He is almost certainly the most senior European Union bureaucrat to have come from Northern Ireland, and is also one of the last links to the old Stormont Parliament, yet Robert Ramsay could walk around Belfast unencumbered by the scrutiny of recognition.
Ramsay is remarkable not just for what he has done quietly at the heart of government, but for how in his twilight years two of his great interests – the future of the EU and the future of Northern Ireland’s unionists – have spectacularly collided.
He is one of the last remaining links to the old Stormont – young enough then to still be alive, and sufficiently close to power then to have really understood what was going on.
Now an octogenarian, he was conceived and born in war. Born in Belfast in September 1940, the devastating Luftwaffe bombing of the city the following year meant that he was soon evacuated to Lisleen in the nearby Castlereagh hills.
Sitting in his comfortable apartment on the gold coast of north Down, it is not only the location which embodies the old Northern Ireland Civil Service; Ramsay’s bearing, his diction, his varied interests in theology and linguistics, are those of an era far removed from the shambolic system of verbal government and wild incompetence exposed by the RHI scandal.
But nostalgia is dangerous. The bureaucracy overseen by the old Stormont Parliament may have been more capable, but it was part of a disastrous governmental arrangement.
Whether majority rule could have been made to work after the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 is debatable.
What is clear is that how that rule was administered did not work.
Ultimately, the old Stormont did not even serve the interests of the Protestant majority who elected it; the chaos of its final years and the decades of direct rule which followed hurt all of society.
Speaking of the Westminster model of democracy chosen by unionist leaders in the 1920s, he says that “you couldn’t pick a worse democratic system than first past the post”, something which put the unionist party in perpetual power.
Having joined the civil service in 1964, Ramsay soon found himself principal private secretary to Brian Faulkner – a fast-track promotion for a bright young official. Ramsay was not just a civil servant who served Faulkner because that was his duty; he believed in the last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland’s attempt to modernise and liberalise the state.
Central to the ambition of Faulkner – and his predecessors, James Chichester-Clark and Terence O’Neill – was that more political power and more practical benefits should belatedly be given to the Catholic population.
When asked if with hindsight he thinks that Faulkner could have done it – or whether he facing forces too great for any leader – Ramsay goes back much further. He goes back 26 years before Faulkner became Ulster Unionist leader.
“The really big mistake was not changing after the Second World War,” he says reflectively. They [unionist leaders] thought life would go on as before”. But he concedes that it “was difficult for them”, with pressure from the Orange Order and others who had a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo.
“The real opportunity was missed immediately after the Second World War when both communities – apart from a 0.001 IRA thing – had suffered, both communities had contributed to the war effort, and the world was changing. You think of that first post-war government in the UK – the National Health Service, education, and all that.
“Brookborough and the big house guys thought ‘we’re back to normality’...there was a moment when things could have been changed that Brookborough missed.
“Then later on unionism....missed an opportunity to make peace with constitutional nationalism.”
Could Faulkner have done more, or had unionism been so dominant for so long and there was so much unionist distrust of nationalists that time was required for compromise?
He is a Protestant and a unionist, but says bluntly that “there is an element in Ulster Protestantism that is sectarian”. However, he adds that this is not unique to Ulster. Almost half a century ago Papal nuncio Archbishop Heim told him that as a young boy in Switzerland his mother would send him out to buy bread with the instruction: “Don’t go to the Protestants”.
He loathed Paisley as “the mirror image of de Valera – held everything back for 30 years and reinforced the worst elements of his own side...those two guys were great leaders, but they led their people up the garden path”.
Was Paisleyism inevitable because the strand of unionism which he represented preceded him?
Ramsay here draws together church and state, saying that his time coincided with a period of ecumenism so “people thought ‘my religion is being compromised, at the same time as this political thing and it’s all a conspiracy against us’; O’Neill never understood that”.
He goes on: “The other big mistake was O’Neill’s: he tried to crush the Northern Ireland Labour Party. It had four seats – they’d moved up from two to four – and what Stormont needed was an opposition that was sort of credible. It was a mistake to snuff that out.
“I mean they [the nationalist opposition] were sound sort of people...they weren’t going to bring down the state or anything like that.”
He added: “I think they didn’t give enough respect to nationalists. I mean, some of the nationalists had in their youth been sort of IRA types – like Eddie McAteer from Derry. But there were others like Ronnie O’Connor who was a solicitor and a very decent man, James O’Reilly from Mourne who was a farmer and Eddie Richardson who had cycled for Ireland in the Olympics...they were decent guys. I don’t mean they were spat upon or anything but there wasn’t enough generosity towards them.”
Ramsay’s 2009 memoir, Ringside Seats, is an absorbing account of the dying days of that old system of government and the birth of the new regime - direct rule - in which he served as principal private secretary to the first NI Secretary of State.
But that was only the start of Ramsay’s career. His linguistic dexterity and love for Europe opened up a world which few Stormont officials considered – entry into the bureaucratic corps in Brussels. He would rise to become the European Parliament’s Director General for Research and then chief of staff to Henry Plumb when the Tory MEP was narrowly elected president of the European Parliament – an election in which Ramsay helped to get Irish MEPs to back Plumb.
Paisley’s most famous moment in the European Parliament – interrupting Pope John Paul II’s address to denounce him as the antichrist – unfolded while Ramsay was with Plumb.
Plumb was the parliament’s de facto speaker and it was he who ordered the heckling Paisley to be removed that day in 1988.
But Ramsay recalls something else: “The fright on the day was that there was a guy – he was actually an Irishman – who came to see me and said ‘I’ve seen Paisley in a meeting and I heard his briefcase rattling. I think he’s got a chain in there and he’s going to chain himself to the desk’.”
Word was sent to the maintenance department to secure a large pair of wire-cutters, but “whatever was rattling wasn’t a chain”.
He says that when Plumb warned the Pope that Paisley was likely to interrupt him, the pontiff said that he was aware of the DUP leader.
A staunch believer in the European project, Ramsay deplores Brexit, but realised “there was a basic psychological problem in the British mindset because of history and geography that as the European project – with ever-closer union – moved along it would come to a point that the Brits would say ‘no, we really can’t go that way’”.
But he adds phlegmatically of Brexit: “I don’t think it will be disastrous; I don’t think either extreme of ‘this is a great thing’ or ‘this is a disaster’ will turn out; we’ll sort of muddle along because it’s in everybody’s interests that we do muddle along but I think it’s particularly bad for Northern Ireland”.
The DUP, he says, were “naive” and now “they’re up a gum tree, really”. When the DUP came to hold the balance of power in Westminster, “their basic problem was that they hadn’t thought through what any of this would mean.
“I think they thought their allies tended to be the ERG and so they fell in behind them and this was British nationalism – ‘we’re part of the British nation and we desperately want to be in that crew’ – and I think they didn’t foresee...that a hard Brexit means a border in the Irish Sea.
“At some point, geography takes over from history”.
He sees the EU becoming increasingly powerful and centralised – “they won’t call it federalism...[it will be called] harmonisation” around a “core Europe” of the original six members and a few others such as Spain, Poland, and Ireland, and an “associate Europe” in which the UK may end up. “It’s heresy to say this in Brussels,” he says.
He says there is much “wishful thinking” about tearing up the NI Protocol. “You have to have the protocol because...the EU isn’t there to make life easy for these guys who are leaving; the EU is there to protect the interests of the EU.”What I think people don’t appreciate is that the integrity of the single market is an existential requirement for the EU because although the EU is very strong as an economy power...they are politically fragile because they are spread over the 27 and they simply cannot compromise in the slightest way on the point of the single market. The EU will not do that.”
But he does see the possibility of the protocol’s implementation being significantly softened along a risk-based approach to goods.
“We already have very good statistics – going back to the Second World War – of trade between GB and NI.
“Provided you have a light-touch way of monitoring that with checks, agreements with usual traders, etc, if a particular commodity is 4,000X and suddenly it becomes 140,000X, you can see that Northern Ireland isn’t absorbing that and the Northern Ireland market is so small that you can see, you can predict for virtually everything what the sensible volumes are – they might increase by 5%, but it’s not going to be multiplying.
“Then it comes into de minimis – little things may filter through but that’s neither here nor there in terms of the EU. But the EU have got to be reassured that this is not the back door [to them].”
If that is possible, why has it not happened?
“I think London made a balls of it, really. It all happened with a great rush at the end to make the deadline of December 31.
“I can imagine someone saying ‘but we’ve still got this Northern Ireland thing’ and I can imagine Johnson saying ‘oh, bugger Northern Ireland - we’ll tidy it up later’.”
To secure that compromise, he sees the UK having to allow the EU to monitor detailed aspects of its internal product movements.
The protocol will mean that Northern Ireland will have no democratic say in many of the laws by which we are bound. He says that the EU will be willing to listen to Northern Ireland when making laws, but “to be brutal, their attitude to Northern Ireland....will be ‘you’re bloody lucky to be in the single market at all - what harm are we doing?’”.
Is that not profoundly undemocratic, and that will build a sense of righteous resentment?
“Well, a lot will depend not just in this context but in many on how Brexit on both sides works out over a five to ten year period. If the system is doing everybody good...”
Unionists have always been fragile about their identity, he says, which means that “whoever brings out the biggest Union Jack, we’ll follow that”.
The Union has been weakened, but he does not necessarily think that makes a united Ireland likely. But if Brexit is disastrous and the EU is booming, he envisages many in the Protestant middle class deciding pragmatically to go back to the EU via Irish unity – the mirror of current pragmatic Catholic support for the Union.
It is a measure of how Brexit has destabilised the Union that Ramsay, a key aide to the last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, is now open to Irish unity: “I do not trust the London establishment for a nanosecond ; nor do I feel undying loyalty towards their institutions.
“If I were still around at the time of a future referendum, I would want to know the details of what the future Ireland would be.
“But the option of a return to the EU via Ireland would certainly have its attractions for me.”
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