pressure on people and getting them round tables and being nice and friendly and all that sort of stuff which is necessary when you're in negotiations, that his role in terms of framing this agreement was very minimal indeed. And the reality was very simple. It was that the basis of the Good Friday Agreement, the outline of the Good Friday Agreement, had been worked on for months, if not years, beforehand by both the British and the Irish governments. And they knew exactly what was going to be presented to the parties when they eventually did get together for these negotiations at Stormont Castle. But they also knew that if, for example, if the Irish government tabled proposals on how to deal with prisoners then the Unionists would automatically reject them on the ground they came from Dublin, were tainted, all that sort of stuff.
Equally if the British put down proposals dealing with the requirement to recognise the Principle of Consent on the part of Republicans that would be rejected by certainly Sinn Féin on the grounds that it came from the British and therefore was tainted by Unionist sympathies, etc. So they hit upon this idea which had two benefits: making George Mitchell the chairman of the talks and as they were presenting the proposals in his name removed the likelihood or the fear of that happening. In other words, they were coming from somebody who didn't officially have a dog in the fight and therefore could not be objected to on those grounds.
And secondly of course, he was standing in for Bill Clinton and the whole weight of the American presidency and the American state was behind this. In other words, if you were one of the parties in the agreement and you were becoming an obstacle then they would get Bill Clinton on the phone from the White House and he would give you a telling off – and no one wants to upset the American government and if the Americans were to blame one particular party for the failure of these talks well, that would stick forever and so on and so forth. So from that point of view it worked. But to say that he - and the impression - I think what annoyed me and it certainly annoyed a lot of other people, particularly some of those who were involved in the negotiations, the idea that George Mitchell himself sort of thought up all these various ideas and proposals and suggestions that went in to make up the Good Friday Agreement was fiction and therefore his role was greatly exaggerated but it was very useful for everyone involved to get this thing through.
SB: But Ed now, all these years later - Sinn Féin knows this is a myth, the Irish government knows it's a myth, the British government knows it's a myth. Why does nobody say it?
EM: Well it didn't stop Obama, for example, appointing George Mitchell to be the peace envoy to the Middle East for a while and indeed I actually wrote a piece for The Jerusalem Post at the time (I initially tried to get it into Haaretz which would have been more acceptable to me but The Jerusalem Post eventually took it) and it was essentially saying: Listen, if you're counting on this guy to come up with some sort of magic formula forget about it because his reputation is based upon a fallacy; the fallacy being that he was the architect of the Northern Ireland peace agreement, you know? So it didn't stop Obama so the myth continues. And it's extraordinary how myths take root, you know? But yeah, certainly from the point of view of those who were much more directly involved, like Sinn Féin, they know full well that George Mitchell's role was largely symbolic and therefore appointing him to lead this parade I wonder what the reason is, really, I mean all these years later, except that the thought does occur to me: Are the people who proposed this - and I don't know who did propose it - are they in some way trying to link the Saint Patrick's Day Parade with the 1916 anniversary, which is coming up round about not too long afterwards or thereabouts, with the peace agreement and sort of making a triangle here of Irish celebration all bound up with the same idea that it's sort of Irishness, freedom and peace and all that sort of stuff? And if that's the case then it's a little bit disingenuous and also, of course, it's election year which I suppose is part of the...
SB: ...Well, we will get into that but it certainly would suit Sinn Féin to say that the Good Friday Agreement was the triumph in a way of the 1916 Rebellion – this is what it all led to. And I have no doubt that on March seventeenth, 2016 that's what we'll be hearing from Sinn Féin loud and clear.
EM: Yep, absolutely, absolutely and they have presented the peace process very much in those terms from Day One that this is the way by which Ireland is going to get re-united. Of course that's one view. I don't think the evidence stacks up for it. Quite to the contrary, my own analysis and interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement is that it actually settles the union for once and for all in a sense, the union between Northern Ireland and Britain, on terms which are acceptable to Catholics. And really what this is all about, what the Good Friday Agreement is all about, what the peace process is all about, is actually bringing the civil rights movement to an end if you like, or to a conclusion, where the Catholic grievances which were much less about the existence of the state as about the way that they were treated within that state have now been addressed in a meaningful way and they're now like partners in government and there are guarantees about discrimination and so on and so forth and that the Catholic middle class in particular, which back in the civil rights days was pretty small but is now quite significant, now have their place in the sun in Northern Ireland, as much as the sun ever shines on that place and that's what it's about. It's not about securing Irish unity.
SB: But getting back to New York: There's a lot of speculation that Hillary Clinton is going to march in the parade and it could be very convenient for her in a lot of ways.
EM: Indeed. It links her it to George Mitchell and Bill Clinton. It reminds everyone it was the Clinton administration that appointed George Mitchell, it was the Clinton administration which brought the Provos in from the cold. Bill Clinton who, against the advice of all the anglophiles in his State Department and elsewhere, gave Gerry Adams that four day visa which you might remember as being a sort of like a media – I don't know quite what the word is – extravaganza – for about four days when this terrorist ogre was stalking the streets of New York and people discovered he actually was a human being. And that was a very, very important stepping stone in the peace process because it strengthened Adams' position with the Republican grassroots and in particular weakened the opponents in the IRA - opponents to his peace process and Clinton, of course, is responsible for that. And Clinton is seen as being as the American President who opened up the White House to the Irish-Americans – you know you still see these characters from that day getting dewy eyed about the drunken nights they had in the White House, you know, which they yearn to return to etc etc and there's a possibly of course if Hillary is elected that will happen once more. And it brings back all those sort of good memories Irish-America has of the Clintons so it will do her no harm.
SB: And also coming coming back to Hillary: If you watch the Democratic Party debates she's forever talking about all her foreign policy experience and it wouldn't hurt to find a foreign policy success. You wouldn't want to be talking about Syria or Iraq or Libya so at least she can say: Here, I can celebrate a real, good success.
EM: Well if she's going to claim personal success for Northern Ireland that is like a big stretch, quite seriously. She dabbled around the edges of the peace process with the women's movement – and there are one or two embarrassing incidents that one could talk about – but in terms of like being directly involved and claiming her role made a difference - that would be difficult to find any evidence to support that. Her husband's a different matter altogether, of course, but not her. She was very much on the periphery and she played the classic women's role: She went and saw the women, she went and saw the women's movement and you know “acceptable women” who the Northern Ireland Office deemed fit enough to present her to, you know. And she talked about how the importance of all of this was for women. We're still waiting to see what the importance of that is, I mean given that abortion is still denied in Northern Ireland and gay marriage is still denied, etc etc, those sort of results have not come forth like the promise that was there in the words of people like Hillary at the time.
SB: But Ed the story is, and if you don't believe me just read The Irish Voice, that Hillary brought Catholic and Protestant women together who never talked to each other before – and so behind the scenes she was doing the grassroots work to empower the Good Friday Agreement.
EM: That's nonsense! That's absolute nonsense! And it made no difference anyway – that women's stuff, really. You see the thing about the peace process is that it was really all tied up and delivered long before the Good Friday Agreement and long before negotiations. I mean the important party in the Good Friday Agreement were the Provos. Were the Provos going to end their war and were they going to end it on terms which were amenable and acceptable to Unionism and to the British and to the Irish government as well? And they had signaled long, long before, even long before the 1994 ceasefire, in private and in great secrecy they signaled this, but increasingly after 1994 more openly and candidly to all sorts of people including Unionist politicians, that they were prepared to do things like accept the Principle of Consent. You know there were stumbling blocks over the decommissioning of weapons but I think everyone recognised that at some point they would even do that – it was just a question of time and the right circumstances. The fact that there were some women prancing around saying that they were part of all of this great, sudden change of mood etc in Northern Ireland was first of all a gross exaggeration and secondly didn't make a damned but of difference because the real players were in the Republican paramilitary groups and, to a lesser extent, the Loyalists and they had signaled, as I said, long before Hillary came out to meet people like Joyce McCartan that they were prepared to do the deal.
SB: But also I believe that those Protestant and Catholic women didn't need Hillary to talk to each other.
EM: No – again it was an exaggeration. For example there was one very famous meeting that Hillary went to, the Teapot Meeting, which she trots out every now and again – Sidney Blumenthal does that for her as well – reminding her of the importance of this teapot. This teapot was a gift presented to her by Joyce McCartan. And she was a member of a community group in the Lower Ormeau area and they had links with some Loyalist women's groups who were associated with the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and the Joyce McCartan community group is associated with the Official Republican Movement, otherwise known as the Official IRA. And the Official IRA and the UVF had had a strange harmonious relationship dating way back to the mid-1960's when the Officials thought they recognised in the UVF sort of working class radicalism and they reached out and there were all sorts of alliances made with them over the years. And really when Hillary Clinton was meeting this women's group in particular she was meeting the UVF and the Official Republican Movement's representatives in a sense and in that sense they certainly weren't representative of the Nationalist population because the Republican Movement got a tiny fraction of a vote and in the area where Joyce McCartan operated the most popular parties were Sinn Féin and the SDLP and the Officials were way, way, way behind them. So it was an exaggeration to begin with and it was a distortion as well. And of course, the added twist to that particular story is that the McCartan Family, the male members of it, were well known in that area as thieves and vagabonds and burglars and house breakers. And indeed they broke into our house one time. And it was well known that they were more or less allowed to get away with this stuff by the local RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) who saw in their activity an opportunity to build up a demand for normal policing. In other words, the more houses that were broken into in these areas the more was the demand for normal policing which the IRA could not provide ie stop these burglars and put them aside. And when the cops came to my house in response to the burglary you know I put this to them and they said: You'd have to take this up with Special Branch, Sir. And for me it was a sort of an implicit admission that this was the case – the Special Branch were allowing the McCartans to do this. And so the joke went round when Joyce McCartan presented the teapot to Hillary Clinton at this meeting in South Belfast, the joke went round that a voice was heard at the back of the room saying: Oy! I recognise that teapot – it was nicked from our house two years ago! And that was the way in which Hillary's liaison with these people was actually greeted on the ground where it really mattered – with a certain amount of amusement and ridicule.
JM: Ed, I just want to talk about the election process of picking George Mitchell. I mean first of all there are no elections. He was selected by whatever committee now forms the Saint Patrick's Day Parade Committee – like he could have been picked last year or five years ago – I mean gone are the days of picking Michael Flannery or even Peter King – somebody local from the area. Surely to God there's enough distant relations here in New York City of people who signed The Proclamation in Dublin and kept the focus on 1916 and just like we're doing now – we're talking about 1998 and Hillary and how I have no doubt there'll be a story leaked: She was the one that forced Bill – Yes! Give the visa. Yes! Push this. It was me pushing Bill to do it because she's running for the presidency now – and as a political stroke I think it's going to work. I mean the only one of the papers that'll be championing this, as you know, will be The Irish Voice – the only one sadder might be Niall O'Dowd that he wasn't picked for bringing peace to Northern Ireland!
EM: Well maybe that day will come. (all laugh)
JM: Well, yes, I mean I have no doubt in the near future – he will be the next Grand Marshal!
SB: And certainly if Hillary gets to the White House – he's just pining for those receptions!
JM: You know what, Ed? I want you to maybe explain to our audience the difference perceptions of what went on in 1916. I just read from The Irish News at the beginning of the show that Arlene Foster, who will head up the Democratic Unionist Party, said that she has no intentions of attending any 1916 commemorations because they were like traitors to the Crown and they attacked the very foundation of her state; she said they attacked the United Kingdom and why would she involve herself with anything like that? And yet you'll have Sinn Féin tripping over themselves to lay wreaths for World War I at the Cenotaph and the Battle of the Somme. Belfast City Council just allocated fifty thousand pounds for commemorations for that but nothing for 1916.
EM: Yes. It's going to be – I mean I suppose the best way to describe the 1916 Centenary celebrations or remembrance in The North at least is that it will be confined largely to the Catholic/Nationalist community and it will be about trying to stake claim to association with 1916, with Sinn Féin in particular making the claim that the process that they're involved in, the Good Friday Agreement, the power-sharing government etc, is the culmination and the working out of 1916 and the aims of the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion will be realised via this process which they have embarked on. The next stage of which would, from their point of view, ideally see Sinn Féin in government in The South, preferably leading the government – that we shall see - but you cannot divorce these celebrations and the build up to the celebrations – because we're not entirely sure when the election's going to take place – it looks like it will take place before the Easter commemorations - in which case this preparatory period becomes more important in terms of staking out this claim and also building up a sort of Nationalistic/patriotic type of atmosphere in The South which would be conducive to a Sinn Féin vote out in the time of the election so you can't divorce it from the politics of The South at the moment.
SB: But Ed, coming back to the United States: As you said we don't know who picked George Mitchell or why but people like me who have a suspicious mind have to notice that the New York State primary is April nineteenth, just a month later – and we can't predict the future but Bernie Sanders is still in it at that point...
EM: ...Well, I was going to ask you: I mean is there any indication that Bernie Sanders is going to be invited to the Saint Patrick's Day parade?
SB: Don't hold your breath.
EM: No, I wouldn't think so.
SB: No, no, but because all sorts of people will think Hillary's going to win and would love being invited to the White House and may even think, as you were saying, that Hillary might facilitate the process of the new and wonderful united Ireland led by Sinn Féin in both parts of Ireland. So there's many great advantages to this from Hillary Clinton's point of view and from what you might call the establishment in the New York Irish community.
JM: And Ed, maybe you could talk more about the Loyalist point of view because 1916 really represents to them the creation of Northern Ireland – because that's the process that got started.
EM: Well, it is in a sense although, of course, don't forget the pure Unionists of that day wanted the entire island to stay part of The Empire. The idea of partition was, to Unionists like Carson, was repugnant. They didn't want to see – they wanted to keep the whole island as part of the United Kingdom. But you've also got to remember that for Unionists and Loyalist 1916 for them does not mean the Easter Rebellion it means the Battle of the Somme. It brings back the memory of this horrible slaughter on the First World War battlefields of Flanders in which divisions of loyal Orangemen and Protestants raised by Carson and raised by the anti-Home Rule Unionists from 1912 onwards who formed the Ulster Volunteer Force and volunteered en masse to join the British Army and that day they were slaughtered in the tens of thousands and it became a sort of symbol for them of their sacrifice and loyalty to the British Crown. And for them that made what was happening in Dublin a couple of months earlier even more of a crime, even more of an act of treachery and so on and so forth. So 1916 symbolises, if you like, the major political and cultural and other differences that exist in Ireland.
SB: But Ed, coming back to The Somme: The Unionists up to this day say: Look, what we did in The Somme means the British government owe us, they owe us, the protection of our special position in The North.
EM: Yes, that's very important and it's one of two aspects of Unionism and Loyalism that unless the observer who's trying to get hold/ grasp this story and understand this story - unless they can get their minds, get their heads round this idea then they're going to have great difficulty understanding it. Not only is there this thought that they gave great sacrifice for the Crown and therefore the Crown owes them a huge debt but also implicit in that is this notion of what is called 'conditional loyalty' which is very much part of like the Scottish Presbyterian tradition and background and it is this that: We will give you our loyalty but only as long as you give loyalty to us. And it explains the paradox which a lot of the media could not understand, particularly in the early days of the Loyalist paramilitary groups, you know, here they were out – in those days don't forget - they were fighting the RUC and the British Army. I mean we forget – you know the history of this thing has been going on for so long that we forget the very, very early days, I mean the first policeman killed in Belfast was killed by a Loyalist gunman on the Shankill - Constable Victor Arbuckle, killed on the day that the Hunt Report came out announcing the disbandment of the B Specials. There were regular gun battles between Loyalists – and that night there were huge gun battles between UVF gunmen and British soldiers. And there were gun battles between paratroopers in East Belfast and Loyalists. And the media could not understand this: Why are Loyalists - they say they're loyal and they were fighting against British troops? Well, they're fighting against the British troops because they suspected a sellout by the British back in those early days and that sort of was made possible by this idea which is very central to Loyalism, along with the idea of being owed this huge debt, that we will give loyalty to Britain – and you see it very strongly in the DUP - we'll give loyalty to Britain only as long as Britain is loyal to us. And it's within an idea you also have – I mean a lot of people in the very early days of The Troubles, people like Seán McBride, thought they could see within that concept a way, a lever, in which to get the Unionists to leave the Union and come into an all-Ireland situation. And it's still there – it's still there this idea - so maybe some other generation will be able to work at that mechanism but it hasn't worked so far but it's there and unless that you grasp that you don't understand people like Arlene Foster.
SB: Well Ed, thank you very much. We've been talking Ed Moloney , the author of A Secret History of the IRA. Ed, thank you for helping us understand both the Saint Patrick's Day Parade, Sinn Féin and even the Loyalists. So we'll talk to you another time.
EM: My pleasure.
(ends time stamp ~ 52:15)