It has emerged that the Provisional IRA, rather than its deniable offshoot the South Armagh Republican Action Force, was responsible for the 1976 Kingsmills Massacre. If you do not know about that event, the grim story is here.
On 5 January 1976, the 10 textile workers were travelling home from work in the dark and rain on a minibus in the heart of rural County Armagh.
A man asked their religions. There was only one Catholic left on the bus. He was identified and ordered away from his Protestant work mates. He was able to run off.
The lead gunman spoke one other word – “Right” – and the shooting began.
Mr Black was the only one to survive.
It seems almost indecent to let such an event be the starting point for a more general line of thought, but that is the way the mind works sometimes.
I had remembered the Kingsmills massacre. The last question put to the men and the awful choice of what to answer when you did not know whether the terrorists asking were Loyalist or Republican had stuck in my mind. Today I have advanced a little further in knowledge: I now know that analysis of the guns used confirms that it most likely was the IRA after all. The thing is, though, that my level of knowledge, which I tend to think of as average, is actually way above average. I have known for three decades that this massacre occurred. I knew that a few days previously five Catholics had been murdered and that the Kingsmills massacre was carried out in reprisal for this. And here’s the point, I know that there are Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Republicans and Loyalists, and could give you a basic account of which side is which and how that situation came to be.
My own background is Irish Catholic. My family loathed the IRA. So I grew up paying a slightly above average amount of attention to Northern Ireland and I noticed over the years that plenty of people in the world literally did not know that there were any Protestants there. These people thought that that it was a case of “the English” occupying Ireland. Partisans on the Republican side also spoke thus, but selective rather than complete ignorance was their problem, as it was for partisans on the Loyalist side. The way in which those soaked in the history of a conflict can blank out the other side and talk of “the people” when they mean “our people” is tragic but a quite different phenomenon from that of ordinarily well educated members of society who simply have no idea – but not, alas, no opinion.
I have explained the existence of a Protestant population in bad French and worse Italian. I remember reading of angry editorials in American newspapers of thirty years ago that appeared to be unaware that the Republic of Ireland was an independent state. Colonel Gaddafi of Libya – now there’s a name from the past, wonder what happened to him? – at one time was visited by a delegation of Protestant paramilitaries who convinced him that this was not a straightforward anti-Imperialist struggle and got him to cease sending arms to the IRA.
I think a few of the commenters to this article still literally do not know of the existence of the Protestant population. If they do know of it, they ain’t showing it.
The ignorance that is rational for individuals can do great harm.
What are your experiences of spectacular historical ignorance? What effect does that ignorance have? To count, examples should not be the ignorance of the illiterate and semi-literate. There are millions on Earth who do not know the world is round. That is sad but not interesting. What is sad but interesting is the state of those for whom some basic historical fact is an “unknown unknown”, to use Rumsfeld’s formulation.
On second thoughts, why confine ourselves to history? A Scottish friend of mine relates that some of people she talks to in her part of the world literally think that the financial crisis of 2008 arose because bankers took “all the money” for bonuses. They think the government could get all the money back and make everything OK again, had it but the willpower. Discussing the matter, she modified that slightly, and said that if these friends and acquaintances were ever to articulate the idea I have just described they would probably see that it could not be correct, but they never have articulated it. This is in a Labour-voting but by no means deprived area near Glasgow, but I would not bet on the proportion of people thinking thus in my Tory part of Essex being much different, for all that ‘banksters’ keep the local economy going.
These holes in peoples’ knowledge will have their effect in the end. One could call it trickle-up ignorance.