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One Hundred Troubled Years

The deep foreboding of the politics of Northern Ireland that I’ve carried since the Brexit Referendum is now made manifest. Young loyalists’ escalating attacks on Northern Irish police so alarmed President Biden that he’s led the international call for calm.

That the history of the North is so freighted with conflict means it can be used to manipulate impressionable young people and stir them to violence.This year, being the centenary of Irish Partition, it was inevitable that tensions between the nationalist and loyalist communities would be stoked.  In his review of three works that trace the redrawing of the map of Ireland, Colm Tóibín observes: 

“…the border between north and south was created by a dithering British government to satisfy the most intransigent and determined among Ireland’s warring factions. Partition had all the elements of expediency and fudge. All the problems that would result from it – a Catholic minority that felt no allegiance to the new state; the possibility of violence between the minority and the Protestant majority; an unwieldy border impossible to police – were apparent at the very time of its creation.”

Colm Tóibín: Ireland’s bloody line of division, Financial Times, 31.3.21, with the below:

Population Map of the North of Ireland (1923) showing nationalist populations in green and unionist in orange

As armoured police vehicles hinder breaches of a Belfast ‘peace wall’, I recall the deployment in 1969 of British troops, to protect the Catholic minority. 

At that time, Bernadette Devlin was one of my heroes (the other being Angela Davis). Envious when, in 1970, my parents heard Bernadette speak to a huge assembly in New York, I noted later that in the frontispiece to her memoir, my father had inscribed “To Edie, For her ancestors”. 

As I’ve said before, I wasn’t allowed to attend the 1972 York protest following Bloody Sunday. But I soon learned of uncomfortable exchanges with the Police. On a visit to our house, the Old Etonian (who featured in my penultimate post) recounted how, on arresting him, a policeman had grabbed him by the testicles – an excruciatingly painful experience. To hear this shocked me: an avid fan of the avuncular Dixon of Dock Green on TV, I had believed in the harmless ‘Bobby’.

Although I knew from my Queens elementary school, its playground etched with bloody body-map, that armed police were a terrifyingly potent force, on or off duty, such a targeted assault by an unarmed British policeman had, to me, been unthinkable. Being the son of a junior minister in the Heath government, the Old Etonian’s arrest attracted attention: his photo, with cherubic curls and charming smile beamed from the Yorkshire Evening Press.

Years later, I learned of my father’s less physical encounter with a police officer, around the corner from our house.  The protest against the British Army’s killing of 13 unarmed men in Derry on 30 January 1972,‘Bloody Sunday’, led to theYork headquarters of the Army’s Northern Command, on Fishergate. Lines of policemen stood guard.

Former site of Northern Command, Fishergate, York

Leaving the other marchers, my father, a small man with curved spine, approached the sergeant in charge and asked the six-and-a-half-footer (2m) officer:

“Did you know that under the Public Order Act 1936 it’s a serious offence to dress up as a police officer?”

Anxious to learn from my father about Irish politics , and to better understand him, on my weekly visits to his bed-sit a short walk from my new school, I asked about the genesis of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Sitting on a rug in his basement bed-sit one afternoon that spring, I looked up to him as he told me of the split between the Official IRA and the Provisionals. Hearing that the former had renounced violence I felt aligned with the Officials’ position, and discomfited by the Provisionals’ avowal of the use of force.  None the less, back at home I learned ‘rebel songs’ on The Dubliners cassette, such as The Rising of the Moon, to sing with my father.

At Easter 1974, my parents being reconciled, we visited Dublin. Staying in a lodging house that evoked Joyce’s Dubliners, I was struck by the silence of our hosts’ and other guests’ silence surrounding the Troubles in the North. It was only on attending the commemoration of the Easter Rising outside the General Post Office that I sensed national pride in the struggle for independence. While President de Valera, towering head and shoulders above the crowd, approached the columns of the G.P.O., it was troubling to sight two younger boys dart through and shout “Let’s get the feckin’ red-necks!”

That afternoon, I watched my father, huddled under a damp railway arch, engage in furtive debate with cautious young men, lapels adorned with the Easter Lily badge.  It was then that I sensed despair and frustration with the status quo, and got an inkling of the lengths to which Republicans would go to achieve the goal of independence in Ireland.

The Easter Lily is an emblem of unity between the different traditions within the Irish nation as well as the heroism of those who sacrificed their lives for Irish Freedom. It symbolises unity, equality and prosperity for all Irish people everywhere.

In February 1977, my father took me to a seminar given Robert Skidelsky, J. M. Keynes’s biographer, at Leeds University. At lunch afterwards, Ralph Miliband, my father’s professor, spoke of his visit to Northern Ireland the previous week. It chilled me to hear that, on asking what would happen should British troops withdraw, Miliband had been told there would be a blood-bath.

Two years ago, while visiting my German friend in Hamburg, both of us raw after the random shooting of Lyra McKee amidst rioting in Derry, she suggested that the solution to the issues surfacing from Brexit in relation to the Irish border was to unify Ireland. When I put this to a friend from Dublin, he dismissed that idea vehemently: it would lead to retribution and blood-shed.

In his review of The Dead of the Irish Revolution, Tóibín says it is a companion volume to Lost Lives (edited by David McKitterick & ors). I did not read that book when it appeared two decades ago: the review alone distressed me. The names of two uncles of a friend evoked the bashing down of their door in County Antrim, before they were slain by loyalist paramilitaries during the Ulster Workers’ Strike. That was called in protest at the Sunningdale Agreement, which would have given the Dublin government a say in the running of the North. 

Brexit, and latterly theNorthern Ireland Protocol, was inevitably a slowly ticking time-bomb. The fuse was lit years ago. It beggars belief, then, that after the 2015 General Election MPs at Westminster, seemingly with no clue as to the powder keg on which they sat, voted to enact a Referendum on continued membership of the EU. 

Tearfully, I fear for the survival of the Good Friday Agreement, finalised 23 years ago – the news of its signing, viewed after a visit to the site of the Battle of Culloden in Scotland, feeling as fresh now as wet ink. Half a century after publication, with mid-pandemic civil liberties restricted, Devlin’s words resound: 

“The Price of My Soul refers not to the price which I would be prepared to sell out, but rather to the price we must all pay in life to preserve our own integrity. To gain that which is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else.”

To avoid fresh spillage of blood in Ireland, domestic and international stakeholders must act in concert to seek a pragmatic solution, and offer hope to young people in the North. Let us hope that any such intervention isn’t too late.

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