Anyone with connections to the island of Ireland could not help but be moved by today’s events which saw the unthinkable happen, Sinn Fein and the DUP entering Government together.
Coleraine, November 1986 and I found myself observing at close quarters the Paisley effect as he and Peter Robinson spoke at a rally in the Diamond held to mark the first anniversary of the hated Anglo- Irish Agreement, which was perceived as a huge sell out by the Unionist Community, and the first step on the road to a United Ireland imposed from London.
The truth was far from that, but I witnessed a people fearful of change and bewildered by events. On the one hand under attack from the IRA, and now feeling the British Government were about to pull the plug.
The War was about to stretch into it’s third decade, but during my time in Ulster it seemed that the thirst for mindless atrocity after atrocity would never be sated.
When I first lived in the North, I was shocked by the sheer amount of Operational activity by all sides in the conflict. Bombings and shootings took place every single day of the year, the vast majority causing no injury, let alone death but they were concentrated in certain areas, and if you could avoid the news and existed in the neutral parts, life went on as normal.
But it is far from normal Society, as I soon discovered when I started mixing with people. There is always a certain thing going on. It’s nebulous and hard to describe but it was there when you talk to new people. I had it again myself recently when I encountered a guy from Antrim. He made a joke as I mentioned places in Belfast and what have you, realising that my name gives me a label he said; “Taig or not, you decide!”
The fact he used that word told me he was from the Nationalist Community but I felt compromised and embarrassed that he thought I would be sussing out his religion in the first place.
The University was largely Nationalist populated, earning the moniker “The Vatican on the Hill” from the locals. Even something as simple as it’s location , in Coleraine rather than Nationalist Derry was a sectarian act by the Stormont Government.
I was a Student Socialist political activist, and quickly sussed out the Militant Tendency were the only ones talking sense, and were truly a non Sectarian organisation, so naturally I became involved with them, not regretting it for a single day.
But my main contacts were with the Sinn Fein/IRA faction as they were very active, and I am ashamed to say that my very good mate DM ended up getting his sorry ass involved, rising to be OC in the Prisons. I had no links with him at the time as during my second year he became distant and surly. The writing was on the wall.
But it did give me a clearer indication of Republican thinking, and it wasn’t until I was a bit older that I started to empathise with the plight of the Unionist Community.
My friend’s experience epitomises how weak and inadequate people get exploited. As with all terrorists the people who pay the real price are the ordinary people. Tube bombings, indiscrimate strafing of restaurants, firebombing shops and blowing up letter boxes. All totally indiscriminate and never having the chance to take out a "legitimate target".
There is NO justification for what the IRA did .At ANY stage. EVER.
Yes, the British Occupation of the North is morally unjustifiable and the mindless repression of the British State against and occupied and oppressed people needed to be fought against. But tell me this. How the does blowing up a pub full of young English drinkers on a Friday night ever become justified? I just can’t work it out.
Look, at the end of the day the Nationalist population of the North suffered terrible discrimination in terms of jobs, housing and political access. But no more or less than other working class communities the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland.
Ask the inhabitants of Hessle Road in the 70’s when the fishing industry went belly up if there lives in slum housing with Dad on the dole and the Mum doing cleaning at 5am
and then sending the kids to school, whether their lives were any worse than on the Falls, Divis the Bogside or indeed the Shankhill, and the Waterside in Derry.
It was a class issue. As the post war boom came to an end it was naturally the working class that paid the price, as ever.
The difference was that in the North the Protestants had a perceived "advantage" over their Catholics neighbours. Yes, jobs were more available but were badly paid and un unionised as the Protestant elite equated Unions with "Popish influences" and so they could exploit their staff and pay them 1/3 less than their English brothers. Some Union!
A drive around East Belfast in the 80’s soon disavowed me of any sense of superior conditions for the Protestants. But they were told this and both communities believed it. Classic divide and rule.
The Blood Sacrifice is part of Republican Mythology defined by the brainless act of executing the 1916 Rebels. Booed and spat upon on the way to Court but Martyred for the Cause and into folklore. The Brits aided the creation of this aura of heroism around the Republican Movement and only compounded it with heavy handed actions.
The thing blew up in 1969 because, with no provocation, the RUC and B Special reserve went on the offensive against the MLK style Civil Rights Movement which, shunning the failed IRA methods ,had proved effective in high lighting the sectarian nature of the Stormont Government which was a tyranny of the Elite (and I mean toff elite) backed by a cowed and compliant Protestant working class.
The injustices were blatant and went unchecked by the Brits,who used the maxim "out of sight, out of mind" when dealing with Ireland.
The RUC/B Special "Get Tough" policy saw five Catholics killed in a virtual pogrom and the people of Derry forced to defend their community by keeping the Police thugs out with petrol bombs.
The IRA were not a factor, and NEVER have been in Derry. It has always returned an SDLP MP even against the recent SF tide of gains around the Province.
Jim Callaghan, to his credit, went to Derry and deployed the Army at the insistence of the Civil Rights people to protect the Catholic population from the Police. However Labour was ejected from power in 1970 and the Tories decided to leave reform on the backburner as they shared the same Patrician view as their Unionist Party fellows.
But heavy handed behaviour by Army and the disastrous policy of leaving the Stormont Government intact, led to a resurgence of the IRA and the Brits made it easy for them.
Heath sanctioned Faulkner’s Internment without trial which was the catalyst for violent discontent, and then petrol was poured on the embers by the massacre in Derry in Jan 1972 which saw 14 Civil Rights protesters gunned down by the Parachute Regiment.
This vile act acted as the recruiting Sergeant for the IRA and the ruthless people who run it knew exactly how to exploit vulnerable and impressionable young people and radicalise them.
This is what led to the actions of these misguided and brain washed fanatics.
They fell for that old excuse that “the greater the action, the greater the provocation must be.” (W.B Yeates).
Yes, we can see parallels with today regarding the PERCEPTION of some Muslims that the West is out to get them.
Palestine and Iraq will be the Bloody Sunday equivalents in the minds of these foolish, but dangerous people.
The IRA campaign drove a huge wedge between the two communities and weakened any chance the Irish working class had of uniting to address the real problems that beset Ireland as a whole. Unemployment, the worst health in Western Europe and housing that George Orwell would have recognised in the thirties.
The War ended for all sides due to stalemate and weariness but the Ceasefires were “not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning“, to paraphrase Churchill.
I feel the biggest mistake made by the Unionist was the insistence on de commissioning.
Why? Simple. It put the IRA in control because every meaningless gesture by the murderers is seen as a “concession” and thus throws the spotlight back onto the UUP to concede further ground in order to keep Sinn Fein/IRA on board.
And how do you measure this process any way? It’s not as though De Chastelin can ask the Provo’s for receipts and inventories for all the arms they have procured over the years.
They may well have put beyond use a whole heap of gear in his presence, but how can he know that they don’t have another huge dump of explosives and ordinance stashed away from prying eyes?
Where did the guns come from for the Northern Bank or the so called “nutting squads” responsible for the killing of such upstanding souls such as Eamon Collins and Denis Donaldson? They had a private army and were holding a gun to the head of their own people and everyone else involved.
Instead of enforcing the law (guns are apparently illegal in the UK) and saying “We will disarm terrorists” the Government instead were saying “Thank you for giving us some token disarmament” and letting the Provos off the hook. Every time we needed impetus injected into the process, the elected Governments of the UK and Ireland waited on the largesse of murderous, anonymous, blood soaked Godfathers delivered through their disgusting mouth pieces Gerry Adams and the chilling Martin McGuinness.
But thankfully this issue has been resolved, but what it did do was to destroy the UUP and the SDLP, allowing the extremists to hold the whip hand.
The surreal sight of Paisley and McGuiness smiling for the camera does not mask the fact that there is such a long way to go before we have anything like a functioning democracy in the North, and I am suspicious as to what the DUP and Sinn Fein think is the political reality.
Tony Blair has this immense ability to let everyone think they have got what they want, so only time will tell if this restoration is permanent, or another blip in the fractured process and if this particular phase fails, then it will be a long road back.