I thought I’d seen it all and then the Chuckle Brothers came along
An esteemed writer takes his leave with wise words on history, hope and health
This is going to be painful for both you and me, but I wanted to say goodbye properly, after a lifetime of daily journalism, mostly to do with Northern Ireland politics.
I broke off suddenly in May, saying I didn't have much time, and I meant it. I had just been diagnosed with colon cancer and it sounded very final.
But now I know it's not as simple and final as that. My operation's over, I'm recovering gradually and I want to use my experience to warn all of you out there never to ignore health warning signs. I did, and ended up with a rushed visit to the GP, an appointment with a consultant at the Royal Victoria Hospital (of blessed memory) and, after a battery of tests, a difficult operation which, I hope, will give me a few more years.
But first, goodbye to Northern Ireland politics. I go back to the dark ages, when Lord Brookeborough travelled up from Colebrooke a few days a week to snooze gently through the House of Commons proceedings, based on Westminster, like everything else. John Cole has never forgotten riding pillion on my motor-bike to Stormont, and Jimmy Kelly, the doyen of political correspondents, was only halfway through his reporting career.
There were some MPs who had been there since the devolved parliament was set up in the 1920s, and it was a one-sided unionist show. Many had never faced an election, because they had seats that were overwhelmingly unionist, and others were just as green, represented by old-style nationalists who dreamt of an Irish takeover or a British sell-out.
Everything was set in stone, so Stormont wasn't a hive of industry, as you can imagine. The old guard ruled, and it was only when Brian Faulkner shook things up a bit, as an energetic Minister of Commerce in the early Sixties, that the economy picked up, and Northern Ireland appeared to be becoming a conventional British region. The national question was consigned to well-documented complaints about discrimination against Catholics, which the other side matched by claiming discrimination against Protestants. Gentlemen's agreements abounded, until the spread of civil rights fever from America and the refusal of new Catholic graduates to settle for second best.
You all know what followed, as a well-orchestrated campaign, aided and abetted by the world's media, forced Westminster to revise its hands-off policy. The far Left staged confrontations, provoking unionist reaction, and eventually the British government had to take over a province that in 1971 was still daring to celebrate a 50-year-old success story. Since then, we've been through every possible political permutation to escape from the unionist-nationalist bind — various failed attempts at voluntary coalition and finally, in the Good Friday Agreement, an involuntary four-party executive. Only those who grew up with winner-takes-all democracy could appreciate the mindset change this represented — and still represents.
There are new people in charge nowadays, justifying their compromises in different ways, but the political divide is as fundamental as ever — unionist versus nationalist/republican, although now around the same cabinet table.
John Hume's aim of widening the field of combat, to include Dublin, London and Washington, has worked its magic, and both sides are self-confident enough to face the future together, agreeing to disagree.
All right, I didn't foresee a DUP-Sinn Fein partnership, any more than I saw Ian Paisley chuckling for a full year with Martin McGuinness. It hasn't achieved much in practical terms — and the future will be even more problematical — but Northern Ireland looks and feels much better from the outside, and even from the inside.
It's been a bumpy ride, over the past 45 years or so, but I feel it's time for one who started it early — in the Stormont Castle rose garden with Terence O'Neill and Sean Lemass — and remembers too much, to move on. I would never have believed that two ideologies, as far apart as Paisleyism and republicanism, could have developed sufficient commonsense to grab at and hold on to power-sharing devolution. David Trimble led the way, but only Ian Paisley could deliver the masses.
So far, so good, but can such an oil and water partnership last the pace, as ministers go their own way on such matters as law and order, Irish language and academic selection? Governments prove themselves by changing lives for the better, and by the next election there must be solid evidence to put before their people, or else.
Equally important, the Executive must become a model for the way the new Northern Ireland must operate — unionists and nationalists honouring their own traditions and loyalties, but opening their minds to new ways of reconciling their differences. If Tom Hartley can lay a Somme wreath, and share a tandem with Sammy Wilson, surely unionists can learn not to close their ears to the Irish language, or eyes to GAA sports?
It was Mark Durkan who, a full 20 years ago, told me we'd have to learn to live in a stereo nation (different sounds from the two loudspeakers), and theoretically we are about halfway there. It's not easy, and often not popular, but it's going to be more and more essential, if expressions of goodwill at the top are to filter all the way down to our separated housing estates.
Politics is a great substitute for the undeclared war we went through, for so long, and my sympathies go out to all who enter the fray from the best of motives. They've chosen a thorny path, for just as the demographics point to closer all-Ireland relations, the institutional and emotional ties with Britain remain unbreakable.
The political struggle will continue, requiring the pragmatists to bite their tongues regularly, but if we have enough wit to concentrate on building a better economy, Northern Ireland will last a good few more years, cossetted by London and Dublin. It's nothing like the sullen, divided province it once was, even if the job of the middle-of-road journalist like myself, to interpret each side to the other, will never end.
As for my little bodily difficulty, which has brought forward my exit, if even one of you learns from my experience, this confession will be worthwhile. I simply refused to believe that a health and fitness addict, who never smoked, drank very moderately and made sure of walking at least two miles a day could fall victim to ... cancer (there, I'm getting used to saying it).
My bowel movements had changed — I don't even know for how long — to fairly persistent diarrhoea, but I put it down to stress and strain. Life is stressful, and so is selling one's home of 43 years and buying a new one, in the middle of a credit crunch.
So I did nothing, until a bright red stain in the toilet bowl could be ignored no longer. It didn't recur, so I nearly cancelled the RVH appointment, at which the consultant took a biopsy of something that was wrong. Would I like to hear the results by phone or in person, he said, and automatically I said phone would be fine. It had to be something benign and relatively easily solved.
In fact, it was a malignant tumour, in the right place to avoid a colostomy, but needing fine, miraculous surgery to cut out the bad bit — all 32cm — and join up hopefully healthy tissue. The epidural — isn't that for childbirth, I asked? — worked well and in three days I was off pain relief.
The story doesn't end there, of course. There's the lab report on what was removed, which was "generally optimistic", and I'll have to find out if further treatment is necessary.
So whatever you do, pay attention to changes in your bodily functions which don't go away. They could be really serious and the longer you wait the more drastic will be the remedy. Remember to stay positive, as I've learned, and everything goes better — in health as in politics. In extremis, all you need is love — and the good old NHS.