Monday, 20 January 2014

Oh East is East, and West is West

I listened the other day to an interview of Jamie Bryson, leading flegger shit-stirrer flag protester and putative European election candidate (that'll be a laugh).  Now wee Jamie is not exactly famous for his joined-up thinking (in fact there are probably those who would be pleasantly surprised if he has managed joined-up writing), but there was a section of the interview that got me thinking.

Jamie was asked to imagine a world where he was First Minister of Northern Ireland, and asked whether he would share government with Sinn Féin.  Unsurprisingly he immediately ruled it out; the interviewer (David McCann) pressed him if he would share government with parties linked to loyalist paramilitaries.  Here is Jamie's response:
Personally I believe that the IRA were terrorists who set out to destroy this country. Now if the British government had allowed the UDR, RUC and the British army to take on the IRA as they wanted to…there would never have been a need for the likes of the UVF. Unfortunately the British government did not let the good men of the UDR, RUC and the British army take on the IRA, so that is why Loyalist paramilitaries came into being.
David McCann then pointed out to Jamie that the UVF was formed in 1966 (partly in response to rising tensions surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising), three years before the Provisional IRA came into existence in response to the Official IRA's failure to protect Catholic families and homes from loyalist mobs during rioting in Belfast in the summer of 1969 (1500 Catholics were forced from their homes), and from the predations of the RUC and the 'B' Specials (Ulster Special Constabulary) - the quasi-military, and almost exclusively Protestant, reserve police force of the RUC.  (I'm not trying to engage in what John Hume used to call 'whataboutery' here, just providing context for those who may not be familiar).  The depressing chronicle below provides ample context.

In response to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement (whose grievances even Ian Paisley has recently admitted were well-founded) and the general election victory of Terence O'Neill in the 1969 Northern Ireland general election, whose platform was one of reform to make Northern Ireland a fairer place for Catholics, the UVF launched a short-lived bombing campaign designed to look like the work of the Official IRA who had mounted a disastrous 'Border Campaign' in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in order to undermine O'Neill's position.  They also bombed RTÉ's television studios in Dublin in October 1969, and although the list above attributes the murder of RUC Constable Victor Arbuckle (the first policeman to be killed during 'The Troubles') to a 'non-specific loyalist group', it is widely accepted that he died at the hands of the UVF.

Which brings us back then to Jamie Bryson (screengrab from the Loyalists Against Democracy blog).

Now, that a sophisticated political mind like Jamie's could produce such tortured logic is not a huge surprise, and it is obviously unrepresentative of broader unionist thinking.  But to me it strikes at a great unspoken feature of the divide between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland: many Protestant/Unionists are disappointed in their Catholic neighbours for voting for Sinn Féin.  Those who voted for the Good Friday Agreement (which many believe was a minority of Northern Ireland's Protestants) expected mainly to be sharing power with the SDLP.  Those who voted against it are even more disgusted to see 'terrorists' sitting in government, sharing the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister, and cannot understand why Catholics would "reward terrorism" in this way (of course, Sinn Féin's support only started to surge after the IRA's ceasefire, but that is a fact lost on those who choose not to see it).

 And this takes us back to what is for me the biggest elephant in the room: divergent historical views between Catholics and Protestants on how Northern Ireland came into existence.  2012 saw the biggest march in Northern Ireland's history to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, which in unionist historiography is the defining moment that 'saved' 'Ulster' from being subjugated to a Catholic-dominated parliament in Dublin.

Shortly thereafter, the Ulster Volunteers were formed, a militia designed to uphold the Covenant through force of arms if necessary.  For Ulster unionism, this is a glorious moment, that secured its place within the United Kingdom (a massive simplification of what happened over the next decade, but you'll excuse me for that).

In the minds of Catholics/Irish nationalists, however, the creation of Northern Ireland, under the circumstances outlined above, represents the capitulation of the British government in the face of the threat of violence from Ulster Protestants, defying the will of the British parliament (in which British sovereignty resides) and the will of the Irish people, expressed democratically at the ballot box in election after election (parts of Ulster and Dublin aside).  

For them, the rank hypocrisy of Unionists in lauding their heroes such as Edward Carson and James Craig sticks in the throat, particularly given that those who most loudly condemned republican terrorism in defence of democracy are the same people who are most devoted to the preservation of Northern Ireland and the veneration of those who created it (which is to say nothing about the flirtation of modern unionism and its leaders - Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson, David Trimble, Bill Craig etc. -  with a succession of shady paramilitary groups, or the willingness of Unionist politicians to share the stage with loyalist paramilitaries: most famously the 'Rev.' William McCrea and Billy 'King Rat' Wright, but also more recently Nigel Dodds and 'Winkie' Irvine, Belfast UVF commander).

Nigel Dodds MP for North Belfast (r) and Winkie Irvine (l).

Billy Wright, thought to have murdered 20 Catholics, and Willy McCrea, DUP MP for South Antrim.

Yet this, in my experience, is something that is very rarely spoken about publicly in Northern Ireland, partly because it does indeed smack of the worst sort of 'whataboutery'.  But the foundational circumstances that surround the creation of Northern Ireland are more than just 'whataboutery', because they shape and mould the historical understanding of what Northern Ireland is, how it came into being, and ultimately its legitimacy.

The saying goes that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but in my experience that is something that Ulster Protestant Unionism, taking the high moral ground, has rejected: terrorism is terrorism it charges.  But just because your threat of political violence paid off without you having had to follow through on it, does it really put you on a higher moral plane?

The dark eleventh hour
Draws on and sees us sold
To every evil power
We fought against of old.
Rebellion, rapine hate
Oppression, wrong and greed
Are loosed to rule our fate,
By England's act and deed.

The Faith in which we stand,
The laws we made and guard,
Our honour, lives, and land
Are given for reward
To Murder done by night,
To Treason taught by day,
To folly, sloth, and spite,
And we are thrust away.

The blood our fathers spilt,
Our love, our toils, our pains,
Are counted us for guilt,
And only bind our chains.
Before an Empire's eyes
The traitor claims his price.
What need of further lies?
We are the sacrifice.

We asked no more than leave
To reap where we had sown,
Through good and ill to cleave
To our own flag and throne.
Now England's shot and steel
Beneath that flag must show
How loyal hearts should kneel
To England's oldest foe.

We know the war prepared
On every peaceful home,
We know the hells declared
For such as serve not Rome --
The terror, threats, and dread
In market, hearth, and field --
We know, when all is said,
We perish if we yield.

Believe, we dare not boast,
Believe, we do not fear --
We stand to pay the cost
In all that men hold dear.
What answer from the North?
One Law, one Land, one Throne.
If England drive us forth
We shall not fall alone! not fall alone!

Ulster, by Rudyard Kipling (1912) 


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