‘Northern Ireland is seen as a place apart’: Former NIO top security official believes Irish unity is coming, but by degrees

From ‘handshake prevention’ to bringing about ceasefires, Chris Maccabe has done his fair share to take the gun out of Irish politics

Watching a TV news report marking the 50th anniversary of the 1974 Stormont power-sharing executive, Chris Maccabe notes with satisfaction that he is standing just beyond the edge of the camera’s lens.

Back then, he was a young assistant private secretary to the chief minister and unionist leader Brian Faulkner. During a long and influential career afterwards, Maccabe became expert at staying out of shot.

Later, as he took on increasingly sensitive roles in policing, prisons and counter-terrorism, keeping a low profile became less a question of civil service etiquette, more a matter of life and death.

That was underlined in the 1980s when as he was working directly for RUC chief constable Sir John Hermon. Maccabe’s address details, given in a Queen’s University postgraduate law degree application, were leaked to the IRA. He had to move his family out of their home overnight.

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Because of the threat, Maccabe habitually carried a personal protection weapon. However, he always preferred to talk, keeping up dialogue during the darkest days of The Troubles, inside, or out of prisons.

In the 1990s, Maccabe and his team were the eyes and ears of successive British ministers, often deployed rather comically as a “handshake prevention” team to ensure unwitting politicians did not end up shaking a paramilitary-linked representative’s hand.

Such actions served external optics.

However, through behind-the-scenes contacts – codenamed by officials as “XD” and “XLD” , Maccabe helped bring about the Combined Loyalist ceasefire of October 1994, the August 1998 INLA ceasefire and Loyalist Volunteer Force decommissioning in December 1998.

In addition, he was deeply involved in exploratory dialogue with Sinn Féin and the loyalist “fringe parties” before they were admitted to full talks with ministers ahead of the Belfast Agreement.

Even now, Maccabe maintains communications with loyalists and dissident republicans as part of a small independent team monitoring a deal struck in 2010, which governs prison policy on searches, education and recreation.

In all, Maccabe, if he wanted to, could claim to have done more than his fair share to take the gun out of Irish politics.

Since stepping down as the NIO’s political director, he has “exported” his knowledge – drawing on experience gained in the transfer of IRA prisoners from English to Northern Irish jails – to Spain’s Basque region, where similar issues existed.

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There, ETA prisoners wanted to be moved from jails in southern Spain closer to home. Eventually, Maccabe became part of the international team which verified ETA’s weapons decommissioning.

Even then, he stayed out of camera shot. Footage given to the BBC in 2014 showing two of his colleagues inspecting a small, sealed cache of guns and explosives did not include the former NIO man.

The Madrid government, unconvinced by what it regarded as a “theatrical gesture”, summoned Maccabe and his colleagues to testify in court – a development he remembers as “nerve-racking”.

Under cross-examination, Maccabe fell back on old NIO terminology, telling the court he had met “associates” of ETA rather than the paramilitaries themselves to avoid falling foul of Spanish law.

His day in court did not put him off completing the task of disarmament. Three years later, he was present when ETA approved the decommissioning of a much bigger weapons cache in Bayonne, France.

In addition, ETA gave the location of remaining arms dumps to Methodist minister Harold Good, another figure prominent during the IRA’s decommissioning, and the Archbishop of Bologna. The arms were destroyed.

Now, Maccabe is Honorary Professor of Practice in Conflict Resolution at Queen’s University, Belfast, teaching students about peace processes around the world and travelling abroad to troubled areas to share lessons.

Not everyone chooses dialogue over conflict, however.

In Sri Lanka, together with former Northern Ireland secretary Paul Murphy, Maccabe used Irish rugby anecdotes to build a bond with the rugby-loving president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his two brothers, who were powerful government ministers.

Maccabe and Murphy secured access to lands controlled by the Tamil Tigers, where they tried to negotiate the passage of aid convoys to famine-stricken civilians, “one baby step” towards peace. That effort failed. A few years later Maccabe’s work was abruptly cut short when a ceasefire broke down and the Rajapaksas decided they would end the civil war by bombarding the Tiger-controlled enclave. Thousands died.

Looking back 50 years, Maccabe mourns the collapse of the ill-fated 1974 Stormont Executive, believing then and now that it had been “wonderful to see those people around that table”.

“They were good guys,” he says. “I thought it would last. I didn’t see the opposition being so huge, and Brian Faulkner himself didn’t expect to lose the vote in his own party after just three or four days.”

Like the late Seamus Mallon, he views the Belfast Agreement a quarter of a century later as “Sunningdale for Slow Learners”, but neither it, nor Stormont’s resumption this month, marks a final settlement. Irish history has, he says, always “been on the move”.

Many people there don’t think we are part of the UK. There’s never been a full appreciation for what we’re about here. Northern Ireland is seen as a place apart

—  Chris Maccabe on English views of Northern Ireland

In conversation last year with former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Maccabe said he had “the feeling that we are moving in a direction where there will be an agreed Ireland, the sort of Ireland John Hume wanted and we all want”.

He stands by that today. “I think, ultimately, Ireland will be an independent nation with strong links to the European Union and the United Kingdom. I think what’s now Northern Ireland and what’s now the Irish Republic will become one.

“I believe that’s been the direction of the dialogue that has happened over the years, and if you look at opinion polls in England, Scotland and Wales, but particularly in England, the enthusiasm for Northern Ireland isn’t great.

“Many people there don’t think we are part of the UK. There’s never been a full appreciation for what we’re about here. Northern Ireland is seen as a place apart. We had a war here and we are such a place apart that on Armistice Day in Great Britain it hardly gets a mention, even though hundreds of regular soldiers were killed here. It’s not bad will on their part, just a lack of understanding,” he adds.

“Sometimes we seem crazy to them. When you look at the official papers that have come out, the conversations over the years, going back to the talks involving Willie Whitelaw in 1972 and the internal analysis which took place, I think if they [the British] could have made a declaration of intent to withdraw, they would have done so, if it hadn’t been for the threat of civil war.”

While he believes constitutional change is coming, Maccabe will not put a date on it. “The law is clear. The Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement provides that it has to be a majority of people voting, North and South.

“I think what is likely to happen is that East-West links with Britain will get weakened and weakened, and the North-South links with the European Union will get strengthened one way or another.

“So, it will be almost imperceptible, and if you did have a first minister in the North and a taoiseach in the South, both from Sinn Féin, how could anyone looking in from outside this island understand that?”

It has confused everything. We would have had a smoother ride if we’d still been in the European Union. It would have satisfied a lot of people if we’d stayed in

—  Chris Maccabe on Brexit

Mention of a possible victory for Sinn Féin in the Republic’s next general election prompts questions about Mary Lou McDonald’s clear preference to wind up Stormont altogether in a united Ireland, if not immediately.

The life-long Stormont official shrugs. “When Stormont was prorogued in 1972 we looked at everything from redrawing the boundaries onwards. Back then, Sinn Féin wanted a federal Ireland. All those things were looked at, so anything’s possible.”

Maccabe remains “horrified” by Brexit. “It has confused everything. We would have had a smoother ride if we’d still been in the European Union. It would have satisfied a lot of people if we’d stayed in. We could have built on the things we have in common.”

He witnessed previous unionist shows of strength, such as Bill Craig’s Ulster Vanguard rally in 1972 and Ian Paisley and Jim Molyneaux’s anti-Anglo Irish Agreement demonstration at Belfast City Hall in 1986.

Not wanting to appear to throw down a challenge, Maccabe will not say more, but he is more hopeful that the future can be managed more peacefully than the past. He notes, however, that loyalist capacity “to do indiscriminate things could still be there”.

Maccabe’s views on a future agreed Ireland will surprise many former IRA members, who once dubbed him “a securocrat” and a “legitimate target”, but also his ancestors who signed the 1912 Covenant pledging opposition to Home Rule.

Maccabe, recognised with a Commander of the Order of the Bath by Queen Elizabeth two decades ago, is proud of his keen sense of Irish identity, putting this down to a liberal Protestant upbringing.

His parents, Max and Gladys, “a glamorous and dynamic couple”, were accomplished artists, who mixed with counterparts in Dublin, not just Belfast, contributing to newspapers and radio broadcasts on both sides of the Border.

They were equally at ease attending functions with Éamon de Valera in Áras an Uachtaráin, or garden parties and other events with the then governor of Northern Ireland at Hillsborough Castle.

As a toddler, he was stirred awake by 1950s Belfast singing star Ruby Murray, the Heartbeat Girl from the Donegall Road, singing a lullaby. As a teenager, Maccabe found fleeting success in The Corsairs, who backed Jerry Lee Lewis for one night only in Banbridge in 1964.

Leaving a musical career behind, he studied zoology at Queen’s, where he was so impressed by the Civil Rights Movement’s demand for “One Man, One Vote” that he joined their early marches and sit-down protests before things got increasingly violent.

Last year, he unveiled a blue plaque at his mother’s former art studio in Belfast, where she began painting vibrant Ulster village scenes before moving on to document the barricades, bombings and funerals of the Troubles.

In October 1969, four of her paintings – Barricades, Blazing Warehouse, Petrol Bomb Sequel and Funeral of a Victim – were selected for a major exhibition in London as the world learned of The Troubles.

Though not a painter, Maccabe has during his career helped to paint diplomatic strokes that changed the legacy left to Northern Irish society by events his mother so faithfully recorded.