The first time I got a big story into major national newspaper was in August 1971. I was working as a cub reporter on the local paper in Carlow. Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, had condemned the introduction of internment in the North by Brian Faulkner’s government. Ted Heath had ticked him off publicly, saying the Taoiseach had no business interfering in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom. And I got a story into the Irish Times that our local Roman Catholic Bishop had had a whack at Ted Heath off the altar of Carlow Cathedral, calling his comment ‘arrogant and petulant and manifestly untrue’.
It struck me even then that this was no way to deal with a crisis- political leaders catcalling across the Irish sea at one another, and religious leaders joining in for good measure. Grown up countries didn’t behave like this, I thought, and until governments in Dublin and London agreed to work together for peace, the extremists in both their camps could continue to hold them to ransom.
There were so many hurdles along the way. Bloody Sunday, where British security forces shot and killed unarmed citizens, ended the possibility that there could ever be an internal settlement of the conflict in Northern Ireland and alienated even the most moderate nationalist opinion. So many outrages and so many deaths built up over the next few years until the day in July 1976 that I was standing in the RTE office on the top floor of Fanum House in Great Victoria St in Belfast and the news came through of Ambassador Christopher Ewart Biggs and Judith Cooke’s murder by the IRA.
Mike Burns came on the lunchtime news and in his Leicester accent intoned: ‘Murder on Murphystown Road’. That tabloid heading stayed in my head. I knew Murphystown Road, its ditches yellow with gorse in the Spring. This was my beautiful country and this was not only a declaration of war on the lanes and fields I knew, on my state, the Republic, but also it was a declaration of war on something that I always knew was going to be vital to achieving peace on this island, the British Irish relationship. And it is such a tribute to so many people along the way including the late Jane Ewart Biggs and her family, that that relationship did not die back then, but that it developed.
Because from an early age, we were programmed against it. I remember coming home from primary school with stories of the famine, of the suppression of the Irish language and religion. It wasn’t untrue historically but it was incomplete, a history of victimhood, primed with poisonous warnings about pagan England, and slogans like ‘burn everything British but her coal’. Luckily, I came home to my mother who would put all these things in historical perspective for me. ‘We are separate from the British now’, she would say ‘We are separate and we are equal. You don’t have to resent people when you are equal to them’.
In a country where for so long political and moral arguments were won by derogatory references to the Brits, it has taken some time to develop a language of mutual respect, and ever before the troubles in Northern Ireland there were two other big divides: religion and world war 11. I saw it in my own family. Two aunts who trained as nurses in England and both joined the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service. Peggy worked in field hospitals set up behind the lineafter the D Day landings in 1944. After a colourful life, Peggy married a divorced Englishman. Raised eyebrows. Kitty married a Welshman and changed religion, becoming an usher in Canterbury Cathedral. More raised eyebrows. She would take great delight in sending Christmas cards of the Cathedral to my very orthodox Catholic father and the cards would land on the tiled hallway of our house like a gauntlet thrown down. After all, this was a time when Faith of our Fathers was sung before all-Ireland matches in Croke Park. When Kitty died, all her Irish Catholic relations turned up and joined in with great gusto as the Canterbury Cathedral choir sang ‘She moved through the Fair’ and her body was laid to rest in the Friends’ Garden, the War Memorial Garden at the Cathedral. It was a great British-Irish occasion.
England had given the aunts a better life than they would ever have had at home. More freedom, more colour, and above all the pursuit of happiness. In return, they were loyal to everything England stood for. There was no reason for us to regard that as a betrayal. But maybe a part of us did. Happy. The right to be happy? To marry who you wanted, divorced or not, Catholic or not? Oh no, we weren’t so sure about that.
Then there was the business of the second world war about which we are still even now defensive. The truth is that we probably hadn’t any option but neutrality at the time if we didn’t want a resumption of the bitter Civil War. We desperately wanted people to understand this. We knew it was almost impossible that the British ever would.
As a neutral Irishwoman, I had a difficult moment one November working for BBC Newsnight when I was handed a poppy to wear on air. When I demurred, the deputy editor, Tim Orchard, a decent man, said: ‘Olivia, it’s my duty to give you the poppy. Whether you wear it or not is up to you.’
So I took the poppy off to my presenter’s room and contemplated it. I don’t like wearing emblems anyway, but this one represented two world wars in which my family history diverged sharply from the British. I have a cutting from the front page of the Daily Telegraph in May/June 1916 with the headline: ‘Our Heroic North Sea Dead.’ Beside that story is a picture of a dozen Sinn Fein prisoners arrested after the Rising, and staring out from the middle of them is my 33 year old grandfather, Edward Dundon. He was fighting for Irish independence when Britain was fighting what many Irish people still see as an imperialist war. It was in order to maintain that independence that Ireland stayed neutral in the second world war when Britain was fighting the good fight against fascism. We are all of us uncomfortable with parts of our history, but we live with it.
There are other parts of our history to which we have to be reintroduced. To me the most moving part of the Queen’s historic visit in 2011 was not so much her visit to the Garden of Remembrance but her visit to Islandbridge. Because there, seated in the rain, were all the representatives of the Irish family – except Sinn Fein who didn’t choose to be there. Politicians from the Republic, from the North-Unionist and loyalist, nationalist and Alliance; representatives of soldiers who had fought in the first world war; some soldiers who had fought in the second world war and in the Irish peace keeping missions. It was as though the Queen had reintroduced us to part of our history that we had preferred to forget and to a shrine that we had most definitely forgotten. I had granduncles who fought in the first world was, who were killed in the second world war, Every family in Ireland had connections like that. It is part of what we are.
And the Queen’s visit was so important for another reason. The British had never formally recognised the existence of our state in this way before. So it was as though the final act in the decolonisation process had now taken place, 90 years after the state was founded. As though the final act of separation hadn’t really happened until the Queen had been. And that only now that we were formally separate and equal, could we truly be friends.
That has made a big difference. I have just come from an Irish business conference where I heard Irish business people speak with real dismay about the possibility of the UK leaving the EU. They were concerned not only at the economic consequences for us of barriers to an important trading relationship, the political consequences of the border becoming an international EU border,not just a national one. They were also acknowledging what we’d miss without the British in the EU: their cheerful irreverence, their impatience with ‘aul guff’; their ability to cut through the windy rhetoric which too often characterises EU affaird; their readiness if necessary to slay sacred cows. Europe needs the British. We need the British in Europe.
The solid friendship which now exists between the UK and Ireland has been built by so many people; by people like Jane Ewart-Biggs who managed to turn the hurt done to her and her family into a cause for peace. There are so many others who have worked hard and long for trust and understanding, so many prime ministers and so many Taoisigh,none more so than Garret FitzGerald who devoted his whole political life to it.
But it would be nice to think that we are getting to the point where we can have honest conversations about the things that have divided us as well as the things that unite us.That, after all, is what this prize is all about, the promotion and encouragement of peace and reconciliation in Ireland, a greater understanding between the peoples of Britain and Ireland, or closer co-operation between the partners of the European Community.
I have always,since that awful day in 1976, felt a debt to Christopher Ewart-Biggs who was murdered while doing his duty in my country. I have always felt a debt to his wife and family, including his son Robin, who is here today with his daughter. They have been such good friends to this country and have contributed to the now neighbourly relationship which benefits Ireland and the UK so much. So I’m more than proud to be have been asked to present the Ewart-Biggs awards this evening and to announce the winners.
The Memorial Prize will be split between two books-one which describes the struggle of the victims of Bloody Sunday to have the truth emerge: ‘Setting the Truth Free’ by Julieann Campbell. The other winner is Douglas Murray’s Bloody Sunday, dealing more with the processes of the enquiry itself. They’ll each get £2,500.
And this year, we’re also giving a special award, and I’m delighted to be announcing this because I have known him and his work for nearly four decades, to Peter Taylor OBE, documentary maker, author, who has as detailed a knowledge of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and all the various actors in that tragedy as any journalist alive. This special award of €2,500 is in recognition of his body of journalistic/TV work over many years.