August Books 36) Ringside Seats: An Insider’s View of the Crisis in Northern Ireland – Robert Ramsay

Soon after I moved to Brussels in 1999, I was having lunch with John Cushnahan (then a Fine Gael MEP, and a former leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland) in the European Parliament, when he briefly broke off our conversation to greet Robert Ramsay as he passed by. Cushnahan, not a political lightweight in any sense of the word, is a somewhat acerbic personality, so I was struck by the respect he clearly had for our fellow-countryman, a senior European Parliament official, who I frankly had never heard of before.

Well, I know about him now. The core market for this book – people who have escaped Northern Irish politics for a career in Brussels – is admittedly rather small, but I certainly qualify. Ramsay was a high-flyer in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, where he worked from 1964 to 1983, and then came to Brussels until his retirement in 1999 (though he remains engaged). Most remarkably, he served as PPS to Brian Faulkner, when the latter was Minister for Commerce in the late 1960s and again when he was the last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. After a gap of a few years, he then found himself doing the same job for Roy Mason who was the Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the late 1970s. He had always been a firm European, and welcomed the growth of the European project at the same time as the Northern Ireland situation deteriorated. He moved to Brussels to become the secretary-general of the European Democrats group of MEPs, and then masterminded the election of his boss as President of the European Parliament in 1987 for an intense term which ended in 1989. Apart from that he did various other public service jobs and took time out to write a book about Corsica.

The book comes across as a clear and honest account of the view he had of events. He is not awfully sensitive to the grievances of Catholics under Stormont rule; while he is at pains to rule out institutionalised discrimination over, say, the siting of the new university at Coleraine, he expresses utter bafflement as to why these decisions were made. There is a repeated theme of the bad stuff not really having happened on his watch, and therefore uncertainty as to whether it happened at all. (Though he also has a blind spot about the Orange Order, for which he has no understanding or sympathy.)

His account of working with Faulkner is probably the most interesting part of the book, in particular the dynamics around the suspension of Stormont and introduction of Direct Rule in 1972, which probably includes the most intimate portrayal of what it was like to work with Faulkner that we will ever get. Ramsay is clearly still conflicted about these events, and his account is contradictory with itself in places, as well as introducing elements that were new to me. First off, he admits up front that once the British Army had been deployed in August 1969, Stormont’s pretensions to autonomy were gone. But he then blames Edward Heath for “betraying” Faulkner, by abolishing Stormont in March 1972, motivated (in an original and intriguing analysis) by fear of possible French objections to British and Irish membership of the EEC (as it then was), rather than by any real security concerns (which were almost entirely Heath’s responsibility by then anyway). By his own account, the die had been cast almost three years earlier, and in any case from Ramsay’s perspective (as from Heath’s) the price was surely one worth paying. But that is perhaps to look at it too intellectually. It is clear that the introduction of direct rule killed Ramsay’s sense of loyalty to the concept of Britishness, and shaped the rest of his career.

One other passage from the 1971 period caught my eye. The Faulkner of Ramsay’s account is a moderniser and thus a reformer, rather than a sensitive or strategic thinker, motivated to reform local government and housing by the obvious requirements of the day. But his arrival as Prime Minister is presented as a genuine new beginning for organic evolution of the Stormont apparatus into something resembling what we have today, cynically disrupted by the SDLP at the behest of the Irish government. Ramsay mourns the casual discarding of the olive branch offered by Faulkner in March 1971. But I have to say that he is the only writer of the period who I have read who identifies this as a particular missed opportunity; his account may well reflect the wishful thinking inside Faulkner’s office, but it doesn’t appear to have been communicated well to the rest of the world if so. A bit further on, his defence of internment, a decision made by Faulkner in August 1971 with Ramsay present at many of the crucial discussions, is deeply unconvincing even on its own terms.

Ramsay’s subsequent career is not as fascinating (he was out of the country in the crucial 1973-74 period), but he has a great supply of anecdotes and personal glimpses – arguing taxation policy with Prince Philip, trying to chase lost government papers which a junior minister thinks may have been fed to the pigs, Margaret Thatcher squeezing his knee. His move to Brussels came at a time when the Tories had just set up their own little group of MEPs, but at a time when they were the more pro-European of the two main British parties, and Ramsay was able to jockey the relatively small group into a position of greater importance without too much difficulty, to the point that he was able to win the tightest election ever for the presidency of the Parliament starting from a very low base (he recounts with justifiable glee how he managed to swing the crucial votes of Fianna Fáil and Jean-Marie Le Pen). In the mid-1990s, he was involved with the setting up of the EU’s special funding programme for community projects in the name of the peace process (of which in general he takes a rather jaded view).

He finishes with some reflections on the future of Ulster in a Europe which he expects to split into fast-track and associated states (the latter, he believes, to be a potential parking spot for Turkey, whose membership he opposes for somewhat peculiar reasons). He sees the Union with Britain as a busted flush, and urges a more secure bedding of Ulster Scots as a European cultural identity; and he also sees this as possible in a post-Paisley environment (Paisley being one of several individuals of whom he has nothing good to say). Interesting thoughts, though I don’t see the DUP approaching this question with much imagination. He has received the unlikely support of veteran leftie Eamonn McCann.

There are some irritating errors with foreign names, including one appalling footnote about NATO which is probably libellous, but in general it is a much more interesting book than the title and rather drab cover would suggest.

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