THOUGHTS FROM AFAR
The news coming out of Northern Ireland over the last few weeks reads like something from the 1970s, minus the carnage (thankfully). However, in reading the papers, watching the TV, listening to the radio and reading all the online sources, is, to say the least, depressing and disheartening.
On the ground, we witness the proxy bomb attacks in Derry/Londonderry, the brutal kneecapping of a youth in the Creggan, an attempted car hijacking in Belfast. A paramilitary shooting of a young woman in East Belfast, as well as a paramilitary punishment shooting in Coleraine that took place while punishment beatings are supposed to have ended in both communities. A major split has taken place in the UDA with the fear of a violent feud amongst the competing factions. The situation has deteriorated to the point that “The US government has warned its citizens the threat of terrorism in Northern Ireland is severe and they should exercise vigilance.” (Belfast Telegraph, 27/11/2013)
While all this is happening in the streets, political parties and community groups on both sides constantly cite the issues of social, economic and educational deprivation and the marginalization that their respective communities suffer. The problems run even deeper within the Protestant working class where not only does that community experience all these problems, but also believes that its culture and its way of life are under attack from Sinn Fein. In particular, the removal of the flag, as Winston Irvine, put it on the Nolan show (27/11/2013); was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” (Johnny Harvey had made the same point in December 2012.) This explains the emotional nature of the flag protests and the intense frustration of the Protestant working class with politics.
The interesting point above is that leaders and people within both communities realize that the social, economic, and educational factors are the most important issues facing them. Yet, some within each of these communities continue to pursue policies that do not address those very real and important issues. Instead, they find themselves locked in a battle with each other over symbolic issues, when the real fight lies in improving the quality of lives for all the people in Northern Ireland.
What does all this mean for Northern Ireland? Four years ago, a good friend of mine, who did and continues to do significant and groundbreaking work on the conflict, told me that the life cycle of “peace” in societies coming out of conflict is approximately 15 years. Ominously, it is now 15 years on from the Belfast Agreement. Is my friend right? Does everything that I have listed above indicate that Northern Ireland is on its way to a new round of sectarian violence? I do not know. However, the evidence from 3 December 2012 through today does not present us with a hopeful picture.
Having laid out my pessimistic view above, I would argue that Sean Brennan’s piece “Case for Sinn Fein/Progressive Unionist Party alliance” (3/11/2013) points the way out of this stalemate and the way forward. Alex Kane’s recent piece The Dissidents are not going to go way also is important to read in terms of looking for a new way out of this impasse. Some may view both of their visions as unrealistic, and to a certain extent, I would agree with that criticism. In particular, Kane’s call for ‘Sinn Fein—and particularly the IRA element of it . . . [to] disown this new generation’ and admit that ‘they themselves backed the wrong strategy’ is more than hopeful. However, I would make the case that Brennan’s argument makes much more sense than, as David Ervine often put it, the continued “tribal dance” that has brought on this stalemate; the point where the US government is now warning its citizens not to travel to Northern Ireland.
Building on Brennan’s work, I would argue that in order to move forward and to avoid a return to the past, as well as address the issues important to both communities, leaders, parties and people from all sides must make tough and unpopular decisions. Strong and fearless leadership from all parties, in particular those who represent the most disadvantaged in Northern Ireland, must fight the very real battles necessary to address the social and economic problems both working class communities face.
All the polls over the last few years strongly demonstrate that a united Ireland is not going to happen anytime soon. There is little immediate desire for it either north or south of the border. That being the case, as Brennan argues, then Sinn Fein, if it really cares about social, economic and educational issues of the working class, needs to spend its time building coalitions with the Protestant community and groups around issues important to them all rather than worrying about taking down symbols it finds offensive. This would dovetail with the comments made by Dr. John Kyle at the PUP conference in October about the nature of poverty and other social problems in Northern Ireland; that they are not simply ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic.’
Sinn Fein and the Provisional Republican leadership must also overcome its own “tone-deafness” when dealing with the loyalist and unionist community. This “tone-deafness” only further alienates those that Sinn Fein has to persuade to join them in a United Ireland. One significant example of this occurred on the 20th anniversary of the Shankill bomb when republicans unveiled a plaque to Thomas Begley, the IRA man who died carrying the bomb in to Frizzel’s fish shop. Gerry Kelly attended the ceremony in Ardoyne and Sean Kelly, the bomber who survived spoke at this commemoration.
The address by Declan Kearney to St. Andrews University on 16 October 2013 is another stark example of this. Speaking a week before the anniversary of the Shankill bomb Kearney stated that “The legacy of the Shankill Bomb will stay with each bereaved family and our entire community for many years. It is a legacy all republicans will share with deep regret and sorrow.” Then he immediately shifted the attention away from the actions of the IRA when he stated that, “In the subsequent days unionist paramilitaries engaged in multiple killings of Catholic civilians.” Here, Kearney offers no genuine apology and no real acknowledgement of the pain and suffering the IRA caused that day. Yet, at the same time, Kearney made the point, when talking about this period “that the only solution [to the violence] would be found through dialogue. There was no military solution to the political conflict.”
If dialogue was the way forward then, it is most certainly the only way forward now in this era of political stalemate. Again, echoing Brennan’s work, I would argue that Sinn Fein, instead of pushing through its agenda of removing symbols of Britishness and focusing only on its goal of a united Ireland, should begin to engage in positive dialogue with the PUP, the UPRG, the Orange Order and the many Protestant community groups. Why? Well, as I stated above, if Sinn Fein’s goal is a united Ireland, it is not going to get it through attacking the symbols of the unionist/loyalist community. The only way for Sinn Fein to achieve a united Ireland is through convincing the unionist/loyalist community it has a future in a united Ireland. The constant attacks on the symbols of Britishness actually push the unionist community further away from any collaboration and into the entrenched positions of “No surrender” and “No compromise”. In other words, confrontation is counter-productive to the project of a united Ireland unless Sinn Fein’s goal is to marginalize the UPRG, PUP, and the Protestant working class and leave them out of that project.
As it was, and to a certain extent still is, the loyalist community is “reactive” in that it responds to provocations from Sinn Fein and/or other parties/groups that it believes is attacking it. The flag protests are a clear illustration of this. However, if the Protestant working class wants to have an impact on the future of Northern Ireland then it must move beyond fighting only for its symbols and focus instead on the important issues that it faces every day. As I argued in “Where Do We Go From Here?” the road of “populism” around the “nation”, “symbols” and tying their future to right wing politics and groups leads nowhere for the Protestant working class.
So, what should the Protestant working class do in this situation? Whenever I think of this question, I go back to the 1977 Combat document called “Think or Perish”, written in response to Gusty Spence’s famous 12th July 1977 speech . In this speech, Spence laid down the strongest challenge yet to unionists, loyalists and republicans to find a way to end the violence and create a peaceful Northern Ireland, stating, “Eventually loyalist and republican must sit down together for the good of our country if we claim to be patriots. There is no obstacle that is insurmountable.” (Spence Oration, 12/07/2013)
Spence’s speech was so powerful that it made those who wrote, “Think or Perish” realize that “’Populism’ is no substitute for the truth.” (“Think or Perish”, July 1977) Taking their cue from Spence, the authors argued that,
It is essential that we cease to cling to old cherished myths and traditions in the face of new realities. The human intellect must now be employed for the salvation of our fair Province. We must think our way out of our present critical dilemma. To continue in meaningless violence is far too dangerous. It is think or die. Since there will obviously be no victor in the war of attrition the only possible battleground left to reasonable and patriotic men is in the mind and around the conference table.
One may well ask what does this have to do with the present situation. My answer would be everything. The reality here, as it was in 1977, is that Northern Ireland has once again reached a stalemate, this time a political stalemate. In getting out of this deadlock, the lessons from Spence’s 1977 speech and “Think or Perish” are absolutely crucial for the future of the loyalist community. Dialogue has to take place and loyalists must participate in that dialogue. Real politics, focusing on social, economic and educational issues as well as a better quality of life for everyone has to replace or at least take precedence over the battle surrounding symbols and parades. Spence recognized this in 1977 when he stated that,
We can never go back to the society that once was, even if we had a wish to. We want employment and decent homes like all human beings, and loyalists will no longer suffer their deprivation stoically lest their outcries be interpreted as disloyalty. (12 July 1977 speech)
In other words, for both communities, politics must replace populism.
Even while defending the flag and the protestors at Twaddell, Billy Hutchinson said much the same in a Belfast Telegraph interview on the 29/11/2013:
There are social problems in working-class communities and until they try to deal with creating jobs and tackling educational underachievement we have a problem.
Those at the Assembly have had quite some time to do it, but we haven’t seen anything.
We need unionists to recognise we need to deal with the past.
Everybody’s views need to be heard. Republicans can’t be allowed to tell us how to deal with the past. Parades and the past are connected to flags and parades. If we don’t, we will continue to talk about parades and the past for 50 years.
I know that many will reject some if not all of what Brennan and I have argued and I welcome any and all criticisms. However, the reality on the ground is that both sides, whether they like it or not, will eventually have to engage with each other in dialogue on the real issues that are important to both communities. The only other alternative is the current stalemate, along with the political vacuum that breeds extremism on both sides and threatens the peace process.