Northern Ireland: out of the headlines, injustices beget tragedies built on old hate.
There is an irony about Britain's Lord David Owen's very public efforts to create peace and justice in Bosnia. When the centuries-old Northern Ireland "problem" erupted again in the early 1970s, Britain adamantly insisted it was a "domestic" matter and brooked no interference from outside.
And, as the social caldron simmers, Britain's highly sophisticated public relations machine controls the world's perception machine controls the world's perception of what is happening.
Gary MacEoin, who wrote the 1974 Northern Ireland: Captive of History, recently revisited Northern Ireland. He reports in two articles on the seemingly everlasting, festering injustices.
BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- U.N. reports describe the 1980s as the lost decade for the Third World. Those who live in Northern Ireland's Third World call the past 25 years the lost quarter century.
Northern Ireland's Third World is only a relatively small part of the six Ulster counties ruled -- or misruled -- by Britain. It consists mainly of the enclaves of West Belfast and Derry's Bogside, with smaller concentrations in Belfast's Short Strand, Omagh, Strabane and Dungannon.
What these have in common is that the inhabitants are overwhelmingly Catholic, permanently unemployed -- as high as 80 percent in parts of West Belfast -- militarized, lacking effective legal redress when abused by the police and the British army, and denied a fair trial when charged with crimes on the mere allegation of unidentified accusers.
What does the lost quarter century mean? To ask such a question in Ireland is dangerous. The reply isalmost certain to start in 1178, the year in which England embarked on the still-unfinished project of dominating militarily, culturally and linguistically its smaller neighbor. The reply may even take one back several centuries further to the depredations of the Norse pirates and marauders.
For present purposes one can -- mercifully -- start with 1968. That was the year when a significant majority of the Nationalists, who are mostly Catholic and compose 40 percent of Northern Ireland's population, made a historic decision. They agreed to separate the two issues that had polarized Northern Ireland since Britain, having partitioned Ireland, set up in the early 1920s a regime for six of Ulster's nine countries that would be dependent on the British Parliament.
Dropping from their political agenda, as less urgent, the demand to reunify Ireland, they focused on human rights, especially the right to equal opportunity in jobs and housing with the Unionists (mostly Protestant) who have always monopolized power and decision-making, thanks to superior numbers, gerrymandering and the sympathetic noninterference of London.
This new approach resulted, at least in part, from changed conditions since World War II. The Labor governments that held office in Britain from 1945 to 1951 had forced the reluctant, dependent Parliament of Northern Ireland to adopt the social benefits they had granted the rest of the United Kingdom.
Guaranteed unemployment benefits meant a slowing down of Nationalist emigration which had previously offset the higher Nationalist birthrate. They dampened the ardor for reunification with the republic, which could not afford comparable social benefits. They also meant that young Nationalists, still denied jobs, prolonged their education.
A rigidly segregated education system at grade school and high school levels had previously excluded all social contacts. Now, free higher education brought young Catholics and Protestants together for the first time, absorbing them into the new youth culture that swept the world in the 1960s. The beliefs and prejudices of their parents ceased to be their exclusive motivations.
Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., the new movement adopted a strictly nonviolent program that utilized King's technique of mass marches to dramatize its claims.
Membership transcended the traditional religious and political divisions. In the climate of youthful idealism and euphoria of the late 1960s, the worldwide response was enthusiastic. In her autobiography, Bernadette Devlin, then a student at Queen's University, Belfast, sets the scene: "It was the first civil rights march Northern Ireland had ever seen, and we all jogged along happily, eating oranges and smoking cigarettes, and people came out of their houses to join the fun."
The euphoria was short-lived. The Unionists proved no less determined to deny equal jobs and housing to the Nationalists than they were to prevent reunification of Ireland. Terrorist goon squads quickly moved to the attack. The armed police and even more heavily armed paramilitary B-Specials (now the Ulster Defense Regiment) at times stood aside, at times joined in. As 500 unarmed protesters were completing a 75-mile march from Belfast to Derry in early 1969, they were ambushed by 200 men carrying iron bars and nailed-studded clubs. About half the attackers were susequently identified by press photos and eyewitness testimonies as B-Specials out of uniform.
Bernadette Devlin was there: "And then we came to Burntollet Bridge, and from lanes at each side of the road a curtain of bricks and boulders and bottles brought the march to a halt. From the lanes burst hordes of screaming people wielding planks of wood, bottles, laths, iron bags, crowbars, cudgels studied with nails, and they waded into the march beating the hell out of everyone."
Many marchers were driven into the river. Eighty-seven were hospitalized, many others less seriously injured. Police who lined the road did not intervene, through some wore steel helmets and carried riot shields, and others were riding, battle-ready, in personnel carriers. They did not arrest a single attacker, nor was a single one of the identified B-Specials disciplined.
Upping the ante, Unionist goon squads, always tolerated and often helped by the police, began to terrorize Nationalists who had moved out of their ghettos -- especially in Belfast -- during the years of relative peace following World War II. Soon they were also invading the Nationalist ghettos. On a single night in August 1969, rampaging B-Specials in Belfast burned down many homes and killed eight civilians, one a 15-year-old boy helping a family to flee the terror, another a 9-year-old shot in his bed.
Pressure of world opionion forced Britain to send in troops to do the job the RUC, Royal Ulsterl Constabulary, and B-Specials were not doing. The Unionists were furious but the unarmed and terrified Nationalists welcomed the soldiers as their saviors.
Then the British repeated the mistake they had committed a thousand times in dealing with Ireland. They named Oliver Wright, a career foreign officer, to supervise the troops. Recently returned from Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where he had for years unsuccessfully defended the settlers against the natives, he had no difficulty in recognizing the problem in Northern Ireland.
It was for Wright a conflict of settlers against natives. A basic principles on which the Bristish Empire had always functioned was that settlers had rights and natives had duties. Abysmally ignorant of all things Irish and ably assisted by the RUC, he quickly produced for his patrols a briefing manual that included "Our Tribal Map," in which the Nationalist ghettos were identified as the enemy.
The rest followed logically. The ghettos became militarily dominated enclaves, armored vehicles and foot patrols in constant movement, checkpoints set up to examine identification documents. To reveal one's tribal allegiance, by -- for example -- saying you were from Derry rather than Londonderry, meant being spread-eagled against one's car while it was ransacked for weapons or seditious literature.
This policy resulted in the killing in Derry of 14 unarmed civilian protesters by British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday 1972.
The long-dead Irish Republican Army quickly sprang back to life to protect the civilian population against the army, the police and the goon squads. The main reason the Nationalists needed the IRA was that official policy had always denied them permits to keep arms in their homes, whereas the Unionist community had 100,000 registered weapons.
While Brian Faulkner was prime minister of Northern Ireland (March 1971-March 1972), 33,000 additional permits to hold arms were issued to Loyalists, while permits continued to be denied to Nationalists, even those who had received death threats.
To understand the role and importance of the IRA today, when their bombings in London are terrifying banking moguls who fear that international capital will flee to the safety of Frankfurt, as well as insurance moguls who are excluding "terrorist attacks" from industrial and commercial coverage, one must keep this chain of events clearly in mind. Twice before, in the late 1930s and in the 1950s, the IRA undertook bombing campaigns in Northern Ireland and in Britain. Both failed miserably because the social base essential to guerrilla warfare was absent.
Cathal Goulding, IRA chief of staff, later summed up the situation: "In August 1967, we called a meeting of local leadership throughout the country to assess the strength of the movement. We discovered that we had no movement."
The difference in the early 1970s was that the British government, after a few gestures to world opinion, reverted to its traditional role of protecting the privileges of "settlers" against the demands of the "natives" for equal treatment. Instead of dealing with the admitted grievances, it strengthened the polarizing structures.
A hastily constructed barricade of metal and barbed wire, cynically named the "Peace Line," to separate Nationalist West Belfast from the neighboring Unionist stronghold of Shankill has been gradually built up into a barrier as impenetrable as was the Berlin Wall. Adjoining houses have been demolished to provide a free-fire zone for the military patrols who prowl with automatic arms at the ready day and night.
A six-lane highway completes the isolation of West Belfast. This enclave is a war zone, with heavily fortified military and police posts covering all strategic points. Outside, life goes on with minimal evidence of social unrest.
The due-process provisions Britain had undertaken as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights were suspended. The security forces were empowered to arrest, detain, remand in custody and intern without charge. Not surprisingly, the European Court of Human Rights found the United Kingdom guilty of torture in 1976, and of inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland in 1978.
This is not an emergency measure. It is long-term normality as formulated by military strategists to deal with an intransigently hostile civil population.
To minimize costs of control, the worst slums -- always hotbeds of resistance -- are being gradually moved to new housing developments within the enclave. The concept is similar to the failed "strategic hamlet" project in Vietnam and the "development zones" in the Guatemalan highlands.
Each group of houses has a single entrance and exit. A couple of Saracens can isolate its inhabitants and prevent hostile mobilization. The cost to the British government is minimal, since it uses European Community social funds designated to help impoverished areas. Ironically, the housing conditions are infinitely better than before, but the joblessness remains. The new communities have no provision for industrial or commercial expansion. They guarantee to their members and indefinite future of meaninglessness, and they guarantee to the IRA the social base essential to the success of a guerrilla movement.
One of the many slogans painted on Belfast walls has caught the universal mood. "Is there life before death?" it shrieks.
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|Title Annotation:||part 1|
|Publication:||National Catholic Reporter|
|Date:||Oct 22, 1993|
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