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'Protestant Perceptions of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland' edited by Dominic Murray (2000)

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Text: Gregory Campbell ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh


Gregory Campbell


Initially as the peace process got under way there was scepticism, incredulity and amazement among the Unionist population. Not simply that delivery of the ‘goods’ was all to Nationalists and Republicans in the form of prisoner releases, North South Bodies and the Patten review of the Police. Not even that it just might lead to a different, better future. It was more fundamental than that. The Unionist population perceived the process unfolding before them as the culmination of many years preparation by the Nationalist/Republican community.


A thirty-year war had been conducted on the premise that Roman Catholics had been systematically disadvantaged and, on their behalf, the protagonists were endeavouring to remedy those past ‘injustices’. The ‘war’ was promoted by those in Sinn Fein and acquiesced to by the membership of the Social Democratic and Labour party. They now look upon this entire process as a way of rectifying ‘the wrongs’ of the past. It seems as if the worst excesses of Cromwell, the paranoia of the potato famine along with latter day gerrymandering are all to be displayed for close examination to see if this current process can devise a way of ensuring that the hated ‘Brits’ along with the ‘Prods’ are never again allowed to prevent the freely expressed will of the "people of Ireland" from being enacted. The most galling fact for Ulster’s Protestant community is that Nationalists are doing all of this in the name of acceptance of diversity. A better future for all our children, we are told, is bound to come about if all the cultural expressions on the Island can be recognised. "It is the people not the land that is divided" has become the cliché. If this is rectified then no-one will feel threatened; no-one will be compelled because of their perceived sense of exclusion to resort to violence. When they say "no-one" they mean no Republican will need to take up the gun.


After talks with Sinn Fein in 1988, six years before the 1994 ceasefire the SDLP;

"conceded there were difficulties involved in persuading the Unionists to move towards the concept of a new agreed Ireland. They claimed that an end to the IRA campaign and, the subsequent demilitarisation of the North would introduce Unionists to the idea of a new Ireland." i

This declaration demonstrates both the deceit of Nationalist thinking and their dependence on pliable Unionism to obtain their desired results. Over the years, it has been patently obvious that the gun has yielded positive results to a considerable degree for Republicans. Successive British Governments have baulked at the very idea of confronting terrorism given the extent of international support for their cause. Every time there was the possibility of a realistic response to the barbaric activities of the Provisional IRA a British Government backed off. When three PIRA ‘volunteers’ went on a mission during 1988 to murder innocent people in Gibraltar, they were themselves killed by the SAS and there was an orchestrated international outcry with the Government scaling down the security response. When an IRA team carried out a full scale attack on a Police Station in Loughgall Co. Armagh the Security Forces, through intelligence gathering, were made aware of it. An SAS team were ready and waiting as the attack unfolded, the IRA were clearly determined and had acquired a mechanical digger to breach the security fencing, they were armed with automatic weapons and numbered eight personnel. That night the Provisional IRA suffered their worst single setback in the history of the troubles as the SAS took on the IRA unit killing all eight men. In that part of County Tyrone, IRA activity was massively reduced over the next year because of this military response to terror. At that point the Government could have decided to launch a huge counter terrorist offensive against the IRA. In fact they had any amount of suitable occasions to use as a launchpad but the truth is that they deliberately chose not to. The reason of course was the much vaunted international opinion. Over the years the IRA learned that the British Government was not prepared to confront them so they were at liberty to vary their tactics, turn the tap of violence on harder when they deemed it prudent to do so and ease it off a little when it was advantageous to do that. They also learned that, just as concessions could be obtained by the outright use of violence, so gains could be got by using the threat of it when there was some war weariness in the community from which they drew their support. None of this alteration and change of gear cuts any ice with the Ulster Protestant. Many in our community view this change of tactic as precisely that, a change of tactic but not a change of mindset.


Down through the decades the Irish Republican has twisted and turned, changed and amended its short term strategic goals but always kept firmly in sight the long term objective of achieving a United Ireland. This has been maintained because of their perverted claim that Ulster’s people are essentially ‘Irish’. To Ulster’s Protestant community that is a declaration of intent by republicans to have their Britishness removed, obliterated or, if that fails, made completely irrelevant.


The present process is designed to ensure that Nationalists and Republicans are at the centre of Government so that their sense of Irishness and Gaelic identification are intrinsically part of the new Northern Ireland. They want people to believe that Unionists were always part of, and controlled, the old pre-1998 Northern Ireland. Unionists are supposed to be content with this process because it is assumed that Ulster’s civic society, business elite, political activity and all the trappings of life in Northern Ireland are already amenable to Unionism. In this context, it must be asked where have these people been for over twenty years?

In that time there has been so much disillusionment among the Unionist people. This was not because they have lost power or because they are finding it difficult to come to terms with these ‘necessary changes’ in the new age. It was rather because, never having the power in the first place, and being accused of misusing it when they didn’t have it, they now see that same power being wielded against them at every opportunity.


Over the decades from 1973 when Stormont was prorogued, each time efforts were undertaken to try and find a way through the impasse that prevailed, unless the Nationalist community gave it’s endorsement those efforts were doomed to failure. The Assembly and Convention in 1974 and 1975 (both designed to try and reach political accommodation) went that way. The Atkins talks in 1979 fell because Nationalists did not approve; the Prior Assembly of 1982 - 1986 suffered the same fate with the SDLP refusing to even attend. The 1991/92 talks under Patrick Mayhew did not succeed because, according to SDLP sources, there was not sufficient recognition of their Irish identity. In relation to policing, the SDLP attitude was a classically intransigent one. Even after 1973 when policing reform had gone through and many Catholics wanted better relationships with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the SDLP still pioneered a rejectionist role. When Community and Police Liaison Committees were set up and ordinary Catholics joined, the SDLP stayed away. In fact;

"by 1974 the SDLP found itself in government, the first ‘Catholic’ party to do so, but still refusing to offer unconditional support to the security forces." ii

Now we have in place a system of Government to which the majority of Unionists do not give support or allegiance. The leader of the SDLP never misses the opportunity to state that the Belfast Agreement offers, for the first time, a system of government which commands the allegiance of all the people. Every electoral test since the referendum on the Belfast Agreement demonstrates the utter fallacy of this premise. The Assembly election in 1998 and the European election in 1999 again emphasised that Unionists were unimpressed and rejected this deal. Despite this, we had a Government determined to press ahead and Nationalists and Republicans saying "We must press on, there cannot be any delay in implementation of the Agreement". No wonder unionists are angry, disillusioned and frustrated.

The Unionist people see Nationalist demands and electoral support as reasons for Nationalist rejection of a ‘unionist’ outcome resulting from any negotiations ‘Unionist’ in this context meaning a conclusion which would be acceptable to the broad Unionist community, while we now have a ‘Nationalist’ outcome in that the conclusion has the almost unanimous approval of the Nationalist community but Unionist demands and electoral support are swept to one side.


Commentators occasionally point to the transient electoral support obtained among the Unionist community for what are termed ‘fringe’ parties. In the elections to the Political Talks Forum in 1996 the Progressive Unionist Party, the UDP and the United Kingdom Unionist Party between them polled more than 70,000 votes. Of course, even among this swathe of voters, a wide diversity of Unionism is represented. But the point is why did more than 70,000 people vote for these parties when they already had other political parties to vote for? This was before the Belfast Agreement, so it was totally separate from any disillusionment which arose afterwards. The answer I believe is Unionist despair and a sense of total frustration at what has been happening politically in Northern Ireland. Having voted for the ‘main’ Unionist Parties for years, the Unionist community wanted to see results in the way that Nationalists saw results from voting for both SDLP and Sinn Fein. Not having seen any tangible productivity they sought solace in others whom they hoped would ‘deliver the goods’.


There will not be Unionist acquiescence never mind wholehearted commitment to the Belfast Agreement or any other deal while the basis of it is to redress Nationalist wrongs. Until there is an acceptance of this fact among Nationalists, Republicans and the British Government it is doomed to be a failure among the Unionist community. This is best highlighted by the irony and hypocrisy contained in a comment by a very prominent Nationalist in 1968 who was later to become a leader in that community;

"when we get our civil rights there will be no revenge." iii

The virtual elimination of Unionism from what they would describe as their territory seems like ample revenge. In fact, Unionists are looking for very similar objectives to emerge from any future process as Nationalists/Republicans are from this one. Just as Nationalists want to see greater recognition of their identity and allegiance from this process so, for any future process to have even the possibility of success at it’s heart it will require to give Unionists recognition of their identity and allegiance. When republicans in particular scoff at this perfectly legitimate demand, they inadvertently place their finger on the very pulse of what is wrong with repeated efforts at solving the Northern Ireland problem.

To the Unionist eye, republican concerns have been addressed a long time ago. Unionists would like to see an Inward Investment Programme where they might see some benefit. An example is the highly commendable number of jobs created in the Londonderry area in recent years. The fact is however that 90% of them have gone to Roman Catholics. Will any future programme have more success in giving Protestants employment? In education, there is a Maintained sector where the Roman Catholic ethos is central to the entire structure of the curriculum. There is no similar State sponsored Protestant educational ethos. The controlled sector, oftentimes referred to as the Protestant school system which it is not, is a sector where many Roman Catholics attend and there is no definitive Protestant teaching in many of the schools.


This point is best illustrated from a cultural and historical vantage point. I have found when speaking with a wide range of students in the Maintained (Catholic) education sector, that there is a general understanding of their historical background. Most have knowledge of the events and many of the famous individuals who helped to create Irish history. From my own experience and knowledge of the Controlled (State) sector there is no such comparable knowledge of the events and people that helped create the Northern Ireland ethos. In the former there is a pride in the sense of ‘achievement’, while in the latter there is reluctance to even acknowledge what occurred. An outstanding example is the magnificent contribution people from the North of Ireland made to the creation of the United States of America. Any other country which could boast of the litany of legal, political and military prowess that emerged from Northern Ireland to form what is now the most powerful nation on earth would trumpet their connection loud and long. Not only is that not the case but the great great great great grandchildren of those very people are almost totally unaware of their place in history. The incredible achievements of Ulster’s more recent offspring are almost totally ignored. The literary talents of, among many others, C.S. Lewis, John Hewitt and W.F. Marshall. The marvelous skills of Harry Ferguson. This is a travesty and, if it were the case regarding a Nationalist cause celebre, there would undoubtedly be a huge furore coupled with a lambasting of the authorities responsible until due recognition had been achieved.


A recent publication contained an article by a very well known author who comes from the Nationalist community and was raised in an area of Northern Ireland where Nationalism has been in the ascendancy for almost thirty years. He was writing about his views on the border. He wrote

"the Orange Order in it’s insistence on carrying on it’s demented marches across every nationalist territory within range, on the ground that it has a right to walk the Queen’s highway. This is not a breaking but a reaffirmation of borders, and it is a perversion of any notion of civil rights. The purpose is to confirm that the internal borders are as fixed as the external border; within both, the Orange and Unionist ascendancy wants to persuade itself that it still rules." iv

An award winning literary scholar wrote this. Where he has been for thirty years is not for me to question. It should make some people understand that Unionism feels dispirited when this type of garbage is churned out by a well qualified academic. He is from a part of Northern Ireland where the Protestant community has been decimated and discriminated against for decades yet still has the audacity to consign to print such an unadulterated tissue of untruths and myths. No recognition from this person (or any other of standing within Nationalism) that far from marching "across every Nationalist territory within range" the reality is that nationalist Ancient Order of Hibernians marches proceed unhindered across Unionist territories such as Kilkeel and Desertmartin on a regular basis. However, when it is time to reciprocate, there appears to be determination that a Unionist march shall not pass along the Garvaghy Road.


In 1999 a group of people came together to hold what was termed ‘The Long March’. This was to be a walk from Londonderry to Portadown through a whole series of towns. Its objective was to highlight genuine victims of violence, their grievances, and drawing attention to the increasing sense of disadvantage and lack of civil rights for the Protestant community. Before it started, there was a number of Protestant Ministers who, failing either to understand what the issue was about or not wanting to be seen to be identified with such a radical cause, distanced themselves from it. They also called for the organisers to cancel the plans as they said there would be violence since it was being held in the run up to the Drumcree period in early July. Many of us were criticised for disputing that partisan and defeatist attitude from clerics who were supposed to give pastoral leadership to their people. There was no violence. But even at the outset of that walk, with no bands, no orange banners, no music and no flags there was a republican attempt to disrupt a campaign demanding civil rights for Protestants. For some it seemed to be perfectly legitimate for Roman Catholics to march and demand those rights in 1969 but not for Protestants in 1999.


All of this is now a thing of the past we are told; we are lectured regularly by the great and the good who are convinced that the Belfast Agreement and the Peace Process are the definitive ways forward for our community. They base this claim upon the belief that, because the IRA are prepared to reduce their killing output in exchange for a string of concessions, that the future must be brighter in the ‘absence’ of violence. These individuals cannot accept that the IRA machine has been preparing since the mid 1980’s for yet another change of gear. In 1985 I took part in a BBC documentary entitled ‘Real Lives, at the Edge of the Union’.

This film became notorious because it also featured Martin McGuinness and his inclusion caused the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to call for the BBC not to screen it. The issue of censorship became so controversial that it led to the first ever worldwide strike by BBC journalists. In an excerpt that did not receive the significance it should have got, McGuinness made the comment regarding the IRA’s campaign of violence.

"We believe that the only way that the Irish people can bring about the freedom of our country is through the use of armed struggle, I wish it could be done in another way. If someone can tell me a peaceful way to do it I would gladly support that but no-one has yet done that."
Martin McGuinness BBC Real Lives documentary.

It is perfectly understandable that many in the Unionist community who were on the receiving end of the IRA’s line of fire might not see that the IRA were open to achieve their goals by another route. But how the great and the good who have largely been ignored by the Provos missed the point is more difficult to understand. It is not that the IRA were looking to end their war but that they wanted other means of obtaining more gains, more stepping stones towards their goal. When seen in this, its proper context, people should neither be surprised nor elated at this so-called Peace Process. It seems as if having been attacked, maligned and misunderstood for over thirty years, the Unionist people are now to be patronised and promised a brighter future, if only we will co-operate in our own demise. As Nationalist demands grow ever more strident, some Unionists seek comfort in withdrawing ever more within themselves, politically, geographically and socially. Is this the dawning of the bright new day we were promised? Or is the cycle of defeat and deceit breakable?


Where does the Ulster Protestant go from here? It is clear where those pioneering the peace process would like them to go. Remembering their great and wonderful past, clutching their memories like the few remnants their forbears had as they made the long and dangerous way across the Atlantic over two hundred years ago to escape persecution. That is what the proponents of this process would like. Trudging, albeit with reluctance but accepting the inevitability of it all, into some New Ireland. Some accentuate this feeling when they declare that ‘we must not forget the victims’ while proceeding to violate the memory of many of those same victims by promoting a system which elevates their killers. The controversy surrounding the Patten Commission is very similar, some Nationalists say that tribute should be paid to the sacrifice of members of the RUC and then go on to support it’s demise. The Patten Commission on policing seeks to establish a policing service that is not identified with the State which that policing service is designed to serve. Can anyone imagine the sense of outrage which would exist within Nationalism if I were to suggest that we should all pay tribute to the courageous efforts made by many down through the years in the Nationalist community in seeking a United Ireland, salute them as heroes of the past and then proceed to build a Northern Ireland totally and exclusively for those whose loyalties lie within the United Kingdom.

This is neither for me nor for my community. Our sense of Britishness does not, and must not, inhibit Nationalism’s sense of Irishness. Their belief that the constitution of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom itself consigns them to second class citizenship is absurd. There is more to be said for Protestants in the Republic claiming that their rights have been infringed by nearly eighty years of domination than can be said by their Ulster Catholic counterparts.


The omens are not all negative; there is not among the ordinary people a belief in this fatalism. They are looking for clear decisive leadership. They realise the enormity of the task given the interests that are wrapped up in this process, our own Government, the U.S. Administration, the European Union Governments and, of course, the Irish Government. They are nevertheless convinced that right will defeat might eventually. A cause based not on triumphalism, but on a genuine sense of belonging to the United Kingdom where the wide sense of difference that exists between the Highlands of Scotland and the lush Hills of the Lake District is a bond which unites rather than divides. The Ulster people feel that same affinity whether it be with the disadvantaged ‘scousers’ in the North West or the canny lowlanders in the Burns country region of Scotland. As the U.K. gradually changes there is an acceptance that Northern Ireland’s place within it will change also. The difference is that in the future each component part of the U.K. can decide for itself what its participation (if any) is going to be. Northern Ireland’s people need to be secure in that same knowledge. There is a complete lack of that assurance for the Unionist section of its people. This Irish Government have given no concrete rationale for Unionists to believe that the removal of Articles 2 & 3 which were the Republic’s claim to Northern Ireland territory, mean that a new era in self determination has dawned, as they still seek to merge our two countries against our will.


The North South Ministerial Council and the Implementation Bodies, when compared to the British Irish Council, only demonstrate in cold stark comparable terms what the future holds. The power, influence, size and remit of the North South bodies when measured alongside the miniscule and emasculated British Irish Council should give any pro Belfast Agreement Unionist doubter cause for concern. Part of the problem is that some Unionists are so desperate to portray the culmination of this part of the battle as a victory, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that they want to believe their own propaganda. The desire and obsession of republicans to obtain the mythical ‘fourth green field’ from this or any other process is always going to have to be confronted. Unless and until a process is devised which allows Unionism to develop and expand in the way that the Belfast Agreement allows Nationalism to develop there is little prospect of success. If republicans continue to force this agenda in the hope that they will eventually be facing a Unionism so bereft of principle and dedication that victory is there for the taking they are making a huge mistake. The very best they can hope to achieve is creating a situation whereby Unionists, realising that there is no hope of dealing with any realistic section of Nationalism, simply abandon the possibility of doing a deal with the Nationalist community. The East of Northern Ireland becomes more Unionist while the West becomes more Nationalist and this or any future British Government simply has to deal with two separate parts of Northern Ireland. If this is the best scenario Nationalism has got going for it then they really have to re-assess where it is going and whether their insistence in pursuing the green coloured crock of gold at the end of the rainbow is really worth the trouble.

The decision of the IRA, in the context of the causes of conflict being removed, to put their weapons verifiably beyond use is of no value. A peaceful society cannot emerge while politically motivated terrorists retain the right, and the capability, to use violence when the political concessions designed to stop them using that violence dry up or slow down.

i Murray, G. 1998. John Hume and the SDLP: impact and survival in Northern Ireland. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, p.180.
ii Arthur, P. 1945. Government and Politics of Northern Ireland. London: Longman, 1984, p.127.
iii O’Dochartaigh. N. 1997. From Civil Rights to Armalities: Derry and the birth of the Irish troubles. Cork: Cork University Press, p.101, quoting John Hume.
iv Loghe, P. 1999. The Border: personal reflections from Ireland, North and South. Dublin: Oak Tree Press, p.27.


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