Ireland’s Long Sorrow

San Francisco Examiner

2002

“Always a doing, but never done” is an old Irish maxim. In a land haunted by 800 years of blood and fury, and still locked in a fatal embrace with its own historical demons, it seems an apt description of the present “troubles.” That is certainly the favored image of most American journalists and editorial writers who portray the recent events in Northern Ireland as a battle between the recalcitrant Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Protestant extremists, with moderates and the British caught in the middle. It is an attractive literary device, but also nonsense.

The “troubles” that have claimed some 3,600 lives in the past 34 years have very little to do with IRA gun caches and everything to do with colonialism’s long shadow, in particular continued efforts by the majority Protestants loyalists to deny basic civil, social and economic rights to the Catholic minority.

That point was made rather dramatically this past week when the Independent Commission on Disarmament accepted the IRA plan to place its arms stockpile “completely and verifiably beyond use.” Instead of applauding the unprecedented offer, Protestant leader and Ulster First Minister David Trimble—Nobel Peace Prizewinner and moderate darling of the press— rejected the move out of hand.

When the IRA subsequently withdrew the offer, “fair broker” British Secretary of State John Reed denounced the IRA, and rewarded Trimble by suspending the Good Friday peace agreement, thereby delaying critical political negotiations.

While it is sometimes difficult to fathom British intentions in all this, the Protestant leadership simply refuses to give up its priviliged economic and political status bestowed on it by almost 400 years of sectarian discrimination.

So much for moderates and fair brokers caught between extremists.

The IRA is understandably hesitant to give up its guns without a specific plan to reform the Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and a commitment to reduce British military presence. They have some very real historical reasons for that reluctance. A short primer.

When the British created Ulster in 1921, they used gerrymandering and property qualifications for voting to insure the domination of Protestant loyalists at the expense of the Catholic minority. Catholics were systematically marginalized, even in cities like Derry where they constituted a majority. According to a study by the International Commission of Jurists, authorities used discrimination in housing and employment “to weaken economically the Catholic minority and thus to preclude Catholics from acquiring property rights and to induce emigration.” From 1921 to 1968, two-thirds of the emigrants from Northern Ireland were Catholic.

As former Member of Parliament Bernadette Devlin McAlinsky remembers the bad old days: “The ground rules were simple. Keep your thoughts to yourself; don’t talk politics; don’t go to mass on Sunday; and unquestionably accept the authority of people better dressed than you.”

But in 1968 Catholics and progressive Protestants formed the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and challenged that discrimination through peaceful marches. They were met by right-wing Protestant mobs allied with the RUC and its notorious auxiliaries, the B-Specials. Thousands of civil rights activists were beaten, gassed, and jailed, and scores murdered.

In 1969, the British sent troops, ostensibly to defend Catholic communities against Protestant mobs. In reality, the Army, co-operated with the hated RUC, and in 1971, thousands of Catholics were rounded up and interned at Long Kesh Prison. In the years that followed, thousands more were dragged before the secret Diplock courts, which accepted “forced”—read torture—confessions as evidence. The courts’ conviction rate was 94 percent.

When people protested the internments, British reaction was swift and brutal. On Jan. 30, 1972, British paratroopers opened fire on a peaceful civil rights march, killing 14 people and wounding scores of others. In the massacre’s aftermath, the paratroop commander was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

The British Army, through its close ties with the RUC, has also been implicated in a series of assassinations of leading civil rights figures. One of the conditions of the Good Friday Agreement is that there be an independent investigation of the murders of civil rights activists Patrick Finucane, Rosemary Nelson, and Robert Hamill. Catholics charge that British intelligence and the RUC supplied intelligence on the three to Protestant hit squads.

Catholics understandably fear that if the IRA hands in its guns before a major overhaul of the RUC and a demilitarization of the province, they could find themselves rounded up once again and back in Long Kesh. All it would take would be a provocation serious enough to give such a move cover.

Those provocations are already underway. According to the newspaper An Phoblacht, there have been more than 220 loyalist attacks directed at Catholics in the last eight months, including 75 bombings, 20 shootings, 50 mob attacks and several attempted abductions.

So far, Catholics have not responded, and the IRA has held to its seven-year cease-fire. But the situation is dangerous, particularly if one side is simply looking for an excuse to back out of the peace pact and return to the “bad old days.”

On the ground, the peace is holding. Protestant and Catholic local council members are working together on basic economic issues and, from all reports, making progress. With Ulster one of Europe’s basket cases, such co-operation is essential if the north is to make any headway against its pressing problems. Continued division will only insure another generation of economic stagnation and political isolation.

What remains to be seen is if the old-line Protestant leadership and the British give the peace an opportunity to turn the old maxim about “always doing” to something “done.”

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