Friday, 26 August 2011

A History of Ireland - 9. The Troubles

Part 9 of A History of Ireland

The Troubles

So what changed?

Captain Terence O'Neill
In 1963, Captain Terence O’Neill, a loyal Ulster Orangeman and former Guards Officer, became Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. In a curious historical twist, he was a direct descendant of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, one of the ‘flown earls’ and last of the native Gaelic chieftains whose confiscated land had formed the basis for the Ulster Plantation some 300 years earlier, and of the Ui Niall, High Kings of Tara. He was the first Northern Ireland MP not to have been closely connected with the founding of the northern state and was a reformer by nature. He recognised that Ulster had to adjust to modern times in which the educated children of the earlier Nationalists were achieving adulthood and were beginning to see the larger world through the window of television. He met Sean Lemass, Eire’s Prime Minister in 1965, the first such meeting since the founding of the two states. He also visited a Catholic girl’s grammar school, an almost revolutionary thing for an Orange Ulster PM to do.

This began to stir the deep suspicions of the Protestant mind to the extent that Ian Paisley, a young fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian mister and orator with ambitions, was able to raise a mob of militant supporters.  They staged a demonstration at Ballymena when O’neill visited a Catholic convent school there.  They had marched behind him with banners proclaiming “O’Neill Arch Traitor”.

Ian Paisley 1969
Paisley had first come to prominence when he led a campaign to resist the sailing on a Sunday of a ferry because it violated the Sabbath. He had also founded his own Protestant Unionist Party and was building a strong personal following with vehemently anti-Catholic orations condemning everything as a Popish Plot and the result of machinations of the ‘Whore of Babylon’. He was a throwback to the independent, anti-establishment Presbyterian radicals of earlier centuries. He also had links to an American right-wing fundamentalist Christian college, Bob Jones University, from which he had bought a ‘doctorate’ which he used to give himself an undeserved academic respectability. As events were to show, Ian Paisley was temperamentally incapable of being anything other than the leader of any organisation of which he was a member.

Ulster Protestants were polarising on socio-economic line, with working class Protestants following Paisley and the establishment and landed gentry sticking with the Ulster Unionists of O’Neill, but only into opposing Protestant Unionist factions.  There was no sense of commonality of interest between Catholics and Protestants from the same social class. The Protestants’ main concern was still how to keep what they had and to prevent Catholics getting any of it. The division was over the best way of achieving this, and O’Neill’s tentative moves towards reform (and they were no more than that) and Protestant insecurities were driving the process.

However, O’Neill’s perceptions were right. Catholics were beginning to make their voices heard and they were voices that were to rise to shouting pitch as the demand for reform and the perception that this was perhaps achievable grew. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement of Martin Luther King in America, at a meeting at Maghera, County Down, in 1966, a decision to form a similar movement in Northern Ireland was made. It would be non-violent, using the tactics of marching and civil disobedience, appealing to the world at large and occupying the moral high ground. Catholics had also taken heart from the election of two Nationalists MPs for the Westminster Parliament in the General Elections of 1964 and 1966 (Gerry Fitt and John Hume). They represented a social democratic and pacifist strand of Nationalism that believed change could best be brought about by working within the system and playing a full part in the political process. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed in 1967. The IRA, who had waged an ineffectual campaign from 1956-62 and had lost most of its support in the process, played no part in its formation. It was described as ‘middle-aged, middle-class, and middle-of-the-road’.

Despite the declares non-violence of the NICRA, William Craig, Home Affairs Minister at Stormont, had banned a demonstration planned for 5 October 1968 in Londonderry. It went ahead none-the-less and was brutally broken up by the RUC. Ulster’s response to legitimate Catholic grievance had been met with gratuitous brutality by the state’s police force. This event began to change Catholic perceptions but worse was to come.

On 1 January, 1969, a radical faction of the NICRA called People’s Democracy, which was attempting to broaden the appeal to include non-Catholics in a general class-based campaign for political reforms, began a march across Ulster from Belfast to Londonderry. Marchers carried banners demanding ‘One Man, one vote’. It had not been banned and had minimal police protection. The march arrived at Burntolett Bridge, seven miles from Derry, where it was attacked by a Protestant mob. Television news film showed RUC officers amongst the mob but doing little or nothing to prevent the attack. None of the attackers were arrested but instead the RUC arrested about eighty of the marchers they were supposed to be protecting. Later that evening, the RUC moved into Derry’s Catholic Bogside estate and indulged in a night of gratuitous violence and destruction, subjecting Catholics to sectarian abuse.

RUC Join in an attack on a peaceful Civil Rights March
Burntolett Bridge, near Derry
A pattern of increasing Catholic impatience, as their non-violent campaign was met with violence by the state, and increasing Protestant resistance to change, was to continue for the rest of the year. Ulster, rather than moving into the modern word as O’Neill intended was retreating into an earlier age.

Loyalists and RUC attack the Catholic Bogside Estate
Londonderry, 1969.
O’Neill resigned in April to be replaced by the well-meaning but ineffectual James Chichester-Clarke, his cousin. Rioting took place in Dungannon in April and in Belfast and Derry in August. In these latter riots, the ‘B’ Specials of the RUC became indistinguishable from the Protestant mob as they attacked Civil Rights marchers with sub-machine guns and tear gas grenades. In two nights, six people were killed and 300 homes were burned. British troops intervened in Derry on 14 August and in Belfast on 16 August 1969, to protect Catholics from the RUC!

Where was the IRA in all this?

They were almost non-existent. ‘IRA = I Ran Away’ became a popular slogan amongst the Catholic youth of the time. The IRA, following its failed campaign of 1956-62, had become a victim of its own irrelevance again, as it did in the Free State after 1922. It had fractured into divergent red revolutionary socialist factions and had lost much of its simple green patriotic republicanism. Now, it has a purpose once again as Catholics were being attacked by the state and British troops were on the streets of Belfast and Derry – albeit drinking tea and eating cakes made for them by ordinary Catholic families grateful for their protection.  In late 1969, it split into a revolutionary Marxist ‘Official’ group and a traditionalist ‘Provisional’ faction, deliberately named after the declaration of a Provisional Government by Patrick Pearce from the Dublin Post Office during the Easter Rising of 1916. The Provisionals were harking back to the days of the Black and Tans and the campaign of Michael Collins, et al. It was to be a prophetic change of name.

Events soon followed a similar pattern to the events of the late 1910s and early 20s. Clumsy and occasionally brutal actions by British troops increasingly drove the Catholics to follow the only leadership available to then, the NICRA having been played out. This allowed the ‘Provos’ to gain increasing control of the Catholic estates of Derry and Belfast, which had become ghettos during the 1969 riots. A few alternative leaders tried to take control of the situation for a while but they were mostly young radical intellectuals like Bernadette Devlin and Eamon McCann who lacked the skill and the relevance to do so.

Bernadette Devlin, MP
Bernadette Devlin scored a spectacular success by being elected as Westminster MP for mid-Ulster and becoming the youngest person elected to Westminster in so doing. However, her ‘Socialist Unity Party’, which was trying to appeal across cultural divisions, failed to divert the vast majority from gathering into two sectarian camps. It was simply impossible, given the times, for Protestants to follow a Catholic Nationalist radical and it was equally impossible for Catholics to have any confidence in the democratic process that has worked against them in the recent past. Indeed, the lesson they learned was that ‘democracy’ would be tolerated unless they demanded an equal access to it. If they dared to do so, however, the full and brutal force of the Protestant State for a Protestant People would be unleashed upon them. Rule Britannia! Britannia waives the rules! It was in this atmosphere that the Provisional IRA gained the dominance which was to last for thirty years.

It has to be said that Westminster, reacting to events, rather than controlling them, did not exactly help matters. In an attempt to minimise the effectiveness of the IRA, internment without trial was introduced in 1971 and even this was handled badly with detainees being tortures and Britain being convicted of torture in the Court of Human Rights. A demonstration against internment, during which Catholic youths began throwing stones at soldiers, was dispersed with gunfire when the Parachute Regiment shot thirteen unarmed Catholics in a panicky response to an assumed gunshot. Some of the dead were shot in the back and there was evidence that some were fatally shot whilst lying wounded on the ground. No charges were brought against any soldiers and a new enquirey into the events of Bloody Sunday (The Saville Report) has now reported. The British Government has formally apologised to the families of those affected by the killings.

Bobby Sands, MP
Internment bred further resentment in the Nationalist community as fathers, brothers and uncles were held without trial by the British, and this new generation proved a fertile recruiting ground for the IRA. Prisoners staged hunger strikes claiming the status of political prisoners and the right to wear civilian clothes. This in turn gave Nationalists new martyrs, and one of them, Bobby Sands, was elected to Westminster in a by-election just days before he died. His election demonstrated how polarised Northern Ireland had become, since he was the only Nationalist candidate and Catholics, when forced to choose between a militant PIRA man and a Unionist, voted overwhelmingly for the Nationalist. Northern Ireland was back where the rest of Ireland had been in 1920.

Westminster, in exasperation at Stormont’s inability to reform the province, suspended the Northern Ireland parliament indefinitely in March 1973, imposed direct rule from Westminster, and introduced the reforms it had been demanding of Stormont. Full adult suffrage in local elections, based on one man, one vote, was introduced; the Londonderry Corporation was dissolved; the RUC was disarmed and the ‘B’ Specials were disbanded.

In a last ditch attempt to re-introduce devolved government in Northern Ireland, the Unionist Party under Brian Faulkner and the Social Democratic and Labour Party under John Hume and Gerry Fitt met at Suningdale in Surrey. There they signed the ‘Suningdale Agreement’ which would provide the basis of a power-sharing executive based at Stormont. A Council of Ireland, which included representatives of the Dail, was established to give an Irish dimension, as allowed for in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920.

Ulster Protestants would have none of it. They were not going to share power with Catholic Nationalists and that was that. They brought Northern Ireland to a standstill with the political Ulster Workers strike of 1974 and the power-sharing government collapsed.

David Trimble and John Hume
With their Nobel Peace Medals
Twenty-five years later in 1999, when I first wrote this brief history, Northern Ireland was still ruled directly from Westminster. Unionists and Nationalists were continuing to argue over details of an agreement which, following a PIRA cease-fire was intended to put Ulster on a new, tolerant, democratic and above all peaceful path to the twenty-first century. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was endorsed by referenda in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, with the greatest support coming from Northern Ireland’s Catholic community. The two Northern Ireland politicians who lead the two sides in the talks, John Hume for the SDLP and David Trimble for the Official Unionist Party, then the main political representatives of the two communities were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.

In thirty years of the armed struggle, as Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, with close ties to the PIRA said, 3000 people had died through both Nationalist and Loyalist paramilitary attacks and not an inch of territory had been gained; almost no political concessions had been won. Britain’s official policy is still little different to that stated in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 – Northern Ireland will remain part of Britain until the Government of Northern Ireland decides otherwise. This was restated in the Good Friday Agreement as ‘until the majority of the people living there decide otherwise’.

Nationalist politicians involved in the talks now included members of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, who had agreed to a cease-fire, embraced democratic methods, as did Eamon de Valera three generations earlier in the south. In 1999 the IRA remained an armed force, albeit under cease-fire.

Since then the IRA has disarmed as provided for under the Good Friday Agreement and as verified by an independent Commission led by the Canadian, General John de Chastelain. Protestant Paramilitaries too have disarmed and accepted the GFA.

Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein
Ironically perhaps, as the political process took over from the armed struggle, the moderates in both communities were replaced by the former militants and the Official Unionists, once unchallenged as the political party of Protestant Loyalism, has virtually disappeared to be replaced by the Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with its links to the Loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Similarly, the SDLP of John Hume and Gerry Fitt has been replaced by Sinn Fein led by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, former second in command of the Derry Brigade of the IRA at the time of the Bloody Sunday massacre.

Martin McGuinness, former IRA Chief of Staff
Now Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly
To many observers of Northern Ireland politics through the Troubles, perhaps the most astonishing development was the coming together of Ian Paisley, former fire-brand arch-enemy of Popery in all it manifestations, the fire-and brimstone implacable opponent of Terrance O’Neill’s gesture towards the Nationalist community by visiting a Catholic girls’ school, shaking hands with Martin McGuinness, former IRA Chief of Staff and now his Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly which Paisley now led. The two men, at least in public, displayed what looked like a genuine affection for each other. The lion had lain down with the... well, the other lion.

Ian Paisley and
Martin McGuinness
“Never! Never! Never! Never!” had become, “Well okay, so long as I can be leader”. Maybe it needed leaders with impeccable credential of implacable opposition to gain support of the two communities sufficient for them to co-operate for a better future for Ulster and not to be seen as self-serving and too prepared to compromise.

Maybe Paisley, having achieved his ambition to be the political leader of Ulster Protestants had nothing left to achieve and decided he would like to be remembered by history as the man who finally did the Christian thing, forgave his enemies and and made peace. Paisley has now retired from active politics and has handed power to his DUP deputy Peter Robinson who became DUP leader in his place.

As politics and democracy are increasingly accepted as the natural and proper means to express aspirations, just as in most of the United Kingdom, religion is becoming less relevant in both the north and the south of the island of Ireland. In a recent opinion poll a large majority of Ulster’s Catholics indicated that they wish to remain in Northern Ireland and for Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom, and this in stark contrast to the increasingly separatist communities in Scotland and Wales.

In the Republic, the Catholic Church is being increasingly marginalised following a series of scandals. Nuns of the Magdalene Laundries were revealed to have physically and sexually abused abandoned and orphaned girls for whom they had care, and the Catholic Church at the most senior level has been found to have conspired to cover up a series of child abuses including the rape of young boys by Catholic priests.

Ian Paisley, First Minister of Northern Ireland
Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister
The Catholic Church is currently finding it difficult to recruit new priests and people are leaving it in increasing numbers, many now openly describing themselves as having no religion. So low has it sunk in public esteem that Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael and Taoiseach of the Dail, recently launched an astonishingly frank attack on the Catholic Church, following publication of the Cloyne Report, an enquiry into child abuse by clerics, and received wide public acclaim for it. The Vatican promptly recalled the Papal Legate from Dublin. This is the Church which was formerly able to demand its special place in Ireland be written into the constitution and which was able, with a few edicts, to kill off the first tentative moves towards an Irish National Health Service in the 1940s.

On 27th June 2012, Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly and former IRA Chief of Staff in Derry, shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II in Belfast during a visit to celebrate her diamond jubilee.

Ian Paisley died on 12 September, 2014.

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