Is it not all right to sell land to the ‘other side’

Published: 26 Sep 2013 09:300 comments

I’m sure you’re familiar with John B Keane’s story “The Field” which was made into a marvellous film starring Richard Harris as “Bull” McCabe.

“Bull” had farmed a field for years, but when the widow who owned decided to sell, an American tried to buy it.

The dark trouble that followed amply illustrates how deep land is in the Irish pschye.

Nowhere better shown that when “Bull” told the priest:

“There’s another law stronger than the common law. The law of the land.”

Land, and the ownership of it or sale of it, has been a sore point for generations with families and neighbours falling out time and again.

But that is no excuse for the ugly squabbling that went on in the Assembly this week supposedly over the sale of a farm in County Fermanagh.

You couldn’t make it up.

In football, players can be charged with an offence called “bringing the game into disrepute”, a useful catch-all for miscreants.

Stormont was brought into disrepute this week.

Consider the facts of the back story.

Once political allies, the TUV’s Jim Allister and First Minister Peter Robinson now look at each other with the sort of disdain a townie looks at something lying in a pile in a farmer’s field.

Allister goads Robinson for being in power with Sinn Fein.

Robinson hit back in the Assembly on Monday with a jibe about Allister doing business with Republicans by being the executor of a will when a farm of land was sold and his wife received part of the proceeds.

Cue furious reaction from Allister, not least because Robinson got his facts wrong.

I don’t have much time for Jim Allister’s politics, but on this occasion he is in the right, and Robinson has been made to look sullen and ugly in his outlook. He went for Allister with a viciousness which “Bull” McCabe would have been proud of, except with added sectarian undertones.

The First Minister didn’t do his party colleague Arlene Foster any favours, after it emerged that she was the solicitor involved in helping to make the will.

Twitter was awash with questions, although no one actually asked if it was her who had informed Robbo.

She has told this newspaper that it wasn’t.

Well, of course, it wasn’t.

Think about it. Surely if she had told him she would have got it right, knowing that Allister wasn’t the executor.

Does this whole seedy episode not, though, raise some very interesting questions.

Not least, the one of selling land to the “other side”.

Years ago, I heard of many instances of one side not selling to the other.

I remember one man telling me that a Catholic was trying to buy a house from a Protestant, who refused. The Catholic went to the extent of asking another Protestant to buy it and then sell it on to him at a healthy profit. But he wouldn’t do it.

And there was, apparently, a group set up where prominent Protestant businessmen bought up vacant land from fellow-Protestants to make sure they didn’t fall into the “wrong hands.”

This was particularly relevant throughout the years of the Troubles, when Protestant families along the Border in particular, felt their community was under seige and even being targetted deliberately to be driven off the land.

This mindset might seem to be a throwback.

But when you consider that the issue of the sale of the farm to a Catholic referred to this week resulted in a bitter argument at the Twelfth demonstration at Ballinamallard this year, it would seem that it hasn’t gone away you know.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this whole issue, it does seem incredible to me that it resulted in such bitterness in the Assembly.

I mean, apart from anything else, Jim Allister’s wife’s dealings are her own business. You would have thought delving into a wife’s business was something Peter Robinson would think twice about.

At a time when Northern Ireland faces many difficult questions and issues, we despair that this is the level our politicians have sunk to.

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