Extracts from 'Perceptions: Cultures in Conflict', Compiled by Adrian Kerr
[Key_Events] [Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
The following chapters have been contributed by the compiler, Adrian Kerr, with the permission of Guildhall Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This chapter is taken from the book:
These extracts are copyright © Adrian Kerr 1996 and are included
on the CAIN site by permission of the author and the publishers. You may not edit, adapt,
or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use
without the express written permission of the author or the publisher, Guildhall Press. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.
Our thanks to Manus Martin and the Training and Employment Agency for their continued support under the Action for Community Employment (ACE) Programme. Also to Derry City Council's Recreation and Leisure Department for providing generous Community Services Grant Aid which is greatly appreciated.
Special thanks also to the following members of the Press: Danielle Price, Clare McGillan, Nicholas Devlin, Karen O'Leary, Roberta McBride, Sinéad McCarron, Aaron Murray and Marina McGrotty. Also to Rosemary McCloskey, Louise Quigley, Patricia Ann Griffen and Art Byrne for their specialist assistance.
Our appreciation to all those who contributed their thoughts and memories, and to those who provided photographs: Barney McMonagle, Fionnbarra ÓDochartaigh, Willie Carson, Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign, Magee College, Seamus Heaney, Pacemaker Press and Jarlath Kearney.
Thanks also to Derry City Council Heritage and Museum Service; Central Library, Derry; Linenhall Library, Belfast; Derry Journal and Londonderry Sentinel for reference material; and to Professor Paul Arthur of the University of Ulster for his foreword.
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support and encouragement
for this project provided by Ciáran de Baróid and
the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust.
© Guildhall Press May 1996
Designed and published by:
41 Great James Street
Language, history and topography - these are probably our defining characteristics. We are a parochial people (in that positive sense in which Kavanagh hived it off from the provincial). And we believe that we are different. Difference is certainly one of the features of this book. We cannot agree even on a place name. The junior minister at the Northern Ireland Office who suggested innocently that we should counter 'Belfast Is Buzzing' with 'Londonderry Is Leaping' had no idea of the etymological minefield into which he had strayed. He had no sense of (our) history. It was Stephen Gwynn who maintained that no other town in Ireland has had such a vital contact with history as we have had. But, he added tellingly: "Except for its historic associations, there is little reason why any should linger on Derry's prosperous streets."
Pride in place would lead many of us to dispute that judgement. We are as capable as the next of avoiding the despotism of fact by wrapping ourselves in mythologies and ambiguities and self-deceptions. After all, that was one of the themes of Friel's Translations, our capacity to adapt to "... a syntax opulent with tomorrows. It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes; our only method of replying to ... inevitabilities."
Perceptions begins to confront language, history and topography because it enables us to talk to rather than at each other by acclaiming the richness in diversity. We need to stand outside ourselves and perceive how others see us. In 1982 Paul Theroux was momentarily seduced: "From a distance Derry was lovely and familiar. It looked like a mill-town in Massachusetts - churches and factories pile up on both banks of a river, the same sort of tenements, the same sleepy air of bankruptcy. But up close, Derry was frightful." We want to deny that, and he found enough people who simply asserted the city's 'difference' and who compared it favourably with the awfulness of Belfast's sectarian conflict. What we cannot deny is the record in front of us, especially the vivid photography depicting the destruction and violence of the early period of the troubles.
This book does not pretend to be a dialogue. It is a raw and honest contemporary record. It is necessarily flawed because it is concerned with 'memory' and ... perception. Our most recent visitor, John Ardagh, marvels in our" ... Phoenix-like revival ..." but adds" ... at a price." He quotes Bishop Francis Lagan on the happy fact of the meandering Foyle: "One cannot say it aloud, but maybe the separation of the two populations is needed for a while, as part of the healing process." Ardagh wonders whether this is realism or a council of despair? What cannot be denied is that, as in other divided societies, high fences may make good neighbours. It may not be sociable but it can have the potential to point us in the right direction.
There are many signs that we are on the way. Those of us who live
outside the city are conscious of a vibrant cultural life and
effervescence missing from most other areas. There is an envy,
too, at the economic resurgence and a feeling that the city is
the laboratory for a new North centred on new relationships. Let
two of our poets serve as our guides from the familiarly haunting
history to a brave new world shorn of its opulent syntax. Robert
Greacen bemoans a: "City of Walls/City of Siege/Jewel of
the North/Maiden of the west/Undone by drums and cymbals."
Seamus Heaney offers us a future when he writes of language being
both fortification and enrichment. This book can be the first
step beyond the fortifications.
Professor Paul Arthur
Irish News editorial 11 May 1996
The idea for Perceptions: Cultures in Conflict emerged in August 1995, just before the first anniversary of the IRA ceasefire. Our intention was to document the experiences, beliefs and aspirations of a wide range of Derry people on the troubles, their origins and their aftermath, and how people from different backgrounds, cultures and allegiances perceived those same times.
We began interviewing in early September 1995, covering the period from the 1960s and the emergence of the civil rights movement, through the twenty-five years of the troubles, up to the ceasefires of 1994, the ongoing peace process and beyond. We called for submissions in the local press in December 1995 to allow the general public the opportunity to become involved in this project.
Each interview was conducted at a time and place of the subject's choice, and we assured everyone involved that their stories would not be altered, censored, or commented on in any way. What is contained in this book, therefore, is a totally honest account of each interview and, similarly, each written submission. When the IRA ceasefire ended in February 1996, we decided to offer those interviewed, or who had given us written submissions, during the ceasefire period, the opportunity to update their material which many of them welcomed. We have included as many different sections of our community as possible, but regretfully, due to limited space, we could not include them all and can only hope that those included are a representative cross section of the many viewpoints existing in our society.
We hope that with Perceptions we have created a valuable
social record of how people from both traditions and cultures
feel during this momentous time in our history, a time when the
prospects for our future have never been brighter, or darker.
[Gregory Campbell (42) is the leader of the DUP on the City Council. He is also the party's spokesman on defence. Interview date - 26/9/95.]
...there's this insidious insistence ... that eventually Unionists will ... be reconciled to their fate. But until we can get to a position where we are treated as equals, not as some sort of inferior, endangered species, or as backward and intransigent bigots who will have to be brought eventually, truculently, to the table; until we can put that sort of belief in the past, and ... move into the twenty-first century as equals ... I honestly have some fears for the future
In 1968, the year that the troubles began, effectively, I had just left school and gone into full-time employment. I suppose if I had been five or six years older I might be able to give a more mature account of what things were like then, but because I was only fifteen obviously my views at that time would have been those of a teenager. I wasn't that much concerned about the weighty matters of political evolution, but at the same time I had views, and they were coloured by my own personal experiences and the experiences that all my family and friends and neighbours had. Watching the difficulties that came about with the civil rights demonstrations, and the violence that often followed them, in my community the perception was of being blamed for the wrongs that the Nationalist community were marching about and demonstrating against. Yet when we examined our own background we saw that it was exactly the same as those who were demonstrating. That created a sense not only of injustice, but of antagonism and of indignation. I felt very indignant that these people were marching for rights that I didn't have. I suppose '68, '69 and '70 was a period where all of that indignation was working its way out, and was finding a safety valve in protests on the Protestant side against civil rights.
The fact that the civil rights movement only seemed to care about Nationalist deprivation was part of the indignation. I know that there are those now who say 'well, if you felt that you were deprived why didn't you join the civil rights movement?' But, while I could identify very closely with a campaign that accepted people were deprived across the divide and attempted to get better living conditions and better employment prospects for everyone across the board, I could not support it when it was fronted by people who had previously been involved in campaigns to undermine the state. Protestants simply said, look, the rationale behind this is something we agree with, but we see an agenda here that's nothing to do with jobs and rights and conditions, it's to do with trying to dismantle Northern Ireland and take it into a united Ireland. It's trying to separate those two aims that is the problem. If you take the issue of libertarian human rights for everybody, if you get that on its own, completely divorced from any aspect of the constitutional future, then I think everybody would support that, or at least everybody that I mixed with.
There's no doubt in my mind that I was affected by the sight of violence on the streets, what I saw to be insurrection. But it did not affect me the same way as it did some people who decided that they had to join a paramilitary group. I never felt the need to join a paramilitary group because of what I saw. I never saw any logic in taking it to the point where you join an organisation to kill innocent people. Others did. But it did affect me, it deeply affected me, because I saw this insurrection, I saw this blatant attempt to undermine the state and defy the wishes of the majority of the people and try and take us into a united Ireland, and I reacted against that.
Bloody Sunday is probably one of the better examples of how the two communities in Northern Ireland look at the same event in a completely and utterly different light. There are scores of examples where people are looking at the same subject matter from a totally different perspective, and Bloody Sunday is one of the more stark. At the time, I remember being involved in the campaign against what became known as the Bloody Sunday parade because it was looked upon as an illegal parade, trying to establish territorial rights, to further the cause of a united Ireland. Now I know that in the Nationalist community there were many who didn't perceive it as that, but that's the way we saw it.
I was in the Guildhall Square that day and as we made our way back to the Waterside reports started filtering through, firstly of shooting, and then eventually of one or two deaths. At the time it was looked on in the Protestant community in a completely different light to the Nationalist community. We felt that there had been an illegal march, there had been prolonged violence in the lead up to the confrontation, and that the soldiers then reacted to that violence. The Protestant perspective was that there were, in all probability, IRA snipers, although we weren't absolutely sure about that. The army then engaged them, and obviously some people died as a result. Some people were innocent, some weren't. But there was no realization, I don't think, in the Protestant community of the depth of feeling in the Catholic community. I suppose now the passage of time has brought about a greater understanding of the Nationalist psyche regarding Bloody Sunday, but at the time there was no conception whatsoever of how deeply it affected the Nationalist community.
I think internment was looked upon as a device employed by a government that was really at sea and not in full control of the situation to try and regain some semblance of control. I think most people in the Protestant community looked at it like that. Instead of being a clear, decisive government responding to a threat, it was a government that was thrashing about, seizing upon any initiative that could be seen to restore some semblance of credibility, and internment was a convenient tool. I imagine that probably the majority of Protestants thought internment was a good idea. I think at that stage Ian Paisley was out of step with the bulk of the Protestant community because he was the one Unionist leader who opposed internment. He didn't get any great credit for that from the Nationalist community, but he did say that on principled grounds he was opposed to the use of internment. The majority of people eventually came round to his way of thinking, agreeing that it was a tool that could only be used in the most extreme of circumstances.
The fall of Stormont was one of the major events for the Unionist community. A bastion against a united Ireland had been taken away, and by a government that six weeks before had indicated that there was no possibility of such an action. That was a blow to the Protestant psyche, the removal of such a bulwark.
The problem with the Sunningdale arrangement, and with a number of initiatives since, was that any action the British government undertook that was seen to be flying in the face of what the people of Northern Ireland wanted was always going to cause suspicion. Any initiative that is undertaken in any region of the world where there is conflict, if it is seen to be in opposition to a sizable number of people, let alone the majority of people, is always going to fail, or at least flounder. Sunningdale was the first of a number of occasions where the government said 'it doesn't really matter what the Unionist community wants, this is what we think is best for them'. That's the way the Unionist community looked at Sunningdale. There was indignation about it, and particularly over the Council of Ireland aspect. Hugh Logue, a prominent member of the SDLP, described the Council of Ireland as a Trojan Horse that would trundle us into a united Ireland. Understandably, that was the end of any possibility of success for the Sunningdale agreement as far as we were concerned.
I don't think people in Northern Ireland, even the ordinary grass-roots Loyalists and Nationalists, have sufficient appreciation of the huge gulf of misunderstanding that exists between the two sides. I referred to Bloody Sunday as being a prime example, the hunger strike is another one. I know now that the Nationalist community was very, very emotionally affected by it. At the time, I don't think that the Unionist community understood the depth of feeling that existed within the Nationalist community regarding the hunger strike, nor did the Nationalist community understand the way that Unionists viewed it. The Unionist community view, and I remember how I felt, was that here was a group of people, all of whom had been sentenced - it wasn't a case of remand prisoners taking a protest action, it was people who had been through the due process of law, and had been convicted, many of them of murder - and they were engaging in another campaign to try and discredit the system, and were involved in the most obnoxious, offensive type of behaviour in prison cells [blanket/no-wash protests]. Any sort of outcome that was self-inflicted was, for Unionists, good enough. I remember people in my community being pleasantly surprised whenever the hunger strikers died. They had no perception that Nationalists were appalled at this. Unionists saw murderers going on a hunger strike and eventually dying, and the Unionists reaction was that it was good enough for them. That was the reaction. And there was a universe of difference there, just as far as the east is removed from the west, as the Bible says, and that's an example of the gulf of misunderstanding that existed between the two communities, in relation to the hunger strike, as in so many other things.
If you base your political philosophy on the premise that force is the only way to get your message across, and the use of that force is the most effective weapon you have, then with that particular logic, whoever has the most guns and Semtex wins. But that philosophy is doomed to failure because it's a policy of rearmament, and of continually arming until the other side is completely out-blitzed by the amount of fire power you have. There's no way that this strategy will ever lead to a satisfactory conclusion. The only productive thing to do is to sit round the negotiating table.
I do make a distinction between the different types of violence. I remember at the Pat Finucane sponsored event in Pilots Row in January 1995, with a hostile audience, I suppose I could have simply said all violence is to be abhorred, which it is, and drawn no more distinctions. I could have taken the easy way out but I didn't feel that would have been honest. I do draw a distinction between Loyalist violence and Republican violence. It's not the distinction that one is all right and the other is all wrong - both of them are equally wrong, they can't be justified, they can't be defended and they can't be supported or condoned in any way. But there is a distinction and I've always drawn the distinction. The distinction is that Republican violence has been used as a means to smash the state, smash the system and create a united Ireland. I don't believe that Loyalist violence has ever been used on a proactive basis like that. Their violence was always to stop the IRA, so their rationale was that if there's no Republican violence there's no need for Loyalist violence. I suppose when you look at the ceasefires that proves my point.
State violence just doesn't enter into the equation because I believe that not only is Loyalist violence a reaction to Republican violence, but that all of the measures taken by the state which Republicans took exception to, all of that is a reaction to IRA violence as well. Once it stops, and everybody is certain that it has stopped, then the need for all these measures disappears. If they had stopped killing people earlier there would have been no need for house searches, no need for a Special Powers Act, no need for checkpoints, no need for any of these things. So there are three clear distinctive categories - Republican violence, Loyalist reaction and the state's response to both. I don't wear this idea that violence only came about because of a lack of response to certain demands. You only have to look at the civil rights programme - whether or not you agree with it is largely irrelevant - in the eighteen months from '68 to early '70; all of its demands were met without a shot being fired, and yet people said 'we have to resort to the M60 to get our demands'. That led me to believe there was much more to it, a lot more to it, than a simple demand for civil rights. Those people had an agenda, and they saw it not being met, so they upped the ante, and the Unionist view is that they are still doing likewise.
When the ceasefires were called I felt at the time there was a lot of confusion in my community, a lot of suspicion that hasn't gone away in the intervening fourteen months. Again I suppose the ceasefires are but the latest example of this huge gulf that exists between the two communities. When you looked at the reaction in the two communities on 31 August, in the Nationalist community there was either a sense of euphoria amongst Republicans or a sense of quiet satisfaction amongst what are called constitutional Nationalists that the war was over. In the Unionist community there were variations as well, but different from those in the Nationalist community. It was either relief that it was over, tinged with suspicion that it wasn't; or else a positive belief that, far from being over, it was just a change of tactic. There was a tinge of relief that at least they had stopped murdering people for a while, but how long it lasts we don't know. But there again were those two completely different perspectives of the same incidents.
It's unfortunate to have to say this, but I look upon the problems in the peace process as very much indicative of not only the Republican attitude but also the Nationalist attitude. It's almost as if within the Nationalist/Republican community that there is a view of events moving along in a particular direction; they look upon Unionists as petulant children who will eventually come to an understanding that we, the enlightened Nationalists, have had for years. I find that offensive. But that is the perspective that's growing, not diminishing, in the Unionist community. Take, for example, the attitude to all-party talks. It's almost as if Hume and Adams sit serenely at the top of the pyramid saying 'all-party talks are inevitable, so now all we have to do is get the Brits to convene them and eventually the Unionists will come'. There is this naive and foolish belief that eventually Unionists will reconcile themselves to an attitude that will include all-party talks. There is no understanding that Unionists, particularly the brand of Unionist that I represent, cannot and will not reconcile themselves to sitting across the table from somebody with a mask on and an M60. They won't now, and they won't in the future. And yet there's this insidious insistence which says that eventually Unionists will come to their senses, this patronizing belief that Unionists will eventually be reconciled to their fate. But until we can get to a position where we are treated as equals, not as some sort of inferior, endangered species, or as backward and intransigent bigots who will have to be brought eventually, truculently, to the table; until we can put that sort of belief in the past, and can move into the twenty-first century as equals, looking at each other as human beings with some sort of dignity, then I honestly have some fears for the future, even though I'm an optimist by nature and I think over the next two or three years there will be many more positive, rather than negative, things to look forward to.
The one thing that gives me hope for the future is that within both Nationalist and Unionist communities there's not only the hope, but the demand, that some form of structured discussions must take place. I think the people are at least as far advanced as the political parties in that they know that there are difficulties, they know that there are deep-seated grievances within both communities. But they're demanding that there be some sort of structured discussions which will lead to a form of government in Northern Ireland which, if not 100%, at least 90% of the people of Northern Ireland can give allegiance to within the next few years. The people are demanding it, and I feel it will come about.
I don't believe enough research has been done into what the projections about a future Nationalist/Catholic majority tell us. Over and over again I've heard this sort of demographic argument indicating that a united Ireland will come about in twenty or thirty or forty years. But the truth of the matter is the opposite. The reality is there is a declining Catholic birth rate. Traditionally it has been much higher than the Protestant birth rate. That is a fact. But the Catholic birth rate, just as in Europe and in the Republic of Ireland, right now in Northern Ireland is plummeting. The myth says it is going up, the reality is that it is going down, so there will not be a Catholic majority. And even if it did come about, there is a sizeable number of Catholics who are not supporters of a united Ireland, who are actually against it. When you add these to the Protestants who are continuously voting to remain within the UK you are going to get an impasse in demographic terms. Most realistic predictions point to a Catholic population of around 44% - with about 15% voting to remain within the UK, which means probably 65-70% of the total wanting to remain within the UK.
Only the next twelve to eighteen months will establish whether
or not a return of some form of violence is on the cards. I do
not accept the theory that because the overwhelming majority of
people within Northern Ireland, the Republic, the UK mainland,
and the international community want peace that the Provos dare
not return to violence. I do not accept that. I accept that there
is this huge ground swell of goodwill that demands that there
should not be a return to violence. I fully accept that. Where
I differ is in my view that if there are sufficient numbers within
the Provos who support a return to violence, I believe that it
doesn't matter what the Americans say, it doesn't matter what
the Europeans say, what the leader-writers in Dublin are saying,
or Belfast, or London, they will go back to the bomb. They will
decide whether or not they want to go back and whether or not
they can sustain a campaign within their own community, not within
the corridors of Washington, or Dublin, or anywhere else. If they
can win over enough people of their own community to go back to
violence then that will be the end of the peace process. I think
the next twelve to eighteen months will decide the issue. I have
said from the outset of the ceasefires we would need two years
or thereabouts before deciding whether or not the peace is here
to stay, and I've no reason to change my mind now.
[David Nicholl (34) is currently the leader of the UDP in Londonderry and North Antrim, and intends to stand in the elections on 30 May. He is also the Londonderry co-ordinator for Ulster Community Action Network (UCAN) and is on the board of the Waterside Area Partnership. Interview date 7/9/95]
Articles two and three will have to be rescinded if there is to be progress. I don't see the Irish government and the Irish people doing that. They have used it basically as a teaser, like a carrot to a donkey, to get Unionists around the table.
Around '68 and '69, there was talk of deprivation and civil rights and all this type of thing. Basically, what the civil rights movement was asking for at the time was also wanted by the Protestant community. It wasn't until later that sectarian divisions appeared in the campaign. We were poor, and they were poor. My understanding of it was that people were saying they were poor and they wanted better housing and they wanted this, that and the other and everybody shared those aims. But it was later on when things started to take a more sinister turn, when Republicans started to manipulate the situation into a confrontation for a united Ireland that problems arose. John Hume has been quoted the world over as saying it was 'a united Ireland or nothing'. We saw the riots in the Bogside and other disturbances and that's when the major division appeared because Protestants perceived that it was 'just that crowd at it again'. Nationalists saw Protestants doing something similar in the Shankill and they said the same thing about them.
As the street protests started to get out of hand, that was the starting point of the real violence. The two communities started to divide and take up their own particular positions and then the trust was broken down. The disturbances on the street got worse and worse, and just polarised the two communities, so there was no point in co-operating with one another.
Jack Lynch was responsible in my view for getting the Protestants' backs up straight away by saying 'we will not stand idly by at the border', and then we saw Protestant B Specials and the RUG being battered into the ground in Waterloo Street and places like that. Members of my own family were in those organisations at the time and they were coming nome at night completely wrecked. We had good Catholic neighbours, we played with them, we did everything with them. It wasn't until the outbreak of the troubles that they drifted away. Personally I am disappointed that many of the friends I had when I was younger, around Strabane and around Ballymagorry where I was brought up, grew up to be teenagers like myself and took up arms and attempted to murder a few of our Protestant neighbours. Seeing those people put behind bars gave us no pleasure whatsoever, other than it prevented them from murdering anybody else.
I am still angry that the troubles happened, and like most ordinary Protestants I wish to God they had never happened. We have inflicted brutality on each other over the past twenty-five years, and there have been atrocities, innumerable atrocities. One of those that springs to mind is the La Mon House bombing where bodies were shovelled off the streets, charred to a crisp. I found it most distressing to see the pictures that appeared at that particular time, and again after the Enniskillen massacre. There have also been terrible atrocities committed by Protestants, and that's regrettable, but from a personal perspective, I can only say that I think that had there not been a reaction from the Protestant community it would have been worse for us. The IRA would have slaughtered a lot more than the 3,167 who have died during the troubles. Ultimately it was the IRA who were responsible for the onset of violence.
I felt frustrated during the troubles, frustrated that no-one, but no-one, seemed to want to do anything about it. You had guerillas on the streets inflicting psychological, mental and physical damage on the whole community, Catholic and Protestant, and I wish to God someone had sat down a bit earlier and convened talks where all parties could have come together and discussed a way to redress the economic and social issues which were affecting everyone.
From a very young age I thought 'I have to get the hell out of here, I can't live amongst this'. I had a six-weeks-old cousin who was slaughtered in his pram; and a brother kidnapped by the IRA, an experience that so personally and psychologically damaged him that he always thought they were coming back to get him, and he ended up committing suicide not long before the troubles actually ended. And then my own home was bombed on 16 December 1987, just after the Enniskillen massacre, when a device was placed on my doorstep at Tullyally. From then on I thought 'to hell with this, someone has to do something, and if they are going to try to kill me for doing nothing other than being a citizen living in this country then it's about time I started to speak Out against it'; and that's when I became involved in politics.
I had already had some sort of warning, through the prison system, that there was going to be a ceasefire. The Loyalist prisoners were sending out word to the community that a break in hostilities seemed to be imminent, that the IRA would like to call a halt. The more talk there was about it, it didn't seem that it was ever going to happen, and then it did happen and we wondered was it permanent? Was it really over and done for good? We couldn't see why they had stopped, because they hadn't achieved their objectives. In fact they had failed by stopping. They hadn't obtained their united Ireland by coercion; and I don't think they'll ever achieve it by consent either, because most Catholics don't want it in my view. At the same time we felt elated that the death and the destruction had stopped.
I perceive that the Loyalist ceasefire was inevitable after the Republican one, because Loyalist violence was always reactive to IRA violence. It wasn't proactive for a great many years, and basically they never did go Out intentionally, in my view, to slaughter Catholics wholesale. Any massacres, or what were perceived as massacres, like Greysteel, were basically as a consequence of war, and, unfortunate as they were, were basically a barometer of how the Protestant feeling was at that time after the Shankill bombing and those types of atrocities. I think that at the end of the day, this made both sides say 'this can't go on, it has to stop, or we will end up in a civil war'.
It would be wrong to say that there was no state violence. But when the state is set up, and they have structures of government to run which need protecting from insurgents, from whatever source, then you are going to have a counter-insurgency movement against those who are trying to overthrow the sitting government of the day. And it's understandable that the defensive forces used to do that will be seen as antagonistic by those who are insurgent. Protestants, and especially Protestant prisoners, have always felt that 'if you can't do the time, don't do the crime'. They see themselves as being part and parcel of those defending their state. On the other hand, the Nationalists see them as enemies. Therefore, when the police raid Nationalists' houses, you have situations where confrontations develop, and maybe people are injured, and obviously so, because in any conflict situation you are going to have casualties. If the state is against violence, from whatever source, then they will use tactics equal or similar to the ones deployed by those who are fighting the war.
For the past eighteen months now, the paramilitaries will have taken stock. They are not, on both sides, as unthinking as some people make them out to be. It has been claimed by many that these people are beasts and neanderthals, but there is a clear, cool, and calculated purpose in their actions. They are military-minded where the rest of us are not. But the situation now is not as stable as we thought it would be. There are several facets of the current stage of the process which we always knew we would come across. But what we didn't expect was that when John Hume declared the war was over and Adams and he and Reynolds had met at the Dáil, there would be a continuation of violence in another form, through petrol bombings and street protests. For the Protestant community, in my view, it was merely another IRA tactic, which they had already deployed in 1968-9, when they brought Catholics onto the streets to protest. Bloody Sunday, in particular, springs to mind, where for weeks they had hyped the whole situation, and had used the ordinary Catholic people as a battering ram with which to beat the army and the police and the government. They led innocent Nationalists onto the streets in large numbers, and then positioned their own people among them to open fire on the army, with the help, unfortunately, I must add, of elements from within the Free State army. What happened then was inevitable. People were going to be killed; and unfortunately it's the sort of thing that could happen again. It's the old tactic being deployed again; the IRA hyping up the situation so that they can return to an armed military campaign.
I think it would be better if everybody were to talk, but I also understand the Unionist anger at the thought of talking to people who have been out in the community for years and who are perceived as IRA men, not as Sinn Féiners, but as IRA men. In Protestant eyes Martin McGuinness was the chief of staff of the IRA. He's denied it innumerable times, but we have had Secretaries of State say he was, we have had the British government say he was; even Mates flew to the United States just after the ceasefires and said in the debate with Gerry Adams that Sinn Féin were the IRA, one and the same. The Unionist leaders in the Ulster Unionist Party and in the Democratic Unionist Party will not sit down at the same table where there is someone with a gun who's demanding 'right, you concede on this particular point or we'll blow your head off'. There could have been steps taken at this stage by the IRA to say that their arms are defensive only. The Combined Loyalist Military Command said that their arms are defensive, that they will never initiate violence, that it will only be reactive to IRA violence. The IRA could have stabilised the situation by saying that they would never initiate violence again on this island, or on these islands.
I believe talks will take place inevitably. The government will move towards that. Articles two and three will have to be rescinded if there is to be progress. I don't see the Irish government and the Irish people doing that. They have used it basically as a teaser, like a carrot to a donkey, to get Unionists around the table. What they are saying is 'you take your constitutional position and change it and allow our claim to your territory to be incorporated in the Act of Union under paragraph 75'. We are saying there will be no tinkering with the Union and the constitutional position will not change. But I think we can have a stable government in Northern Ireland which all parties can give their allegiance to, and which can work for the betterment of the people of all communities, of all ethnic origins. Personally, I would like to see former enemies sitting face-to-f ace at the table and addressing their grievances through dialogue rather than going back to violence where both communities would suffer needlessly. At the end of the day, the communities themselves cannot change constitutional positions without a referendum. I suspect it will take at least two generations before the old hatreds and animosities start to subside. Our hope is with the younger generation, and the children of tomorrow who haven't been born yet, who haven't got the old animosity inbred into them. They haven't been part of the troubles of the past twenty-five years, or seventy-five years, or even 300 years. But at the end of the day, we can't afford to let our historical past become an excuse for inaction.
The absence of physical violence over the ceasefire period had a very significant impact on the community as a whole in that people, while still apprehensive that the thing will reemerge as before, are glad and happy that people are not killing one another on our streets. Unfortunately there are violent incidents coming from the IRA and from Loyalists, the punishment beatings which some people criticise but which others in the community condone. I have seen people coming on the TV and protesting the innocence of those who were beaten, but at the end of the day the local people in those communities knew they were nothing more than hoods and gangsters who were causing disruption to the community, and the people were scared to death by what was going on. The police didn't have the time or the experience or the power to deal with the situation, or couldn't deal with it because they couldn't get the evidence from the community. As a result, a rising tide of drugs and other criminal activities was rife in the community, particularly amongst the young, and action had to be taken. Unfortunately it was the paramilitaries whom the community chose to do it. I don't agree with taking people Out and using baseball bats to beat them up. Policing has to be a matter for the civil forces of law and order, and basically we are not, the community is not, the police force of the country. I believe, with time, that we can establish a police force which can do the job in a reasonable manner. It will not always be perfect, but a police force such as the RUC can be reformable.
It's unfortunate that we have politicians on both sides who have
stuck their heads in the sand and refused to budge. I think we
need a whole new approach, with new people coming through from
the grass roots. I would rather have a person from the community
coming forward to meet the needs of that community in council
than have a political party do it because the people on the street
will tell you, irrespective of which community they come from,
that the only time we see politicians is once every five years
at a local council election, when they knock on everybody's doors
promising us the sun, moon and the stars, and then disappear and
are not seen for another five years. It has to come from the peopIe
on the ground because only they can initiate the change, and it's
people-power at the end of the day which influences politicians.
Until there is a realisation that Unionists cannot be coerced into a united Ireland and that Sinn Féin is required to persuade the Unionist community of the legitimacy of their argument, the political status quo will remain.
For our part the intentions of the Loyalist community have proven to be entirely honest and open in our deliberations.
The statement of the Combined Loyalist Military Command remains intact. However, there is increasing pressure on the Loyalist community to respond to the actions of violent Republicanism. Discipline remains the key to our survival and having an earnest desire to pursue peace through a process of conflict resolution, Loyalists will not easily be drawn into a renewed conflict by provocative and violent Republicanism.
There is a realisation that the present situation regarding Northern
Ireland's position within the union is going through a very testing
period but we have been there before and emerged intact. We have
no doubt that when it comes to compromising and accommodation
that Unionists will prove themselves to be willing partners in
the search for parity of esteem.
[Donncha MacNiallais (37) is a former Republican
prisoner. He is currently a member of the Bogside Residents'
Association, the Bogside and Brandywell Residents' Association,
and Conradh Na Gaeilge - the Irish language group. Interview
date - 20/9/95.]
The hungerstrike was a traumatic experience for all of us, both inside the jail and outside. Ten men died, and at the end of the day we did not directly achieve what we considered to be the basis for a solution - the five demands - but what we did achieve was we broke, in the eyes of the world, the British myth that the people involved in the Republican struggle against British imperialism were somehow criminals, or were terrorists or were murderers.Up until the advent of the civil rights movement I didn't have any real notion of the state. My father was unemployed, as were most Catholic men in the estate where I lived. I was born in the Bogside, raised in Creggan, and the whole situation in relation to nearly everyone in our street was that it was the accepted norm for the men to be unemployed and that many, but not all, of the women had factory jobs. With the advent of civil rights, you started to get a notion that the state was actively opposed to you as an individual, and opposed to the community you came from as a whole. You got the first murmurings of people being afraid of groups such as the RUC, the B Specials etc, and that these were forces that would at best be negative towards you and at worst do you harm.
We had very little contact with the Protestant community. There were Protestants who lived in Creggan, very few, but there were some, and there was never any sort of antagonism, either from them towards us, or from us towards them. We hung about together.
The civil rights movement did concentrate more on Nationalists, but that's because it was Nationalists who were being denied civil and human rights. If the state had embraced the concept of equality for all, then it would not have been seen as something that was Nationalistic. You hear nowadays people from the Protestant community talking about the bad housing they suffered, about the poor wages, about the lack of amenities, and you sort of wonder, well, that was OK, both communities suffered from deprivation; but why did the Protestant community go on supporting the Unionist clique that ran the state when they were being treated so poorly? The idea that's grown up around us now, that somehow Protestants and Catholics suffered equally badly, is a myth. The simple fact of the matter is that the state looked after what it termed its own. It may not have looked after them the way they should have been looked after, in terms of good housing and in terms of amenities, but it still looked after them, in all sorts of ways.
I was eleven when the troubles began. At the time people felt that their community was being attacked, that their lives were in danger, and that they were going to have to defend their areas and their people with whatever they had, be it stones, bottles or petrol bombs. There was 100% support for that. The fact that it happened is regrettable because it could have been so easily avoided; the history of the state could have been so different if the Unionist government had said 'let's give these people equality'. People were not asking for privileges, they were asking for equality, and if they had received fair play at the time then history could have been so different.
There was a heightened sense of community in the aftermath of internment; people felt that here again was the state attacking the entire Nationalist community, and people were going to pull together. And people did do that. They did it in a number of ways: either through a rent and rates strike; joining the IRA, or, in their own small way, resisting any sort of British encroachment on their area. Internment was the thing that taught me what the state was about, and what the state would do in order to protect itself. Even though I was never interned, the introduction of internment would have been one of the greatest influences in my life.
I was in Glenfada Park when the shooting started on Bloody Sunday. I saw a number of people being shot at the barricade just in front of Rossville Street. It was a terrible situation to be in. It left people numbed and disbelieving because all along people really believed, and particularly so in Derry, that you could achieve change through political struggle, through nonviolent protest. And the lesson of Bloody Sunday was that the British government would exact a heavy price if you wanted to engage in nonviolent protest, and people paid that price. Looking back on it now, what Widgery was about, what Bloody Sunday was about, was the British trying to show people who was boss in this country. Widgery was an attempt to cover that up and ensure that the British establishment didn't suffer any lasting infamy. The lesson for the future is that things like that don't work. You can shoot people and you can kill people, but there will always be others who will stand up for what they believe in. Some people will take it further and resort to physical force as a reactive measure, and that is increasingly what happened in Derry after Bloody Sunday.
The UWC strike had a minimal effect on us in Creggan. Obviously there was talk about power cuts etc, but I was sixteen at the time and we thought this was great - we are coming to the crux of the matter now, and these people are going to be doing this sort of thing but they are not going to break us. That was our attitude to it. Personally speaking, I did not have any regrets about the executive falling. At the time I didn't lend any support to it. But what it was, in hindsight, was a fascist overthrow of the first ever semblance of democracy within the six counties.
As a prisoner I was directly involved in the blanket and no-wash protests. It was a situation we were forced into by the British government. Most of the people involved in it were in their late teens or early twenties. We didn't, at the outset of the protest, regard it as being historical. We regarded it solely as a means of achieving what we thought we were entitled to, which was political status. We never regarded ourselves at any time as being criminal, and we resented the fact that the British state was trying to portray us as such. The British then decided to try and break us, and they broke some people, but they didn't break all of us. At the end of the day, because the British were not prepared to be flexible in any way, there had to be a hunger strike. The hunger strike was a traumatic experience for all of us, both inside the jail and outside. Ten men died, and at the end of the day we did not directly achieve what we considered to be the basis for a solution - the five demands - but what we did achieve was we broke, in the eyes of the world, the British myth that the people involved in the Republican struggle against British imperialism were somehow criminals, or were terrorists or were murderers. That was broken once and for all, and in the aftermath of that we then went on to achieve the five demands. And that sprang directly from the hunger strike. The British knew at that stage that no matter what they did, they weren't going to break Republican prisoners.
Loyalist violence is not just a reaction to Republican violence. That is not only a myth, but a barefaced lie. Loyalist violence is fascist and terrorist. It's right-wing. If you look at it on a psychological basis, it's linked very closely to the death squads in South America and South Africa. In any areas of conflict where you have a radical revolutionary struggle you are always going to have a right-wing fascist tendency operating as a sort of secret arm of the state, prepared to carry out what the state does not want to openly carry out, and that is what Loyalists have been doing for years. They have been going out and butchering Catholics, and they are not really interested in whether that Catholic is a member of the IRA, a member of Sinn Féin, the SDLP, a trade unionist, or even a practising Catholic. All they are interested in is that that person is a Catholic, and they are prepared to kill him or her in order to try and terrorise the entire Catholic/Nationalist community into accepting what they want us to accept, which is second-class citizenship in a state that is a gerrymander.
The violence used by the state is obviously the state protecting itself against what it sees as a threat to its existence. Obviously the first threat to its existence since its foundation was the civil rights movement which was asking for equality; the state was founded on discrimination; and because it was founded on discrimination it could not grant equality; and so it had to deal with people who were demanding it. And it dealt with that demand in the only way it knew how, and that was through violence, and that has been the case ever since. The violence which is reactive is actually IRA violence. IRA violence is reactive to the oppression of the state and to the fact that the political process has never worked.
At the time of the IRA ceasefire, I felt very strongly supportive of it. I considered it to be a very honourable and very courageous step to take. Given the history of the last twenty-five years, given that the IRA wasn't defeated, the IRA, by calling a cessation of military operations, was saying to me, to the people that live in this area, to the Unionists, to the people of Ireland as a whole, to the people of Britain, and to the wider European and world communities, that there was another way forward, that it didn't always have to entail armed struggle or armed conflict, and that you could actually make political progress through dialogue and consensus. That was the hope that was contained in the statement of 31 August 1994. Since then, the whole situation, the whole process, has been very backward in terms of British government engagement.
In relation to the Loyalist ceasefire, I remember talking to someone a day or two after the IRA ceasefire, and they asked me what I thought would happen if Loyalist killings continued, and I said that the Loyalists would stop whenever the British told them to stop, and that the British are going to tell them to stop very soon because the British can control what they do, and the Loyalists know that. Whether the UDA and UVF are directly controlled by British intelligence, no-one knows, but you can bet your bottom dollar they are up to their eyeballs in it.
The ceasefires have presented an opportunity for people - political parties and individuals alike - to reach agreement for the first time in many hundreds of years on how this island is governed. There was never agreement about partition from the people of Ireland, not even from the people of the six counties. Partition was presented as a fait accompli by the British government. What we have now is an opportunity to try and reach some form of agreement. We might not all get all that we want out of that agreement, but at least we have an opportunity to try. The only way that can be done is if people sit down and talk. The people who are refusing to sit down and talk, what are they actually saying? What they are saying is that they are not interested in reaching agreement, what they are interested in doing is maintaining the status quo. The status quo is a failure. It didn't work in the past, it's not working now, and it's not going to work in the future. It has always had to be maintained by force, and what that leads to is a reaction to that force. If that's what the British government and the Unionists want, then I just don't understand them at all.
I'd like to see us all sitting at the table and reaching an agreement.
That agreement doesn't have to mean people come away from the
table having agreed to some sort of concept or form of government
which is going to last forever, but what it does mean is that
people can then go away and present their own political viewpoint
in a way that maybe can effect change in the future. Because that
was part of the problem in the past- people have never believed
in the political process, it has never worked, and what we need
to do is to positively inject some sort of hope into people' s
mindsets that the political process can work. If people are not
prepared to try and reach that accommodation with each other,
then they are sowing the seeds of conflict, and I think that now,
regrettably, what we are looking at is renewed conflict at some
stage in the future.
[A prominent Civil Rights activist in the 1960s and early 1970s, Eamonn McCann (52) was one of the main organisers of the march in Derry on 5 October 1968 and is currently a member of the Socialist Workers' Party. A journalist and author, McCann has written two major books abot events in Derry during the troubles - 'War and an Irish Town' and 'Bloody Sunday in Derry - What Really Happened'. Interview date - 25/10/95.]
I was not in favour ... of the alternative to the armed struggle which was put in place ie the alliance between the Republican movement, Sinn Féin, the Dublin government and corporate America. I saw it as one which was inimical to working-class interests, and one which was going to lead to political compromise of a sort which was unnecessaryIn the period leading up to the emergence of the civil rights movement, it seemed to a lot of people, including myself, that the whole nature of Northern Ireland politics was changing, and that the question of the border was becoming increasingly irrelevant. The Catholic community had instead begun to see its future as finding equal citizenship within the state. It also seemed to many of us that the whole attitude of Britain to the North was undergoing a fundamental change; that Britain was no longer simply taking the Unionist line and defending partition, as a result of serious economic changes mainly; with investment in the South of Ireland, the declining nature of the Northern economy and so forth. It appeared that Britain was now more inclined to balance between the Orange and the Green rather than just line up with the Orange side. It seemed to many of us that there was an opportunity of breaking the sectarian logjam here, and that the issue of equal rights, civil rights, for the Catholic community could be a key question which would transform the nature of Northern politics and end the sectarianism.
At Queen's University, where I had been in the early '60s, there were very large numbers of Protestant students who were quite enthusiastic about this project and who genuinely had no time at all for the sectarianism of the Unionist Party and the Orange Order. So the coalition that vaguely came together was one representative of the Catholic community with radical young Protestants, and also, very importantly, the trade union movement which had begun to get more involved in these issues. It was a time of great hope and expectation, fuelled by Terence O'Neill having become Prime Minister and seeming to promise some sort of change.
It's difficult to tell in retrospect at what point it began to become clear that this whole project for transforming Northern Ireland into a more rational political society, through the aegis of the civil rights movement, was becoming unstuck. It ought to have been obvious from a fairly early stage that, even physically, the demonstrations came to be located in the Catholic community, and that the reaction of the police was to drive them back into the Catholic community. So even physically you could see the re-sectarianising, if there is such a word, of political struggle happening before our eyes, and I don't think anybody was prepared for it. Certainly I wasn't, and the Socialist optimism of a lot of people like myself was very speedily disillusioned. I suppose by about 1969, the truth was beginning to seep into a lot of people, but I don't think that ideologically, or in terms of our political perspectives at the time, we were capable of actually handling the way things were changing.
I think the state has to bear the major responsibility for pushing the civil rights movement into a Nationalist cul-de-sac. You can also blame all the people involved in the leadership of the civil rights movement, including at that period myself, for not seeing more quickly what was happening and not being more ready with a response when it did happen. There is no doubt at all that the instinctive response of the state was to treat the civil rights movement as a movement of Catholic militancy, and the slogan 'CRA equals IRA', which began to appear on gable walls, reflected not just the attitude of Paisleyites at the time but also the official attitude of the state in the shape of the Home Secretary, William Craig, for some of that period, and also the RUC. The RUC was nakedly sectarian and they clearly made no differentiation between students marching for 'one person one vote' and decent housing and all the rest of it, and people who were out to destroy the state and create a united Ireland.
I was ambivalent about the outbreak of violence, I suppose, like most of the other people who were around at the time. I wasn't a naturally violent person, and it has to be remembered of course that while street riots and exchanges of CS gas on one side, and petrol bombs and stones on the other, may seem small beer from the perspective of 1995 because we have come through a war in which over 3,000 people have died, at the time it was very traumatic and certainly was more vivid violence than anything that we had witnessed in our lifetime. And therefore it was shocking, it was frightening, but it also was, for me, exhilarating. It was extremely exciting to be involved in the war zone because as nobody had died at that point, at least in the initial riots, the idea that this might lead to actual death, and grief, and the shattering of happiness that would go with that didn't occur to us, so you could have the excitement of being involved in mass violence without, at that stage, the consequences which we now know were to flow from it. But I also took the view in August '69, especially since what was happening was an attempt by the RUC, with Loyalist civilians mingling among them, to invade the Bogside and to do violence to the people there, that they were very simple issues.
However much we didn't want the thing to take the sectarian shape of the communal divisions of Northern Ireland society, nevertheless a simple question which was posed was the right of the Bogside community to defend itself against physical attack. I had no problem about doing that for the Bogside. Neither had I a problem politically, and more generally, of saying that in those circumstances we had to stand by and be involved with the people of the Bogside in resisting this aggression against the community. So, like everybody else, I joined in the defence of the Bogside and the rioting associated with it. Again, the consequences of it, which now appear to be obvious looking back, I don't think occurred to many of us at the time, even as late as the end of 1969 when British soldiers were already on the streets and there had been a number of deaths and so on. It was still only a tiny minority of people, who were disregarded at the time, who were forecasting that this was going to lead to the type of all-out horrendous struggle that we saw in subsequent years.
The first thing about Bloody Sunday itself was that, even as you observed it happening, it was difficult to believe. Even somebody like myself, who would have styled himself as a Socialist revolutionary at the time, and who had talked about the ruthless and murderous nature of imperialism and so forth, had never quite anticipated seeing this sort of thing on the streets where I had been brought up. And also on the day, it seemed ludicrous that the British army were actually killing people, because absolutely nothing had happened that day to justify this in any terms whatsoever. There was the makings of a standard-issue Derry riot, of which we had seen dozens in the previous couple of years, but the idea that they were actually prepared to shoot people and kill them seemed too weird to take seriously. I can recall even lying in Rossville Street, and I actually saw a couple of people being shot outside Rossville flats, and at the time it simply didn't occur to me that what was happening was that these people were being killed. So I was numbed by the sheer awesome extent of the British army's violence for a time. After that, the immediate reaction of the days following wasn't a rational political response in many ways; it was a reaction of grief and tremendous rage and a thirst for revenge, and an understanding that this had transformed things utterly. I think that everybody knew in the area, and I think perhaps in the world, that something of a most tremendous significance had happened in and around Rossville Street that day. The appointment of Widgery two days after Bloody Sunday - Widgery was, after all, the Lord Chief Justice of the land and the highest legal figure who could have been appointed to carry out an inquiry - seemed to indicate to some that the British were taking it seriously, and at the very least we should wait for Lord Widgery's Report before drawing final conclusions about the role of the British state in the killings and the reaction of the British state to the killings.
The Widgery Report itself was as politically significant as the actual events of Bloody Sunday, in the sense that until Widgery published the report it was possible to say that Bloody Sunday had happened as a result of the parachute regiment going berserk, or the parachute regiment acting in a way which didn't reflect the overall British attitude to the civil rights movement and to the crisis in Northern Ireland. But Widgery came Out and whitewashed what had happened and, in effect, exonerated the Parachute Regiment, and once that report was accepted by the British parliament, then it was quite clear that there was no point in seeking redress for the grievances of the Bogside and of the Catholic community generally, and for politically disadvantaged people generally in the North of Ireland. There were no rational grounds for believing that you could seek that sort of redress within the constitutional process laid down by the British state. This was the Lord Chief Justice of the land, there was no appeal against that in the parliament of Britain which had accepted his report. So when people said 'behave within the rules and seek a constitutional solution for your problems', it wasn't just an atavistic response or an emotional response on the part of the people who said 'no, we now want to bring down the state'. It was actually a perfectly rational response to what had happened. It may not be the only possible rational response, but the point I'm making is that joining the IRA in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday and the publication of the Widgery Report was a rational, intellectual response to what had happened on the streets of Derry. In that way Bloody Sunday and the Widgery Report transformed the whole axis of the political discussion in the North of Ireland and we are living with that still.
The UWC strike was a very interesting event, rich in political lessons, not all of which were as they have been drawn. There is one lesson which isn't usually drawn in the North of Ireland, and it's to do with the power of the working class. It has to be remembered that the UWC strike is the one instance in the whole of the last twenty-five years when some group of people here managed to change, radically change, official British policy in the North. Official British policy in the North, supported by all parties at Westminster, was that the power-sharing executive, with the Council of Ireland, was the best way forward, and all the majesty and might of the British state was deployed, supposedly, to uphold that policy. In eleven days the UWC strike forced the Wilson government to abandon that policy, to abandon the power-sharing executive and to abandon the Council of Ireland, and the entire strategy of the British government, negotiated of course with the Southern government, collapsed because the British state proved unable to withstand this mass industrial action. It was mass industrial action brought about, partly at least, by the use of vicious intimidation of Protestant workers. It was straight-forward intimidation which brought out Coolkeeragh Power Station. In Belfast the UDA actually threatened people, so it wasn't that the entire Protestant workforce suddenly decided to stop work as a tactic. They were forced out. Nevertheless it was that withdrawal of labour, for whatever reason, and under whatever pressures, which actually forced a change in British government policy. It's interesting that armed struggle has never done that, and parliamentary activity has never done that either. So there is a message there about where real power lies to change government policy.
The other point is that the attempt to compromise the constitutional position, which was involved primarily in the establishment of a Council of Ireland, united all factions within Unionism behind the policy of 'not-an-inch'. The UWC refused to have anything to do with the Council, and it was really the beginnings of what since has been a stalemate in Northern Ireland. There have been, in fact, two communal vetoes involved, and nothing can be done really which the Catholic community here is adamantly unwilling to accept, and nothing can be done either which the Protestant community is adamantly unwilling to accept. Therein lies the reason for the insolubility of the Northern Ireland question, when it's posed in communal terms. I think also the other lesson I remember from the time was that the readiness of constitutional Unionist politicians to associate themselves with paramilitaries, and to march with masked paramilitaries, also exposed constitutional Unionism for what it is, not a legitimate political formation in the sense of European democracy but the leadership of a particular community whose interests it is ready to defend by whatever means are necessary. Whether they really represent the interests of that community, of course, is an entirely separate question.
The success of the UWC strike was specifically as a result of sectarian patterns of recruitment. The workforce in the power industry was overwhelmingly Protestant which was absolutely crucial to the strike. The fact that they were able to pull out Ballylumford, Kilroot and then Coolkeeragh - the major power installations in the North - was absolutely crucial to them. It meant, for example, that many people in the third and fourth days of the strike joined it not because they had taken the decision to, but because their factories simply closed down, and therefore the UWC said that those factories were joining the strike. The enormous potential power of workers positioned in key industries, particularly so in power generation, was shown. The fact that they had an overwhelmingly Protestant workforce was absolutely crucial to the way the strike worked.
It's interesting, though it's not directly relevant to this, that when the Tory government privatised power in Northern Ireland and got rid of an awful lot of those jobs, there wasn't a strike. The workers themselves didn't draw the lesson that 'we don't have to accept this; we can stop this, we did it before'. It's a rather sad commentary on the nature of Northern Ireland politics that while they were willing to use that power for rotten reactionary reasons in 1974, they proved unwilling to do it - and the union leadership has got responsibility for that too for not inviting them to - when it came to their own jobs, and a lot of those jobs don't exist any more.
The hunger strike was a long time coming, of course. The abolition of political status was introduced in March 1976 by Merlyn Rees [Secretary of State for NI, 1974-76]. I viewed it, as many other people did then, as an attempt to criminalize what was going on here. And that's exactly what it was. It was an attempt to depict people who were in prison because of their involvement in the struggle here, or in any way in the events here, as common criminals rather than politically motivated people, and that had to be resisted. I think that almost everybody who was around at that time, and politically active on the anti-imperialist side, must feel slightly uneasy about the fact that it wasn't until people went on hunger strike that a mass movement was generated in support of their campaign.
What I really think, looking back on the hunger strike, is that while on the face of it the hunger strikers didn't win and Thatcher didn't climb down, they actually did win comprehensively really because after the hunger strike it was no longer possible to criminalize the hunger strikers - all over the world people just knew that whatever these people had done, and whatever about the history of Northern Ireland, that these people were not criminals. Criminals don't behave like that, criminals do not starve themselves for seventy-four days, and one after the other go to their deaths for a principle. The hunger strikers absolutely, comprehensively, defeated the attempt to criminalize the struggle in the North of Ireland, and in that sense, the important sense, it was an absolute success. Having said that, of course, ten people died, and there was an enormous amount of suffering, inside and outside the prisons, because of it, but you can see the hunger strikes as one of the key turning points in the Northern Ireland struggle, and one particularly in the international perception of the Northern Ireland struggle. People all over the world understood that this was something awesome in its dedication, and that these people, whatever they were, weren't common criminals.
The easiest thing in the world to do is simply to say 'I am against all violence, and we must all be peaceful people', and at various times virtually everybody involved in the events in Northern Ireland has made statements like that. In human terms that's understandable, but it's not realistic. The first thing we have to understand is that the state is, by its very nature, violent. I remember when the IRA mortar-bombed Downing Street there was an outcry in the British press about this being an attack on peaceful politics because here were these people with mortars that were actually bombing the headquarters of a constitutional government. But what was happening in Downing Street that day was a meeting of the war cabinet. This was at the time of the Gulf War, and they were sitting there actually planning mass destruction. People like Major and Kenneth Clarke and so forth are steeped in blood from head to foot, and always have been. It's probably true that there isn't a moment of any day, of any year, when there are not people somewhere in the world being killed with guns supplied by the Western powers, and quite frequently by organisations and groups which have been funded and encouraged by Western governments. So the hypocrisy of the state in relation to violence is absolutely total. And also they are better at it, and they are bigger players in the violence game than either Loyalist or Republican paramilitaries; so I see them as the most violent people of all in this situation.
The IRA grew out of a genuine struggle of a genuinely oppressed group of people ie the Catholic community in the North, and the struggle which grows out of a fight against oppression has a legitimacy about it which cannot be conferred upon the violence of the Loyalist paramilitaries who objectively grew out of an attempt to maintain a status quo which involved the oppression of another community. To that extent, IRA violence has been relatively progressive and the violence of the Loyalist paramilitaries has been relatively reactionary. That's a very important distinction that has to be made. It is also reflected in the pattern of violence. Nobody can minimise the pain and the grief inflicted by the IRA, and it would be wrong to do so, but any objective analysis of the violence, and there have been exceptions, there are exceptions to all these things, will show that in general terms the IRA's violence has not been as sectarian and has not been as vicious, in that there are very few instances of IRA units actually taking open pleasure in killing and inflicting suffering. I don't know what is in people's innermost thoughts, but the records seem to show very few cases of that, and no equivalent at all of the sort of the gleeful torture of innocent Catholics by the Shankill Butchers and by elements of the UDA and the UVF down through the years. So even in that broad moral way you have to make a distinction.
While all the people in Northern Ireland involved in violence can to some extent be described as victims of the troubles in that they were sucked into it by the political system, nevertheless they weren't all sucked in to the same extent. There are certainly very few Republicans sucked into psychopathic violence in the way that people like Johnny Adair from the Shankill and Lenny Murphy and the other notorious torturers actually were. So there are a lot of distinctions to be made, and it's very easy to be too broad and too glib about condemning violence. Having said that, I was never in favour of the armed struggle as a tactic, but that's a political question, and on the question of violence we must make distinctions.
I was very pleased there was a ceasefire. As I said, I had always been against the tactic of armed struggle, because as someone who sees the key to progress as being the involvement of the mass of the working class for their own liberation, I saw that there were serious limitations in the tactic of armed struggle however understandable it was after Bloody Sunday, and however rational the decision to join the IRA was in many instances. Nevertheless, armed struggle, by its nature, can involve only a relatively small number of people, for security reasons apart from anything else. There is no point in arguing that you can have a mass democratic form of armed struggle; you could, but it would last about three weeks. Also, of its nature it is elitist, in the sense that it is not controlled by the people in whose name it is conducted. So I was in favour of the end of the armed struggle to that extent. I also simply couldn't understand how many of the Republican actions in the years leading up to the ceasefire were supposed to advance the cause that they were pursuing. You can look at some things, the bombing of the Baltic Exchange being an obvious example, where you can see particular things that may have sent a shudder through the British government and got a response. But certainly the attacks on members of the UDR and people who work for the RUC and so forth, while some can argue they were legitimate targets, though I think that's questionable, how exactly such attacks were supposed to advance the cause of getting the British out of Ireland and creating a non-sectarian society was certainly a mystery to me, and I think increasingly a mystery even to people in the Republican movement. So I was in favour of the ceasefire in that sense.
However, I was not in favour, and said at the time, and still say so, of the alternative to the armed struggle which was put in place ie the alliance between the Republican movement, Sinn Féin, the Dublin government and corporate America. I saw it as one which was inimical to working-class interests, and one which was going to lead to political compromise of a sort which was unnecessary, and I believe there ought to have been much more discussion and analysis within the Republican movement of what other alternatives to armed struggle might have been available rather than simply going for the pan-Nationalist alliance which they did go for, and which in my view is going to end in tears. I'm not in favour of a return to the armed struggle but I don't think that the strategy which the Republican leadership has adopted as an alternative to the armed struggle is going to lead to the liberation they wish for.
I think the problem of the prisoners is one that transcends the peace process. Even before the ceasefire I would have argued, and did argue, for the unconditional release of all prisoners in the North because, for a start, I don't acknowledge the right of any British government to imprison people for political reasons since the British government is the major source of the political problems here. So that is one broad point about the prisoners. Having said that, of course, it is quite clear the prisoners are now being held as hostages, and everybody knows there can't be a settlement which does not involve the release of prisoners, and the British are being extremely slow and grudging and sour in relation to the release of prisoners, and I think that a case could be made that some assurances on the prisoners should have been obtained before the ceasefire. Once the ceasefire was called it was difficult to see what direct pressures could be brought to bear on the British government to move faster on the issue, and on arms and decommissioning and all the rest of it.
Decommissioning is a phoney issue. All the arguments put up by the Republican leadership seem to me to be quite sound arguments, within the limits of what they are arguing, that decommissioning has never been asked for in the past in comparable struggles. The notion that the IRA should have to hand over guns as some sort of token before Sinn Féin is brought into talks just seems to me to be ludicrous, and the British are taking a political stand on it.
I think there is a bigger issue underlying decommissioning - the issue of consent ie whether the Republican leadership now believes that Northern Ireland shall remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority of people within the North want it that way. I believe that if they have arrived at that conclusion then they should say so openly, and I think it's the fact that they are not dealing with that issue which explains the intractability of the decommissioning issue.
To hand over weapons to the British would be to acknowledge the legitimacy of British authority in the North, directly to acknowledge it, and it wouldn't matter a hoot if some international commission, headed by Jimmy Carter or Senator Mitchell or whoever, supervised it. It is the British government which would have to be satisfied that the arms had been handed over or destroyed, it would still set the criteria for the acceptance of Sinn Féin into talks, and then determine whether the criteria had been met, so all this about international commissions and intermediaries doesn't really change the nature of it.
What the issue is here, with the decommissioning of arms, is the issue of consent. What would be talked about if there were round-table talks in the morning, all-inclusive all-party talks? The interesting question arises of what would they say to one and other - what are their negotiating positions? As long as there aren't talks because they are held up over the issue of decommissioning, we aren't getting to that point. And we won't because it's being done the wrong way round. What people should be dealing with now is the issue of consent. If the Republican movement has accepted that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom while the majority of the people here want it to - and a lot of people in politics, in the media and so forth are convinced that it has -then it should say so openly and then the decommissioning issue might solve itself very quickly. However, these are very deep questions that go right to the heart of what the Republican struggle has been about, not just in this generation, but for a long time past, and I think that while we have reached a crisis in the peace process, there is also a crisis in Nationalist politics underlying it, which may be incapable of resolution in Nationalist terms. We live in interesting times in that regard.
What I would like to see in the future is a situation emerging in which working-class people in the North identified themselves with politics other than by reference to the religious community to which they, so to speak, belong. That would lead to an end to the sectarian shape of politics, and I think that there are opportunities for trying to pursue that ancient Socialist dream even now.
One of the strange things about Northern Ireland which recently occurred to me is that Catholics and Protestants in the North have never been more alike. The cultural background of people on the Shankill and the Falls has never been as close to one and other as it is now. That's part of the globalisation of culture, the Americanisation of world culture, as well. While there are still distinct elements to the cultures of the two communities, nevertheless they share an awful lot. Ninety per cent of what could probably be defined as culture is common in our society - soccer and pop music and literature not coming from within Ireland, but from outside. It's also true that the workforce has never been more integrated, for all sorts of reasons, not just to do with legislation but to do with the changing pattern of the ownership of industry in the North, which is increasingly owned by foreigners - multinationals and corporations who don't give a hoot about who is a Catholic and who is a Protestant, rather than Orange businessmen who used to have a direct interest in only employing Protestants. The economic divide, while still there, is smaller now than at any time before, and for great numbers of people, people and families entirely dependent on state benefit, it's exactly the same - you don't get more in child benefit on the Shankill than you get on the Falls. So in economic terms and in cultural terms, strangely enough, Catholics and Protestants have never been closer. And it is happening at a time when the political divide is at least as wide as it ever was. There is a contradiction here which eventually will have to be resolved, and my hope is it will be resolved in a way that brings people together rather than pushes them apart.
I can't actually see the possibility of a united Ireland which is not a Socialist Ireland, and I think that when I referred earlier to the crisis in Nationalist politics, I think that it's not going to be possible under capitalism. That's my interpretation of the peace process; that what we have seen is the Republican movement looking for the strongest Nationalist allies it can get, and obviously the strongest Nationalist allies are the SDLP, the Church, the Dublin government, Irish America and so forth, and they have put that in place. There has never been a stronger Nationalist alliance in an attempt to move towards a united Ireland. That will have been done at the expense of giving up, in effect, on many Socialist issues. You can't fight for Socialism while you are arm-in-arm with Albert Reynolds, or John Bruton, or John Hume, or Cardinal Daly and so forth. What we are seeing now, therefore, is that the Nationalist project has been effectively brought to a halt because no capitalist government in the South, is going to break with Britain. It's not going to cut itself off from Britain, for all sorts of economic reasons, nor is it going to break with the United States, therefore the price you pay for putting in place the strongest possible Nationalist alliance is, really, to give up on driving the British out of Ireland. This may seem like a paradox, nevertheless it seems to me that if you just look at what's happening this is true, and it's interesting that Sinn Féin no longer uses the slogan 'Brits Out'. It's 'All-Party Talks' now. The slogan 'Brits Out' has not decorated a Sinn Féin platform for a long time now because if it did, they certainly wouldn't get Fianna Fáil front benchers, as they have got recently, onto their platforms. They wouldn't get Bill Flynn, the Irish-American multimillionaire to join in the chorus of 'Brits Out' and so forth, but he is in favour of all-party talks. And there I think you see in practical terms the contradiction between the all-class Nationalist alliance on the one hand, and achieving the goal of a united Ireland on the other. The conclusion I draw is that if we are going to move towards unity the people of the South will have to rise up as well to overthrow their capitalist government which is in alliance, effectively, with the British government, and corporate America, and all the rest.
I don't see the choice as being between Socialism and a united
Ireland. I don't believe there is ever going to be a united Ireland
which is not Socialist. By the same token, I don't think you are
ever going to have Socialism in any part of Ireland while Ireland
is divided. It would be ludicrous to imagine a Southern Irish
state in which the working class was in power while you had this
little slum still existing up here. It would be ludicrous to imagine
Northern Ireland having a different social order and a different
system of economic organisation to the South. So the two parts
of Ireland have to move together, and I think when the people
of the Bogside, for example, look for allies in the South, they
are going to have to come back to the old Socialist dictum that
you don't look to the people who are ruling in the South, but
look to the people there who are fighting back against their rulers,
and establish a thirty-two-county movement which is aimed against
both Irish states. So I see the future of Socialism as bright
over the next few years. I don't see a capitalist united Ireland
ever existing in my lifetime, or in anybody else's lifetime.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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