2017-06-14 / Features

"The Journey" - Backseat Drivers Of The Irish Peace Process

Frances Scanlon

Colm Meaney & Timothy Spall in a scene from the film, The Journey.Colm Meaney & Timothy Spall in a scene from the film, The Journey.Call it 'dumb Irish Luck' at your peril.

A film - "The Journey" (an official selection for the 73rd Venice Film Festival)  - is released exactly at a moment in time where the screen is a mirror on the day's most challenging political pandemic - extremism - while offering a blue print for compromise, conciliation.      

When it comes to matters of life and death, politically-speaking, one-size does not fit all.

Neither does resolution of centuries' old conflicts yield to pre-fabricated endings.

The yearning for peace, the absence of war do not often keep apace with the random far-flung and seemingly far-off possibilities for conflict cessation.   

But Irish poet Laureate Seamus Heaney might have pre-configured "The Journey" in his "Doubletake" from:

THE CURE OF TROY, published in 1991, wherein he wrote:  

     “History says don’t hope                                                                                                               On this side of the grave.
     But then, once in a lifetime
     the longed for tidal wave
    Of justice can rise up
    And hope and history rhyme.”

Ironically neither Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, who died on August 30, 2013, nor Ian Paisley who died on September 12, 2014, or Martin McGuinness who died on March 21, 2017 lived to see the full flowering of the fruits of their collective imaginings, leaps of faith well-landed far enough away from a war of attrition that no one could win, that might have carried on endlessly, consuming many, many more lives in that process. .

In the harsh all too horrific time-frame of "the Irish troubles" that spanned well over three decades, the notion of movies being written and produced about the process that would advance peace would be deemed laughable if not downright insensitive.

The absence of war, bloodshed and violence if not unimaginable was surely beyond this life's redemption.

Although technically set in Scotland, "The Journey" was filmed in Northern Ireland, where the film-making industry is experiencing a boom demonstrating that the manifestations of peace are manifold.    

Yet long long before Messrs. McGuinness and Paisley undertook their ultimate journey to peace they were fierce warriors, partisans and patriots of their respective 'causes', diametrically opposed to one another, their constituents and view points.  In plain English:  they were enemies.

Paisley, a loyalist politician and Protestant life-long evangelical minister, in 1951 co-founded the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.  His followers were known as Paisleyites

and he preached to them a fiery sermon targeting Catholicism, ecumensim and homosexuality for scornful ridicule.

In 1971 founded the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which he led for almost forty years.

McGuinness, born in 1950, and an original member of the Official IRA, who switched allegiance to the Provisional IRA, was by the age of 21 the second-in-command of the IRA in Derry, a position he held at the time of Bloody Sunday. January 30, 1972.  

After convictions and imprisonment for para-military activities, McGuinness became increasingly prominent in Sinn Fein, the political wing of the republican movement.  By 1982, he was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, representing Londonderry, although he did not take up his seat.   

How then do these two self-styled fire-brands for truth and justice, their way, without any apologia, become the back-seat drivers of the Irish Peace Process, in pursuit of a shared goal: a livable peace?

Curiously, however, it's befitting that two iconic symbols of 20th century Northern Ireland extremism would find themselves in the early 21st century driving the Northern Ireland peace process together in the back set of a car.  

It gives a whole new meaning to 'making out', a u-turn on the highway of Life.

But what transpired, conspired and inspired their ultimate bond of friendship that lasted and shaped the Northern Ireland political landscape to this day?

The consensus:  their mutual presence in Fife, Scotland, from October 11 through 13, 2006 for multi-party talks from which sprung the St. Andrews Agreement between the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland's political parties in relation to the devolution of regional power. The two largest political parties, with which each was affiliated, namely the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, and the other major political parties, concurred that there would be a restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the formation of a new Northern Ireland Executive and a decision by Sinn Fein to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland, courts and the rule of law.  

That framework process had been in play for close two decades prior to that seminal moment but it's what happened there that opened the head and the heart of each man to the other, seeing 'the other' in each other. 

There purportedly been a customary process for Northern Ireland politicians when traveling overseas to travel with an opposite member in order to up the ante on survival should someone be targeting one or the other.  

During the 2006 Peace Talks in Scotland, Ian Paisley's 50th wedding anniversary was afoot commanding his return to Belfast and his travelling companion was none other than - Martin McGuinness.

By the end of that day the two men who had never theretofore spoken, with Paisley repeatedly ignoring McGuinness' overtures in previous years to engage, were suddenly land-locked high and dry with one another.  They became each other's salvation and in the bye and bye 'saved' countless other lives.

Yet right now that long period - 1997 - 2007 - of stabilizing Northern Ireland political relations into the contemporary power-sharing modality is in radical danger of being up-ended.

It's name:  BREXIT, a demonstration of English nationalism that is as tempestuous as any from the not-so-distant past.

Where are two of the 20th/21st centuries back-seat drivers of political pandemonium transformed into peace pirates when needed the most?

In a recent interview with BAFTA award-winning British director and producer, Nick Hamm, who spent many years as a resident director with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Belfast native expressed the view that many are appalled by the notion of the re-institution of a hard border between the north and south of the Isle of Ireland.

Hamm said:  "I don't think any side will stand for that".

In that opinion he reflects an acknowledgment of the enormous contribution of the European Union to funding peace programs and supporting the aftermath of the peace process, that otherwise might not be forthcoming from the British Government.  The European Union needs the Irish and the Irish need the European Union.  

The push to 'remain alliance' enjoys a cross border, cross community parity of esteem.  

Indeed Hamm believes that both Paisley and McGuinness, were they still alive would be antagonistic to the re-assertion of such a border, stating:  "No politician is seeking a hard border. Part of being part of Europe - don't need concrete blocks in the middle of the road", as a hard border would be 'a big disaster'.

As for the men in "The Journey", director Hamm says:  "Peace process carried by two guys who formed a unique political friendship.  If those two gents can find allegiance, other people could as they were the extremes of their tribes", albeit acknowledging that there is "nobody around now that can replicate what they created" as neither groomed a political heir..

Further, in Hamm's view, "They grew up with war, they were not carpet-baggers, that gave them a voice, including that of McGuinness in de-commissioning the weapons of the IRA".  

As well, Hamm offers that the new generations only remember what their parents tell them about the Irish civil war, have no interest in retrenching nor vested interest in re-creating war. 

But what vexes: will  Life imitate art, the art of 'The Journey"?

Theresa May, the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party - only the second woman to hold both positions - the first being Margaret Thatcher - may have another historical commonality with Baroness Thatcher.

In the 1970s and beyond Downing Street adopted a view consistent with the will of the Unionist Majority relative Northern Ireland, i.e., that the perceived political danger associated with the cost of trying to impose a settlement on the Unionist majority was too high. Downing Street left bad enough alone throughout the 1970s with no negotiations engaged whatsoever.

However, in light of the escalating costs associated with maintaining troops in Northern Ireland and the equally escalating body count on both sides, the posture of 'no initiative' was abandoned by thne-Prime Minister Thatcher.

The conundrum for Prime Minister May in navigating the BREXIT impact on Northern Ireland is arguably equally treacherous.   

The peace process itself is now being characterized as 'fragile' inasmuch as Ms. May is endeavoring to craft a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party head, Arlene Foster, that would facilitate the formation of a government by the Conservatives with the support of the Ulster Unionists.

The singularly most redemptive aspect of "The Journey" is that you don't have to suspend disbelief.  "The Journey" is not fake news.

Two political leaders of murderous extreme para-military forces made peace, for real.

In today's hyped-up, super-rigged political juggernaut, that's the genuine article.

Or as Hamm himself enunciated:  "The Journey" is a 'celebration of the art of compromise, celebrate that special relationship'.  

Make peace:  live longer, better, together for another day 'til forever.

Time will tell.

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