Rough Going


For the first time since 1921, when Michael Collins reluctantly
accepted the partition of Ireland by the British, the Irish Republican political party
Sinn Fein (Irish for "ourselves alone") held official talks with the British
government. For the first time ever members of the largest unionist grouping, the Ulster
Unionist Party (UUP), sat in the same room as Sinn Fein, if only for a few minutes. Yet
the talks got off to a rough start. UUP leader David Trimble boycotted the first day. The
second day of talks was disrupted by a bomb that exploded in front of a small-town police
station, planted by a dissident Republican splinter group called the Continuity Army
Council. The hardline Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Robert
McCartney of the United Kingdom Unionist Party boycotted the talks altogether. When David
Trimble finally consented to sit in the same room with Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and
Martin McGuinness, it was just long enough to demand that Sinn Fein be ejected from the
talks. Then he stormed out, before Sinn Fein’s delegates had a chance to respond. In
the context of Northern Ireland, this is progress.

The peace talks at Stormont Castle in Belfast face incredible odds
and strong opposition from across the political spectrum, with hardline pro-British
unionists and loyalists and some Republican dissidents seeking to derail any compromise.
But in 1997 there are several new factors indicating that the IRA’s second cease-fire
may bear more fruit than the first. In 1994, then Prime Minister John Major held a
razor-thin majority in the House of Commons, relying on the support of unionist Members of
Parliament to govern. Therefore, he was more or less held hostage to unionism, raised
numerous barriers to Sinn Fein participation in talks, and squandered the first IRA
cease-fire. The new Labor Prime Minister, Tony Blair, enjoys an overwhelming majority in
Parliament and 93 percent approval ratings and is not dependent on unionism for his
political survival. Blair has also set a deadline of May 1998 for a settlement to be
reached.

Blair’s government removed the requirement that Sinn Fein
decommission weapons as a precondition to participation in the talks, a key demand of
mainstream unionist parties (including the UUP) but something the IRA has refused to do
short of a settlement. Sinn Fein insists IRA disarmament will only come in the context of
the overall demilitarization of Northern Ireland, including the removal of 20,000 British
troops. Despite Blair’s significant concession on decommissioning, the Prime Minister
has managed to get Trimble to the talks, if only for a short time at first. Joining him
are two smaller parties aligned with loyalist paramilitary groups. This time around
unionists are in less of a position to call the shots and set the agenda, which for them
is usually maintenance of the status quo and a resistance to significant change. Some
unionists, including Trimble’s UUP, have also agreed to a major concession: putting
aside the issue of paramilitary decommissioning until an agreement is reached.

Sinn Fein is in a position of strength, having won its highest vote
ever in the May elections (16 percent of the total vote, and close to 45 percent of the
nationalist vote). The party, one of Ireland’s most progressive, won two seats in the
British parliament. It also won a seat in the Dublin parliament the following month, and
holds local and county seats all over Ireland, north and south. Sinn Fein signed on to the
Mitchell Principles, including a commitment to non-violence, in September, named after
former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who chairs the talks.

 

Obstacles To Change

Nationalists are still highly skeptical of the new Labor government
in the wake of the state violence on Garvaghy Road in Portadown, July 6. In 1996, when
loyalist rioting sparked the worst sectarian violence since the late 1960s, opposition
members of parliament Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam, now Secretary of State for Northern
Ireland, were highly critical of the Major government for backing down in the face of
violence and brutally forcing an Orange march from Drumcree Church through
Portadown’s Catholic Garvaghy Road community. Yet this year at Drumcree, following
loyalist threats of violence against Catholic civilians on both side of the partition
line, the Labor government did the same thing. Several thousand Royal Ulster Constabulary
(RUC) and British soldiers in riot gear invaded Garvaghy Road at 3:30 AM, beating and
shooting people off the road and into their housing estates to clear the road for an
Orange March later that day, instead of rerouting it away from the Catholic neighborhood
as residents had requested. International observers present were horrified at the
unprovoked state violence. South African MP Gura Ebrahim said it was like
"Sharpesville without the dead bodies." As one Englishperson wrote in a letter
to the London Times (July 8), "The message from Drumcree is loud and clear.
New Labour are the same as old Labour…they have shown themselves unwilling to stand up
to the loyalist veto on change."

Another possible roadblock toward a settlement is the Blair
government’s insistence on consent within the six-county framework, which
nationalists refer to as the unionist veto. Blair has ensured Northern Ireland’s
900,000 mostly unionist British-identified Protestants that no constitutional change will
be negotiated without the consent of the majority in the north. The problem, say the
north’s 700,000 mostly nationalist Irish Catholics, is that the Northern Irish state
was deliberately gerrymandered to construct an artificial Protestant majority. Often
erroneously referred to as Ulster, the statelet of Northern Ireland is actually only part
of Ulster; three of Ulster province’s nine counties were partitioned off to the Irish
Free State in 1921, because they gave Ulster province a Catholic majority. Since the
creation of "A Protestant state for a Protestant people," as the Prime Minister
at the time called it, Protestants have used their artificial majority (they are only 18
percent of the total population of Ireland) to discriminate against Irish Catholics in
housing, employment, policing, and, until the 1970s, in voting rights. "Consent as
the British define it…involves unionists only. No one has ever asked my consent. No one
has ever asked the consent of nationalists," said Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in a
recent interview. Sinn Fein wants consent put in an all-Ireland context, and both Sinn
Fein and the other nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, agree that an
internal settlement is not a solution.

Also disconcerting to peace and social change activists was a speech
Blair delivered in Belfast in May in which he said he "cherish[ed] the union"
and predicted that even the youngest child in the audience would not live to see a united
Ireland in his or her lifetime. Ditto Northern Ireland Security Minister Adam
Ingram’s claim that disbanding the RUC, as many in the nationalist community are
demanding, was not even going to be considered at the talks.

Most disturbing is the continued loyalist terror campaign against
Irish Catholic civilians. Bernadette Martin, 18, was murdered in her Protestant
boyfriend’s bed just outside Portadown on July 16. James Morgan, 16, was bludgeoned
to death after he was picked up hitchhiking a week after the IRA called its cease-fire.
The Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVP)—a group of dissident loyalists who broke the
loyalist cease-fire in July 1996 by killing a Catholic taxi driver near Portadown—are
widely viewed as the killers. Loyalist paramilitaries almost exclusively target random
Catholic civilians. The LVF is also suspected in the murder of two Catholic civilians last
spring, including Robert Hamill of Portadown, who was beaten to death by a loyalist gang
while walking home. Even though several RUC witnessed Hamill’s murder, no suspects
have been arrested, and a security videotape that may have identified the killers
mysteriously disappeared. Catholics in Portadown, where the LVF is based, are afraid to
walk into the mostly Protestant town, even during the day. LVF T-shirts are sold with
impunity at the Portadown mall, even though the illegal death squad is outlawed. Because
of physical sectarian attacks on them this fall, Catholic schoolchildren in Portadown are
being bused across town.

The LVF has threatened to bomb tourist targets in the south of
Ireland if the Dublin government does not give up its territorial claim to the entire
island of Ireland, enshrined in Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution. "The talks are
a disaster for the Protestant people," said an anonymous LVF spokesperson, quoted in
the Boston Herald, September 25, 1997.

"They’ve received nothing. Protestants just compromise,
compromise, compromise. And get nothing in return. We are hell-bent on making the Irish
government, the Irish Republic, suffer," he continued. "And we’re not
worrying too much about where the targets will be. We will start targeting
tourism—stuff like that. If we put a no-warning bomb down south, tourists are going
to stay away. We’d get our point across. We have the manpower. We will stop at
nothing." These warnings are not taken lightly. In the late 1960s and early 1970s,
loyalist bomb attacks in the Republic killed dozens of people, and made southern Irish
people reluctant to get involved in northern politics.

For U.S. progressives observing the politics of Northern Ireland, a
number of questions arise: Why is Europe’s longest war so intractable? Why does the
northeast of Ireland erupt into state violence and rioting each July? Why are Catholics
and Protestants at each others’ throats? Is there any hope for a peaceful resolution?

 

The Protestant Siege Mentality

David Trimble recently told the British Broadcasting Corporation
that there was "not much point entering a process where people listen to you, and
then go on and try to impose an arrangement designed to appease terrorists." A few
days later, he dismissed Sinn Fein as "not an important element in this
process." Although Sinn Fein is distinct from the IRA, and doesn’t control its
actions, Trimble and other unionists routinely speak of "Sinn Fein/IRA" to
underscore Sinn Fein’s links to terrorism.

For most unionists, the problem in the north of Ireland is not
injustice or imperialism, but terrorism and lawlessness. While they may admit that there
was anti-Catholic job, housing, and political discrimination in Northern Ireland from 1920
until 1972, when Britain dissolved the Northern Irish Parliament and imposed direct rule,
some rationalize this as due to nationalists’ intrinsic disloyalty to the British
crown. Most unionists would argue that anti-Catholic discrimination is a historical
footnote—rejecting claims of contemporary discrimination—and that the major
demands of the civil rights movement were granted in the early 1970s. If anything, they
say, since then Catholics have been given preferential treatment.

The solution to terrorism, argue members of the UUP and DUP, is
stepped-up counterterrorism and the rule of law. Nationalist demands for state funding for
Irish language schools and the rerouting of contentious Orange marches away from Catholic
areas are widely viewed by unionists as Sinn Fein-orchestrated attacks on British
Protestant culture. Trimble and others view the peace talks with trepidation because they
fear that any changes will come at the expense of unionist privilege and, ultimately,
their British nationality. To Protestants, Irish Republican attacks on the British state
are attacks on the Protestant people, starting with the uprisings of 1641 and 1689 and
continuing through "the Troubles" of the last 30 years.

 

The Irish Catholic Worldview

Most Irish nationalists, especially those from working class
communities, see things quite differently. Orange marches through nationalist communities
are offensive because to nationalists they symbolize the oppression of Irish Catholics by
British rulers and Irish Protestants over the centuries and the continued discrimination
and segregation of Northern Irish society, in which Irish Catholics are still
disadvantaged economically, politically, and culturally. The few dozen contested marches
through Catholic neighborhoods are usually preceded by state violence to clear the road of
sit-down protesters. Nationalists are also offended by the open displays of support for
loyalist death squads often made by Orangemen, some of whom are members of both groups.

There are about 3,000 Orange marches in north of Ireland each
summer, twice the number as 15 years ago. Each year more and more Scottish and English
marchers travel across the Irish sea to march in them. Ostensibly these marches celebrate
17th century military victories of British Protestant forces over Irish Catholics in the
struggle for control of Ireland—especially the victory of the Dutch Protestant
William of Orange over his dethroned Catholic father-in-law, the English King James II.
This 1690 victory marked the end of the religious and political struggle for the throne of
England. It also secured Ireland for the English crown, marking the decisive victory of
English forces over indigenous Irish forces.

More symbolically, the Orange marches which celebrate these battles
commemorate nearly four centuries of British and Protestant supremacy in Ireland. They are
therefore viewed as "triumphalist" and as rubbing Catholics noses in their
continued occupation by the British and their continued second class status.

The 150th anniversary of the Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor) of 1845-49
has sparked a reexamination of the entire history of British rule in Ireland and its
devastating consequences on the Irish people. Protestant supremacy was and still is
central to British rule in Ireland. During the 17th and 18th centuries, English and
Scottish colonists, the ancestors of northern Protestants, dispossessed Irish Catholics of
95 percent of Ireland’s land through the infamous penal laws, which into the middle
of the 19th century denied Catholics the right to vote, buy property, serve in parliament
or hold a government job, teach their children or send them abroad for education, be a
member of a corporation, sit on a jury, be a lawyer or a judge, to own a gun, or a horse
worth more than five pounds. On several occasions monasteries and churches were closed,
and clergy were exiled on punishment of death.

Even the most destitute Catholics were forced to pay 10 percent of
their annual incomes as a tithe to the Anglican Church of Ireland. By 1775, Catholics
owned less than 5 percent of the land in Ireland, compared to nearly 100 percent less than
200 years earlier.

English and Protestant supremacy in Ireland created the social and
economic conditions for a series of starvations, which culminated in the Great Hunger of
the 1840s when anywhere from 1 to 2.5 million Irish starved to death. The entire time tons
of food was exported to England by the British army and the Royal Irish Constabulary, the
precursor to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which is now the state police force in the
north. Mass murder was also an early tool of "pacification" in Ireland. Nearly
the entire population of Cuige Mumhan (Munster Province) in southwest Ireland was wiped
out in the 1580s by British forces who burned barns filled with people. This was in
response to Irish resistance to a plantation of Mumhan by Sir Walter Raleigh, who later
went to Virginia and did the same thing to indigenous people there. English poet William
Spencer, who served as a secretary for the army, documented this, and several other
generals bragged to Queen Elizabeth I about their exploits. The 1640s brought another mass
murder coupled with large-scale deportations. Cromwell and the British army killed or
starved to death one-third to one-half of the Irish population to put down an uprising
brought about by the English civil war. Most Catholics were expelled from Cuige Uladh
(Ulster Province) and banished "to hell or Connaught," the western, most barren
and inhospitable province. Tens of thousands of Irish women and children were sold into
slavery or indentured servitude in the Caribbean.

The economic and demographic cost of centuries of British rule
becomes dramatically apparent when one compares population figures between Britain and
Ireland. In 1840, Britain’s 20 million people was a little more than twice the
population of Ireland, then at a peak of 8 to 10 million. In 1997, the ratio is 12 to 1.
Britain’s 60 million population dwarfs Ireland’s 5 million, which is half what
it was 150 years ago. Britain clearly redeveloped its first and last colony, enriching
itself through the impoverishment of Ireland. Protestant evangelicals cynically took
advantage of the massive starvation to convert thousands of Catholics in exchange for
life-saving soup and tickets to the workhouse. Many contemporary observers concluded that
the British deliberately starved the Irish to empty pasture land to grow cattle and sheep
to feed England’s growing cities. Malthusian and laissez-faire economic theory were
cited to justify Britain’s failure to provide any meaningful relief.

 

Playing the Orange Card

The Orange Order was created out of the Protestant terrorist group,
the Peep o’ Day Boys, following the massacre of several dozen Catholics in a village
near Portadown, southwest of Belfast. Although it ostensibly expressed loyalty to King
William of Orange, its main activities were "wrecking," a term for the brutal,
often fatal attacks on Catholic farmers in County Armagh that were denounced by one
British Parliamentarian in 1795 as a campaign of "general extermination" against
Catholics. Wreckers were motivated by a desire for the last remaining Catholic land, and
were also furious that some Catholics, desperate for land to farm, were willing to pay
higher rents than Protestant farmers. Wreckers usually destroyed a farmer’s tools,
spinning wheels, and home. Because of the violence that regularly accompanied Orange
marches, including hundreds of deaths in the 1800s, the British Parliament attempted to
ban them on several occasions from the 1820s to the 1860s.

In the early 20th century, pro-British paramilitary groups like the
Ulster Volunteer Force were financed by British industrialists to agitate against the
pro-independence sentiment that was sweeping the rest of the country. Mob violence by the
Orange Order—including sectarian attacks against Catholic civilians in which 100s
died—was also instrumental in securing British control of the north and diffusing
labor strikes in the 1920s and 1930s. This divide and conquer strategy of "playing
the Orange Card" became a staple of British policy in Ireland.

Anti-Catholic discrimination was official state policy in the north
until the early 1970s. Even today, unemployment for Catholics is two-and-a-half times that
for Protestants, and in some ghettos it tops 80 percent. This discrimination, coupled with
police and army harassment, is functional in that it still causes Catholics to emigrate at
a higher rate, preventing them from becoming the majority in the north even though they
have a much higher birth rate than Protestants. Yet the British government spends millions
overseas to lobby against fair employment principles for investment in the north of
Ireland modeled after the Sullivan Principles for investment in South Africa.

Harassment of young people by security forces is routine in Northern
Ireland. The Committee on the Administration of Justice reports that 26 percent of young
people in the six counties have been harassed by British forces—20 percent of
Protestant or unionist youth and 50 percent of Catholic or nationalist youth. While 15,000
Irish nationalists have served time in jail, only four British soldiers or Northern Irish
police have been convicted of crimes, even though hundreds of civilians have been killed
by state forces since 1969.

So Protestant supremacy is not just a historical artifact. It is a
contemporary reality in Northern Ireland that is part of a historical continuum of abuses
that goes back centuries. People in the north of Ireland aren’t stuck in the past, as
many outside observers simplistically conclude. Instead, contemporary actions have
historical resonances and significance precisely because so little has changed there,
precisely because not enough has changed there. Most nationalists think things will never
change as long as the British state backs up Protestant supremacy.

Of course, many Protestants in the north have taken a stand for
justice and human rights and are appalled at the violence evoked by supremacist marches,
from the state or from terrorists. A substantial majority of northern Protestants in a
recent poll backed negotiated compromises on contentious marches, and half of unionists in
1995 said they expected to see a united Ireland within 25 years. Protestants play a
leading roll in several human rights organizations, including the Centre for Research and
Documentation and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), a lawyers’
group derided as "Catholics Against Justice" by some loyalists. Yet,
post-Drumcree, "Protestant-Catholic relations in Portadown have been set back 25
years," said Sister Laura Boyle, a Garvaghy Road resident. An ecumenical faith and
justice group, which had met for eight years to bring members of both communities together
and fight discrimination, stopped meeting in July 1996, as it was no longer considered
safe. Moderate Protestant voices are largely silent out of fear of loyalist reprisal.

 

History of Pain, History of Hope

This year is the 150th anniversary of Black 47, the worst year of
The Great Hunger, in which 1.5 million Irish starved and a similar number emigrated, even
as over 100,000 occupying British troops oversaw the export tons of food to England. But
next year, when the talks are scheduled to conclude, marks the 200th anniversary of
another event, one tinged with sadness but also hope: 1798 was the year the Protestant-led
Irish Republican Brotherhood [sic], inspired by the French Revolution, took up arms
against the British to create a free Ireland where all could live in equality,
"Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter." Most of the leaders were executed by a
superior British military force. Perhaps, two centuries later, the dream of these
Protestant martyrs for Irish freedom can be actualized.

Sean Cahill is a member of PeaceWatch Ireland and teaches political
science at Northeastern University.