We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
—William Butler Yeats
The present media tableau of Ulster has become as fixed and conventional as one of those temperance woodcuts of the last century. Its dramatis personae wring tears from audiences in many countries; but in the United States this flow is a veritable torrent. Americans lament the wretched Catholic minority who are supposed to long, unanimously, for union with “their” country in the South of Ireland; cheers resound from the land of the free for the brave “freedom fighters” (Provisional IRA and Irish National Liberation Army) who—we hear—have unanimous support among the Catholics; hisses are heard for the Protestants because they oppress the Catholics and are nasty, like the Reverend Ian Paisley, and deserve whatever they get from the “freedom fighters”; the loudest boos are saved for the “Brits” who are thwarting a poignant wish to “unify Ireland” while torturing prisoners, shooting innocent civilians, and doing other things too horrible to mention. Among the supernumerary walk-ons are Catholic and Protestant victims and the British soldiers who are murdered in this “fight for freedom”—just the people who “get killed in wars”; the stars are the terrorists, especially those who were starving themselves to death one by one last year. The proper denouement of this melodrama is meant to be an Ireland United and, in the words of the old song, “A Nation Once Again.” The awkward fact that such a nation never existed is irrelevant; so is the unpopularity of the “freedom fighters” among Northern and Southern Catholics, plus the wish of not a few Catholics to remain citizens of the United Kingdom.
To discover whatever scraps of truth may lie behind this dramaturgy, we must range back into the past. But how far back can we reach for the beginning of the real quandary between these Britannic and Hibernian parts of the British Isles? The very Celts, to whom Irish nationalists look as the true Irish, were first of all “British” invaders, replacing a small dark people known as the Firbolg in the centuries before Christ. But that is perhaps a little too far back. Let us begin rather with the famous “800-year struggle of the Irish nation” which is today touted in the streets of New York and Chicago. This modern legend says that the “freedom fighters” are the heirs of an Irish nation which was invaded by Anglo-Saxon aggressors in the 12th century; it was then ruthlessly oppressed but never extinguished, carrying on through the generations a battle for freedom whose final stage we see now in Ulster’s six British counties.1 For our century, when national-liberation struggles are two-a-penny, mass-produced, and mostly very recent, this must be the hoary grand old man of them all.
To speak of the 12th-century Irish nation is something like speaking of the 20th-century Arab nation. The traditional “kingdoms” of Ireland resembled nothing that we know by that name. Individually and severally they were a crazy quilt of phratric territories and influences, without a political center of gravity and devoid of any popular sense of national unity or identity. The tribes did share a common Celtic language and a certain cultural style and pattern of customs. Their Christian religion, however, was a European import, brought in earlier by a British monk who is now called St. Patrick, and heavily diluted with local paganism. The society was savage and extremely primitive by contemporary European standards; the title of High King carried no administrative or even nominal authority over the whole island, where loyalties were purely personal and tribal.
The “Saxon invaders” of nationalist legend were neither Saxon nor invaders. They were the Norman French who, under William the Conqueror, had destroyed the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the 11th century. William’s descendant, Henry II of England, when authorized by Pope Adrian IV to “enter Ireland,” did not do so. At the invitation of an Irish chieftain, Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster, a thousand Normans under Richard Fitzgilbert, Earl of Clare (called Strongbow), crossed the Irish Sea in 1170, to help MacMurrough in a local dispute. Strongbow married MacMurrough’s daughter and succeeded to his rule in Leinster. Only then did Henry II travel to Ireland, to confirm the royal authority over his vassal Fitzgilbert. This led to the extension—by treaty—of the English king’s suzerainty into Ireland. The Gaelic chieftains did not rise up against this but agreed to it willingly. The arrangement was endorsed by Pope Alexander III in 1172, and three years later Rory O’Connor, the High King, put his name to it.
English administration of Ireland, such as it was, centered on the old Viking city of Dublin, and did not run far. The Norman baronies accepted only a nominal overlordship of the English king, and beyond them the tribal territories were left to themselves. In time the Norman settlers took up the local language and customs, and were absorbed into the tribal system, to become themselves “Irish.” We have had a souvenir of this process in the Norman French middle name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
I do not propose to drag the reader through the whole complex history of the British “presence” in Ireland, stage by bloody stage. But it should be remembered that when rebellions occurred, particularly in the early days, they were more often mounted by English settlers and their descendants than by Gaels, and were fought on the assumption that military force was a legitimate means of establishing sovereignty—for the crown as well as for the rebels. These uprisings (which were by no means continuous) were not rooted in any nationalist cause. In principle the Irish had no objection to the titular authority of a foreign king. The “Crown of Ireland” was offered at various times to Norway, Scotland, France, and even Austria. Fighting in Ireland was liable to break out in disputes over land, over the rapacity of crown administrators, or—where English power was weak or indifferent—a tribal chieftain might try to reassert and broaden his influence. This was the case with the great rising of the Ulster “king,” Hugh O’Neil, against Elizabeth I at the end of the 16th century. But he was defeated as the 17th century dawned, and the tribal system was broken forever. In all these conflicts the common people suffered horribly, cursing the rebels as often as they damned the English. There was no more national solidarity at the grass roots than at the top—where there was none at all.
After the Reformation, the Catholic powers of Europe attempted to use Ireland as a back door into Protestant Britain. This threat to the security of the crown sparked a more positive English involvement in Ireland and was an important reason for the “planting” of English settlers on Irish soil. The most successful of these ventures were the 1609 Plantation of Ulster and the 17th-century settlements in Ireland after the Cromwellian civil war.
Some writers have given the impression that these plantations involved a mass displacement of the local Irish by a solid phalanx of English and Scots invaders. What actually happened was rather a filtering in of newcomers among the native Irish, who were constantly present and used as labor on the land which had been confiscated for the settlers. This mingling did not lessen hostility between Catholic Irish and Protestant settlers, but inflamed it, especially in Ulster where many settlers were as plebeian as the locals. Feeling cut off from their mother country amid a dangerous alien population, these Northern Protestants developed that mixture of sectarian hatred and stubborn self-reliance which still survives today. But the sectarian conflicts of the 17th century were not a matter of Irish nationalism. In the civil wars of that period Irish Catholics fought alongside English Papists, not for an independent Ireland but for the Stuart kings of England. They lost, first to Cromwell and then to William of Orange (who was not English), and suffered the fate of the losing side: penal laws barred them from politics and the ownership of land.
It is one of the many ironies of Irish history that when a real nationalist movement did appear at the end of the 18th century, it came out of the Protestant community, partly as a protest against the English parliament’s suppression of trade and business in Ireland. Wolfe Tone and his fellow rebels tried to make an Irish revolution on the French model, with the help of an anti-clerical French government and in the face of bitter condemnation from the Catholic clergy. The enterprise was a somewhat intellectual, middle-class effort with no popular base; it quickly degenerated into sectarian butchery and resulted in the formal Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800. A popular sense of Irish nationalism did begin to emerge after that, most prominently under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell; but this was part of a general birth of such feelings among European peoples, and did not express itself in any popular wish to separate Ireland from the British imperial crown. This was so inside Ireland even after the great mid-19th-century famine.
It was the huge Malthusian nightmare of the famine, more than anything else, which contributed to the image of a cynical Britain turning its back on the suffering Irish and so fostering Irish nationalism. In fact the system of loose rule through local oligarchies had always been common to the whole of the United Kingdom. The width of the Irish Sea made it looser in Ireland than in mainland Britain; this was the main cause of the long history of maladministration and official corruption on the island—though it should be said that the opportunities for corruption and chicanery were taken up as eagerly by the Irish as by British officials. It has been suggested that the British government deliberately engineered the starvation of about a quarter of the Irish population in the middle of the 19th century and forced another quarter to emigrate. This is the general view of American descendants of the emigrants, providing most of the emotional fuel for American support of violent Republican groups. Like many an atrocity story in nationalist mythology, this charge of genocide has a prima facie plausibility; but it will not stand serious examination.
It is true that the British authorities were not deeply troubled by the agonies of the Irish poor. They were, however, equally indifferent to their own lower classes. The first great public-health campaign in the United Kingdom, after the 19th-century cholera epidemics, succeeded not through official compassion but because foul living conditions and disease threatened to wipe out an important section of the labor force. No such consideration applied in Ireland. Out of sight across the Irish Sea, the poor there were tenant farmers at the bottom of a many-layered system of land tenure, with an agricultural economy that was too inflexible to support the population—depending as it did on the single food crop of potatoes. When this failed the whole structure collapsed, and the British government was simply unable to grasp the nature and scope of the disaster. It seemed at first just another of the periodic sharp famines which the Irish had suffered before and survived. When some inkling of its extremity did seep through, there was no practical sense of how to help on the necessary scale, or even that such help was possible. It would have required a vast aid operation of late 20th-century proportions—something unimaginable at the time, without a ready and deep-seated belief that these large numbers of poor, useless as a labor force, were worth a gigantic effort and expense, just because they were human beings.
For us to whom compassion has become a basic political principle, that is taken for granted. It was not so in the mid-19th century. This may make it easier to understand why attempts to help the Irish (there were some) proved limited and not very effective; and why rent, in the form of edible produce, was being shipped out of Ireland at the very height of the famine. To portray the calamity as cold-blooded murder is exciting melodrama but bad history.
Of course the victims were not looking at history. They were trapped as participants in a grim spectacle of families reduced to mutual cannibalism; roads littered with the skeletal bodies of those who had died with their mouths full of grass; forced evictions which meant joining those corpses on the highway; desperate famished mobs outside the workhouse, waiting for death inside to give them a place and some faint hope of life; and luckier survivors, uprooted from their land, sailing under often appalling conditions to find better hopes in the New World. The collective memory of these ordeals and other horrors was carried by emigrants to America and carefully preserved in their folk traditions, along with an utterly implacable hatred of the British whom they blamed for it all. It is no wonder that their descendants see the British as cartoon monsters, pitiless “Saxon” tyrants to be hunted out of Ireland like wild beasts.
Ulster has from the earliest times been a peculiar place. It seems to have offered the stiffest resistance to Celtic invasion, and its later trade and cultural relations were sometimes closer with the Western isles of Scotland than with the rest of Ireland. The topography of Ulster protected it from Norman domination, and it put up the last effective resistance to the English in the time of Elizabeth I. Her garrison line against Hugh O’Neill ran from Newry to Lough Erne, not very far from the present border.
The 17th-century settlements of English and Scots on the island made Ulster exceptional in other ways. Most of Ireland was grounded on a Gaelic-speaking peasantry ruled by Protestant landowners who spoke English. (This was also the language of the small middle class, Catholic and Protestant alike.) Only in the northeast did Protestantism have a secure popular base. The traditional hostility between Papists and Protestants was sealed with agrarian violence between night-riding societies like the Peep O’Day Boys (later to become the Orange Order) and the Catholic Defenders. A sort of white-trash mentality grew up among poorer Ulster Protestants: no matter how low they sank, they could still look down on the Taigs, or Catholic peasants.
Ulster was the only province of Ireland to benefit from the industrial revolution, with a flourishing linen manufacture and a powerful shipbuilding industry. These softened the impact of the 19th-century famine in the North and, with the increasing solidarity of the Protestant community, strengthened Ulster’s popular links with the United Kingdom.
Sectarian hatred was not eased by 19th-century administrative reforms which restored Catholic access to politics and land. Most Protestants were further unsettled by the emergence of a Home Rule movement2 and, after the famine, by extremist groups like Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Brotherhood who were determined to create an independent Ireland by armed force. Drawing most of their support from America, these wilder activists took up the tactics of assassination and terrorism being used by other such conspiracies in Europe. Their Jacobin approach was furiously castigated by the Catholic Church.
The amazing obtuseness of the British government over Home Rule (an arrangement which was not, after all, unprecedented in Ireland) gave Republican extremists time to consolidate. It also allowed the Ulster Protestants enough time to set up a formidable resistance to Home Rule, with an armed militia and a well-orchestrated political campaign to keep Ireland in the United Kingdom. Even the relatively mild Home Rule Bill of 1912 (it was the third try in twenty-six years; the others had been killed by opposition in Britain and from Irish Protestants) was rejected by the Ulster Protestants as “disastrous to the well-being of Ulster . . . , subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire.”
Sir Edward Carson, who led the movement against Home Rule, was not a bawling redneck figure like the Reverend Ian Paisley. He was a solidly respectable Dublin lawyer with wide public support not only among Irish Protestants but over the whole of Great Britain. He was backed by the opposition Conservative party under Bonar Law, by key figures in the Liberal government first under Asquith and then under Lloyd George, and by important areas of the civil service and units of the British army, which would have to enforce any Home Rule Bill against the Protestant militia. During the so-called Curragh Mutiny of 1914 it became clear that a significant part of the British army in Ireland was not prepared to do this, and the issue brought the United Kingdom to the very edge of civil war. This awful possibility was averted by war with Germany and a parliamentary stay on Home Rule until that conflict was over.
Naturally the Catholic population of Ireland, and some middle-class Protestants, were in favor of Home Rule. But this still did not imply a separation from the British crown. The activists who favored a Republic were an unpopular tiny minority, opposed by the Catholic Church and rather unsavory even by our own criteria of national-liberation movements. The proto-fascist mouthings of Patrick Pearse about blood and soil evoke a familiar sort of nausea when one reads them today.
Much has been made of the British government’s stupidity in killing Pearse and some of the other rebels after the 1916 Republican insurrection in Dublin. These executions were not extraordinary in a year when the British army suffered 60,000 casualties in a few hours—among whom were Irish Catholics and Protestants of the Ulster Division—in a famous battle against German forces on the Somme. Roger Casement was known to have tried to form a kind of Waffen-SS with Irish prisoners of war, and the Germans were openly hailed as “glorious allies” by the 1916 rebels. The British parliament’s fatuous move of passing a bill for Irish conscription during the war, plus the sympathy stirred by the executions—Yeats’s “a terrible beauty is born,” and so on—no doubt helped the politics of independence. But so did Allied propaganda about World War I as a crusade for the self-determination and liberty of small peoples, and the general mood which this aroused after the war, both in Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The IRA campaign from 1919 to 1921 against British administration of Ireland was unique on two counts. It was the first large-scale, sustained, and successful terrorist operation of modern times. It was also the first such clash in which news media played a more important part than military strength. There could be no question of the ill-disciplined and somewhat ragtag IRA matching either the Royal Irish Constabulary or the British army in open warfare; so a deliberately cruel and gruesome series of assassinations, atrocities, and small-scale harassments was mounted, together with a social boycott of the police enforced by ferocious intimidation. The object was to break the discipline of the crown forces (most of whom were Irish, largely Catholic) and provoke reprisals which would anger the population.
It took about six months to break police morale in the South. The reaction was then vicious and wholesale, and came not only from the police and their notorious auxiliaries, the Black and Tans, but from the British army. What were probably the worst of these incidents, many of which made sensational headlines in Britain and Ireland, happened in 1920. Villagers in the countryside, fearing reprisals during the night, went out to sleep in haystacks and hedges. Late in the year, following an IRA massacre in Dublin of twelve British officers, two auxiliaries, and one innocent veterinary officer, the crowd at a Dublin Gaelic football match in Croke Park was surrounded by the Royal Irish Constabulary and some auxiliaries. The officers were supposed to search for IRA gunmen. Instead they fired into the crowd, killing twelve civilians. The same night two IRA prisoners were killed by the police at Dublin Castle, along with a civilian who had been picked up at a nationalist haunt in the city. In December crown forces, taking revenge for a terrorist outrage, burned out and destroyed the whole center of Cork.
In Ulster, Protestant mobs attacked Catholic ghettos with bloody results. Being more defensive in the North, the nationalist campaign was consequently less effective; but the general strategy of the IRA was brilliantly successful. The Irish public was infuriated, and the British across the water, reading lurid accounts of what their own people were doing, expressed pained indignation, directed in great part at the British government and forces. As now, when cold-blooded atrocity and hot-blooded retaliation were weighed in a moral and political balance, the greater weight of obloquy pulled down the reprisal. This repercussion was compounded by the celebrated hunger strike of Cork’s Lord Mayor, Terence MacSwiney. Arrested at an IRA conference, he protested at military interference with an elected civil official (though MacSwiney was in fact the local commanding officer of the IRA), and tempered the protest with a fast of seventy-three days. There were other hunger strikers, some of whom also died, but MacSwiney’s lingering death—seen as an impressive example of moral courage and the stubbornness of Irish national feeling—most profoundly affected British and Irish popular opinion.
The Catholic Church, typically, reacted to the troubles with political circumspection. Condemning a terrorist murder in 1919, the Archbishop of Cachel remarked that even if the British had been committing outrages in Ireland, two wrongs did not make a right. What the IRA were counting on, of course, was for two wrongs to make a Republic. This species of political judo is a matter of habit these days, but it was novel then.
The extremists did not get their Republic. Southern Ireland, with its massively nationalist Catholic population, was too much trouble for Britain to keep; Ulster in the North, with its fierce, well-armed and organized Protestants (who still commanded immense popular support in Britain), was too much trouble to let go. Because Ireland had for centuries been vital to the security of Britain and still was, the 1921 treaty which set up the Irish Free State kept certain ties with Britain; a common citizenship was retained, as was a parliamentary oath of loyalty to the crown, and Britain was given port facilities on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Six of Ulster’s nine counties were excluded from Free State jurisdiction and given a peculiar Home Rule. Besides sending regular MP’s to represent its electorate in London, the province had its own parliament at Stormont, subject to the authority of Westminster—an authority which in practice was seldom exercised.
There was provision for union of the six counties with the rest of Ireland if Stormont should agree, but this clause was disingenuous under the circumstances. Since the 17th century, Protestants had been privileged above all in Ulster, and the Catholics had not taken it passively. In rural terrorism and then in urban riots, plenty of blood had been shed over the years, on both sides of the religious abyss. With revenge and counter-revenge become a tradition, it is easy to imagine how Protestants saw their fate under a government overwhelmingly dominated by their old sectarian enemies. After the signing of the Free State Treaty they watched a violently dissenting minority in the South—the anti-treaty Republicans—being mercilessly cut to pieces.
The Irish civil war of 1922-23 was bloodier and uglier than the fight against the British, with savage atrocities on both sides. For example, the Free State government sanctioned the summary killing of Republican prisoners. If the Catholics could treat their own like that, what would they do to those who had been their oppressors for centuries? This fear certainly contained an element of bad conscience, and was all the worse for that.
There was some effort in the North toward calming the old enmities. James Craig, the first Prime Minister at Stormont, made a number of conciliatory declarations. Lord Carson himself had said: “From the outset let us see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from the Protestant majority. . . . While maintaining intact our religion, let us give the same rights to the religion of our neighbors.” These sentiments remained, as one might say, inoperative. First of all, the Catholic nationalists in the North—about a third of the population—refused to recognize or take part in the new administrative system, or vote in its elections. Then came Eamon De Valera’s Irish Constitution in the South, claiming sovereignty over the six counties, and containing the ominous Article 44:
The state recognizes the special position of the Holy Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens. . . .
This was no dead letter. The Catholic hierarchy was able to meddle with effect in the political life of the South, suppressing legislation which it found objectionable, imposing censorship on literature and the arts, while preventing divorce or the sale or distribution of any form of birth-control device. These and other symptoms of social and political influence helped the Northern Protestants to feel justified in their own ruthless oppression of the Catholic minority, and to accept more cheerfully its self-imposed exclusion from the political life of the province.
The intractability of the situation was acknowledged by Republicans even before the Free State Treaty was ratified. In August 1921, De Valera himself had told his colleagues that some of them had neither the power nor the inclination to use force with Ulster. It would, he said, be making the same mistake that the British had made in Ireland. This was a rare injection of reality into Republican discourse, but it was matched by a political mesquinerie which grew more intense as time wore on, widening the rift between Ulster and the South. After Britain gave up its Irish port facilities in 1938, De Valera kept his government officially neutral in the war against the Axis powers. There were accusations that he allowed the Germans to use the Irish coast as a haven for submarine action against Allied shipping, but these were never proved. Certainly he did permit the German representative in Dublin to send weather reports to the Luftwaffe, and these helped in the bombing of Britain and Ulster. Like Joseph Kennedy, the American Ambassador to Britain, De Valera did what he could to keep the United States out of the war. When his efforts failed, he protested at the presence of American troops in Ulster as an “infringement of Irish sovereignty.” No such protest was made after the heavy German air attacks on Belfast.
As late as 1944, the American State Department said bluntly: “Despite the declared desire of the Irish government that its neutrality should not operate in favor of either of the belligerents, it has in fact operated and continues to operate in favor of the Axis powers.” Upon learning of the death of Hitler, De Valera called on the Nazi minister in Dublin to express sympathy, insisting loftily that this was a neutral act of protocol. As the New York Times put it: “Considering the character of the man for whom he was expressing grief [and considering that 50,000 Southern Irishmen had Volunteered for service in the British forces] . . . there [was] obviously something wrong with the protocol, the neutrality, or Mr. De Valera.” For Ulstermen, many of whom died in the war against Hitler, and more of whom suffered under German bombs at home, these antics did nothing to bring Ulster and the Republic closer together as a “free nation.”
The IRA had stayed unofficially alive after the Irish civil war of 1922-23, involving itself in desultory terrorism both in Ireland and—once World War II had started—in Britain. It became a pro-Axis underground organization, dedicated mainly to the support of Germany, while its titular “Chief of Staff” traveled to the Third Reich for instruction in the art of making bombs. The IRA reached out to Hitler as Wolfe Tone had once reached out to Napoleon, but Hitler’s spies in Ireland had a low opinion of their would-be comrades-in-arms. The most important of these German agents, Herman Goertz, said: “In spite of the fine qualities of individual IRA men, as a body I consider them worthless.” Their clumsiness and indiscretion caused De Valera to intern 400 of their number, probably in the fear that their activity would provoke Allied intervention in Southern Ireland. But the IRA survived that, remaining true to the old Irish tradition of secret societies.
For several years after the war the one-party state of Northern Ireland enjoyed relative calm. This was guaranteed in part by the 1922 Special Powers Act, a bit of police-state legislation passed to cope with terrorist attacks and never taken off the books. It was enforced by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a predominantly Protestant force with an armed auxiliary called the B Specials who must have been—from the Catholic point of view—something like a gang of peckerwood deputy sheriffs let loose among Southern American blacks. The postwar supremacy of the Protestants was entrenched by measures like the Elections and Franchise Act of 1947, which among other things made it possible for one elector to have six local government votes, and by a system of gerrymandering which insured Protestant majorities on the councils of cities where Catholics outnumbered Protestants.
From 1955 to 1962 there was an upsurge of IRA activity against the six counties, the so-called Border Campaign. It sent the North into a state of armed alert and angered the government of the Republic3 After a spate of minor incidents at customs posts and other installations, and the blowing up of a BBC transmitter, the campaign fizzled out. There was no popular support for violent “unification” in Ulster, where the British welfare state had given Catholics a far higher standard of living than their fellows in the underdeveloped South. IRA men were interned at the Curragh camp in the Republic, and their organization once more subsided into its underground mode, dedicated in the North to protecting Catholics during sectarian riots. The next fit of terrorism in the North was to unfold in quite a different way.
Since de Tocqueville it has become a commonplace that political protest and insurrection are not ignited by the despair of the oppressed, but by the prospect of an end to that despair. The year 1968 was brimming with such prospects, most of which were to be cruelly perverted. Those which surfaced in Northern Ireland were no exception.
On both sides of the border there had been efforts to break out of old attitudes. Irish President Sean Lemass and Northern Prime Minister Terence O’Neill exchanged visits in 1965, groping toward a friendlier relationship rather than instant unification. Ulster’s Nationalist party responded by accepting the role of official opposition at Stormont; but Protestant Unionists, whom O’Neill had not consulted, boiled over. An extremist faction began to dispute O’Neill’s leadership and a Protestant equivalent of the IRA appeared, calling itself the Ulster Volunteer Force. Proscribed under the Special Powers Act, it carried on like the IRA, as a secret society. In 1966 a demagogue and hellfire preacher, the Reverend Ian Paisley, stood up to contest the leadership of the verkrampfte Protestants. Like the rest of Britain, Northern Ireland was affected by a general sagging of morale in the 60’s. In Carson’s time the tightest bond between the province and the rest of the United Kingdom had been a common imperial citizenship. Now the empire was gone, and Britain was under economic and political strain, with its social fabric showing signs of wear. This pervasive mood of uncertainty, and the uncharacteristic quarrels among the Protestant majority, formed the background to a late-60’s ferment which the students of Ulster shared with those elsewhere.
It was a measure of how things were changing that the protesting students did not organize against the partition of Ireland as such. Inspired by the Paris fulminations of May 1968, they joined a civil-rights movement founded two years before on the American model, with the Catholic minority as cognate to American blacks. The outstanding bones of contention were symptoms of Catholic second-class citizenship: discrimination in jobs and housing, the political chicanery which denied proper representation to Catholics, and so on. The protest in effect endorsed partition with a demand that Catholics should have the same political and social rights as other Britons. But it was partition which had nailed down Protestant denial—and Catholic rejection—of those rights in the first place, so the two issues could not be so neatly separated. From the beginning there was a Republican element in the movement.
O’Neill responded to the protest and tried to liberalize Northern Ireland with anti-discrimination reforms. In retrospect, the assumption that with a few administrative measures it was possible to sweep away a long tradition of injustice, social abuse, and malice seems absurd. But the expectation was encouraged by the media above all. Nevertheless the reforms were stalled by popular opposition before O’Neill himself was deposed as Unionist leader, and then they were outpaced by another sort of action. The civil-rights people had their own extremists, who in October 1968 manipulated the movement into an illegal march from Belfast to Londonderry. They did this with the expectation that it would provoke violent Protestant reaction and draw the attention of the media. It was the old IRA tactic of 1919, in a more passive and devious mode. The gambit paid off handsomely, with bloody rioting at Burntollet Bridge and then in Londonderry and Belfast, in which undisciplined police became involved on the side of Protestant goon squads and mobs. This eventually forced the intervention of the British army. It also gave birth to the Provisional IRA, when the “Official” IRA failed to protect Catholics during the fighting and then opted for an unusually constitutional approach to the problem of partition. Feeding on blind hatred, terrorist violence grew among Catholics and Protestants. When the Stormont regime proved finally unable to cope with these atavistic spasms, it was dissolved, bringing the province under the direct rule of Westminster.
Spectacular coverage of the urban jacquerie first sketched and set the outlines of the tableau with which I began this essay. The main beneficiaries of the media dramaturgy (which closely parallels terrorist propaganda) are the Provisional IRA and the self-styled “Marxist” Irish National Liberation Army which appeared in the 70’s.4 Their goal has been consistent throughout the last decade and is the same today. It is to exasperate and discourage British public opinion, while fomenting pressure outside the United Kingdom (mainly in America) for Britain to “do something,” i.e., turn the six counties over to the Republic. The political credit for this is then to be used to manage a gradual takeover of Ireland, after which its rather too British manner of government can be transmogrified into something more in accord with the fancy of the terrorists. As Mussolini said of himself and Italy in 1932: their stoutest backing in this noble enterprise comes not from Ireland but from the United States. It ranges from Tip O’Neill and some of his more moderate colleagues to the Irish National Caucus (led by that great Irish-American Mario Biaggi) and Noraid.
The activities which the worst of the American cheerleaders are happy to excuse include: wholesale destruction of property by arson and explosives; kidnapping; sectarian murder; ambushing and individual assassination of police officers, troops, political figures, and diplomats; and the random slaughter of civilians with bombs. Much of the media coverage in Britain and America has also given Irish terrorism a certain aura of legitimacy, most offensively through television interviews in which criminals are given approximately the same treatment as some leaders of the opposition; by comments like that of Newsweek’s Tony Clifton, who demanded on television that the British “get out of Ireland”; and in the gullible treatment of stage-managed incidents in Ulster, which depend upon what a bemused (London) Sunday Times journalist of Irish extraction called “the instant and expert mendacity to which journalists and no doubt other interested parties . . . are treated in episodes of this sort.” An egregious case in point was Bloody Sunday in 1972, falsely projected as a gratuitous attack by British troops on unarmed and peaceful civilians. This lie is still believed in the United States and by a surprising number of people in Britain.5
Some sections of the media have enhanced the image of the terrorists by treating them as a “side” equivalent to the British government, carrying as it were an equal weight of sovereignty. Newsweek is one of the most careless in this respect, and has done other odd things. When the magazine published a moving photograph of a masked Catholic child waving his fists in front of a wall of flame, I wrote to its British headquarters, pointing out that the London Observer had photographed newsmen apparently in the act of staging that picture, using a pile of burning barrows in a vacant lot. Newsweek offered in reply their photographer’s story that he had, in the company of all those newsmen (they included TV men carrying sound equipment at the ready), just happened to “come upon” the spectacle. This is rather like the insistence of ABC-TV that it interviewed a hunger striker’s daughter in preference to other Ulster children because she just happened to be “articulate.” At least one New York newspaper has published bald fiction about the British army in Ulster disguised as news. The Boston Globe, caught out publishing a lie in its report of the attack on Bernadette Devlin MacAliskey, was so embarrassed that it rethought its editorial approach to Ulster. A BBC TV magazine program, Panorama, broadcast in September what amounted to a party political show for the Provisional IRA—just at the point when the “anti-H-Block” hunger strike was collapsing and the terrorists badly needed such a public-relations coup. In this program, blame for stubbornness during the hunger strike was attached to the British government. Even the Times of London once went so far as to report two murders and an attempted murder in Ulster as a military “offensive.” A certain amount of reportage for other countries has more to do with an itch to get in on some hot action—reporters create the action if necessary, with bribes—than with any concern for truth or victims or anything else in Ulster.
Despite this plethora of complaisant and occasionally corrupt journalism, the terrorists have signally failed to repeat the success of 1919-20. Initially sectarian killings were matched in kind by Protestant terrorists, as were bomb attacks. But such reprisals are no longer mounted on the same scale. The demoralized Royal Ulster Constabulary gave up its duties to the army while the B Specials were disbanded and the main force reorganized. It has now returned to its normal duty of policing the community. In defiance of extraordinary provocation, notably the Warren Point massacre (in which eighteen soldiers were murdered with radio-controlled bombs) and the killing of Lord Mountbatten with some of his family, army discipline has on the whole remained tight and professional throughout these troubles. Where soldiers have been caught in violation of standing orders or committing crimes, they have been arrested and tried.
Without the cachet of constant brutal reprisals, terrorist violence has proved counterproductive even in the Catholic community. The “hard men” are regarded as heroes by their friends and by some of the more obstinate Republicans. But the community at large, North and South, recognizes these people as remorseless butchers of human beings. Finally, as the whole world knows, they resorted to a desperate tactic in order to change this image. While the sniping, bombing, and murder continued, a formidable public-relations exercise was constructed around convicted terrorists in the Maze prison who engaged in a campaign of hunger strikes, aiming to recapture the moral appeal of Terence MacSwiney and cash in on the natural compassion inspired by the spectacle of men dying in public. The ploy drew enormous publicity abroad, sympathy in Britain and the Republic, and frenzied support among the American Irish. All this climaxed when one of the hunger strikers managed to win an Ulster by-election before committing suicide. As the cynical nature of the operation became clearer, the original sympathy was infused with a kind of embarrassed discomfiture, though Northern Ireland remains more than ever polarized along sectarian lines. Even though demonstrations concurrent with the deaths shrank in size, Bobby Sands’s pre-terrorist election agent did succeed in winning the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat vacated by Sands’s death—after the principal Catholic party had been shunted out of the election.
The suicidal terrorists have reaped praise from many quarters, some predictable, others surprising, on the grounds that their “sincerity” is somehow worthy of “respect” and makes them “right” in some way. Before the hunger strikes it was the violence which proved the sincerity and the sincerity which justified the violence. Once the “brave boys” who were in prison for slaughtering other people and shooting soldiers in the back started killing themselves as well, it was their willingness to die—on the orders of their organization—which drew admiration, which in turn rubbed off on their “cause.” There have been other such “sincere” martyrs in modern times. Horst Wessel was one, and a closer parallel could be found in the deaths of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Their suicides too were followed by claims that they had been “murdered” by the authorities.
The Catholic hierarchy, after an ambiguous spell of objecting to violence in general—including the defensive violence of the British forces—while supporting the “nationalist” aims of the terrorists, at last found the hunger strikes too much to take. Following several deaths of hunger strikers and consequent civilian casualties, Cardinal O’Fiaich and his bishops denounced the campaign outright, being careful as always to assail the British government in their terms of reproof. In the lower echelons of the priesthood it is still possible to find a casuistic defense of the suicides on the ground that they were not really “intended”; the “intention” was political status, or British compliance with “five just demands” which amount to the same thing. In the longer term there is of course the “intention” to unify Ireland, change its government, and so on.
After the hunger strike collapsed early in October, the terrorists reverted to type with a bombing campaign in London; they murdered one old woman and an Irish Catholic teenager, while maiming a number of soldiers and the Commandant General of the Royal Marines. In mid-November they killed Reverend Robert Bradford, a British MP from Belfast.
Unification is in any event a false issue now, since the Irish government has no desire to haul Ulster, with its vast expenses and its large body of violent and terrified Protestants, into the Republic. No doubt the cry, “Ireland is One,” will continue to be heard, if the present Finn Gael majority in the Irish Dail (parliament) collapses and a Fianna Fail administration is returned to office.6 But the cry cannot, as we have seen, denote the restoration of some ancient Irish nation in its fullness. It really amounts to a demand for geographical symmetry, so that the shores of the Hibernian Island match the borders of the Republic. Then the “Brits” will be out of Ireland at last. Or will they?
In the last century Giuseppe Mazzini, the great Italian prophet of nationalism, was not impressed by Irish apostles of the creed. He observed that the Irish did not seek any “distinct principle of life or system of legislation derived from native peculiarities and contrasting radically with English wants and wishes.” In 1905 the Irish nationalist writer D.P. Moran was more acid: “There are certainly some traits to be found in Ireland which stamp her as a distinct race even yet, but they characterize her torpor and decay rather than her development.” He added that if Ireland could not become bilingual it might just as well accept the historical fact that it was “West British.” It is an amusing irony that the 19th-century Celtic revival, spurred in Ireland by Douglas Hyde, was actually founded in England by the poet Matthew Arnold. Always a middle-class academic exercise, it never took root in Ireland, where the use of Gaelic has become largely a ritual. Gaelic as the common speech of the Irish was wiped out by the 19th-century famine, surviving only in remote areas of the West, now called the Gaeltacht. This is itself a species of linguistic museum where English is spoken as much as Erse.
Celtic culture thus has rather less to do with Ireland today than Norman French culture has to do with both the United Kingdom and Ireland. After centuries of intermingling, the British and Irish are ethnically identical.7 For more than two hundred years the high culture of Ireland, from literature to architecture, has been predominantly British in its expression. As long ago as the 18th century Dublin was the second city of the British empire, and is today in many ways more British than some of the great conurbations of the United Kingdom. As the present troubles have shown, the political interests of Ireland and Britain are pretty well inextricable. Aside from mutual prejudice, regional accents, and the sectarian divide, there is little to separate Ireland and Britain except the width of the Irish Sea and the rituals of government. And as Mazzini predicted more than a hundred years ago, these rituals too are British. In the most profound sense Ireland has hardly separated from Britain at all. As a non-British entity the Republic is more of a notion than a nation. Unification would mean not the recovery of something old, but the expansion of that notion to make something new, or the illusion of something new.
No one, however, should make the mistake of underestimating the power of either prejudice or a political notion. On the first score nothing is more likely to provoke angry disagreement from a “Brit” or an Irishman than the suggestion that they are in any way alike. The British cliché-Irishman is a drunken, devious, blockheaded, and probably rather unhygienic bog-trotter who is priest-ridden, henpecked, lazy, breeds like a rabbit, and is prone to sing mawkish tenor songs about the ould sod, especially in his cups. He is also an irredeemable liar and hypocrite, imbued with a lethal Fenian hatred of the British. There is about as much truth in this as in the Irishman’s bromide-Briton who is aseptic, coarse, brutal, arrogant, cunning but stupid and totally insensitive, unmusical, “Saxon,” joyless, fundamentally irreligious and given to perversion, especially flagellation and homosexuality. He too is a liar and a hypocrite and regards the Irish as scum. It is not the best material for weaving the tie that binds, even if the real differences between the two are less extreme than, say, between an upstate New Yorker and a native of Biloxi, Mississippi.
The political notion is the most poignant factor because it contains a paradox. To recover their rights as Englishmen, Americans severed themselves from England, and were never so British as when they did that. The Irish case is not quite the same, because Irish nationalism has always contained a dash of French revolutionary Jacobinism, which is essentially destructive of freedom while paying lip service to the Rights of Man. This is the strain which survives in the terrorist groups of Ulster today. It has never been representative in Ireland and is not now. That is why the Irish people accepted at first a separation from Britain that was formally incomplete, and in some respects still is. (For example, there is still no immigration control between the two countries; Irish citizens resident in the UK may work without special permission and legally vote in British elections.) Northern Protestants shored up their privileged position with a powerful notion that they shared in one of the greatest empires in the world. The wonder is not that the Republican Irish were unable to break it, but that they succeeded in reducing it to the size of a mere six counties. This does indeed violate the arbitrary postulate that “Ireland is One,” and so frustrates and angers nationalists. But there is nothing inherently wrong or unjust in that. As Americans should know, there is no necessary symmetry between geography and a political notion.
What has been abominably unjust and cruel is the treatment of Ulster’s Catholic minority. This has given emotional appeal and plausibility to irredentism among the Catholics, and to Republican claims for the annexation of the North. But these are no more “just” than German claims of a generation ago to the Sudetenland, or, say, an American claim to Saskatchewan if some minority there should ask for annexation and be badly treated for it.
But notions also die. Deprived of their imperial citizenship, Northern Protestants have now tried to maintain their ascendancy under a cloak of democracy which is threadbare even in the limited context of Ulster, because it means in practice the tyranny of a majority. This does not accord with the Western sense of democracy and has made the Protestants unpopular in the United Kingdom. Once the iniquity of their rule was exposed and forced into the public gaze, there might have been a chance of gradual (if reluctant) acceptance of reform and the real participation of Catholics in the political life of the province. Terrorism has not brought these things closer but pushed them further away—which is naturally part of the terrorists’ deliberate intention.
So we find Yeats’s house of the starling empty indeed, or rather filled with confusion. In Ulster a bellowing demagogue marches his Protestant goons up the hill and marches them down again, while the armed terrorists who are his avatars engage in lethal shadow play, egged on by their vicariously thrilled, ignorant, and bigoted American rooting section. The real context of it all is the United Kingdom and Ireland together, where traditional political notions are under attack from Jacobin fascists on the Left and neo-Nazis on the Right, feeding like maggots on a rotting economy while striving to aggravate its discontents. In the United Kingdom, pressure groups spurn an older consensus of balance and careful progress, allowing little patience or time for the organic movement of democratic change. Demands for solutions in the form of theatrical or sudden gestures are loud both in parliament and on the streets, and they are redoubled by the squawks of concerned but ill-informed people abroad.
These people are right to see a danger in Ulster, but wrong to suppose that it lies in British “inflexibility,” i.e., the refusal of the government to appease the terrorists and/or “unify Ireland.” The enormous expense of Ulster—a major burden even for the United Kingdom—plus a mass of frightened and bellicose Protestants would in the present recession seriously destabilize the Republic, which is why its government wants none of it. At the same time the shock to the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, from a government seen to cave in before an unpopular and unrepresentative insurrection, would give a strong boost to separatists there, and to political extremists on both wings: the Right would be fortified by outrage and the Left by a scent of possible victory. Without a dramatic fall in unemployment and some surging improvement in the economy (neither of which is likely), there would be a chance (an off-chance perhaps, but a chance) of disturbance in Britain following such a withdrawal, in which extremists would find the opportunity of moving from talk to action, with some prospect of success.
But the people of the British Isles are resilient. With a modicum of luck and (if patience is in abeyance) stubbornness, and with less international kibitzing, their traditions may well survive economic misfortune and the revanchist hatreds which have so corrupted the politics of Northern Ireland. If the pall does lift and the industries of Britain and Ireland pick up again, sectarian differences can come to have less force than they have had in the workless ghettos of Ulster, and in the stultified agricultural backwater which Southern Ireland once was. In the North, with more for Catholic and Protestant to get and spend, and with a more active British interest in the rights of Catholics, the border may one day seem less of a threat, confounding the conventional wisdom which sees Ulster as an “intractable problem” not to be solved, but only dissolved from time to time in blood. Eventually the Republic may indeed spread its notion to the shores of Derry, Antrim, and Down, with Belfast and Londonderry still as British as Dublin is now. But even if that does not happen and the ritual separation of North and South remains (for like the separation of Britain and the Irish Republic it is just that: a ritual), the need to survive in a fiercely competitive world must inevitably push together the interests of the British and the Irish.
Whatever the dreams of the terrorists (and their friends in the United States), the logic of the past 800 years is not for them but against them. This period has seen, not a continual struggle to separate, but a gradual and inexorable merging of interests and peoples in these islands. As the Celts, with their language and culture, replaced an older people, so the Celts in their turn have been replaced; their world is gone, and no amount of rhetoric, historical fantasy, gunfire, or gelignite can bring it back now. If the people of the British Isles are divided for the time being by prejudice and abstractions, the division is still not as deep or as wide as some would like to make it. Such political wounds can be healed by necessity, and by notions which are less mean and parochial than those which made them.
1 Before the 1921 partition of Ireland, the province of Ulster contained nine counties. Three of these, with large Catholic majorities, were joined to the Irish Free State. The other six remained in the United Kingdom.
2 Home Rule meant an Irish parliament with certain local powers of legislation and administration, under the suzerainty of Britain's crown and parliament. Something like this had existed as early as the 16th century, but now Protestants feared a huge and enfranchised Catholic majority on the island.
3 Under De Valera the Irish Free State gradually dropped most of its connections with Britain, so transforming itself into the Republic, and never giving up its claim to the North.
4 The Provos and the INLA are “armies” in the same sense that the Symbionese Liberation Army was a military force. Actually they are murderous secret societies in the classic Irish mold.
5 The IRA maneuvered civilians in between themselves and troops, then opened fire. Seven civilians and six IRA men were killed by return fire. Surviving terrorists removed the weapons of the dead IRA men and withdrew, leaving apparently innocent “civilian” bodies.
6 Finn Gael and Fianna Fail are the two principal political parties in the Republic. Finn Gael is descended from the pro-treaty party which formed the Irish Free State. Fianna Fail is the offspring of the anti-treaty forces who lost the civil war, and claims to be more “Republican.”
7 The East and West Indian immigration of recent decades is changing this to some extent. But the change is not significant in this context.
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