Today the internationally recognised state of Bosnia consists of a federation of two entities, both with considerable autonomy – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with 51% of the area of the country,  divided into ten ethnic cantons, and the Republka Srpska , with 63 municipalities ­(and a population 82% Serb) . Bosnia is supervised internationally by a High Representative (from the EU) and a Deputy (from the USA). Each entity has its own president, government, parliament and police. The boundaries between the two parts are along the “Inter-entity boundary line,” essentially the military front lines as they existed at the end of the War and the Dayton Agreement. There is, in addition, an overarching central Bosnian government with a rotating Presidency. Elections held since 1995 have shown voters almost invariably voting along ethnic lines.

When the War began, in April 1992, the population of Bosnia was roughly 4.2 million. At least 100,000 died during the conflict, which saw over two million people, almost half the population, displaced, as well as at least 25,000 women and girls (some estimates are far higher), almost all Muslims, raped.  Many refugees did not return. Today Bosnia’s population is 3.5 million. The War ended in November 1995, without victory by either side, after the forceful intervention of NATO, which bombed the Serbs to the negotiating table.

The main legacy, as well as an economy in ruins, has been a severely partitioned country, with the three ethnic/tribal groups overwhelmingly concentrated in their particular segments of the country. Though Bosnia’s economy has recovered slowly from the war it remains one of Europe’s poorest countries. It has aspirations for EU membership, but has a distance to travel, designated only as “a potential candidate country.”  An unforeseen consequence was to help radicalize subsequently many young Muslims elsewhere, who pointed to Western indifference to Bosnian Serb aggression.

Could the War have been avoided? The war in Croatia obviously affected Bosnia, with the local factions and militias manoeuvring and jostling for several months in similar fashion to those in Croatia a year earlier.  And certainly the search for solutions intensified after, and was influenced by, the outcome in Croatia, where EC recognition, with much fanfare, had been followed by a ceasefire and the introduction of UN troops. Bosnia was different and most observers feared that a conflict there could prove worse than in Croatia. One problem was that the three distinct ethnic groups were distributed in patchwork-quilt fashion throughout much of Bosnia, rather than neatly compartmentalised like in the Krajina, making any separation or partition difficult , zero sum and politically explosive..

The issue for Bosnia therefore was whether it was possible to secure international recognition and have a future as an independent  unified state, with the further complication that there were rumours that the Serbs  and Croats had done a deal to split Bosnia up. This in turn generated doubts about whether the Bosnian Serbs in particular were negotiating in good faith. This amid rumours that the JNA was rotating Bosnian Serb soldiers into Bosnia for the forthcoming struggle and the fact that much of the JNA armour evacuated from Croatia was in Northern Bosnia in areas controlled by the Bosnian Serbs. The alternative, some form of partition, difficult to implement fairly, was strongly pushed by the Bosnian Serbs.

In late February 1992 I  was part of a delegation from the ECMM, headed by the Portuguese Ambassador, Joao Salguero, which. met Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, in a hotel in Sarajevo, The meeting took place just over a week before the fateful Independence Referendum which effectively launched the war in Bosnia shortly thereafter.

Karadzic spelled out the Bosnian Serb demands. He was, of course, tailoring his comments for his audience, and presented a position of sweet reasonableness.  He rejected the notions of keeping Bosnia within Jugoslavia (the others didn’t want it) and of a Greater Serbia (this very much at odds with the line Milosevic was pushing). It was necessary for a common solution to be found for Bosnia which would exclude the possibility of any one group being dominated by the others. All three communities should thrive without fear of domination. It was important to do a good job on nation building lest the area become unstable for decades.

He compared the situation in Bosnia as somewhat similar to that in Switzerland at the commencement of the Swiss Federation. (One of the buzz word solutions at the time was “cantonisation” a la Suisse.) There was already “the reality of a canton system” on the ground. The Serbs advocated a three-level solution involving three separate ethnic assemblies, with three regional governments, one common national assembly, with each group having equal representation and one common national government. This was not unlike Switzerland, or indeed the EC. He added that the Serbs in Bosnia should have some “organic link” to Serbia, without specifying any details.

Karadzic was scathing on the proposed independence referendum (which the Serbs would boycott) claiming it was illegal and based on a defective law from 1977. He alleged the Muslims (and Croats) were hoping the EC would decide on recognition based on the referendum results without considering that it was done illegally by an unauthorised body. Any EC recognition should only be on the basis of agreement in talks subsequently with all three groups rather than on the referendum outcome. He finished, chillingly and prophetically, that to accord recognition otherwise would cause a catastrophe.

The referendum went ahead with a Serb boycott and an overwhelming majority for independence.  Bosnian President Izetbegovic proclaimed Independence on 3 March. As tensions escalated and violent incidents increased, the ongoing EC attempt to broker a peace plan to head off war – the Lisbon Agreement – was amended and adapted in an effort to secure consent. On 18 March all three sides signed the Agreement, which provided in effect for a canton style arrangement for Bosnia with devolvement of many central government powers to local ethnic communities. Some classic fudge language was introduced at the end which stated that the three constituent units would be “based on national principles and taking into account economic, geographic and other criteria.”

Any slight hope that, based on the Agreement, conflict could be avoided was dashed within a few days when, on 28 March, after meeting U.S. Ambassador Zimmermann, Izetbegovic withdrew his signature and declared his opposition to any division of Bosnia. We know the rest. The War began in early April. On 7 April the EC and the USA recognised Bosnia. On 22 May Bosnia was admitted to the UN. By then all hell had been let loose.

So. Was an opportunity lost?  The current situation is a mess, a mix closest to the Lisbon Plan. The Serbs seem to have got much of what they wanted. But who knew in March 1992 the horrors that lay ahead? The Serbs had prepared for war, and the JNA effectively delivered for them. It seems that the Bosniaks thought international recognition would be backed up by international support. A careful examination of what had happened over Croatia should have disabused them of that notion. Bosnia had no champion. It needed one.





We’re already at Easter, with just a year to go before Brexit, a referendum on abortion pending, a Papal Visit due in August and every possibility of a General Election and even a Presidential one   by year’s end. The economy is thriving, with an almost full bounce back from recession and while there are problems still regarding homelessness and mortgages in distress, generally things are looking up.

While spring cleaning the attic recently I came across a book presenting a picture of a very different Ireland – that of half a century ago.  The “Statistical Abstract of Ireland for 1970-71,”a government publication, should be a dry-as -dust compendium of out of date facts.  This was after all the pre-Internet era in which data was stored and accessed in print and, not surprisingly, the 400 page book is crammed with facts and tables, not necessarily easily digestible. However, there are excellent and detailed contents and index sections which facilitate.

The result is a fascinating journey back in time, reminding us of what has been achieved. For the data in it predates arguably the most significant landmark in Ireland’s post-war history – our accession to the then European Community in 1973. (The only possible rival for that landmark gold medal – the Good Friday Agreement – would probably not have been possible had Ireland, and Britain, not been members of the EC/EU.)  In the context of Brexit, and the expected collateral damage to Ireland in particular, the book offers a useful reality check, lest we protest too much, and is far more than just source material for the social historian.

Politically, in 1970-71, the country, North and South, was sliding into the cycle of violence that became known as the “Troubles”, though none foresaw how savage and prolonged they would be. 1970 had witnessed the first stirrings of the Provos, and the steady deterioration of relations between the Nationalist minority and the British Army (welcomed as protectors in 1969). The first soldier was killed in February 1971, and thereafter the violence escalated rapidly, surging enormously after the one-sided introduction of internment without trial in August.

In the Republic, 1970 saw Haughey and several other Government Ministers fired and put on trial in connection with an attempt to smuggle arms to Northern nationalists. Relations with Britain were fraught, particularly after the Tories returned to power in mid-1970. Fianna Fail was convulsed, with a number of hotheads splitting away, but Lynch held on – and held firm – and the message was clear; there was a limit to what was acceptable behaviour for politicians in the South regarding events in the North.

But this time politics was merely a sideshow. The country’s main preoccupation was a six month bank strike which saw all Ireland’s major banks shut from May until November 1970. Repeat: six months with no banks, no property transactions, no access to any legal documents the banks might be holding, no settling of debts. There was something almost surreal about the dispute, provoked by the banks in an attempt to smash the powerful banking officials union (IBOA). The IBOA lived to fight several other days before modern technology won out, but in 1970 there was no machine banking only over the counter service.

Surreal also was the way Irish society coped, with pubs functioning as money exchanges and surprisingly little serious damage done to the economy. This was probably because Ireland’s economy was still quite backward, just emerging – slowly – from decades of stagnation. The main stated official policy aim was to secure entry, in tandem with Britain, to the European Community, following the withdrawal of the De Gaulle veto, and negotiations with Brussels occupied much of 1970 and 1971. It would have been a disaster had we not been admitted with Britain.  The Abstract makes clear just how desperate our plight would have been on the outside.

Take Trade. In 1970 Ireland’s total exports were £431 million, of which £226m (over half) went to Britain and a further £57 m (13%) to the North. Of those total exports, Food and Live Animals accounted for £193 million, with £146 million going to Britain ( 75%) ; this in a country where one in three of the workforce were directly employed in agriculture. To be shut out of the British market would have quite simply ruined the country. The many other tables in the book serve to illustrate just how backward the country was, though everywhere things were looking up by contrast with the horrible decade of the Fifties. Some selective samples follow

The population in 1971, stood at 2,978,248, showing another modest rise over the ground zero figure of a decade earlier. (The North’s population, incidentally, had by now increased to1,527,593,  its highest figure since 1841 and now slightly over 50% of that in the Republic.)Population distribution by age was heavily weighted towards the young, with almost a third under fifteen, reflecting the effects of the heavy emigration of the fifties and earlier. The population was almost 95% Catholic with the numbers for other main religions showing double digit falls in twenty years. In the North Catholics were the largest group, comprising around a third of the population.

It was a male dominated society. Of the “gainfully occupied” – i.e. working for money – figure of, 1,118,204, 74% were males, while 79% of the total “non-gainfully occupied” were female. Of the 289,144 women who were gainfully occupied, 20% or 58,325 were service workers, with 22,575, domestic maids, and a further 19%, 55,916, were typists and clerks. This was the era of the Marriage Bar in the public service, which until 1973 required women to resign their jobs upon marriage.

There were no motorways and widely varying quality in what roads there were (some dating back to the Famine) for the country’s 353, 961 private cars, which perhaps in part accounted for the  figure of 438 road deaths in  1969. The figures peaked at 640 in 1972 before declining steadily to the 2017 figure of 158, at a time when the number of private cars hit two million.

There were 64, 382 births in 1970 and 33,686 deaths, including 255 from TB, a scourge of ages past ( 9323 died of TB in 1916!), now effectively tamed  by better medicine, better treatment, and better living standards. These last still had some way to go particularly regarding housing. Of the 674, 602 private dwellings only 296, 370 had internal water taps, mainly in Dublin and Cork, while only 361,406 had flush toilets, with the percentages with no facilities whatsoever  in Connacht  approaching two thirds.

It was, on the surface, a remarkably law-abiding society, with ten murders and 124 sexual assaults on women in 1970 (in 1971 the figures were nine and 139). Other crimes included Burglary and Housebreaking, 3426 in 1970 (4092 in 1971) Robberies with violence, including armed robberies, 213 (314) and Arson, 132 (151), as well as “Forgery and Uttering” 396 (848 – the steep rise in 1971 perhaps a function of bounced cheques after the bank strike). No mention, of course, of the Magdalen Laundries, the Mother and Baby Homes and the Abortion trail to England.

Mark Twain wasn’t wrong. Fascinating just the same.





As I write, Ulster appears to be saying “No” – yet again – with the Democratic Unionists having just scuppered the latest attempt to reinstate the North’s Power –Sharing Executive after a year of stalemate.  Two weeks ago agreement appeared tantalisingly close, with Arlene Foster and her team apparently ready to agree a deal with Sinn Fein. Then, on Valentine’s Day, she pulled the plug over the issue of a separate law for the Irish Language.  Opposition to the almost-deal had gestated over a weekend allowing local opponents within the DUP to join forces with the Gang of Ten – the DUP’s Westminster M.P.s, revelling in their current role of shoring up the minority British Government .

The two Governments are now faced with picking up the pieces, with the malign prospect, should all else fail, of returning to Direct Rule from London, something Dublin most certainly does not want. There’s no indication that London wants that either but the problem of advancing separate budget and spending plans for the North must be addressed rapidly; inter alia this involves providing for the economic sweeteners the DUP were promised as part of the deal to support the May government. There’s also the little matter of the ongoing preparations to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, planned for 10 April, with guests to include Bill Clinton plus the rest of the Great and the Good who had a hand in getting the Agreement over the line.

What appeared a little local difficulty when Sinn Fein pulled out of the Power Sharing Executive in January 2017 has now metastasized into something much bigger with the possibility of getting even worse. Sinn Fein acted following the refusal of Arlene Foster to agree to step aside temporarily owing to her involvement in the “Cash for Ash” scandal when she was Minister for Enterprise in 2012. Under the scheme generous subsidies were paid to companies and individuals burning renewable heating sources such as wood pellets. When word got around that money could actually be made from the scheme, with the subsidy exceeding the cost of the fuel, a surge in applications ensued before it was finally terminated in February 2016, to the accompaniment of much bad blood. The estimated cost was just under half a billion sterling, which would have to come out of the North’s block subsidy from Westminster, leaving less money for everything else.

Sinn Fein’s walkout was probably tactical – to wrong-foot the DUP (at no cost to themselves), with which there were ongoing frictions including over parity of esteem issues such as funding for the Irish language; it seemed a good idea at the time. Their action precipitated fresh elections in early March, the results of which saw some changes in seat numbers but no shift in tribal allegiances, despite claims to the contrary. Then came Teresa May’s disastrous decision to call a snap general election in June, apparently to provide her with a mandate for the Brexit negotiations. The results in the North again saw little change in allegiance but  seat gains and consolidation for both the DUP (up two seats to ten) and  Sinn Fein ( up three to seven), at the expense of their rivals. The results in Britain however, gave a huge and unexpected political bonus to the DUP. The result, a disaster for May, saw the Tories lose their overall majority and left May dependent on the ten DUP MPs to remain in office. It also left May considerably weakened and more beholden than before to the hard line Brexiteers in her cabinet and party.

There are existing uncontroversial arrangements in Wales and Scotland to cater for the minority languages there. So why not in the North? The answer is embedded in the history of the last century and the relations between the two communities; put simply Irish Language issues matter in the zero sum game that is ongoing, despite the Good Friday Agreement. It is frankly not relevant how many people in the North use or speak Irish; it is perceived by the Nationalist side as an important element in their heritage and so championed by Sinn Fein. The often offensive and dismissive language and tone used by many DUP politicians when commenting on the Irish language indicates the distance still to go before parity of esteem is reached. Indeed that attitude may have hardened the resolve of Sinn Fein in the matter.

It appears that the deal to restore the Executive would have seen Sinn Fein agreeing to accord considerable status to Ullans – the distinctive Ulster Scots dialect spoken in some areas of the North – in order to secure a free standing Irish Language Act. That there was no agreement is to be regretted, the more so because there were some recent signs that Foster and some other senior DUP figures were waking up to the appalling vista that could present itself to both parts of the island after Brexit. Quite what will now emerge is unclear. Constructive ambiguity may save the day eventually.

However, with Brexit casting an ever darker shadow, time is of the essence if the North’s politicians are to have a voice. It is one thing for  Westminster DUP MPs to be romanced by the hard line Brexiteers (as appears to be happening ), quite another to  be on the ground in the North absorbing  the fears and trepidations expressed locally at what Brexit could entail.  It is now little over a year before Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, yet still she has set no definite goals for the negotiations. There have been exasperated noises from Brussels, demanding to know what Britain wants. The answer seems to be that, beyond a vague wish to leave, and get the best possible deal – to have its “cake and eat it” to quote Boris Johnson –  the British government still does not know. The Cabinet is split between the gung -ho  Brexiteers , who seem blind to reality,  and those around May , who are stuck with the referendum result and are desperately seeking for silver linings among the dark clouds.

One of the mantras is that “Nothing is Agreed until Everything is Agreed.”  This, combined with another cliche, that “it will be all right on the night” is the line being pushed by the Brexiteers – i.e. that the anticipated gold plated trade deals with third countries (and indeed with the EU) will somehow happen overnight and that meanwhile the European heavy hitters, fearful of losing the British market, will bring the EU to heel and agree favourable terms . We shall see. The central problem in the negotiations remains: either Britain remains in the Customs Union and the Single Market or it does not. There’s talk currently of a “soft” transition arrangement for a minimum of two years. Whether the Brexiteers will buy into that remains to be seen. If they do not then who knows? There is some wild talk of casting aside the whole Good Friday Agreement as necessary collateral damage to “solve” the Irish Border problem. Peace in the North was dearly bought. Could Perfidious Albion yet put it in jeopardy?




Ireland is set to vote on repealing the Eighth Amendment.  It’s a measure of how far opinion has shifted on the issue that the relevant Parliamentary Committee has included among its fourteen recommendations a proposal that would permit abortion on demand below twelve weeks.  The Cabinet is currently considering, and the Dail debating,  the Committee’s report and recommendations.  It has been a tortuous journey thus far , reflecting the highly emotive nature of the issues involved for what is still an overwhelmingly Christian country (78 % Catholic  plus 5% other Christian). The Committee’s consideration of the issue followed from the deliberations and report last June of a Citizens Assembly which had examined the issue exhaustively.

There is still a distance to travel. First the referendum itself, with the options a simple yes or no on repeal, the more fraught path of replacing the existing article with a wording capable of satisfying enough voters and pressure groups to win, or a wording that would simply mandate the Oireachtas (in practice the Dail) to legislate as it saw fit . Assuming a vote for change, further heated debate can be expected in the Dail on any enabling legislation.

While the polls have shown a marked shift in public attitudes to abortion, the Taoiseach recently sounded a note of caution that the twelve weeks suggestion may prove “a step too far” for the majority of the public, adding that it was further than he himself would have anticipated a year or so ago. Fianna Fail as a party remain in favour of retaining the Eighth, though as I write leader Michael Martin has declared in favour of the twelve weeks proposal and emphasised that his party’s TDs will have a free vote on the issue. Whether the referendum will take place as early as May/June as initially signalled will depend on  how the political debate goes, with the prospects in the autumn of a possible Presidential election campaign (failing an agreed candidate) and of a visit by the Pope further factors to reckon with.

The gloves are already coming off. Abortion is an issue which stirs strong emotions at either end of the spectrum, even though at this point in time there appears considerable public support for change, faced with the reality of a constant stream of Irish women ( several thousand annually) travelling to Britain to secure an abortion.  It is an issue on which Varadkar must tread warily, given the minority position of his government and the precariousness of the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fail which keeps him in power. With recent opinion polls demonstrating a positive “bounce” for the Taoiseach and Fine Gael for the handling of the first stage of Brexit, there have been mutterings from Fianna Fail about pulling the plug if the current Fine Gael lead persists or increases. A setback in a referendum on such an emotive issue as abortion could prove seriously damaging to the Taoiseach’s prospects for re-election.

Another issue which may prove “a step too far” is the proposed referendum on voting rights for Non-Residents in Presidential elections which has been pencilled in for 2019. Currently Article 12.2.1 of the Constitution states “The President shall be elected by direct vote of the people.” 12.2.2 states “Every citizen who has the right to vote at an election for members of Dail Eireann shall have the right to vote at an election for President.”

The referendum proposal is the latest development in the official reaching out by the authorities here to the Irish Diaspora which has been a feature of policy in this century. A Task Force on Policy towards Emigrants reported in 2002, following which an Irish Abroad Unit was established in the Department of Foreign Affairs with me as its first Director.

The Unit now administers an Emigrant Support Programme which, since 2004 has assisted 530 organisations in 34 countries, spending over €158 million in the process. The Programme provides financial support to front line advisory services and community care organisations catering for Irish emigrants, focussing on the more vulnerable, marginalised and elderly. In addition the Programme has invested in a range of cultural, community and heritage projects among Irish communities overseas.

Official outreach has broadened and deepened in recent years with the nomination of a Minister for the Diaspora, the holding of two Global Irish Civic Forums and the acknowledgement of the Diaspora’s importance through the nomination of Chicago restaurateur Billy Lawless to Ireland’s Senate.

Relations with the Diaspora were given an additional impetus by the surge in emigration after the economic collapse of 2008 which has seen upwards of 250,000 Irish people forced to emigrate. This latest group, better educated and better qualified than earlier Irish emigrants, has maintained close contact with and interest in developments in Ireland through modern communications, the Internet and the social media.  Many of these regard their emigration as temporary and have been agitating  to have their interests taken into account by and within the Irish political process.  A potent argument advanced is that many policies enacted in Ireland have a direct impact on temporary emigrants and their ability to return home in terms e.g. of social welfare entitlements and educational  opportunities (and costs).

Lobby groups have pressed for the right of those abroad (there are estimates of one in six Irish born citizens residing outside the state) to vote in Irish elections, citing the practice in most European countries and other liberal democracies. There has been little public debate on the issue so far and that not necessarily very profound, with one (opposing) refrain citing the reverse of the 18th Century American Colonists’ slogan of “No Taxation without Representation” – i.e. if you want to vote, pay Irish taxes. The more considered reservation would be the concern that circumstances might occur in which an outside group not bound by any consequences could influence political decisions and policies within Ireland.

The Government has proceeded cautiously thus far. The Constitutional Convention in 2013 voted well over 70% in favour of permitting non-residents to vote in Presidential elections.  An examination at official level of the issues and practicalities involved followed. These included whether all Irish citizens should be eligible or whether the franchise should be restricted to those born in Ireland or recently emigrated, as well as the logistics of where, when, and how non-residents would vote.  An options paper in March 2017 is well worth studying. On 14 November Diaspora Minister Cannon told the Seanad that a referendum was envisaged for mid-2019, describing the initiative as a “very tangible expression of our commitment to ongoing engagement with the global Irish”.

A lively debate promises, though hardly on the scale of that on abortion. The Lobby wants more. Those in favour see it as a right of citizenship and one similar to that enjoyed by most expat citizens of liberal democratic states. Those against see it as the thin end of a wedge that could eventually end in non-residents voting in all Irish elections. There’s no talk of this at present but debates can often become side-tracked and issues distorted. And who can tell what result a referendum will produce.






2017 was not all bad news.  In November Ratko Mladic – the “Butcher of Bosnia” – was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) in The Hague on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. While some would consider appropriate in Mladic’s case the words of Bishop Moriarty of Kerry in 1867, condemning the Manchester Martyrs, that Hell was not hot enough nor Eternity long enough a punishment, nevertheless the life sentence imposed on the 74 year old Mladic should suffice to ensure he will never set foot outside jail again. He joins his chief partner-in-crime, Radovan Karadzic, who is serving 40 years for similar crimes. Karadzic has lodged an appeal. The third major Serbian warmonger, former President Slobodan Milosevic, died in 2006, during his trial.

The Tribunal was wound up at the end of 2017, having successfully convicted and sentenced 90 of the 111 persons brought to trial. The court has been criticised on a number of grounds, including partiality and selectivity, but at the very least it succeeded in bringing the major surviving players to justice and permitting a certain measure of closure to the relatives of the victims. There are gaps of course – many minor killers were not pursued, Mladic was nailed over crimes in Bosnia alone rather than in Croatia, and what measure of closure can realistically be provided to the relatives of the 8000 plus men and boys massacred in Srebenica or to those killed in smaller massacres across Bosnia and Croatia?

Clearly also emotions still run high in the countries and among the communities and individuals concerned. Mladic rejected the Tribunal’s verdict and claimed throughout his actions were ultimately on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs. Since he was able to evade capture without disguise for over fifteen years a lot of people in Serbia and Bosnia clearly agreed. Ditto with Karadzic, though he DID use disguises and aliases. And, in a curious development shortly after Mladic’ conviction, a Bosnian Croat, Slobodan Praljak, committed suicide by poisoning before the Tribunal’s judges when his appeal was rejected, proclaiming as he did so that he was not a war criminal. However heinous his crimes (chiefly around Mostar) they were minor compared to those of the other two. His death evoked considerable public sympathy in certain quarters among Croats and even Serbs, further proof, if any were needed, that significant numbers of Serbs and Croats continue convinced (still) of the justice of their cause.

While a line – of sorts – has been drawn under the four conflicts that raged across what had been Jugoslavia in the 1990s, the process of reconciliation, particularly in Bosnia, clearly still has a long distance to travel. The major players are either dead (Milosevic, Tudjman, Izetbegovic, and Rugova ) or in jail (Karadic  and Mladic), two of the former republics, Slovenia and Croatia – significantly the two wealthiest – are in the EU, while Serbia ( the third richest) is negotiating for membership. The three less prosperous republics, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, as well as Kosovo, which broke free from Serbia a decade ago, have aspirations only. The dead totalled at least 130,000, with estimates of 100,000 in Bosnia, 20,000 in Croatia and 13,000 in Kosovo. The numbers displaced internally or of refugees ran into millions, many of whom will never return. The wars popularised the term “ethnic cleansing,” reintroduced genocide as a parallel process, and in a grisly development, used rape, almost exclusively of Bosnian Muslim women, as a weapon of war.

There have been bloodier and more savage conflicts in the last quarter century, yet the Balkan wars continue to fascinate, especially for anyone who was there. And for Europe, where there has been ongoing soul-searching over the behaviour of the Dutch troops at Srebenica, and over the broader issue of the European Union’s role in the early stages of the conflicts.  In 1991, as the centrifugal forces that tore Jugoslavia apart were gathering strength and becoming apparent, Europe’s politicians, flushed with hubris following the collapse of Communism, blundered into involvement, best summed up in Luxembourg Foreign Minister Poos’ unfortunate statement that “the hour of Europe has dawned.”

At Brioni in early July, faced with how to respond to the imminent declarations of independence by Slovenia and Croatia, the EU, together with the principals, cobbled together an agreement for negotiations, hopefully to preserve Jugoslav unity, including establishing what became the European Community Monitoring Mission (ECMM) to supervise de-escalation and disengagement. It proved a forlorn hope, with Europe’s leaders either unaware or at best only dimly aware, of the hatreds that festered.  Anyone with knowledge of recent Balkan history or even anyone familiar with the passions generated in the conflict in Northern Ireland, would have been sceptical. The immediate effect of the Brioni Agreement was to bind Europe to the escalating conflict.

It’s not as if Europe was kept in ignorance. All the major European countries had embassies in Belgrade, which presumably reported back regularly. In addition on 16 January 1991 Milosevic spoke at the traditional European Ambassadors’ lunch, where he painted in red his position, and that of Serbia. (What follows, and which smacks of authenticity, is reported in Honig and Both’s “Srebenica”). Were Jugoslavia to break up, Slovenia could go (there were no Serbs there) but the Serb inhabited areas in Croatia and Bosnia would remain part of a new federal “greater” Serbia. The existing internal borders were not sacrosanct but merely administrative.  This was Serbia’s ultimate compromise. If it was not obtainable peacefully, Serbia would be forced “to use the tools of power which we possess, and they do not.” It was the blueprint, ceteris paribus, for the bloodshed of the next five years.

Six months later European leaders recognised Croatian and Slovenian independence. By then the Slovenes had successfully repelled a half-hearted assault by the JNA. By then also the Serb areas of Croatia had been occupied (the Krajina), the Croatian town of Vukovar razed to the ground and other cities and towns (Dubrovnik, Osijek, Karlovac) heavily bombarded. There had been massacres, up to 20,000, overwhelmingly Croatians, killed and another half a million Croats ethnically cleansed.  Europe wanted out, its politicians without stomach for the bloodshed, with its unarmed white clad Monitors derided by both sides as “Ice Cream Men” (“I was that soldier”), and reduced to patching up partial local ceasefires and evacuating  JNA armour and artillery from Croatia into Bosnia to facilitate the conditions under which UN Peacekeepers could be introduced. The Serbs gave assurances the evacuated tanks and artillery would not be used against Croatia.

Those EU recognitions received considerable criticism as premature both then and later, but, on paper at least, Milosevic had got what he wanted. So had Croatia, and its EU champion Germany. I recall discussing the recognition at the time with a German diplomat in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. He posed the rhetorical question: what was Europe to do, faced with the aggression and crimes of the Serbs? Croatia was on its knees, with 20,000 dead, its land occupied, its economy ruined, and hamstrung by a UN Arms Embargo which rendered it militarily at the mercy of the Serbs. The die, in any event, was cast. No going back or thought, then, of Bosnia.




December 2017 may well prove a “watershed moment”, for Ireland, for Britain and for Europe. The hyperbole may in this case be justified. We shall see. The issue was Britain quitting the European Union –Brexit; the event was the December European Council meeting; the result was agreement to proceed with substantive negotiations on future EU-British trade and other relations. For Ireland, the country with most to lose from Brexit (apart from Britain!), the outcome was positive and reassuring, but there remains much to play for.

Up to now Brexit has appeared slightly surreal. Yes it was to happen, in 2019, the outcome of a narrowly won plebiscite on a flawed and inadequate question and after a campaign of disinformation and misinformation on the one hand and ineptness on the other.  The losing Prime Minister walked away and his successor has shown weakness and crass political misjudgement, arguably digging an even deeper hole for her country than that produced by the referendum result. All this compounded by the antics of her Cabinet colleagues who have thus far minimised or distorted the very difficult nature of the process of disentanglement and extraction  from forty years of regulatory integration, while also misrepresenting  post-Brexit Britain’s future  prospects.

Now there can be no doubt. Britain is on the way out. Much remains to be negotiated but a significant milestone on the path to no return has been rounded. As I write it appears that every party has got some of what they wanted. In Ireland’s case, critically, Britain has been faced down over the Border post-Brexit. For Britain, the decision by the European Council that the Brexit negotiations can proceed to future trade arrangements, something seen as the Brexit Holy Grail and  fundamental by gung-ho Brexiteers, and, in the real world, something welcomed by  the increasingly nervous British captains of commerce and industry. For the EU relief that there is now the potential for an orderly exit and future relationship by and with Europe’s second largest economy and avoidance of a British crash-out.

For Taoiseach Leo Varadkar events came thick and fast. One of those small hurdles which can bring a government down suddenly cropped up during November when the Maurice McCabe Garda Whistle-blower affair surfaced again. The McCabe affair has already claimed several notable scalps, including a former Minister for Justice, Garda Commissioners and top civil servants. This time it added another – that of Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who took one for the team, resigning with protestations of innocence to head off the Government’s collapse. Her Secretary General also left abruptly. An overhaul of the Justice Department is pending, while the problems besetting the Gardai continue.

For a while an early election seemed on the cards as relations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail deteriorated sharply. The sour aftertaste left has led most observers to expect an early general election. This at a time when the negotiations over the Border post-Brexit demanded maximum Government attention.

Relations between Ireland and Britain took a nose dive in the run up to the December European Council.  The British goal was simple – to achieve EU agreement that negotiations could proceed to future trade relationships between the two entities. Three conditions were necessary: agreement on the size of the “Divorce Settlement” to be paid by Britain upon departure, satisfactory arrangements to protect the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and agreement on the Border arrangements in Ireland. The first two were a shoe-in, despite some initial bluster from the Brexiteers. Britain agreed to pay roughly €50 billion over a period and also gave guarantees regarding EU residents. Which left the tricky issue of the Irish Border.

The Border and all it represented has long been the running sore in relations between the communities in Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. With the advent of peace the situation changed. The security apparatus was dismantled and, with the introduction of the European Single Market and the Customs Union, border posts and barriers disappeared. This “soft border” between the two parts of Ireland has been one of the elements central to the success of the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process. Its importance has been acknowledged by all parties, not least by the EU which has strongly supported peace in Ireland.

However, with Britain due to leave the EU after March 2019, the Border will become effectively the external frontier of the EU and of Britain, with all that that implies. Ireland, with the support of the EU, has stressed from the outset the importance of maintaining the Common Travel Area between the two jurisdictions and the open border with free movement between North and South. In the negotiations to date over Brexit a satisfactory outcome over this was one of the EU’s three preconditions for Britain to satisfy. And from early on Britain has stressed it wants a “soft Border” to remain.

In practice however this involves squaring a particularly difficult circle. The soft Border is predicated on membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union, both of which Britain is to leave. This exit is not set in stone – it was a commitment by Teresa May at a Party Conference – but so much rhetoric has been expended in support of leaving that a change here seems currently off the radar.

In the run up to the Brussels’ Council the British side huffed and puffed and stated repeatedly they wanted a soft border, without, however, going into specifics. The Taoiseach made clear that it was a national interest for Ireland and that we would hold our position and that moreover the problem was not of Ireland’s making. As Britain gave way on money and citizens’ rights the pressure on Ireland increased. The British tabloids joined in, excoriating Leo Varadkar as only they could. British politicians and commentators on TV expressed outrage that Ireland would/could/might hold up Brexit’s Manifest Destiny. Yet our EU partners held firm in support for the Irish position.

Something had to give, and it did. On December 4 May blinked and a form of words acceptable to Ireland was signalled. Then an immediate hitch. The DUP, who are keeping May in power, demurred at any arrangement that would mean some form of regime applying in the North different to the rest of the UK. May backed off.

The stalemate lasted for several days. Ireland and Brussels remained firm. May eventually agreed to further changes. Then another hitch. David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, described the agreement as not legally binding but merely a declaration of intent. In the uproar that followed Davis hurriedly backed down and the assurances ultimately given enabled the European Council to declare sufficient progress had been made to proceed.

Which is where we are at. But without a definitive answer as to how the circle will eventually be squared. Negotiations will commence shortly on the length of the transition period after Brexit, with two years being currently envisaged. Will Britain move on remaining in the Customs Union or the Single Market? Will the current British government survive? How quickly will there be progress on trade? Will Brexit eventually come to naught with another referendum? What else can/ will happen?





The Second World War was not just another war. It was global, it was ferocious and it killed more than any other war in history. Yet what marks it out also is that during its course, and inextricably mixed with it, a determined attempt was made to wipe out the Jewish race. Roughly half the Jews in the world were murdered over a relatively short period. Some of the consequences remain with us today. This extermination attempt, refined and honed  to increase its effectiveness, went hand in hand with a with a military and political campaign of invasion, murder, ethnic cleansing and exploitation  directed at the peoples and countries of Central Europe on a virtually unprecedented scale.

The only possible rival in recorded history, in terms of scale and effectiveness, was probably the Mongol holocaust in Central Asia and the subsequent aborted but undefeated attack on Central Europe in the Thirteenth Century. Yet the Mongols were essentially a temporary phenomenon, a transient federation of nomadic tribes out of Central Asia, brutally welded together, brilliantly led by the mediaeval equivalent of Napoleon and supported by an officer corps chosen by meritocracy and as a fighting force far superior militarily to the moribund feudal armies which faced them. Twentieth Century Germany by contrast was one of the most advanced European societies with a long and enviable cultural history, embracing, inter alia, music, literature and philosophy, an advanced welfare state – for its time – and, Prussia apart, no particularly strong tradition of militarism. Then the country was hijacked by a madman and his supporters.

Nazi Germany continues to fascinate in all its manifestations. One subset of questions relates  less to the how and more to the why so many Germans  continued to lend support and legitimacy to the regime even though its nature and actions were demonstrably abhorrent and , certainly after Stalingrad,  though it was clear that the regime was driving the whole of Germany into disaster. Debate continues to rage about how much the “ordinary German” knew about the Death Camps, and the mass murders of the Jews and others. H.H. Kirst, author of the Gunner Asch novels and other satirical works about Nazi Germany and its aftermath, commented wryly on his Nazi party membership that he did not really know he “was in a club of murderers”.

An equally pertinent question is, even if they knew or suspected, what could they do about it? Nazi Germany was a brutal and efficient dictatorship, opponents had been liquidated in sequence (remember Niemoller’s poem “First They Came…..”) and the consequences of defiance were likely to prove drastic, not just for the individual but for relatives as well. Those who moralise or pontificate about following your conscience have very rarely had to come to grips with a modern totalitarian dictatorship. Those with loaded guns call the shots. Passive defiance was possible, but unlikely to derail the murder machine. (The same considerations apply, mutatis mutandis, to living in the Soviet Union under Stalin.) And even the 20 July Plot demonstrated how well dug in the regime was.

There was also the aspect of what Joachim Fest, in his memorable study of Hitler, referred to as “widening the circle of criminality.” The more people could be involved in the crimes, the more likely they were to acquiesce and eschew protest. Thus, in the aftermath of the invasion of Russia, as the special teams of murderers followed or accompanied the troops in, the Wermacht was pressurised and compromised to witness, sanction, support logistically and participate in the crimes of what Fest termed the “Third World War.”

These “Einsatzgruppen” were not necessarily just hardened Nazis and SS but included numbers of ordinary and retired police, drawn into the squads as police forces were reorganised and rationalised and as the scale of the mass murders demanded more staff at the killing end. In the stunning novel, “Ostland” (2013) David Thomas tells the true story of how Berlin’s top criminal detective – not a committed Nazi – Georg Heuzer, became the head of the Einsatzgrup operating in Minsk, where he personally supervised the murder of thirty thousand chiefly Austrian Jews, reverting to a police officer after the War and rising to become police chief in the Rhineland Palatinate before eventually being sentenced for war crimes in 1963. There were more like him, individuals led step-by-step into compromise and crime.

All this is by way of introduction to William Ryan’s new novel, “The Constant Soldier”. The novel was launched in Dublin on 1 September and has been garnering very favourable reviews in recent weeks, many containing “spoilers” about the plot, which, however, in no way diminishes enjoyment of the book. The author is already well established for his three crime novels with a difference. They are set in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s and feature Alexei Korolev, a Moscow CID Militia captain who is tasked to investigate some high profile murder cases with political connections. Against the background of the Great Terror, when one wrong move can result in a “holiday in Siberia” – Stalin’s jocular remark – or worse, Korolev must walk a moral and political tightrope to make progress. The Korolev books paint vividly and sympathetically the dilemma of the honourable man trying to cope in a totalitarian and mendacious society where values are reversed or non – existent. “The Constant Soldier” is a new departure in theme – a stand-alone novel set during the last year of the Second World War, yet the similarities with Korolev’s moral dilemmas are clear.

The novel’s first twenty pages are particularly memorable, recounting the gradual emergence of consciousness and awareness of a badly wounded soldier being transported by train back to his home. That home is a village in Silesia, in a mixed Polish –German rural community conquered and occupied by the Germans.  Here it is not just the matter of a murder. The whole setting is a crime scene. Most of the Poles have been driven out or murdered, their farms expropriated. Some are Partisans, watching, waiting in the woods as the Red Army advances.  A “work camp” and a mine are nearby – euphemisms for murder camps and a source of forced labour when required.  Could the camp be Auschwitz ? Or another? There were enough of them.  We are never told.  The camp remains in the wings throughout the novel, the horrors hinted at but never explicitly described.

Central to the story, rather, is the Hut, a rest and recreation lodge in the village for SS officers and personnel taking refuge or recuperation from their “toils” in the camp or stresses from the war. (Keeping up the morale of those tasked with mass murder was, apparently a priority for the Nazi leadership. I’ve come across several anecdotes of Himmler and others, and one of Ryan’s characters actually quotes Himmler, comforting those at the coal face of extermination and mass murder –  though at the right end of the gun-  acknowledging the “strain” but promising a better future once the task was complete! Thomas records that at Heuzer’s trial it was revealed that the Minsk murderers were partially anaesthetised with a bottle of vodka per head per day.) The Hut was staffed by SS foot soldiers until, as casualties at the front mounted, they were drafted into active service. Cleaning and cooking in the Hut was carried out by female slave prisoners.

The book’s central character, Paul Brandt, a Wermacht soldier, has returned home a hero, disfigured and mutilated from the Eastern Front. Not a Nazi, he had enlisted under threat. He returns wounded internally as well as externally, haunted by the murders he saw and was ordered to take part in. He knows the war is lost and longs for an opportunity to atone for his crimes. The opportunity comes when he is offered work as the supervisory steward at the SS Hut. Among the female prisoners working there is a girl from his past, Judith, who does not recognise his scarred and burned face and for whom he feels responsibility for her arrest and enslavement. He now has a mission – to protect and look out for Judith and her colleagues as well as doing what he can to protect his father and sister, neither of them Nazis and both well aware of what is happening in the camps.

To survive, let alone carry out his mission, involves living a lie in a fraught environment , where casual murder and brutality are commonplace and where, despite the slight leeway he is accorded as a decorated hero who has made visible sacrifices for “the Reich,” he must constantly be on guard. Ryan conveys very well the fin de siècle atmosphere which abounds, the doublethink and speak about ultimate victory when clearly nemesis is only a matter of time. The characters surrounding him include a committed Nazi, an amoral and foolish local mayor and several SS officers, as well as the Hut Commandant, Obersturmfuhrer Neumann, after Brandt the most interesting character in the story.

Intelligent and perceptive, Neumann from the start is clearly aware of some or most of Brandt’s feelings and demonstrates at several points that, though a Nazi and SS Officer, he has not bought in to the whole package. Indeed the subplot of the story is essentially the personal development and disintegration of Neumann, never quite total, and never fully revealed or even directly hinted at to Brandt. When another SS officer commits suicide Neumann confiscates his records of Mendelssohn, a Jewish, and therefore banned, composer, to play them himself. (And shockingly, Brandt discovers, among the dead man’s possessions, a box containing gold fillings ripped from Jewish victims at the camp.)

Neumann is not alone. There are other Nazis also less enamoured of what they have done, but for Neumann, his own crimes have put him beyond redemption and he remains haunted by images of his victims. A World War One veteran, he broods as to how these things could have happened.  A March Violet (the derisory name given by “old” Nazis to those who joined the Party after Hitler became Chancellor) he hadn’t planned on becoming a murderer. “It had just turned out that way.”  And of the Jews: ”mostly no one had ever imagined it would come to this. Until it had, of course.”

Brandt plots and schemes, finding allies among the Ukrainian SS guards, who know only too well what fate awaits them when the Soviets arrive. But ostensibly he must maintain the façade of normalcy, even as the Nazi world collapses. There are Christmas festivities, an incongruous New Year’s hunt, photographs to be taken, drunken SS to be humoured, while the news gets worse on an almost daily basis. Paris has fallen. Warsaw has fallen; and Krakow. The sound of Russian artillery can be heard. The exodus of German refugees begins. The final drama is about to be played out.

There is a counterpoint to all of this – Polya, a feisty young Russian, driver of a T34 tank for two years, a battle hardened veteran who has nevertheless retained her joie de vivre and femininity. She longs to get the job done and is enamoured of her tank commander Lapshin. At interludes in the main story her exploits intrude as her tank, and the Red Army, gets ever closer to Brandt’s village. There are some vivid and savage action scenes featuring Polya’s tank. There’s no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie. Polya, and the advance of the Red Army, crushing and obliterating their opponents, are very much a terrible swift sword, wreaking vengeance for what was done after 1941. The tension is built excellently as the reader wonders what will happen when Polya and her tanks encounter Brandt and a rag tag collection of boys, drafted as the last line of defence.

“The Constant Soldier” is a compelling read. I finished it in two days. Nor is it easily forgotten.  In an Afterword the author points to an album of photographs taken in 1944/5 by a senior SS officer at Auschwitz as providing inspiration for his book. The photos show members of the SS relaxing and chilling out in an R and R hut located several kilometres from the camp just weeks before the Red Army liberated it. If ever Arendt’s “banality of evil” categorisation of Eichmann seems appropriate it is here. Anyone interested in morality tales and looking also for a damn good story should read the novel, surely one of the year’s best. Highly recommended.

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