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Northern Ireland: Back to power-sharing

What thirty years of death and destruction in Northern Ireland brought?

It was a great day at Stormont. The great and the good from many countries were there including the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. Centre stage, of course, were Ian Paisley, yesterday’s ‘Never-Never’ man, now grinning like death in the apocalypse, and Martin McGuinness, yesterday’s IRA commander, expensively tailored and replete with effusive grin.

The event was generally acknowledged to be the formal end of Northern Ireland’s infamous thirty years of internecine warfare in which nearly 4,000 people were killed and some 60/70,000 injured.

Doubtless the fare was rich and the guests ate heartily. Paisley, Adams and their followers especially may have baulked somewhat at the political menu and the public exhibition of having to eat their words – admittedly, generously marinated in personal emoluments well beyond their past dreams of fulfilment. They could all be well satisfied with the price they got for their bloodthirsty ‘principles’.

Among the less great, the voting fodder who were afforded the democratic privilege of watching the circus on television, there was cynicism and utter disbelief but undoubtedly the overwhelming majority of the people of the province looked on the spectacle with differing measures of relief. If this collection of provocateurs and proxy killers was to be endured for peace – or what passes for peace in capitalist society – they would put up with it. The more thoughtful would have scratched comfort from the realisation that its not very different elsewhere.

Who better to end conflict than those who had created it? It was the First Minister in this new legislature, Ian Paisley, then a clergyman in a church of his own invention and busily engaged translating biblical inanities into mantras of political hatred, who was the principal architect of conflict for the last forty-five years.

If he had reason to hate the traditional IRA it might have been because they had publicly renounced armed struggle in 1962, thus threatening the political fabric of an Orange hegemony which was based on the threat of the IRA. Paisley’s religion and its associated politics were nourished by hatred of catholic nationalism and official Unionism’s updated response to the new political climate harboured the promise of a peace that would leave Paisleyism – the brand of bigotry that bore his name – redundant.

Ironically, Paisley’s anger at the threat of peace was shared by those republicans who abandoned the new pragmatic IRA; effectively, those on the catholic republican side who mirrored the hate politics of Paisley and his cohorts.

First killings

When the first shots and explosions in the Northern Ireland conflict occurred the Provisional IRA did not exist. On the 27 May 1966 a three-man gang of protestant paramilitaries went into the catholic Falls Road area with the intention of assassinating a well-known republican. They missed their target but they availed of the opportunity to shoot and kill a drunken catholic called John Scullion.

The circumstances of the second killing demonstrates that, despite Paisley’s bigoted ranting, inter-denomination movement in the Belfast ghetto districts had not yet reached crisis point. At 2 a.m. on Sunday 26 June 1966 four young catholics felt safe enough to go for an after-hours drink in a hard-line protestant area when they were attacked by loyalist killers; three were shot, one fatally. Later the police arrested and charged three members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

Thereafter politico-religious zealots, some directly associated with Paisley, carried out explosions at four reservoirs serving Belfast and a member of Paisley’s religious sect was killed by his own bomb while attempting to blow up an electricity generating station in Ballyshannon, in the Republic of Ireland. Paisley’s close associate and fellow director of the Puritan Printing Company – who, incidentally, stood as a Protestant Action candidate against the World Socialist Party in the late 50s – was convicted on explosives charges.

By now the touch-paper of violence had been well and truly lit. The Unionist Prime Minister at the time, the condescending Captain Terence O’Neill, and several subsequent Unionist Prime Ministers tried to take the heat out of the situation with puny reforms limited by the spectre of a bellowing Paisley demanding their political heads for ‘selling out the protestant people’ but the mass torching of homes had become a grim nightly diversion of the lumpen proletariat on both ‘sides’ . The sectarian police force was overwhelmed and the British Labour government, that had allowed the pot to boil over the years, sent in the army.

Another terror element

This was the period of the so-called Cold War and in the higher echelons of the British army there were those who adhered to the ‘Eastern School’ of military strategists. Their thesis was based on the notion that the balance of terror represented by nuclear warfare made conflict between the two major power blocs improbable. Instead, ‘the enemy’ would make war by proxy, exploiting areas of local conflict and potential conflict.

The main protagonist of this doctrine was Brigadier Frank Kitson, then a senior officer serving with the British forces in Northern Ireland and responsible for key elements of army strategy. Kitson had served in Aden where the practice of army sponsored gang-and-counter-gang operations had been operated unsuccessfully against the two opposing nationalist forces fighting the British there. The evidence of collusion in sectarian killings levelled against the army over the years in Northern Ireland are consistent with the working of such a policy.

The entry of the British army brought another element of terror into the Northern Ireland conflict. Not only was the army bereft of any ultimate political objective, it was heavily influenced by some officers who perceived a local conflict in absurdly wider terms, and, despite the evidence of then current happenings, its intelligence base was that of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), a notoriously anti-nationalist paramilitary police force.

The IRA (later called the Official IRA), wanted no part in a sectarian war and to its credit initially refused to release weapons to its Belfast and Derry members to use against protestant workers who were loyalists. In the wings a small group of republicans were endeavouring to create a movement that would offer armed resistance to loyalists. Their efforts were sustained by the bigoted posturing and naked aggression of Paisley, the partiality of the RUC, and the crass stupidity of the military strategists.

In July 1970 the army put a ring of steel around part of a nationalist area in west Belfast, declared a curfew, brutally confined people to their homes and killed four civilians. The curfew lasted over the week-end during which houses were systematically searched . On the Monday the media showed the destruction the troops had wrought. That destruction could be said to be the birth pangs of the Provisional IRA; the republican sectarians now had an army and a surfeit of recruits.

It would be naive to believe that the reckless move on the part of the army – a move which could only give emotional muscle to those promoting a return to militant republicanism – was an act of military stupidity, but in the background there were events which explain why the London government, which, as always, were the puppet masters of the generals, permitted the move.

The previous month had seen the return of the Tories – the Conservative and Unionist Party to power in Britain. This gave the Ulster Unionists – the Tories’ political cousins – a more sympathetic ear at Westminster and in Northern Ireland the Ulster Unionist Prime Minister, James Chichester Clarke, was in serious trouble and inevitably Ian Paisley was prominent among those creating that trouble.

Go, so I can take your place

Paisley had led a strident crusade against Clarke’s predecessor, Terence O’Neill, because O’Neill had shown a willingness to remove some of the notoriously undemocratic practices used to consolidate Unionist political hegemony; practices which affected the working class in general but which catholic nationalist leaders nourished as purely anti-catholic grievances.

Paisley had raised the slogan ‘O’Neill Must Go!’ and it found sufficient response among the backwoodsmen of the Unionist Party to force O’Neill’s resignation. Now his slogan was ‘Clarke Must Go!’ The legend for Clarke’s proposed exit was because the writ of the sectarian Unionist Party did not run in some nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry. Again, Paisley’s activities were causing tremors within the Unionist Party whose Standing Committee was summoned to debate Clarke’s fate. Five days before that debate was scheduled to take place the army carried out its ruthless attack temporarily removing the sting from the Paisley threat.

Others who took on the Prime Ministerial role and later the role of First Minister had to ‘Go! before the present incumbent – Paisley – got the job.

By now, of course, the Provisional IRA’s murder campaign was in full swing endorsed by the notion that they were fighting a war to drive out the Brits but inexorably they were drawn into tit-for-tat sectarian killing. Additionally, they murdered catholics and protestants in any way tenuously associated with the British administration – numerous in an economy where public money underwrote some 60 percent of all jobs. Especially ruthless and cowardly, the Provisionals forced non-combatants to fight their dirty war by forcing them by threat to themselves or their families to deliver bombs to determined targets.

The IRA and the protestant paramilitary gangs as well as the duplicitous ‘security’ forces were killing people with military ordinance. Paisley brought death and disorder by threats and phantom battalions of red-bereted ‘defenders’ and midnight squadrons of men waving their government-issued firearms certificates.

Now Paisley’s DUP and the IRA’s Sinn Fein are together in government. Sane people can only hope that the electorate put them there because it was the despicable price that had to be paid for peace – for the game was always about power – even in Mother Erin’s British-subsidised Fourth Green Field.

Ironically, Paisley’s antics over the last 40 years have done more to emaciate Unionism’s power base than the IRA; conversely, Sinn Fein is now an integral part of the political structures its murder campaign was supposed to destroy.

It is reasonable to ask what the working class got in return for its suffering, for the victims – the killed and the killers, the mentally and physically maimed, the prisoners – were, as always, overwhelmingly of the working class. The media clarions our reward; we are going to get peace, we are told. The agencies that were making war have gone into partnership - showing once again that peace and war emanate from the same source.

Meanwhile real power will not reside in Stormont, or London, or Dublin. It will reside in the cheque books of the billionaires and the multinational consortiums whose profit considerations will decide the priorities. Ultimately it is their writ that determines how we live in latter-day capitalism – even, indeed, if we live.

RICHARD MONTAGUE