“The Biggest Difficulty in any Conflict is to get a Pause in the Anger”

RTÉ Northern Editor Tommie Gorman speaks to Ronan LynaghAs the current class of the Washington Ireland Program are delving into their summer program in Washington DC, RTE’s Northern Editor Tommie Gorman offered up his time to share his thoughts on leadership, and it’s many guises, on the current relationship between the North and South of Ireland, and on the place he feels is the template for post conflict democracy in the world, Northern Ireland.

Meeting at the Merrion Inn near the RTÉ studio, we began talking about why the Peace Process worked and what it had taken to get Northern Irish society to where it is now.  Tommie began with possibly the most thought provoking sentence of the interview. “The biggest challenge in any conflict is to get a pause in the anger.”  We are all too aware of the anger and hatred that existed, and that manifested itself through tit for tat violence for many years.  So what had brought about the pause, what had happened to bring peace to such a conflict ridden area?  “Sometimes things happen because all or most of the circumstances are in place to facilitate a major change.  When you think about Northern Ireland and why the magic happened, it was probably the one occasion when all the lights came on at the same time.”

He continued. “The DUP, for decades, a party of protest, successful in continually undermining those shaping up to take risks, found itself as the main voice of unionism – it was no longer valid to be nothing more than a party of outsiders, throwing rocks and insults at those inside the tent.  Sinn Fein ran out of road with its armalite in one hand and ballot box in the other strategy. The murder of Robert Mc Cartney and the Northern Bank robbery proved that if you attempt to be Sinn Fein/IRA, the peace process/political strategy would not be credible and the idea of making political progress south of the border would not be an option. As Teddy Kennedy said to them in early 2005 when he was refusing to meet Gerry Adams but instead welcomed the sisters of Robert Mc Cartney, “there is a time to hold them and a time to fold them – that time is now.”  The improved oversight structures for contentious elements such as policing were by then in place: Nuala O’Loan was an able Police Ombudsman and Hugh Orde was leading the reformed police service, the PSNI.  The British Army bases were being dismantled, one by one.”

As Gorman continued, his admiration for the excellent leadership skills involved became apparent. “Nudging along the discussions, preparing the major players to take risks, you had the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, the British PM Tony Blair and following on Clinton’s strategy, George Bush.  And to cap it all you had Ian Paisley, for so long the bogeyman of nationalists, preparing to contemplate to share power with Sinn Fein provided they delivered on their ‘end of armed struggle, exclusively politics’ strategy.  What happened in the first few years of the last decade was that all the elements and parties required to deliver that vision were in place.”

He talked further about the individual leaders involved in shaping the Peace Process, and some of the qualities they brought, as well as lessons they learned.  “You were so fortunate in that you had guys with a range of qualities. Blair was a gambler, in the case of Northern Ireland it worked fantastically.  It was a disaster with Iraq, he ran out of road in Iraq, but Northern Ireland was the high point for Blair.  Ahern was a pragmatist.  He was naturally suspicious, but he was also extremely dedicated to trying to make it work.  He left his dying mother’s bedside to go up and lock down the Good Friday Agreement. That’s how dedicated he was. And then in Clinton there was, I suppose, a film star quality and the ability to make the phone call at the right time. He had that extra lever of influence.  So you were very lucky in terms of those three outside parties”.

Gorman was in no doubt as to whom the bulk of the credit should go to. “In terms of the actual players, Hume is the most important person in Northern Irish history, since the foundation of the state.” His personal admiration for the man was clear.  “Hume had the ideas.  Hume had charisma.  Hume carried the place like a cross, and his health was ultimately broken by carrying that cross.  But it was Hume’s template.  This idea of live and let live, spill our sweat not our blood, it was Hume’s model.”  Regarding Adams and McGuinness Gorman felt “they discovered the value of generosity, holding your tongue.  For instance, Paisley used to describe McGuinness as ‘my deputy’, and McGuinness just went along with it, even though in practice they were co-equals.  He’d just laugh about it”. “They learned that if you got a pause in the anger and violence, and if you used generosity, and showed willingness to actually negotiate with people you could really make in-roads.”  But of course it took more than political leadership alone, and Gorman spoke with great respect for some of the day to day leadership that he saw. “There were so many good people, those who have been the go-between’s, have helped in the searches for the disappeared, people who just tried to get kids off the streets during the riots.  There were so many people who were just devoid of ego.”

Throughout his 12 years in Brussels as European Editor for the RTE, he maintained his interest in Northern affairs, writing several pieces during the nineties, before going back as Northern Editor in 2001. The Good Friday Agreement meant that he would be going back to a very different Northern Ireland than the one he had left. He spoke about some of the skills necessary in being an effective reporter in a place like Belfast, and then moved on to his own ties to the place. “Well, you have to try and be fair, and open.  Open to new ideas.  And a key thing up there is stamina. You don’t have to be a great writer, but you need stamina.  A willingness to work longer, not just a 40 hour week job, or a Monday to Friday job, it has to be a way of life.  But, in my case, it’s a huge privilege. I was in Brussels for 12 years.  I saw the collapse of Communism, the introduction of the single currency, and now I’m in Northern Ireland.  I’d forgotten how bad it was when I decided to go back, and there was a draw.  I was always interested.  I wrote pieces about it in ’94, ’98, just wondering was it going to get around the corner.  And I went back full of optimism, because there had been the GFA in 1998. Now, it wasn’t working, the thing was sort of stuttering and falling apart, but there was a plan of sorts.”

“So it was very interesting to go back and just see it get over the line, and now, now it’s just fantastic. It’s energy giving.  It is the ultimate experiment in democracy and conflict resolution.  It’s fascinating, really, really fascinating.  And it’s kind of inspiring, as you see the positive sides in people.  And I can genuinely say, as someone who comes from an Irish Catholic background, that I have as much in common now with people from completely different traditions, as I have with my own tribe.  They’re a very interesting tribe, Northern Irish people, and they’re only working it out.  They’re only working out who they are and what they stand for.  There is now a creativity there. And I suppose, what has happened over the past 4 or 5 years, is that the positive juices have had a chance to flow.  And now I’m back and you get very, very attached to the place. You develop an affection for the place.” He paused, somewhat lost in thought, and then looked up as if having realised something.   “I’m probably at the stage where I’m more at home there than I am down south.”  His time in Northern Ireland has clearly developed a bond that runs far deeper than just a place of work.  This deeper connection only confirmed the knowledge and passion with which he spoke.

Of course, there is still much to work out. Gorman was fully aware of the lingering issues and shared his own view on perhaps how best to move on.  “But still the big issue there is how the hell they sort out the past.  And that continues to dog them, haunt them, stop them, and interrupt them.  I’m coming to the conclusion that the best way to deal with your past, the bad things you’ve done in your past, is how you live your present.  If you try and respect each other and say let’s never let this happen again and let’s put in place systems and structures that will ensure there won’t be that level of anger, well then you’ve a chance.  And I think that’s probably the most productive way to deal with the past.”

On the ambiguous relationship between the North and the South, Gorman looked at the effects of growing up with such relentless conflict only a few hours from those in the South.  “The South has a schizophrenic, love/hate relationship with the North.  It was seen in the Presidential election campaign where a pretty educated women said to Martin McGuiness, ‘what are you doing down here, why don’t you go back up there?’ Now, what she didn’t seem to realise was that he would be entitled to an Irish Passport, and would consider himself an Irish citizen.  I think part of that, I suppose, wariness, certainly for my generation, stems from day after day, year after year, turning on the radio and hearing about awful violence. It was something over which you’d no control, and of innocent people dying. And the sense of futility and of utter violence that came from that, I think that turned a lot of us off, as there was just this sense of guilt and helplessness.”

He also spoke of the emergence of an ignorance amongst the younger generation towards the North.  “Among the young there is a disconnect, a lack of knowledge, a lack of history.  In some respects they have grown up in a world without borders.  They’ve grown up in a virtual world where you can Skype, where you can drive up to the North, where you can order something from Ebay or Amazon.  Where you can jump on a Ryanair flight, where you’re a citizen of Europe.  Where Irishness doesn’t have the kind of meaning that it had for the founding fathers and mothers of the State.  “Like, an awful lot of them, when they watch ‘In the Name of the Father’, or ‘Michael Collins’, or even Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ for that matter, their version of history is what Oliver Stone is telling them, and they don’t know whether it’s true or not.  They don’t know where the fault lines or inaccuracies are.  And that’s just one of the inevitabilities of the passage of time.” While there may be many Irish teens nowadays who would be a marked contrast to these thoughts, there is certainly some truth in an over reliance on information the easy way, something only confounded by a media driven culture with short snappy headlines perhaps more the order of the day, rather than well founded and researched knowledge.

As the Washington Ireland Program was founded on the basis of the relationship between Ireland and America, talk shifted to the key role of the US in the resolution of the Northern Irish conflict. “It’s very interesting to note how many Irish Unionists are quite comfortable going across to the US on St. Patricks Day.  It’s very interesting how they realise that the Irish part of their tag has much more influence in the United States than the British side.  And in more recent years you’ve seen an emergence in the interest of the Ulster-Scots, and the US presidents who come from that line.”  He continued. “America has been a very positive space.  It has been a meeting ground, and it has given people the opportunity to see the bigger picture, and it’s given them the space to befriend each other.  There’s has been no negative side to the American influence, and it’s been wonderful in that regard.”

It would have been remiss to spend time talking of conflict resolution in Ireland, and not talk to Tommie about his infamous interview with Roy Keane in the wake of the Saipan incident during the 2002 World Cup, where the Irish captain left the squad days before the Tournament began over an internal bust-up with manger Mick McCarthy. He spoke highly of his dealings with both Keane and McCarthy, and recognised that for him, it was never one or the other, just an impossible situation that both had been backed into. “It was tragic.  Our best player, certainly our best leader, wasn’t going to be there at the tournament. Keane, at the time I met him, it was very obvious to me that he wanted to go back.  He wanted to play for Ireland. He wanted to sort it out. He wanted to win.  But, it was just one of those impossible situations, where the angry words had been said, and getting the different parties to stand back and do the right thing just didn’t happen. It divided the country. But just sometimes people get into corners, and it’s very, very hard to get out.  Keane is a perfectionist, and I suppose the obvious thing to me at the time was that hard and all as he is on other people, he’s even harder on himself”.

In giving advice to the young participants of this year’s Washington Ireland Program there were no lofty sentimental wishes or some over used carpe diem-esque notions.  All too aware of the natural growth that will occur by virtue of their involvement in such a program, his advice was on the more practical and bigger picture side.

“Learn about what’s different.  Not just between Ireland and America, but Europe and America.  Study the health service in the US, as it’s so different to what we have here. Look at their social welfare system, as again that’s completely different to the European model.   The emphasis they give to enterprise over there is huge.  Why did Clinton have such difficulty getting his health reforms through?  I’d also look at the dole and pension payments, as these are crucial elements of European society, and I suppose ones that are coming under big threat in the kind of reforms that are taking place now.  Also, take for instance something like education.  The prices people pay for third level education in the US, and the shape of the public education system. To compare and contrast these major societal themes would be very interesting.”

Learning about what’s different, indeed, learning about difference itself, is sure to be central to the summer that lies ahead of the WIP Class of 2012.