By Jude Collins (for the Irish News)
Last week the SDLP’s Alex Attwood said that if ‘paramilitarism’ was ended, all the objectives of reducing the number of British army bases and troops in Northern Ireland could be achieved by the end of this year.
He said this, as far as I know, without chuckling between sentences.
Unionist politicians like the UUP’s Danny Kennedy and the DUP’s Gregory Campbell responded in similar unsmiling mode, warning against troop reduction.
Maybe when they get indoors - to their offices, or in a dim corner of the Stormont bar - politicians from both sides gasp and giggle and slap their thighs.
Somewhere, out of public view, there must be release. How else could they manage to continue this side-splitting game where everyone pretends 5,000 heavily armed men don’t count and constitute ‘normalisation’?
It takes an effort to imagine what 5,000 looks like. Think of a bus queue with 10 people in it. Now think of 10 times that number - a queue of 100 people. Got it?
Now put 50 such queues end to end, and supply everyone in the queue with a submachine gun. Now you’re beginning to get some idea what normality here will look like, when we’ll be left with this happy-making figure of 5,000 British troops.
Odd that people would pretend such a massive force of gunmen didn’t matter. Maybe it’s the Pollyanna factor.
Keen to accentuate the positive, our politicians point to the several thousand British troops going home and sing mum on the thousands who will remain.
As a result, the reason for the continuing presence of these troops is avoided.
If they need somewhere to practice their killing arts, surely there’s enough room for them on Salisbury Plain or other MoD sites throughout England? Or is it a case of Good Friday Agreement (GFA) be damned, troops are needed here to keep an eye on the ungrateful natives in case they start up again?
The unionist attitude to a British presence here is a contradictory one. British troops they’re in favour of, British politicians they’d like to be shot of.
I still remember the shock of hearing Sammy Wilson complain to a TV camera about British ministers coming over here with their English accents and their overbearing ways.
This man was a unionist?
But that’s how it is.
The DUP are eager to wrest political control from Westminster because, like the rest of us, they prefer to run their own affairs.
Republicans too are caught in a paradox over the British presence. Presumably they’d like to see all British troops removed, but when’s the last time you heard a Sinn Féin politician say so?
And on the political front, as this newspaper’s letters page shows, there are those who see Sinn Féin’s involvement with Stormont as a betrayal.
In their eagerness to be rid of British ministers, their opponents say, Sinn Féin are administering British rule, doing their dirty work for them. Sinn Féin reject this and call on disaffected comrades to trust them - we will lead you to a united Ireland, they say.
Dissident republicans don’t buy that. They listen to David Trimble say that the GFA made the union with Britain stronger, they hear David’s errand boy Steven King say that unionists do discuss Irish unity but only when they’ve had a skinful of drink and are in need of a laugh, they look at the 5,000-plus gunmen in British army uniform - and they shout ‘Sell-out!’
So who’s codding who?
Well, here’s an answer I’ve heard from both right-wing nationalists and radical republicans.
The northern state came into being as a sectarian, bigoted entity - that was, literally, its raison d’etre.
Take away the institutionalised sectarianism and bigotry, and the state no longer makes sense.
If a central feature of Northern Ireland was a corralled and controlled Catholic population, the emergence of a confident Catholic population makes the whole enterprise look futile.
And in every area of life here, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Since even the DUP admit there’s no way back to the good-old bad-old days, and since Britain has made it clear she finds unionists as welcome as a facial carbuncle, the struggle to maintain as British this little corner of our island will become increasingly wearisome. It’s like holding an Orange march when there are no taigs to annoy: what’s the point?
I find that a persuasive argument. But while we wait to have it tested, could some courageous politician say out loud that 5,000 foreign gunmen in our midst will be an odd sort of normal?