When I was a child Northern Ireland was rarely off the front pages. That has changed, and thank God for that. Back in the ’90s, I did not expect the peace process to work. This just papers things over, I thought; it has done nothing to solve the fact that the two sides want incompatible things. But the years have gone by and that layer of paper appears to be holding up the whole house.
Why? I am happy it worked, but why has it worked?
Maybe the two sides stopped wanting incompatible things. Or to be accurate, one of them stopped caring so much and the other almost stopped caring at all. In 2011 I saw a few scattered reports about this survey that said 52% of Northern Irish Catholics in the sample wanted to remain in the UK. Given all the blood and ink spilled about that question the reaction to this was curiously muted. Sinn Fein, its raison d’être gone, continued to do pretty well in elections to the NI Assembly, local elections and EU elections.
Today’s Observer has another such story, equally little regarded. Malachi O’Doherty and his subeditor have done their best. They gave it a dramatic headline: “The nationalist identity crisis that could change Northern Ireland for ever”. Yet at time of writing it has a grand total of 54 comments while the umpteenth opinion piece in which a Labour guy with some connection to reality laments the unelectability of Corbyn has 3,882.
Yet Mr O’Doherty’s story records a development that no one would have dared predict twenty years ago:
The easy assumption about politics in Northern Ireland is that it is a contest between two ideas of sovereignty. Unionists see the place as British; nationalists see it as Irish. And the Good Friday Agreement, in effect the constitution – according, as it does, sovereignty rights to each – is the best interim solution to the old quarrel.
This election has signalled a change in the old model of two mirror-image communities at odds with each other
But one of these two blocks is not sticking to the old template. Nationalism – if we can even call it that any more – is diversifying. And the strongest evidence of that is the fact that in the assembly elections Sinn Féin has taken its first reversal in its traditional heartlands of Derry and West Belfast. The party was outflanked on the left by People Before Profit, an anti-austerity party that has also put economic policy before ending partition.
Not just on the left,
And Sinn Féin wasn’t the only nationalist party to suffer. The SDLP lost seats in both cities, too – and one of those, held by Fearghal McKinney, was fought over the question of whether abortion should be legalised. McKinney had allowed himself to be photographed beside strident anti-abortion campaigners – and paid for it.
The issue had risen to unexpected relevance with the prosecution of a young woman who had self-administered abortion pills. Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP are now caught in a dilemma over this issue and stand to lose voters whichever way they move. They can placate the conservative Catholics by holding fast to “pro-life” positions and lose the newly secular liberals; or they can go with them, as the Green party did to its advantage, and lose the religious.
Yet even among conservative Catholics who do want a united Ireland, some have put their moral causes before the constitutional question. In East Derry last week, a group of conservative Catholics campaigned for the DUP as the party most likely to resist abortion reform and the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
I am not trying to get anyone to cheer for the unionist or the nationalist side, just observing that a significant change has quietly taken place.
Farewell the plumèd troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! Oh, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove’s dead clamors counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.
Did the rebels intend to take power in Ireland by force of arms, or was the entire exercise a form of sacrifice in which a small group of idealists offered themselves up to inspire a larger number? “What happened on Easter Monday in Dublin is open to interpretation,” writes Tóibín. “As a military event, it makes almost no sense. Taking St Stephen’s Green, rather than Dublin Castle, suggests poor planning and lack of strategic thinking.” Indeed. Instead of capturing the city’s arsenal or barracks, the rebels occupied a post office, a bakery and a public park. This was revolution as performance art.
– Eamonn Fitzgerald
Thirteen members of a Loyalist marching band, the Young Conway Volunteers, have had their criminal convictions for ‘doing a provocative act likely to cause public disorder or a breach of the peace‘ quashed after the Public Prosecutor agreed not to oppose their appeals.
The non-offence occurred after the marching band found themselves marching in a circle outside St Patrick’s Church (Catholic) in north Belfast, whilst playing (allegedly aggravated by hostility) a tune alleged to have been ‘the Famine Song’ with the presumably catchy refrain ‘The famine’s over, why don’t you go home?‘, but what they said was the Beach Boys ‘Sloop John B‘ (reportedly an easy mistake to make, the basic tune is widely used). How this was proved at the original trial when they presumably were playing a tune on instruments and not singing was not made clear.
Although now acquitted, the band members agreed to be bound over to keep the peace for 2 years (not a conviction but a promise of good behaviour, breach of which could lead to a 7 day jail term).
Whilst this acquittal in the face of ‘hate legislation’ is certainly a good thing for liberty, I note the apologetic tone of the response of the Orange Lodge, which presumably has some connection to the band:
In a statement, The County Grand Orange Lodge of Belfast welcomed the successful appeal.
“We are glad that justice has finally been achieved for these band members who had been wrongly vilified by the media and nationalism,” it said.
“There never was an intent to cause offence.”
One might ask what on Earth were they marching for if not to ‘cause offence‘ (in the subjective sense) on 12th July by their celebration of the lifting of the siege of Londonderry? To say that there was ‘no intent to cause offence‘ appears to concede that offence was caused, rather than taken or even perhaps rejoiced in as an opportunity to throw the legal machinery of the State at the band.
Why not say that this legislation is oppressive, tyrannical and makes the law itself a politicised weapon, a sword, not a shield?
To me as an Englishman, the whole shebang seems utterly alien, the intolerance and fanaticism on both poles of the Ulster divide mark them as having more in common with each other than with insipid, fundamentally apolitical England. Whether or not that is a good thing for Northern Ireland, or for England, may in the long run be another matter.
The new Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has apologised for his 2003 remark that “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table.”
In the Daily Mirror, ‘Fleet Street Fox’ pours scorn on McDonnell’s apology, particularly on McDonnell’s claim that he only said these things in order to shore up the then-faltering peace process in Northern Ireland. (The title quote about the peace process comes from further comments he made in an effort to smooth over the controversy caused by his earlier remarks.) To praise the efficacy of “bombs and bullets” seems an odd way of waging peace, but when you are a man with McDonnell’s hitherto unsuspected influence on negotiations in which he played no part, perhaps an appearance of oddity is merely the equivalent of Clark Kent’s dorky glasses. There is a Twitter hashtag #McDonnellFacts recording Shadowchancellorman’s other thrilling deeds, all made under cover of his alternate identity as a mild-mannered fringe politician.
Me, I just admire the sheer anti-gravitic effrontery of the quote that makes the title of this post. In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten defined chutzpah as “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan”.
What you will notice is that it is all presented in terms of social conservatives and social liberals. It is about the competing rights of members of religious communities and members of sexual communities. And, depressingly, there isn’t a single even slightly libertarian voice in the debate. Everyone that speaks is (if I may use the word) a statist.
My own theory is that the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland that started in the late 1960s have less to do with religion, or even national identity, than they have to do with Northern Ireland’s endemic statism, or, to be precise, with the fact that pretty well everyone in Northern Ireland believes strongly in coercion and in the duty of the state to coerce people into doing what they believe is right – be it banning sex between two blokes, banning people paying for sex, banning people from discriminating against prods, papists or gays, and forcing people to pay for state education and healthcare.
– John Mann, commenting here on Samizdata.
Sex worker to launch legal challenge against NI prostitution ban
A sex worker is using European human rights legislation to try to overturn a new law in Northern Ireland that makes it illegal to pay for prostitutes.
Dublin-born law graduate Laura Lee is launching an unprecedented legal challenge that could go all the way to Strasbourg, against a human trafficking bill which includes banning the payment for sex among consenting adults.
The region is the only part of the UK where people can be convicted of paying for sex. The law, which was championed by Democratic Unionist peer and Stormont assembly member Lord Morrow, comes into effect on 1 June.
Lee said she will fund the case partly via crowdfunding on social media networks and from sex worker campaign groups across the world.
Lee, an Irish psychology graduate whose range of services include S&M and bondage, said she was also taking the legal challenge to thwart an attempt to introduce a similar law criminalising the consumers of sex in the Irish Republic.
An alliance of radical feminist groups and a number of nuns from Catholic religious orders are lobbying southern Irish political parties to pass a Nordic-style law outlawing the purchase of sex.
I have no stupid puns to make. This legal case is an important challenge to intolerable state intrusion. I wish Ms Lee the best of luck.
The Times 20 June 1914 p8
Now you might think that a headline like that (from 20 June 1914) would be prescient. But no. They are not referring to the prospect of a world war but to the prospect of civil war in Ireland.
It is an issue that has been dominating the pages of The Times for the last two years. In that time the debate had not moved on an inch. It can’t because the aims of nationalists and unionists are fundamentally incompatible.
For our ancestors the prospect of a world war exists but there are no obvious crises at the moment and anyway all those that have threatened to blow up have been diffused pretty quickly.
The centenary of the Curragh Incident (or Curragh Mutiny as it sometimes known) took place a couple of months ago. I had been expecting to see a fair amount of comment on what was a fairly dramatic event but so far not a dicky bird. That is not to say that there hasn’t been any comment, just that I haven’t seen it. Assuming there hasn’t been any, perhaps, belatedly, it is about time I got the ball rolling.
Since 1910 the British Government had been attempting to grant devolution, or Home Rule as it was then known, to Ireland. Ulster and the Conservative Party (or Unionists as they were then known) objected. Some 500,000 of Ulster’s British population signed a covenant stating that they would resist it. When this failed to impress the government the Ulstermen established their own army, the Ulster Volunteer Force – not to be confused with more modern creations bearing the same name – and even set up a provisional government, just in case.
The government, at first thought the Ulstermen were bluffing. But by early 1914 they had realised they weren’t and that they were going to have to call in the military. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty sailed a cruiser into Belfast Lough. At the same time orders were issued to the British garrison at the Curragh in Southern Ireland at which point the officers resigned their commissions, or to put it another way, walked out. This, incidentally, was something they were perfectly entitled to do.
The government backed down while denying that they had done any such thing. The officers returned to their posts but the Secretary of State for War did not. One assumes that this meant the end of government plans to “coerce” Ulster but seeing as the First World War broke out at the precise moment things were coming to a head, we shall never know.
The Times 14 March 1914, p9
My guess is that the mutineers were right. Indeed I suspect that had their successors taken a similar stance in 1969 we would have saved ourselves a whole lot of trouble. But that’s another story.
An independent Ireland – an interesting idea, so when are they leaving the E.U. then?
Surely rule from Brussels is no more “independence” than rule from London.
– Paul Marks
In an ideal world we wouldn’t have states. But we don’t live in an ideal world and so we do have states and the borders that exist between them.
In the run up to the First World War state power was on the rise. For reasons I don’t entirely understand but I suspect are related, nationalist movements were springing up all over the world. Irish nationalism was one of them.
In 1912 the British government, which was dependent on Irish nationalist support began its third attempt to grant Home Rule to Ireland. This would have given Ireland a similar status to the one Scotland enjoys today – autonomy but not independence. Unionists objected.
On 1 January 1913 Edward Carson, the leader of Irish unionism, moved an amendment to exclude Ulster. This can’t have been easy for a man who as MP for Dublin University represented a non-Ulster constituency. It is significant because it marks the moment when Unionists accepted that Home Rule in some form was going to happen. What they were trying to do was to salvage something – as they would have seen it – from the wreckage.
The Times of 2 January 1913 explained the situation:
Ireland is a geographical expression. Statesmen have to deal with things as they are, not with the names of things, if they wish their work to stand. Politically, socially, and economically there are two distinct communities inside the geographical area we call Ireland. These two are not merely different, but sharply opposed in their ways, their ideals, their character, and their material conditions.
This is something that was recently echoed by Ruth Dudley-Edwards:
As a Dubliner from Catholic, nationalist stock (albeit by then an atheist), the biggest problem I faced when I began to cover Northern Ireland as a journalist two decades ago was that I couldn’t understand the thought-processes of most Protestant unionists. It took me a while to grasp that one of the biggest differences between the two tribes is that Catholics are naturally hierarchical, and Protestants aren’t.
John Redmond (leader of the nationalists) thought exclusion was absurd.
The proposal for the exclusion of the four counties of Ulster had some characteristics which enabled men to use more or less plausible arguments in its favour. But, if they were to give Unionist representation to these four counties, why not also give representation to the Nationalist minorities in Belfast?
Frankly I rather wish he’d been taken up on his suggestion. But anyway, the disturbing part is that he didn’t accept Ulster’s exclusion. Why not? Was it really so difficult to accept that there are two nations in Ireland and still are? Was it really so difficult to accept that if the Irish had a right to independence from Britain then the Ulster British had a right to independence from Ireland? Had Redmond accepted it he would have saved us all a lot of trouble. There would have been no Rising in 1916, no martyrs, no IRA campaign and no subsequent myth that the IRA were responsible for Ireland’s independence.
So, why the resistance to Ulster’s exclusion? Money may have been a factor. Then, as now, Ulster was much richer than the rest of the island. Revenge may have been another. This would have been revenge for lands nationalists felt they had lost three hundred years previously, although one dreads to think quite what form this revenge might have taken.
One of the baffling aspects of what was going on was the utter refusal of the British government to take note of the strength of opinion in Ulster. Half a million people signed the Ulster Covenant committing themselves to resisting Home Rule. The following 18 months would see large-scale gun-running, the foundation of an Ulster militia and an army “mutiny”.
Bringing this all up to date a recent poll suggested that only 7% of Northern Ireland’s population want unification with the Republic immediately and only 32% in 20 years’ time. It does rather beg the question why 45% or so vote for explicitly nationalist parties.
By the way I couldn’t help noticing that this historic parliamentary debate took place on New Year’s Day. In 2013, the politicians didn’t turn up until the 7th.
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.
The IMF auditors have arrived in Dublin. What should Ireland do now?