issue 255 - May 1994
The fire and the future
The old certainties about Northern Ireland have been shaken up over the last year.
Chris Brazier looks for signs of change in the least promising places.
The armoured car approached. Two helmeted soldiers leaned out of its turret, each scanning opposite sides of the street through the sights of his machine gun. As they passed, for a split second my eyes met those of the soldier facing me and his gun was trained at my heart.
Melodramatic? Since the armoured car simply went on its way down the Belfast street and around the corner I suppose it is. But I am not in the habit of having machine guns pointed at me as I walk down the road, least of all in what is supposed to be part of my own country. I found it an alarming experience. More alarming still is how routine this has become in Belfast. Another armoured car followed the first five minutes later. Up the road by the pharmacist there was a further soldier with a machine gun, not guarding anything in particular. Round the corner there was a checkpoint stopping cars, part of a ‘Ring of Steel’ around the city centre. And so on and so on.
Despite all I’ve read and viewed over the years about Northern Ireland, I was still profoundly shocked by the extent of the military presence on the streets of Belfast – it was more intrusive than anything I have seen in the Third World, South Africa included. It made me feel that everyone in Britain should make a point of visiting Belfast just to witness it. After all, this army is operating in their name.
The encounter with the armoured car was more or less my first experience in Northern Ireland. My last was with a young woman who agreed to tell me about her first experience of Castlereagh Interrogation Centre – in which people are held for up to seven days without charge under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Like the Army on the streets, her story was all the more chilling because it was all part of the normal Castlereagh routine. From the verbal sexual abuse poured on her by male officers to the various psychological techniques by which people are broken down, nothing out of the ordinary happened to her. Interrogations can only last two hours so detainees are then taken back to their cell – but only for ten minutes before another two-hour session, on and on with different shifts of interrogators for 10- or 12-hour spells.
One interrogation focussed on the Amnesty International publication found in her house as if that in itself helped prove that she was an IRA member. I realized more clearly than I had before that in Northern Ireland any kind of radical activity is suspect – a poster expressing solidarity with Cuba, a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge, a copy of New Internationalist – all would be seen as grounds for suspicion of republican sympathies. I began to wonder if I had done the right thing in attending a demonstration against a security-forces watchtower in full view of its cameras – which of course is part of the function of those cameras and that watchtower.
Experiences like these helped me shake off the effects of the anaesthetic which mutes most British people’s responses to The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Throughout my adult life I have been hearing almost daily news of murders and bombings. And my response has, I think, been typical of most British people – unable to bear another relative’s televised grief, unable to stomach another politician’s litany of outrage, I have switched off. On some level I have waited for the Northern Ireland section of the news to pass and a more interesting item to arrive.
I think I have been educated to switch off. Through the drip, drip, drip of thousands of news items, features and outraged editorials over the years I have imbibed the following picture of Northern Ireland: that it is a never-ending and insoluble problem; that its society is composed of two warring tribes, equal and opposite in their bigotry; that the IRA are terrorist gangsters, animalistic murderers without a political idea in their heads.
If this is the framework into which we fit each day’s news of an off-duty police officer killed or a terrorist detained then it is small wonder we end up feeling there is nothing we can do about it.
There is plenty of bigotry and prejudice in Northern Ireland and this certainly spills over into sectarian violence. But the conflict there has political roots and will have political solutions. Dividing any people who we do not see as ‘one of us’ into ‘tribes’ is a reflex that we British have as a legacy of our colonial history. The New Internationalist has pointed out many times how unhelpful and unjustifiable it is to see Africans as a collection of tribes itching to be at each other’s throats. The same applies to Ireland which, as Bill Rolston points out in his article, was where Britain developed many of the techniques and attitudes it was later to apply to its African colonies anyway.
We are not encouraged to take account of this colonial relationship between Britain and Ireland when we consider current events – yet Northern Ireland only exists because the process of decolonization was not completed. In a way Ireland suffered because it was the first of Britain’s colonies to fight its way to independence. Just after the First World War, Britain’s politicians still had an empire intact and no precedents to follow. A few decades later they would have been able to refer to the United Nations’ Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, Article 6 of which states: ‘Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations’.
In 1920, however, unequipped with this guidance and faced with the threat of military resistance by Protestants in the north-east (which happened also to be then the richest and most industrially developed part of Ireland), the British Government drew a border that would guarantee the Protestants a majority in their own statelet and relinquished the rest of the island. It was a recipe for disaster, about as sensible as it would be for whites in South Africa now to carve out a state for themselves in the Transvaal and secede from the new black-ruled nation.
To say the roots of Northern Ireland’s problems lie in inadequate decolonization is not, of course, the same as saying London should now simply hand over the province to Dublin. Ireland has been divided for more than a lifetime now and very few of its inhabitants are able to remember living under any other arrangement. At the very least Britain has a responsibility to unionists to ensure that their interests are looked after in any future settlement.
Such a settlement seems much closer now than it did a year ago largely because of the talks and eventual agreement between SDLP leader John Hume and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Hume is close to the Irish Government, which in turn worked to reach agreement with the British. The fruit of this furious diplomacy emerged on 16 December last year in the form of the Downing Street Declaration.
This document was remarkable on a number of counts: for its clear statement that the British Government now has ‘no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’; for its acceptance that ‘it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination... to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish’; and for its offer of a place at the negotiating table to Sinn Fein, provided that the IRA had called a halt to its military campaign.
It is now clear that the Declaration alone will not induce the IRA to lay down its arms (see the interview with Martin McGuinness). The problem for them is the Declaration’s assertion that there will be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland until a democratic majority there votes for it – which gives the unionist community an effective veto.
Democracy in relation to Northern Ireland is a funny old thing. Most British politicians believe the democratic will of the majority within Northern Ireland should be paramount. Republicans believe the democratic will of the majority within the whole island of Ireland should be what counts. Both arguments are valid in their way. And what about the democratic rights of the British people? Opinion polls in Britain regularly indicate that there is minimal public support for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK (only 18 per cent in one recent poll).1
Lack of public support for staying in Northern Ireland is one reason why Britain seems to have begun a slow but sure process of disengagement. International disapproval of its human-rights record there is another. Then there are matters monetary and military. At the time of Partition Northern Ireland was a thriving economic concern which paid its way within the UK; it also covered Britain’s flank in an unstable Europe. But now Northern Ireland has become a vast drain on the British economy ($4.8 billion in 1992-3), the Cold War is over, and Irish terrorism is having an increasingly destructive effect on British life.
Most people I met on my recent visit to Northern Ireland believed that the British had started to pull back from their open-ended guarantee of the loyalist position. Nationalists obviously welcomed the sense of movement. But I was keener this time on sounding out loyalist opinion.
I started with Gregory Campbell, rising star in Ian Paisley’s DUP. ‘Yes, I feel betrayed by the British Government though I don’t feel any less British for that. I just think when the IRA read the Downing Street Declaration they must have thought “we’ve got these guys on the run!” The IRA are always looking for signs of weakness – and they haven’t got far to look because the British Government is riddled with weakness.’ His solution? ‘You fight fire with fire and strike fear into the heart of the IRA – that’s the way to beat them.’ He cites with approval the Lough Gall incident in 1987 where soliders ambushed an IRA attack on a police-station – seven IRA members and one innocent civilian were killed. ‘I’d say 15 or 20 Lough Galls and the violence is over.’
Not much sign of movement there. Campbell has plenty of access to the media; in contrast I spent a fascinating evening in a room on Belfast’s Shankill Road being bombarded by the views of a group of men unused to being consulted. The sense of betrayal which has always been part of the loyalist psyche loomed large in the room. ‘Britain has used this country – we’re just an embarrassment now,’ one of them said bitterly. There was general agreement that whereas they had been brought up to support the British Crown it was no longer important to them. ‘We’re questioning what we’re loyal to now,’ explained one.
They certainly did not feel loyal to either of the unionist parties, who had ‘utterly failed to represent the interests of the Protestant working class’. ‘British troops could go tomorrow and it wouldn’t make any difference to us,’ said one. ‘British troops are here to protect people’s economic interests and we don’t have any.’
A lot of their notions seemed new to me, though there was one man present who kept returning to an old theme – the ‘bloodbath scenario’ chillingly dressed up in post-Bosnian new clothes. ‘If the British become “the persuaders” [a nationalist phrase] of the loyalist community at the wrong time then you’re going to see “ethnic cleansing” here.’
I raised this point with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness when I met him a few days later. ‘The bloodbath scenario can be overplayed,’ he said. ‘Don’t be fooled by the threats and the bluster of the military Paisleyites because we’ve been listening to this for 25 years. I’m not saying there wouldn’t be atrocities – we have those now. But their military capability if the British Government refuses to let them have their way would be minimal. Besides, if the British confirm that they are disengaging it is going to provoke a debate in the loyalist community about the future. What would they be fighting for? To retain a link with Britain that Britain doesn’t want?’
I detected signs that this debate within the loyalist community is already beginning and in a way this is the most hopeful thing I encountered in Northern Ireland. For example, one of those Shankill loyalists said when I met him on his own later: ‘For me the approach of Protestants should be to ask Catholics what kind of safeguards they want as a minority. One day we may be a minority and we’ll need those safeguards too.’
The loyalist community in Northern Ireland is trapped in a position where it feels permanently insecure and embattled; its membership of the UK the only political question of any consequence, the only safeguard that matters. As you walk over the bridge towards the old city of Derry you see a rooftop in the Fountain, the one remaining Protestant district within the old walls, emblazoned with the message ‘Ulster Says No’.
Loyalists cannot go on living their lives by a permanent negative – they need to negotiate their own future with Britain and Ireland rather than hoping the problem will go away if they say no long enough and with sufficient fury. For all its own unionist traditions, the British Conservative Government knows full well that the status quo cannot hold for ever – which is why it negotiated the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Downing Street Declaration over loyalists’ heads.
On the other side even the IRA is no longer insisting on a united Ireland. All kinds of possibilities could open up if unionists only allowed themselves to look forwards instead of backwards. The seven constitutional options which follow on the next two pages are by no means exhaustive. Why should not all inhabitants of Northern Ireland have dual nationality, for example? Or might not some kind of agreed all-Ireland state come about on condition that it became part of the British Commonwealth in deference to unionist wishes? The key thing is for Protestant people to participate creatively in devising their future instead of boxing themselves into a rather shabby and unpleasant corner of a British Empire which no longer exists.
Some of them have already started. I first met Brian last July when he gave me a tour of his own working-class area of Derry. He mentioned his hopes for integrated education. But he told me that he voted for Ian Paisley’s DUP. And he also rather shocked me by the reverence in which he held the monarchy – I doubt that I’ve ever heard an English person talk about the monarchy as an institution in such a way.
I met him again a week ago and was stunned this time by how much he had changed in a matter of months. I didn’t ask him about the Queen but he has decided he will never again vote DUP. ‘I thought by voting that way I was acknowledging and exorcising the last flame of hatred in my heart. But I realize now it was keeping that flame alive.’ He will now vote Ulster Unionist but has taken as his watchword John Hume’s statement that ‘Humanity must transcend nationality or identity’. Brian feels clear now that ‘Protestant people must be willing to expose themselves to political change’.
Best of all, he told me he’d been chatting to his local Presbyterian minister about how they would cope in a united Ireland. ‘Think of it, I said to the minister, as an opportunity to have a real go at the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland. And his eyes lit up.’
1 Reported in The Guardian, 10 November 1993.
NORTHERN IRELAND’S POLITICAL PARTIES
Ulster Unionist Party The voice of the unionist establishment, the UUP’s ideal would be integration with Britain. It has reluctantly accepted power sharing in the past, has gone along with the Downing Street Declaration recently and contains strands of political persuasion from the mildly liberal to the hard right.
Social Democratic and Labour Party Originally founded as an attempt to break the sectarian mould in Northern Ireland, the SDLP has become the natural home of moderate nationalists. The social democratic elements left years ago and only leader John Hume now remains of the founders.
Democratic Unionist Party Founded and led by the Rev Ian Paisley, who always likes to run his own show (he had his own church and Orange Order as well), the DUP is a working-class unionist party with fundamentalist overtones. It is brimming with blood and thunder but has no known links with paramilitaries.
Sinn Fein The political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), it is strongly supported in some areas in the North as much for its community/advice centre politics as for its support for ‘the armed struggle’. While it is now the largest party on Belfast City Council it gets little more than 10 per cent of the total Northern Ireland vote. In the Republic it polls at about one per cent.
Alliance Party The only truly non-sectarian party in Northern Ireland, drawing support in equal numbers from both religious communities, mainly from the middle class. Its lack of a community base is its strength – but also its electoral weakness.
Workers Party/Democratic Left These parties (they split from each other last year) are significant because, like Sinn Fein, they organize on an all-Ireland basis. They arose out of the early 1970s split between the Provisional and the Official IRA. The Official IRA declared a ceasefire, went into politics and developed through marxism and democratic socialism into the present left-of-centre parties. Electorally tiny in the North, they get up to five per cent of the vote in the Republic.
This special report appeared in the northern ireland: the fire and the future issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.