Belfast Telegraph

Booker prize-winning novel Milkman should be an essential read for politicians before talks begin

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill (Owen Humphreys/PA)
DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill (Owen Humphreys/PA)

By John Downing

Every so often, how­ever, an event would occur so beyond the pale that everyone - 'this side of the road', 'that side of the road', 'over the water' and 'over the border' - couldn't help but be stopped in their tracks."

It was a strange coincidence that I was reading the novel Milkman when news of Lyra McKee's murder in Derry came through. Just hours before the grim news I had been taken by the words cited above, never thinking that another such "so beyond the pale" moment was actually happening even as I read on that Thursday night.

Anna Burns's book is wrongly described as a "hard read". Yes, it does take a bit of reader effort to get stuck in - but that effort is rewarded in spades, not least by the mag­ical quality of the language flows, but also for the human accounts which bear in on you, and above all for its humour.

The 2018 Booker Prize win­ner evokes the 1970s horror of the Troubles. Then every so often came the stand-out horror, the atrocity that grabbed global headlines.

Suffice to say that 21 years after the Good Friday Agree­ment we are - yet again - back to the "politics of the last atrocity". And back to hoping it could become a potential driver of fundamental change. It is a question of two parts hope, to one part divided between dread and cynicism, for in the past the backwash of the standout atrocity did not endure - much less deliver.

And, again, more than two decades after long-planned structures were put in place to avoid another atrocity, we find the key players in Northern Ireland cannot do grown-up politics without outside supervision.

So, 27 months after Stormont was shut down, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and Secretary of State Karen Bradley have finally taken a hand. The two ministers have acknowledged the huge influence of Lyra McKee's murder on this new move.

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On May 7, yet another round of multi-party talks will open and on the following day the Dublin and London governments will meet in a forum provided for under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

This is the so-called Brit­ish-Irish Intergovernmental Conference which last met in November 2018, and has previ­ously met 26 times in efforts to break big logjams. Both minis­ters will work over the coming days with the parties on how the talks will be structured.

All the parties will par­ticipate. But for now at least there will not be an independ­ent outside chairperson. Success will depend on the feedback given to the politi­cians, especially in the two big parties, by the public across Northern Ireland.

There is much anecdotal evi­dence that the overwhelming mood is that there can be no going back to the bad old days.

There are grounds to hope that 20 years of peace, albeit uneasy peace sitting amid ongoing tensions, will steel the majority will in both com­munities. Everyone knows that peace amounts to more than an absence of war. Simon Coveney alluded to this by saying: "There are moments in politics when things change."

Therein lies the bulk of all our hopes - one more time.

Mr Coveney was right about the need to carry on regardless of what else is on the political agenda. These talks will start amid two elections, the local council vote next Thurs­day, and the expected Euro­pean Parliament elections on May 23. In Northern Ireland there's often an election posing an excuse to hold everything up. After the election will come yet another marching season.

Here's a different sugges­tion - issue all the participants with a copy of Anna Burns's 'Milkman' and make them all sit a simple quiz on the work before being admitted to the talks.

John Downing is a commentator with the Irish Independent

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