Friday, March 13, 2020

Exposed — Northern Ireland protectors (1987)

From the March 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Life in Northern Ireland has changed considerably over the past year. There has been an uncomfortable return to the fear, mistrust and general apprehension remembered from the early seventies, when the troubles were at their height. The cause of this retrogressive step is that a small group of people, from both sides of the community, have successfully resurrected old hatreds, re-inculcated old fears and brought again to the fore the myths and misconceptions which falsely divide the workers of this province. That small group of people are the politicians of Northern Ireland.

In such an insane political environment it is difficult for these politicians to sustain the promise to represent the electorate, as the poverty and general deprivation of our existence exposes that nonsense. Their only other promise is to protect the electorate, protect them from some other group or ideology which threatens their lives, their culture. or their nationality. Just as Thatcher protects Britain from socialism and Kinnock promises to protect it from Thatcherism, so too in Northern Ireland we have our own band of "protectors". Paisley protects us against Republicanism and Catholicism as Adams protects us against Imperialism and Unionism. When the images we were protected against started to become less obvious and more obscured by our normal lives, then these politicians, in order to protect their own positions, had to focus the picture anew.

Relative Normality
To understand this, something must be said of what had been happening in Northern Ireland over the past few years. Socially, things had been returning to relative normality. Belfast has experienced, particularly over the past three years, something of a social renaissance as the city centre began to open up again. For the previous ten years that centre had. after six o’clock in the evening, all the hallmarks of a ghost town, with empty streets, dimly lit as a security precaution, and the traditional social attractions such as pubs and cinemas being conspicuously absent of people. This was the result of a decade of terror. the terror of the IRA bombs, of Loyalist murder squads, of trigger-happy British soldiers and of an abusive and vicious police force.

In this environment it didn't matter what side you were on, or even if you had no side at all, the safest place to be was with your "own sort", in your "own district". Why take the chance of going to a city centre bar when you could stay protected in your own area? This was the ghetto mentality that led to the establishment of ghettoes and Belfast is a city of ghettoes. where people will pay higher prices for poorer housing, just to stay with their own sort hoping for safety in numbers.

A number of factors started to indicate a change in this. Most importantly, things had actually quietened down a good deal. From ’82 to the end of '85. the incidents of violence in this war were becoming less frequent and less obvious. It seemed as though the day of the street riot had finished, with young people preferring an evening at the disco to a cold night out throwing stones. There was also a reduction in so-called terrorist violence with fewer bombings and fewer assassinations. Even the state violence, as dished out by the army and police, was less frequent, not only because there were less troops on the ground but, more importantly, because the government was attempting to establish a feeling of everyday normality to the province; this war was proving bad for business.

There was however another factor in the equation which, although not designed, was just as significant. The war in Northern Ireland has been going on in its present phase since 1969. Inevitably, over such a long period a whole generation has emerged, aged from sixteen to twenty-five, whose only experience is that of a violent political crisis. Not having the comparison of more peaceful times, their fear is not as stark; this is their normality and they don’t share the apprehensions of their parents; in a word they don't really give a damn. They are prepared to go into the town centre, prepared to go to the dances, to the clubs and to the restaurants.

Seeing this new market, the business community responded and in a relatively short period the city centre of Belfast began to come alive, as people started to leave their own districts to seek entertainment elsewhere. There is a similar pattern in many other towns throughout the province. This was not the answer to the problems of Northern Ireland, but at least it was a more palatable existence than that which we had come to accept.

Anglo-Irish Agreement
In November 1985 we witnessed, to much media attention, the signing of a document called the Anglo-Irish Agreement which heralded a new phase in the history of this war and again provided a stage for the voices of fear and intimidation from those representatives of sectarian politics. When Thatcher and Fitzgerald put their signatures to this document they seemed unaware of the response it would get and the violence that would be caused. They knew they were putting their names to an innocuous little document of meaningless solutions which would actually make no difference to the political basis of the war and would certainly have no basis of change for the lives of those on either side of the border. The Agreement was nothing less than a publicity stunt to show that two governments sit down together and talk. It was to gain public acceptance for a dialogue which had already been established for many years. Although naive, the civil servants who drafted the paper and the politicians who signed it, had no idea that their ineffectual little document would provoke such a back-lash.

Typically, the Agreement was rejected by the two extremes: the Unionists branded it "Dublin Rule by the Back Door" and the Nationalists dismissed it as a sell-out by the Southern government who had, for the first time, recognised the right of British control over Ulster. A peculiar unity of action was established from seemingly different quarters. a unity of opposition to the Accord and a commitment to ensure that it would prove ineffective. If this agreement was meant to bring greater peace to the province, then the best answer was to ensure that there would be greater unrest and greater violence. That was the conclusion drawn by both extremes and that was the menu they served.

The past year has shown the effects of that policy; we have suffered a staple diet of intimidation, terror, hatred and death. The IRA and INLA have answered the call of nationalism by blowing up buildings in public places and murdering workers who were foolish enough to join the police or army. The Loyalist thugs under the title of Ulster Freedom Fighters have targetted individual Catholics, particularly those living in Protestant districts, as victims of their murder squads.

Hypocrisy and Lunacy
The Unionist politicians have excelled in displays of indignation. No news story is now complete without a comment on the foolishness of these fascists. Adjourning council meetings, refusing to pay their rates, disrupting Thatcher's speech to the European Parliament — the list seems endless. Even poor old Peter Robinson (or Adolf as he is affectionately known) had to face trial in Dublin for the minor misdemeanour of leading a gang of baton-wielding, gun-toting democrats on an invasion of a sleepy Southern town.

The hypocrisy and lunacy displayed by both sides would be riotously funny were it not for its cost in human suffering and loss of life. The politicians attempted again to establish themselves as the protectors, standing guard over the ignorance and division which they hold sacred. If we didn't have division we wouldn't need these leaders to lead the divided factions. Unfortunately for the politicians. their attempts at confusion didn't quite pay off as they may have expected. Granted, they got a large degree of support, but even that is starting to break up with people questioning these leaders and starting to see through their thinly disguised motives.

The important observation however, is that a large percentage of people didn't get sucked into the whole hype at all. Those people, mostly young, who had successfully broken from the tribal politics of their parents, who had mixed in the new social climate with those of opposite religion and. because of these experiences, realised that their "protectors'' had been conning them. The swelling ranks of the disillusioned are seeking other answers to those offered by generations past. Their social adventure has allowed them to consider adventurous political answers — if nothing else they are now asking the correct questions. To them the answers are not found in the Paramilitaries, Unionist or Nationalist Parties, all of whom are finding it difficult to recruit.

This is proving to be a crucial factor for Northern Irish politics. Not only does it mean that the traditional political and religious divides have become exposed, it also means that growing numbers are considering rational political alternatives. For that reason the World Socialist Party in Ireland is experiencing an unparalleled level of interest and even finding it difficult to meet the demand for our paper, The Socialist View.
Brian Montague,

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