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Was it fair Gatland had to resign because of her past IRA links?

The Conservative cabinet minister for education in Croydon Borough Council, Maria Gatland, has resigned her post after the revelation that, 35 years ago, she was a member of the IRA.

Back then, she was known as Maria Maguire, the glamour face of Provisionalism, a middle-class girl from Dublin who'd been caught up in post-Bloody Sunday emotionalism.

But a decent enough creature underneath it all, and disgusted by the IRA slaughter of Bloody Friday, she not merely left the movement, but also spilled the beans to British intelligence. And having been sentenced to death by her former chums, including her bed-partner, Daithi O'Connell, she went into hiding.

Well, if that isn't having made amends, then what is? Look at the prime architects of her early decisions in life. Mike Jackson, adjutant of the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday, went on to become head of the British Army, a knight of the realm with a DSO and Bar. Gerry Adams, the most senior member of the IRA in Belfast during the Bloody Sunday butchery, has since been a guest of the British Prime Minister at Downing Street and at Chequers, and of the US president at the White House. His books have made him a millionaire. But poor Maria's political career is in ruins.

I know nothing of Maria Maguire's reinvention as Maria Gatland, Conservative politician, just that she had to go into hiding, to change her name, and to create a new identity, to save her from being murdered by the very organisation whose leaders have since been welcomed on deep-pile carpets in London and Washington.

So by those same rules, she should have been welcomed by the Tory party, and congratulated for the blow she'd struck against the IRA, at grave risk to her own life. Instead, her fellow Conservatives have tut-tutted over her ‘shameful’ past.

And this takes us neatly to one inescapable problem, which was central to both the start of the Troubles, their unforgivable protractedness, their final conclusion, and aftermath. It is this: the English don't care about Ireland, north or south. They don't know about it, and don't want to know.

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They've never wanted to know. It is a key feature of their identity. It might almost be the defining characteristic of Englishness. Either way, this attitude enabled generations of English politicians and academics to encapsulate the complexities and the aspirations of the peoples of this island with the simple and meaningless term “the Irish problem”. This was as if it were the Irish who were always the problem, rather than — say — the chronic English failure to establish a permanently harmonious and informed relationship with a historically weaker neighbour.

And there's nothing we can do about this, nothing. At the height of the Troubles, whenever I was in a London bank trying to get money on my Belfast cheque book, I was invariably asked whether Belfast was in Ulster or Eire. Bombs were going off in the streets of London on this very issue, yet bank clerks did not know whether the capital of Northern Ireland was in the United Kingdom.

Moreover, only a deep and pathological uninterest in a neighbouring island could have allowed the British to have endured the Troubles for so long. They were not stoic during this time, so much as comatose.

Not even dead soldiers woke them from that stupor.

There is much British agonising about their losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet there was none at all about the far greater death toll in the North: 103 British soldiers were killed in 1972 alone, the year Maria Maguire threw herself into the arms of the IRA.

No pomp and ceremony as those flag-draped coffins were lowered from transports at RAF Brize Norton; merely a brief graveside ceremony in some London suburb or small Scottish town, a firing party, the sound of clay on coffin. And then a return to an Alzheimer-like trance of the British attitude towards Ireland.

How else could the British have tolerated the fact that the Republic allowed the IRA army council to go home nightly to their own little beds, and nights of untroubled sleep, throughout the Troubles? (How would the US have reacted if Mexico or Canada had hosted terrorist organisations which murdered its soldiers and bombed its cities?)

This ignorance, this intellectual neglect, is not (contrary to a much-cherished Irish mythology) based on some fundamental anti-Irishness.

It is more a form of passive species-blindness, broken occasionally by the odd mythic intruder, like Father Ted or Ballykissangel.

And it was the very absence of any general English sense of the Irish as a group that enabled the Irish as individuals — Henry Kelly, Terry Wogan, Eamonn Holmes, Bob Geldof — to become household names in Britain at the height of the Troubles. Occasionally, the sentry that is England rouses from his slumber and blindly lashes out, as in the case of poor Maria Maguire. But then he will fall asleep again; and on that somnolent watch, new and wholly unprecedented difficulties between the two countries will arise, which, upon half-waking, he will once again blearily call ‘the Irish problem’.

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