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2 September 2016

Lionel Shriver: Why I was wrong about Northern Ireland

Although I wasn’t presuming that the Troubles would continue till Doomsday, I didn’t see the 1998 Belfast Agreement coming.

By Lionel Shriver

Based from 1987 to 1999 in Belfast, I was one of those resident American buttinskies whom unionists so resented that they ­rarely noticed I was on their side. Because I am cynical about human nature, for years my instincts were sound. No, in a world of talks about talks about talks, there would be no political settlement; yes, the IRA would break its latest ceasefire (duh).

The risk of being a smarty-pants is overconfidence. Although I wasn’t presuming that the Troubles would continue till Doomsday, I didn’t see the 1998 Belfast Agreement coming.

In the weekly commentary that I delivered on Radio Ulster’s call-in show Talkback, I declaimed that holding out for the “decommissioning” of paramilitary weaponry was especially unrealistic. (Remember that, in 1995, republicans were adamant that they would disarm only if the police and British army disarmed as well: high farce. Oh, how I sometimes miss that place!) In an editorial in 1996, I compared the expectation with implausible scenes in crime dramas in which an unarmed lawman demands sternly, “Give me the gun,” and the docile bad guy hands over his revolver. My refrain ran, “Decommissioning? It ain’t gonna happen.”

It happened. Not significantly until 2001, but I had been unwavering about never. I was doubly wrong, too. Not only had I reasoned that, for the IRA, destroying its arsenal would smack of humiliating military surrender, I had also argued: “The only reward besides talks with which the British government can tempt Sinn Fein and the fringe loyalists is increased leniency with prisoners. However, the Brits are constrained by public opinion sympathetic with atrocity victims. The most the British might offer is mildly increased remission and phased release. Surely only amnesty would be enough of a victory to entice full-scale disarmament?”

Clearly, I regarded a prison­er amnesty as even more far-fetched than decommissioning.

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Surprise! The Belfast Agreement handed politically motivated prisoners a get-out-of-jail-free card. Desperate to secure a historic accord to cement his legacy, Tony Blair evidently didn’t give a toss about public sympathy with atrocity victims and
their families.

Being wrong and acknowledging it are good for the intellect and good for the soul. It’s humbling to do so. It’s civilising: we remember in an argument that the opposing party might possibly have a point. Past mistakes introduce an intelligent hint of doubt into our certainties. They keep us on our toes, inducing historical sea legs.

For example, I learned from decommissioning-after-all never to underestimate the deus ex machina. After the 9/11 attacks, suddenly the ethics of terrorism didn’t seem so tortuously complex any more. They seemed a no-brainer. When even Guardianistas began to concede that maybe terrorism was sort of bad, Northern Irish paramilitaries grew more inclined to distinguish themselves as nice, reasonable terrorists, not the odious kind, and decommissioning commenced in earnest in the shadow of the crumbled twin towers. I should have learned that journalists ought to resist the temptation to foretell events – though none of this stopped me from blabbing to all and sundry that the Remain camp would win . . .

Most of all, error in retrospect teaches us not to get overly attached to our opinions. That attachment makes it seem as if we have something to lose when circumstances change and our positions begin to look dodgy. Clinging to set views makes us inflexible and obstructive. For citizens and journalists alike, what matters is not being right, but what happens. The last paragraph of that pessimistic 1996 editorial begins, “I hope I’m wrong.” Now, I hope that I did hope I was wrong.

But I bet I didn’t.

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, “The Mandibles: a Family, 2029-2047”, is published by Borough Press