Belfast Telegraph

'There are unionists who are blithely content that the Union is safe in their hands; it isn't ... it's secure because of men like Maurice Hayes'

The distinguished public servant's commitment to making Northern Ireland work for all will be his enduring legacy, writes Malachi O'Doherty

The death of Maurice Hayes was like the passing of a chieftain, a Gaelic chieftain. By his own bearing and sombre manner he had seemed like a man you wouldn't trifle with. There were decades of experience in that old head. He had been in tricky negotiations, helped fashion compromises and reconcile contentious differences. He had got to the heart of nutty problems and put his name to adventurous and imaginative deals.

So he was, unsurprisingly, unflappable. And, yet, he had such a laugh. The thing said most commonly about him by old friends and colleagues was that he could get on with anybody. And yet he could sit with ministers and heads of state and, by his slow and reflective and gravelly way of talking, get them to listen as he showed them the parameters of the possible.

He said in an interview with me some years ago that a crucial moment for him had been the decision of the southern state to declare itself a republic.

That was the moment at which he realised that nationalists in the north would have to find their place within this state. Northern Ireland then was governed exclusively by unionists. Behind the government was the Orange Order, and a minister might lose his job for attending Mass.

Hayes was a schoolteacher then and his years in the Civil Service were long ahead of him, but his reasoning at that time made a huge difference to how Northern Ireland evolved. For, after the Education Act, and the proliferation of free education, Catholic schools prepared children for jobs in public service.

Nationalists might abstain from Stormont and Westminster, but the experiment of declining to participate in the administration of the state and its institutions had run its course.

Hayes entered public service not as a "Castle Catholic" or "West Brit" or one against whom any of the traditional sneers could be levelled, but as an Irish language speaker and a Catholic, as a GAA hero who took credit for Down, his county, winning the All Ireland in 1960 and 1961 when he was county secretary.

He hadn't become a public servant to fit in, but to show that there could be a place in the administration of Northern Ireland for people who were Irish in his way. Today, Martin McGuinness is revered as a peacemaker for having arrived at a similar way of thinking 40 years after him.

Maurice Hayes's funeral on Wednesday was structured to remind us that this was the death of a Gael. There was no coyness about this. Some of the prayers were in Irish and there was a tribute from the GAA.

There was also a strong ecumenical character to it. Three Protestant ministers participated: Rev John Dunlop, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church; Rev Harold Good, former president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and Church of Ireland Dean of Down Henry Hull.

Good recalled how Hayes had carried his daughter on his shoulders at a Shankill peaceline service in 1969 and given her half-a-crown. The service also had a strong secular component, with the reading of poems selected by Hayes from the works of Michael Longley, John Hewitt, Seamus Heaney and others.

The genius of this service was that it was Catholic and Gaelic and inclusive. As such, it was the last reconciliatory gesture of a supremely diplomatic man, who had worked on the fault-line of a divided community when our current political leaders were children.

It was also a reminder that the stability of Northern Ireland depends on the commitment of northern Catholics to making it work. Huge numbers of them in Hayes's generation and later joined public service.

When I was at a Christian Brothers School in the 1960s boys were urged to seek jobs in the Civil Service, Belfast Corporation and Royal Mail.

Throughout the Troubles, they continued to be discriminated against in the upper ranks of the Civil Service and they were more squeamish about supporting the police than, say, the DoE.

But if that generation had shunned the Civil Service in the same way that most had turned its back on policing, Northern Ireland would have been forever untenable. There would not have been a state to put back together, just a Protestant, unionist colony.

And that gives some sense of the debt owed to those who led the way, like Maurice Hayes.

He wanted political stability and devolution with power-sharing and he was at the heart of efforts to establish this, as he was at the heart of efforts to reconstruct policing.

There were not a lot of unionists at his funeral. Lady Hermon was there. There were also several retired civil servants who had worked with Hayes.

But it would have been worth the effort for DUP leader Arlene Foster to have gone there, because it would have served as a reminder for her that the Union is protected and relies upon the non-declamatory endorsement of northern Catholics and that it cannot survive without them.

And while candid gratitude for that might have been a bit much to expect, the sober relevance of that reality might have impressed itself on those who are blithely content that the security of the Union is in their own hands: it isn't.

Things are not as fixed as they imagine. We are in a time of flux, through Brexit and the DUP's support for it.

Some things will stay the same. Gerry Adams isn't going to change his mind about the border, nor are many, perhaps most, of those who vote for Sinn Fein. But there has long been a passive endorsement of partition by Catholics, who think like Maurice Hayes did; that you are better making things work and getting on with other communities than causing disruption in the name of your identity.

You mightn't find that identity represented in the symbols of state, but you can live without that, or trust to a better understanding in the future.

These people changed their minds before and decided to muck in. They can change again if they find that their rising expectation of being more at home here is flouted. They can alter course, can withdraw a support they might feel they never got much thanks for anyway. And they would make a huge difference now that unionism is a minority position, too.

The chieftain buried this week was not a warrior, but a peacemaker and a reconciler, a quiet thinker. He worked behind the scenes.

Perhaps there are others as deft and thoughtful today, who might help deliver a pragmatic, compromising generation into a new peace.

One can but hope.

Belfast Telegraph

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