THE SECOND DEADLY SIN by ASA LARSSON a review

THE SECOND DEADLY SIN
ASA LARSSON
MACKLEHOSE PRESS pp 395 £18.99

A wounded bear is pursued through the forest wilderness of Northern Sweden. When finally cornered and shot by an expert marksman, its stomach contents are found to include human remains. Some months later, in a village in the same area, a woman is murdered in a frenzied attack, her young grandson missing. This is the tense and gripping opening of Asa Larsson’s novel, which won the 2012 Best Swedish Crime Novel award.

Scandinavian crime fiction has become immensely popular internationally over the past two decades, spearheaded by the cerebral Wallender books of Henning Mankell and the gritty Norwegian novels of Jo Nesbo , before the mega-success of Stieg Larsson’s “ Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, which first appeared in 2005. Yet these are only the first among many equals of what has become a formidable genre of writing and which has now spread to the small screen via quality TV dramas, including, in addition to Wallender, “ The Killing” and “ The Bridge.”

Both sexes are well represented. Sweden alone has produced a number of first rate female crime writers including, in addition to Asa Larsson, Camilla Lackberg , Kerstin Ekman, Inger Frimansson, and Lisa Marklund. Norway can point to Karin Fossum and Anne Holt, Finland to Sofi Oxanen, Iceland to Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Denmark to Agnete Friis and Lena Kaaberbol. All well worth reading.

Various theories have been advanced to explain this popularity. Mankell suggested recently that in part it was because the outside world had put Scandinavian society on a pedestal because of its affluence, its comprehensive welfare systems and its progressive and liberal views and was fascinated therefore at novels and incidents that revealed a seamier side of this society ( If they can’t get it right, who can?). Others have pointed to the stark contrast the books present between the pristine and clean environment and the tawdry nature of the crimes, many with sexual , religious or racial undertones.

Asa Larsson, the “Other Larsson,” as she wryly comments in an extensive and revealing interview on YouTube, suggests that it was rejection in the 70s of the classical Anglo-Saxon stereotype of the middle class affluent detective portrayed by Agatha Christie among others, that led to the emergence of uniquely Swedish detective writing, very much tied to real life and this has been well received everywhere. Some writers, her namesake being one, have also clearly had a political agenda to expose various unsavoury aspects of Swedish society including right wing extremism, the behaviour of big business and misogyny.

Her own writing is distinctive. “ The Second Deadly Sin” is her fifth novel featuring prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson, all based in or around Kiruna, the most Northerly city in Sweden, where she grew up. Her first novel, “The Savage Altar,” won best debut prize, while the sequel, “ The Blood Spilt” won Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2004, before any of Stieg’s books had appeared. Another Martinsson novel is planned, after which she will move on (she is in her late forties). Judging by this one it would be a pity to let the series lapse.
The series setting is fascinating. Kiruna, population 20,000, lies in Norbotten County, within the Arctic Circle close to where the borders of Sweden Norway and Finland come together. Norbotten is bigger than the island of Ireland but has only 250, 000 inhabitants ( Sweden itself is six times larger than Ireland, with a population of 9,500,000). Finnish and Sami are as widely spoken as Swedish and the populace have retained their own customs and culture. The area is rich in natural resources, with Kiruna famous for its iron ore. There is some local resentment at what is perceived as economic exploitation by the south, particularly Stockholm.
Martinsson, like her creator originally a successful tax attorney, has returned to her roots from Stockholm, leaving her mystified partner behind and has acquired a reputation for lateral thinking sometimes at odds with the locals. In this novel she is the first to sense a connection between the recent murder and the remains devoured by the bear. She gradually unravels a complex plot with at its centre a formidable and painstaking serial killer. She uncovers a link also to a love story and a murder of a century before, the historical episodes treated with just the correct level of pathos. The pace and the tension increase to a dramatic climax.
The writing is of the highest quality. The confrontations with the bear are electrifying. Later there is a sympathetic and credible treatment of a traumatised child. The other characters, including the several tragic figures, are also well drawn, the overall effect being to create a lasting and believable scenario long after finishing the book. Her descriptions of the dogs and their interaction with her humans is especially memorable. A worthy winner of the Award and eminently suitable for a film or a T.V. series.
Asa Larsson has no need of horrendous detail, or ritual killings, nor indeed of a single tattoo. She is simply a very good writer. There is no doubt in my mind who is the “other Larsson.”

January 13 2014

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COCKROACHES by JO NESBO a review

COCKROACHES
AUTHOR: JO NESBO
HARVILL SECKER 374 pages €15.99

Another Jo Nesbo, though not a new novel. As with many other Scandinavian crime writers recently popular in English, this is an earlier work. First published in 1998, and now available in translation, Cockroaches is the second in Jo Nesbo’s popular Harry Hole series, all ten of which are now available in English.

For those who haven’t encountered him, Nesbo is known for his gritty thrillers featuring his take on the stereotype of the dyspeptic alcoholic and quirky detective. His strength is in exposing the seamy side of life in Norway, whether present day Nazi sympathisers extolling racist ideology – some of the dialogue in Redbreast (2006) could have been lifted from the pronouncements of Anders Breivik – or the heroin plague on the streets of Oslo outlined in Phantom (2012). He is by now arguably the most popular Scandinavian crime writer, with hero Harry Hole rivalling Henning Mankell’s Wallender.

Nesbo’s books tend to be unsettling. Cockroaches is no exception. The setting is Thailand, where the Norwegian ambassador – and friend of the Prime Minister – has been found murdered in a seedy motel. Harry, fresh from his success in Australia ( The Bat, which launched the series) is grappling with his alcoholism when he is handpicked to investigate and to minimise the scandal.

Harry arrives in Bangkok and quickly discovers the situation is more complex than it had appeared. He soon realises that he was sent in the expectation that his liking for drink would mean the investigation would not get very far. Some of the local Norwegian expat community, from the Ambassador and his family on down, have secrets and few are willing to talk. There is clearly a cover –up, but to what end, and who to talk to, who to trust? Harry refuses to give up and slowly, after a number of hair raising experiences, he unravels the mystery.

Nesbo picked on Bangkok as an exotic location with which most readers would not be familiar and where literally anything can happen. The cockroaches of the title are symbolic of the different issues not immediately apparent which Harry encounters – where there is one cockroach you can expect to find a hundred. This against the background of a city notorious for its sex industry, catering for every taste and a lodestone for foreign paedophiles. There is the startling assertion that the Norwegian police abandoned an attempt to set up a database on Norwegian paedophiles in Thailand because it lacked the resources to keep up with the numbers!

Nesbo spent several months in Bangkok, where he was well received by the local Norwegian community, who introduced him to the highs, and some of the lows, of the Thailand scene. The result is another excellent thriller, the most popular among his earlier novels and one which casts a cold eye on the reality of expatriate life of some Europeans in Asia.

December 8 2013

THE CITY OF STRANGERS by MICHAEL RUSSELL a review

THE CITY OF STRANGERS
AUTHOR: MICHAEL RUSSELL
AVON 486 pages £7.99

Michael Russell has done it again. A year after “City of Shadows,” he has produced a second excellent historical thriller featuring his Irish police hero Stefan Gillespie.

After a chilling introduction, an atrocity committed during Ireland’s civil war, the story fast forwards to the spring of 1939, as the world slides towards war. Stephan, a young widower and station sergeant in Baltinglass, is recalled to Headquarters to handle a sensitive issue.

A woman has been murdered, brutally. There is evidence that she had been embezzling money from the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes – an earlier version of the Lotto and of near iconic significance among the Irish American community, which bought most of the tickets. The sweepstakes, moreover, are politically connected. The chief suspect, her son, a young, gay, wannabe actor, has travelled to New York by boat with the Gate Theatre Company.

After agreeing at first to return voluntarily to Ireland, the suspect flees. With the New York World’s Fair set to open, in which Ireland has an important showcase pavilion, the instructions to Stefan are clear – to repatriate the suspect with minimum fuss.

This proves easier said than done. Stefan travels to New York on one of the first flying boat flights from Foynes. On the flight he encounters a wealthy Irish American, who proves to be the US head of Clan na Gael ( the IRA front organisation) . Later he encounters an old Irish army friend , attached to the Irish World Fair pavilion, as well as another femme fatale, intent on rescuing her sister from a psychiatric hospital.

As his search for the murder suspect continues the plot becomes more complicated , with a mysterious death and Stephan’s realisation that he is being drawn into a complex conspiracy involving Nazi agents, IRA sympathisers and elements of the New York underworld. The pace is hectic, the body count mounts, the civil war past is revisited as Stefan finds surprising allies and grapples with issues where the stakes are high, not just for him but for Ireland.

As before, Russell captures the time and the mood superbly, from the novel and exhilarating experience of flying transatlantic, then, to the atmosphere in the USA as war beckons . It is a period when the USA, and New York in particular, harbours tens of thousands of Old IRA and many more exiles and sympathisers opposed to De Valera’s Ireland and all it stands for.

As pro-IRA, pro-German and isolationist groups increase pressure for the USA to remain neutral in any conflict, the World’s Fair itself is dominated physically by the rival pavilions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, both offering different and unappetising visions of the future. The sense of Ireland, as a small and vulnerable nation, alone in this situation, is very well conveyed.
An excellent and thoughtful window on the past. Highly recommended.

November 24 2013

A CRUEL AND SHOCKING ACT by PHILIP SHENON a review

A CRUEL AND SHOCKING ACT
PHILIP SHENON
LITTLE, BROWN 625pp €20.99

There is no doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963. The doubts since are whether Oswald acted alone or was front man for a conspiracy, whether there was another gunman, and whether the Warren Commission, set up by President Johnson to investigate the assassination, discovered the whole truth of what happened. Additionally, could the assassination have been prevented?

In 2008 Philip Shenon, a veteran investigative journalist, published an expose critical of the report of the Commission set up to investigate Nine Eleven. Soon after he was approached by a former staff investigator on the Warren Commission, now an eminent lawyer, who urged Shenon to tell the story of the Warren Commission investigation “ to explain what really happened.” Five years of dogged and painstaking research followed.

What was to have been an inside history of the Warren Commission evolved into an account of how much had not been told about the assassination and how much of the evidence failed to reach the Commission, some covered up, some destroyed. What emerges overall is a picture of various agencies and individuals acting in their own self-interest, shifting blame and suppressing information. The Warren Commission was flawed from the beginning, hurried, understaffed, under resourced, politically manipulated, deceived and misled by the CIA and the FBI, both of which conducted extensive cover-ups.

The approach taken by Commission Chairman Chief Justice Earl Warren compounded matters. Warren, convinced from the outset that Oswald had acted alone, was keen to wrap up the report as quickly as possible, certainly before the 1964 Presidential campaign started, and aimed to minimise any further distress to the Kennedy family. He originally envisaged the Commission holding few hearings, having no power to compel witnesses to testify, conducting no independent investigations and doing no more than reviewing the evidence already gathered by the FBI, the CIA and other agencies.

The other Commission members baulked at this and the mandate was broadened, but the auspices were not good. The junior staffers, who did the work, including some brilliant lawyers, dubbed Warren as “Grumpy” or “Dopey” among the “Seven Dwarfs” of the Commissioners (Marina Oswald was Snow White!). Warren took shortcuts which left the field open for later conspiracy theories. To achieve consensus he insisted on language in the report which left open the possibility, contradicting the physical evidence, that a separate additional bullet had wounded Governor Connolly. When the Commission was wrapped up he even favoured destroying its internal files.

From the outset there were rumours of a cover up. The naval surgeon who presided at JFK’s autopsy destroyed his original notes – stained with the President’s blood – lest they became grisly souvenirs. He had already bowed to pressure from the Kennedys to suppress evidence that JFK suffered from Addison’s Disease. Later, Warren refused to allow anyone else view the autopsy photos and X-rays, provoking a near rebellion among the Commission staff.

The FBI, with J. Edgar Hoover bent on damage limitation, suppressed or destroyed vital evidence, while leaking material in attempts to steer the investigation. The night Oswald was shot, the FBI Dallas office, which had been monitoring him for months, destroyed a threatening note which Oswald had hand delivered several weeks earlier. They also failed to place Oswald’s name on the Internal Security Index provided to the Secret Service prior to the President’s visit. Hoover, while publicly denying FBI failures, sometimes under oath, secretly authorised disciplinary action against several dozen agents for dereliction of duty.

The CIA tried to bury the full story of Oswald’s five day visit to Mexico City from 27 September – of critical importance to investigating any possible conspiracy or Cuban connection to the assassination. While there he visited both the Cuban and Soviet Embassies, ostensibly to apply for visas. Attempts to investigate claims that Oswald was seen receiving $6500 from a Cuban agent during his visit were frustrated or glossed over by the CIA, as was another story that Oswald had a brief affair with an embassy employee who introduced him to Cuban agents.

Kennedy after all was dead. The CIA seems to have been at pains to keep secret the widespread and comprehensive surveillance operations it was conducting on the Soviet and Cuban embassies and staff in Mexico City. The damage limitation, orchestrated by the CIA’s eminence grise, James Jesus Angleton, worked. The Commission was heavily dependent on the CIA for information and its final report was far less critical of the CIA than the other agencies involved.

Bizarrely, the FBI learned later from Fidel Castro, indirectly through a double agent that, while in the Cuban Embassy, Oswald made threats to several agents to kill Kennedy . A top secret memo from Hoover to the Commission on the incident ,written in June 1964, never arrive, though decades later a copy was found at the CIA. Another cover – up?

More bizarrely, Castro, clearly anxious to distance Cuba from Oswald, met secretly with a representative of the Warren Commission , denying strenuously any Cuban involvement in the assassination, remarking that he actually admired JFK!

What motivated Oswald? The Commission sat on some of its own records regarding suspicions about Oswald’s sexuality. Later, Commission member Gerry Ford thought him emotionally immature and desperately craving for attention. He suggested a possible sexual explanation, with Marina’s mocking of his impotence eventually pushing him over the edge.

Fifty years on, there are still no definitive answers. The “what ifs” remain. What if the Irish born driver of the Presidential car had accelerated immediately after the first bullet hit, which was not fatal, making JFK less of an easy target? Crucially, what if Oswald had been picked up, as he should have been, prior to the visit? For the sad postscript is the conclusion of Hoover’s successor, Clarence Kelley, that if the FBI office in Dallas had been aware of what was known elsewhere in the FBI and CIA about Oswald, “ without doubt JFK would not have died in Dallas” and “history would have taken a different turn.”

November 11 2013

BAD BLOOD by ARNE DAHL a review

BAD BLOOD
ARNE DAHL

Arne Dahl, the pen name of Jan Arnald, a Swedish novelist and literary critic, born in 1963, is one of the latest Swedish crime writers to hit Britain. He has won several awards for his crime novels and is particularly popular in Germany.

BBC Four screened ten episodes, based on Dahl’s first five novels about an elite Swedish police task force, the Intercrime Group, from April to June this year – I missed them – and an English translation of Bad Blood, the second book in the series, was launched in mid- June, presumably to coincide. The book was written in 1998 and indeed the first five novels were all written over a decade ago.

This tendency to back-publish, which is occurring with increasing frequency as “ new” writers enter into vogue, can sometimes backfire, as it does slightly with this book. The opening chapters describe the attempts of the police team to apprehend a suspected serial killer believed to be travelling to Sweden on a flight from the USA. There’s a rather unsatisfactory keystone cops- like event at the airport, but beyond this is the sheer implausibility of the episode – even pre Nine Eleven.
Essentially an intending passenger cancels – by phone – his reservation seventy five minutes before a scheduled departure from Newark and five minutes later the vacant seat is bought at the airport by a walk-up passenger with no baggage.

Post Nine Eleven this would be impossible. Homeland Security and the Airline, for a start, would not allow anyone to embark at such short notice. But even before 2001 the possibility of someone, particularly a non-citizen, gaining access to a transatlantic flight by a European carrier at seventy minutes’ notice was remote. The novel also shows its age elsewhere in terms of how e-mail and the Internet are treated – silent testimony to the incredible developments in mass communications since the book was written.

This, however, is a minor point. Bad Blood is the first of Dahl’s novels I have read. It’s certainly a page-turner with a lively plot concerning the hunt for a particularly sadistic serial killer who has migrated from the USA to Sweden. The gruesome details of the killer’s method of murdering his many victims are piled on to appal or entertain or both. The pace, the action, the twists and turns maintain the reader’s attention.

Some of the team travel to the USA to collaborate with the FBI in the hunt for someone who has suddenly recommenced killing after a fifteen year gap. Was he in jail? Was he somewhere else? Is this a copycat killer? Are there links with the Vietnam War? Is there even an old Cold War aspect to the killings? And, most importantly, why has the killer now arrived in Sweden?

The book seems eminently suited for screening as part of a TV series a la “The Killing” or “ The Bridge” and I’m looking forward to watching the repeats. I want also to read Dahl’s other novel available in English, “The Blinded Man,” since some of the action – and extreme violence – takes place in Tallinn, a city I know well.

Like several other Swedish crime writers Dahl also criticises and offers some brief comments and analysis on the way Swedish society, which on paper presents such a positive face, has changed since the 1980s. Some of the social criticism, and the violence, are echoed in the later Dragon Tattoo (2005) and other works by Stieg Larsson. Henning Mankel, through Wallender, paints up the same themes of corruption, violence and racism – I am currently re-reading “One Step Behind,” written about the same time as Bad Blood.

I don’t know enough about Swedish society to comment, but in a number of interviews, including a recent one in the Irish Times, Henning Mankel has made the point that outsiders have tended to idealise Swedish society, which in fact has much the same social problems, strains and disaffections as other countries, as witness the riots in Stockholm several months ago. Ditto with regard to Norway and Anders Breivik. Perhaps some of the international popularity of Scandinavian Noir is because we outsiders are fascinated by stories of crime in what appear, from our perspective, near idyllic societies.

A final point. Most thrillers and crime novels feature one or two central characters. This book, and the series, are about the activities of the Intercrime elite police unit, a group numbering anywhere from six to ten. It is unusual to feature a large group like this and extremely difficult to handle adequately this number of “heroes” or characters, fully fleshed out. Normally one or two are given star billing, as for example, Steve Carella in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct stories, with the others given supporting roles. While the book’s blurb appears to designate Paul Hjelm as chief hero, the others all have significant roles to play. I’m not sure this works all that well, but perhaps the author resolves this in later books.

October 23 2013

ONE SUMMER : AMERICA 1927 by BILL BRYSON a review

ONE SUMMER: AMERICA 1927
BILL BRYSON
DOUBLEDAY 557 pages €22.99

Bill Bryson’s latest is another winner, a witty and engrossing snapshot of the USA in the summer of 1927.

It is above all a tribute to one of the signature events of the Twentieth Century, Charles Lindburgh’s successful solo transatlantic flight in May. Bryson thought at first of devoting the book to Lindburgh’s achievement, but broadened it , though throughout Lindburgh crops up, whether the flight itself, the amazing public reaction and adulation that followed or his extraordinary triumphal tour of the USA and abroad during that summer.

Other events made headlines that summer. The book’s secondary theme is Babe Ruth’s progress towards a new record (60) for baseball home runs, finally achieved on the last day of the season. It was also the summer of the “long count” during the Tunney – Dempsey title fight in Chicago, and, less pleasantly, the controversial execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in August.

For Bryson the year was a watershed in other ways, at a time when America was beginning to outstrip Europe and assert itself globally. The Jazz Singer was made, heralding the arrival of talking films. “Television was created. Radio came of age.” A Supreme Court Judgement paved the way for the indictment of Al Capone for tax evasion. In July the world’s leading central bankers took a fateful decision to lower interest rates, fuelling a share price bubble that, when it burst in 1929, precipitated the Great Depression. There were unprecedented floods in Mississippi. Work began on the Mount Rushmore sculptures.

But above all, the year was one in which “ a kid from Minnesota flew across an ocean and captivated the planet in a way it had never been captivated before.” Bryson portrays brilliantly Lindburgh’s achievement. At twenty five, he had worked for two years as an airmail pilot and was by 1927 an experienced and proficient flyer; flying, indeed, was the one thing he did well. With a tiny budget, he negotiated with a small company in San Diego, Ryan Airlines, to build a plane for $6,000 plus the engine cost.

The plane was rudimentary in the extreme. Lindburgh was unable to see out the front, as the fuel tank, for safety reasons, was placed up front behind the engine ( he banked sideways to see where he was!) . It had no fuel gauge; he computed his fuel use manually. It had no brakes and was made of cotton stretched over wood and tubular steel.

Yet Lindburgh managed to fly it over 3500 miles in 33 hours, finding his way unerringly by dead reckoning, calculating on his lap in an unstable plane. He passed Dingle as one of his reference points and circled the Eiffel Tower before landing in Paris on 21 May to a hero’s welcome. He ate only sandwiches, and used a bucket as a toilet – twice, as he confided to King George V. Bryson describes him as “unquestionably a candidate for the greatest pilot of his age if not all ages.”

September 25 2013

BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS 1402 LX

BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS.

2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Northern Ireland Ceasefires. It’s a measure of how far we’ve come that the failure at the end of 2013 of special envoy Richard Haass to secure agreement among the North’s political parties on some outstanding issues has generated little reaction. Despite evidence of a growing sense of anger frustration and alienation among some younger working class loyalists, there is certainly no threat of a resumption of the grim cycle of violence that scarred the North for a generation before 1994.

But first things first. On 22 November last Fr Alec Reid died. A Redemptorist priest, Fr Reid will forever be remembered in one of the iconic photographs of the “Troubles,” as he administered the last rites to two British army corporals, murdered by the Provisionals in 1988 after blundering into a republican funeral. It was a grim time, only months after the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen, with the two communities seemingly totally polarised and no apparent prospect of political initiative to end the violence.

However, only a short time later Fr Reid was the major facilitator in setting up what became known as the Hume-Adams dialogue, meetings between Gerry Adams and John Hume, which played a vital part in launching the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Over the years he remained actively involved in the peace process, facilitating dialogue and contacts. It was Fr Reid who, together with Methodist Minister the Rev. Harold Good, announced in September 2005 that the IRA had decommissioned its weapons. He also became involved in attempts to resolve the conflict in the Basque country. His singular contribution to the achievement of peace in the North cannot be overstated.

Serendipity. The release of the British and Irish state papers from thirty years ago at the end of 2013 provides a certain analogy with Fr Reid and “the darkest hour.” The documents just released, which merit detailed and careful analysis, cover the years in the wake of the Falklands’ War, and portray fairly frosty relations between the Irish and British governments.

From the papers, the prospects for political progress seemed bleak. Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald’s attempts to find a political way forward with the initiative of the New Ireland Forum met with the firm rebuff of Thatcher’s famous “ Out, Out, Out” press conference in November 1984. Speaking less than six weeks after the IRA attempt to assassinate her in the Brighton Bombing, she dismissed the three suggestions of the Forum: a unitary state, a federal/confederal state or joint British/Irish authority. The British seemed also to have considered at the time repartition of Northern Ireland, though how seriously this was taken other than as a doomsday option for dealing with Nationalist alienation is a matter for conjecture.

Yet within a year, on 15 November 1985, the Hillsborough Agreement was signed. Clearly, thinking people – a small number of officials on both sides and a totally committed Garret Fitzgerald – set to work to pick up the pieces and seek to find a way forward. The Agreement was historic in that it aligned for the first time British government policy with the majority rather than the minority on the island of Ireland, inter alia by establishing a consultative role for the Dublin government in certain aspects of the governance of Northern Ireland.

There were unintended as well as intended consequences, with violence continuing for nearly a decade, but the Agreement was a catalyst and laid the basis for breaking eventually the political stalemate. The strands began coming together in the early nineties with some attempts at talks featuring the two governments and the main political parties in Northern Ireland but excluding Sinn Fein. This exclusion, and the continuing background of political violence, doomed the negotiations at first but, in the words of one seasoned transatlantic observer, the pieces for a settlement were on the table.

The logjam was finally broken with the historic Downing Street Declaration of 15 December 1993. In the Declaration the British government declared inter alia it had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland and that it was for the people of Ireland alone to determine their future. This proved sufficient to nudge the IRA and then the loyalist paramilitaries into declaring ceasefires in the autumn of 1994.

Much of the credit for the Declaration must belong to the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, who worked tirelessly, with the aid of, again, a small team of officials, to achieve a path to peace from the moment he became Taoiseach. It was certainly, as Newton observed, a case of standing on giants’ shoulders, in terms of the foundations already laid by Garret Fitzgerald, John Hume and Alec Reid among others, but Reynolds’ unique approach was to seek peace first and sort out the constitutional modalities later.

There can be no doubt that this approach, which is also Reynolds’ political legacy, worked. It is, therefore, particularly sad to record that Albert Reynolds, now stricken by the final stages of Alzheimer’s, was too ill to attend the Declaration’s twentieth anniversary celebrations in Dublin last December. Mrs Reynolds attended on his behalf, together with the former British Prime Minister of the time John Major.

Political developments within Northern Ireland since 1994 have resembled a roller coaster ride with advances, setbacks, swoops and ascents. But the peace has held, Sinn Fein is now in government with the DUP and, gradually, differences have been ironed out, starting with the easiest. But a significant rump remains and it should be kept in mind that political consensus exists only to the extent that all sides feel it is better to be inside the tent than out in the cold and that “jaw jaw is better than war war.” There are still two tribes in Northern Ireland with different concepts of national identity.

Hence the Haass involvement, this time also without any direct input from the two governments. Two of the issues that divide – parades and flags – are of totemic significance to many on the loyalist side who regard them as zero sum ones where any concession would signify defeat. 2013 saw some serious and nasty rioting over both issues, particularly over the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall. The flag is now a badge of identity, just as the schools attended and the games played were and still are. There is much talking and teasing out on these issues still to be done. A change in mind-set is perhaps too much to hope for.

The third issue – coming to terms with the past – is even more tricky and has an ominous external dimension. A lot of blood was shed, a lot of innocents murdered on both sides, a lot of hurt is still to be got over. Recent revelations confirming not only collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries but even involvement by some of those forces in numerous killings over a generation have complicated matters further. This is one that will run. The glib call for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as in post-Apartheid South Africa is simply not applicable. In South Africa one side was victorious, one side lost. In Northern Ireland there have been no losers.

January 12 2014