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The shadow of the bigot

Capitalist normality could have come to Northern Ireland forty years ago, but religion and politics combined to put the clock back

In 1956 the IRA of the time, under pressure from a competitor terrorist group in Ulster, were prematurely pushed into inaugurating a ‘Border’ campaign. The name defined the strategy: volunteers, largely from the south but augmented by others from traditional heartlands of northern republicanism, would confine their campaign to attacks within the general vicinity of the Border. Belfast, especially, was to be avoided lest the touch paper of inter-religious violence should be ignited.

The first IRA operation was a raid for arms on the British army barracks in Armagh. It was well-planned and brilliantly executed and on a Saturday afternoon, while soldiers carried out their duties in a relaxed mood, the IRA moved stealthily among them loading military ordinance onto trucks. Not a sound was heard and certainly not a funeral note, for the raiders were away with their booty before an embarrassed military establishment raised the alarm.

It looked as though this undoubted success had exhausted the strategic genius of the IRA. A similar move against a military barracks in Omagh several weeks later ended in a fire fight in which several of the raiders were captured. After that it was all down-hill and after a while abortive attacks on well-protected police stations gave way to chopping down telegraph poles and issuing grandiose communiqués.

It was, from an IRA standpoint, a pathetic period of military attrition that ended in a spectacular statement from them in 1962. The statement was effectively one of surrender to the  political realities of the time. The IRA castigated the Catholic nationalists of Northern Ireland for denying them any meaningful support and angrily accused them of ‘selling their heritage for a mess of pottage’ – a reference to the social welfare package introduced by the UK government and, ironically, legislatively imposed on the Unionist government of Northern Ireland.

That event, that statement which should have had extraordinarily significant implications for all the people of the North, and especially so in the light of subsequent events, has been expunged from history by the opposing political interests in Ireland, north and south, because all those interests were complicit in the events that followed. Significantly, the IRA statement did not say it was abandoning the political struggle; it said it was giving up armed struggle and would henceforth pursue a constitutional struggle for the achievement of civil rights and an ending of religious discrimination.

There had not been any significant sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland since 1935. Demand for the implements of war between 1939 and 1946 had brought relative prosperity to shipbuilding, aircraft and engineering produce and largely removed the sore of job discrimination during those years. With growing unemployment religious discrimination was returning but its effects were being mollified to some extent by the new social welfare legislation. The traditional sectarian ghettoes were fraying at the edges as people of different religions moved cautiously into one another’s areas. Bigotry had receded somewhat as a player in politics and now with the gun out of the way there seemed hope that politics would normalise into the usual phoney squabble over the inadequacies of capitalism.

But in offering peace the IRA had thrown a bomb into politics both north and south of the infamous Border. When the republicans inaugurated their political strategy with the unveiling of constitutional Republican Clubs, William Craig, the unstable Unionist Minister of Home Affairs, responded with a banning order. This was open to being used as a justification of new IRA violence, in replacement for the absurd notion that the “right” of armed struggle was bequeathed to the IRA by the results of a questionable election in 1918.

In the north a political lout in a dog collar, energised by inherited bigotry and a bad strain of megalomania, was about to create opportunities for the promotion of violence in protestant heartlands and spawn and motivate the utterly violent Provisional IRA. Ian Paisley was becoming a politician through the back door.

In the south, too, the IRA’s declaration of peace was giving yesterday’s republicans now aboard the establishment gravy train some concerns. It was common knowledge that ‘Communists’ of the Leninist genre had edged their way into the leadership of the IRA and Sinn Fein and it was this influence that had brought closure to the faltering armed struggle.

Among church and state leaders, victims of their own fevered ignorance, the comfortable corruption of capitalism could conceivably come under threat. From some remarkable sources, in politics and industry, faith and self-interest combined to conjure up another IRA to counter the influence of the Leninist-dominated one.

From the south the help was practical while in the north Paisley and his political ilk were fabricating conditions favourable to the emergence and rapid growth of the new Provisional IRA.

The banned Republican Clubs were not alone in creating the movement for civil rights in Northern Ireland but they probably were the main promotional engine. Labourites, Communists, trade unionists, even unionists as well as people of different religions and none took aboard the methods and the anthem of the American Civil Rights movement to demand the extension of the democratic franchise to all adults in local government elections together with a points system for the allocation of social housing and an end to gerrymandering of electoral boundaries.

Such democratic proposals were anathema to the man who is now the leader of the so-called Democratic Unionist Party and prospective first minister. Paisley articulated the gutter thinking of politico-religious unionism.

The Provisionals went into the murder business, responding with gun and bomb to the demagoguery of Paisley and his bigoted cohorts. Catholic-nationalist bigotry was feeding on that of its opposite number and putting flesh on the body of that republican interest that wanted to dish the ‘commies’ of the old IRA and get back to the form of politics they knew best. It was a grim, irrational reciprocity that over the years spread like a political malaise in Northern Ireland and, as we saw from the recent election results, finally affected even those of a less unwholesome political disposition.

Is there a Hegelian irony in these recent election results? Will power and political reward sate the ambitions of those at the forefront of Northern Ireland’s infamous ‘antithesis’? Will the fear-inspired electoral capture of the less bigoted weaken the bigotry of the two extremes? Will the threats, bribery and unmitigated corruption of the British and Irish governments combine with these factors to create an uneasy peaceful synthesis? If so, will it last?

We shall see, but one thing we can predict with absolute confidence: even the peculiar nexus of Sinn Fein and the ‘Democratic’ Unionist Party combined in a government based on clearly-defined sectarian lines will have less effect on conditions in Northern Ireland than the workings of global capitalism.  

RICHARD MONTAGUE