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British-Irish peace talks off to inauspicious start
For the first time since 1921, when Michael Collins reluctantly accepted the partition of Ireland by the British, the Irish Republican political party Sinn Fein (Irish for "ourselves alone") held official talks with the British government. For the first time ever members of the largest unionist grouping, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), sat in the same room as Sinn Fein, if only for a few minutes. Yet the talks got off to a rough start. UUP leader David Trimble boycotted the first day. The second day of talks was disrupted by a bomb that exploded in front of a small-town police station, planted by a dissident Republican splinter group called the Continuity Army Council. The hardline Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Robert McCartney of the United Kingdom Unionist Party boycotted the talks altogether. When David Trimble finally consented to sit in the same room with Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, it was just long enough to demand that Sinn Fein be ejected from the talks. Then he stormed out, before Sinn Feins delegates had a chance to respond. In the context of Northern Ireland, this is progress.
The peace talks at Stormont Castle in Belfast face incredible odds and strong opposition from across the political spectrum, with hardline pro-British unionists and loyalists and some Republican dissidents seeking to derail any compromise. But in 1997 there are several new factors indicating that the IRAs second cease-fire may bear more fruit than the first. In 1994, then Prime Minister John Major held a razor-thin majority in the House of Commons, relying on the support of unionist Members of Parliament to govern. Therefore, he was more or less held hostage to unionism, raised numerous barriers to Sinn Fein participation in talks, and squandered the first IRA cease-fire. The new Labor Prime Minister, Tony Blair, enjoys an overwhelming majority in Parliament and 93 percent approval ratings and is not dependent on unionism for his political survival. Blair has also set a deadline of May 1998 for a settlement to be reached.
Blairs government removed the requirement that Sinn Fein decommission weapons as a precondition to participation in the talks, a key demand of mainstream unionist parties (including the UUP) but something the IRA has refused to do short of a settlement. Sinn Fein insists IRA disarmament will only come in the context of the overall demilitarization of Northern Ireland, including the removal of 20,000 British troops. Despite Blairs significant concession on decommissioning, the Prime Minister has managed to get Trimble to the talks, if only for a short time at first. Joining him are two smaller parties aligned with loyalist paramilitary groups. This time around unionists are in less of a position to call the shots and set the agenda, which for them is usually maintenance of the status quo and a resistance to significant change. Some unionists, including Trimbles UUP, have also agreed to a major concession: putting aside the issue of paramilitary decommissioning until an agreement is reached.
Sinn Fein is in a position of strength, having won its highest vote ever in the May elections (16 percent of the total vote, and close to 45 percent of the nationalist vote). The party, one of Irelands most progressive, won two seats in the British parliament. It also won a seat in the Dublin parliament the following month, and holds local and county seats all over Ireland, north and south. Sinn Fein signed on to the Mitchell Principles, including a commitment to non-violence, in September, named after former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who chairs the talks.
Obstacles To Change
Nationalists are still highly skeptical of the new Labor government in the wake of the state violence on Garvaghy Road in Portadown, July 6. In 1996, when loyalist rioting sparked the worst sectarian violence since the late 1960s, opposition members of parliament Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam, now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, were highly critical of the Major government for backing down in the face of violence and brutally forcing an Orange march from Drumcree Church through Portadowns Catholic Garvaghy Road community. Yet this year at Drumcree, following loyalist threats of violence against Catholic civilians on both side of the partition line, the Labor government did the same thing. Several thousand Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British soldiers in riot gear invaded Garvaghy Road at 3:30 AM, beating and shooting people off the road and into their housing estates to clear the road for an Orange March later that day, instead of rerouting it away from the Catholic neighborhood as residents had requested. International observers present were horrified at the unprovoked state violence. South African MP Gura Ebrahim said it was like "Sharpesville without the dead bodies." As one Englishperson wrote in a letter to the London Times (July 8), "The message from Drumcree is loud and clear. New Labour are the same as old Labour...they have shown themselves unwilling to stand up to the loyalist veto on change."
Another possible roadblock toward a settlement is the Blair governments insistence on consent within the six-county framework, which nationalists refer to as the unionist veto. Blair has ensured Northern Irelands 900,000 mostly unionist British-identified Protestants that no constitutional change will be negotiated without the consent of the majority in the north. The problem, say the norths 700,000 mostly nationalist Irish Catholics, is that the Northern Irish state was deliberately gerrymandered to construct an artificial Protestant majority. Often erroneously referred to as Ulster, the statelet of Northern Ireland is actually only part of Ulster; three of Ulster provinces nine counties were partitioned off to the Irish Free State in 1921, because they gave Ulster province a Catholic majority. Since the creation of "A Protestant state for a Protestant people," as the Prime Minister at the time called it, Protestants have used their artificial majority (they are only 18 percent of the total population of Ireland) to discriminate against Irish Catholics in housing, employment, policing, and, until the 1970s, in voting rights. "Consent as the British define it...involves unionists only. No one has ever asked my consent. No one has ever asked the consent of nationalists," said Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in a recent interview. Sinn Fein wants consent put in an all-Ireland context, and both Sinn Fein and the other nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, agree that an internal settlement is not a solution.
Also disconcerting to peace and social change activists was a speech Blair delivered in Belfast in May in which he said he "cherish[ed] the union" and predicted that even the youngest child in the audience would not live to see a united Ireland in his or her lifetime. Ditto Northern Ireland Security Minister Adam Ingrams claim that disbanding the RUC, as many in the nationalist community are demanding, was not even going to be considered at the talks.
Most disturbing is the continued loyalist terror campaign against Irish Catholic civilians. Bernadette Martin, 18, was murdered in her Protestant boyfriends bed just outside Portadown on July 16. James Morgan, 16, was bludgeoned to death after he was picked up hitchhiking a week after the IRA called its cease-fire. The Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVP)a group of dissident loyalists who broke the loyalist cease-fire in July 1996 by killing a Catholic taxi driver near Portadownare widely viewed as the killers. Loyalist paramilitaries almost exclusively target random Catholic civilians. The LVF is also suspected in the murder of two Catholic civilians last spring, including Robert Hamill of Portadown, who was beaten to death by a loyalist gang while walking home. Even though several RUC witnessed Hamills murder, no suspects have been arrested, and a security videotape that may have identified the killers mysteriously disappeared. Catholics in Portadown, where the LVF is based, are afraid to walk into the mostly Protestant town, even during the day. LVF T-shirts are sold with impunity at the Portadown mall, even though the illegal death squad is outlawed. Because of physical sectarian attacks on them this fall, Catholic schoolchildren in Portadown are being bused across town.
The LVF has threatened to bomb tourist targets in the south of Ireland if the Dublin government does not give up its territorial claim to the entire island of Ireland, enshrined in Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution. "The talks are a disaster for the Protestant people," said an anonymous LVF spokesperson, quoted in the Boston Herald, September 25, 1997.
"Theyve received nothing. Protestants just compromise, compromise, compromise. And get nothing in return. We are hell-bent on making the Irish government, the Irish Republic, suffer," he continued. "And were not worrying too much about where the targets will be. We will start targeting tourismstuff like that. If we put a no-warning bomb down south, tourists are going to stay away. Wed get our point across. We have the manpower. We will stop at nothing." These warnings are not taken lightly. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, loyalist bomb attacks in the Republic killed dozens of people, and made southern Irish people reluctant to get involved in northern politics.
For U.S. progressives observing the politics of Northern Ireland, a number of questions arise: Why is Europes longest war so intractable? Why does the northeast of Ireland erupt into state violence and rioting each July? Why are Catholics and Protestants at each others throats? Is there any hope for a peaceful resolution?
The Protestant Siege Mentality
David Trimble recently told the British Broadcasting Corporation that there was "not much point entering a process where people listen to you, and then go on and try to impose an arrangement designed to appease terrorists." A few days later, he dismissed Sinn Fein as "not an important element in this process." Although Sinn Fein is distinct from the IRA, and doesnt control its actions, Trimble and other unionists routinely speak of "Sinn Fein/IRA" to underscore Sinn Feins links to terrorism.
For most unionists, the problem in the north of Ireland is not injustice or imperialism, but terrorism and lawlessness. While they may admit that there was anti-Catholic job, housing, and political discrimination in Northern Ireland from 1920 until 1972, when Britain dissolved the Northern Irish Parliament and imposed direct rule, some rationalize this as due to nationalists intrinsic disloyalty to the British crown. Most unionists would argue that anti-Catholic discrimination is a historical footnoterejecting claims of contemporary discriminationand that the major demands of the civil rights movement were granted in the early 1970s. If anything, they say, since then Catholics have been given preferential treatment.
The solution to terrorism, argue members of the UUP and DUP, is stepped-up counterterrorism and the rule of law. Nationalist demands for state funding for Irish language schools and the rerouting of contentious Orange marches away from Catholic areas are widely viewed by unionists as Sinn Fein-orchestrated attacks on British Protestant culture. Trimble and others view the peace talks with trepidation because they fear that any changes will come at the expense of unionist privilege and, ultimately, their British nationality. To Protestants, Irish Republican attacks on the British state are attacks on the Protestant people, starting with the uprisings of 1641 and 1689 and continuing through "the Troubles" of the last 30 years.
The Irish Catholic Worldview
Most Irish nationalists, especially those from working class communities, see things quite differently. Orange marches through nationalist communities are offensive because to nationalists they symbolize the oppression of Irish Catholics by British rulers and Irish Protestants over the centuries and the continued discrimination and segregation of Northern Irish society, in which Irish Catholics are still disadvantaged economically, politically, and culturally. The few dozen contested marches through Catholic neighborhoods are usually preceded by state violence to clear the road of sit-down protesters. Nationalists are also offended by the open displays of support for loyalist death squads often made by Orangemen, some of whom are members of both groups.
There are about 3,000 Orange marches in north of Ireland each summer, twice the number as 15 years ago. Each year more and more Scottish and English marchers travel across the Irish sea to march in them. Ostensibly these marches celebrate 17th century military victories of British Protestant forces over Irish Catholics in the struggle for control of Irelandespecially the victory of the Dutch Protestant William of Orange over his dethroned Catholic father-in-law, the English King James II. This 1690 victory marked the end of the religious and political struggle for the throne of England. It also secured Ireland for the English crown, marking the decisive victory of English forces over indigenous Irish forces.
More symbolically, the Orange marches which celebrate these battles commemorate nearly four centuries of British and Protestant supremacy in Ireland. They are therefore viewed as "triumphalist" and as rubbing Catholics noses in their continued occupation by the British and their continued second class status.
The 150th anniversary of the Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor) of 1845-49 has sparked a reexamination of the entire history of British rule in Ireland and its devastating consequences on the Irish people. Protestant supremacy was and still is central to British rule in Ireland. During the 17th and 18th centuries, English and Scottish colonists, the ancestors of northern Protestants, dispossessed Irish Catholics of 95 percent of Irelands land through the infamous penal laws, which into the middle of the 19th century denied Catholics the right to vote, buy property, serve in parliament or hold a government job, teach their children or send them abroad for education, be a member of a corporation, sit on a jury, be a lawyer or a judge, to own a gun, or a horse worth more than five pounds. On several occasions monasteries and churches were closed, and clergy were exiled on punishment of death.
Even the most destitute Catholics were forced to pay 10 percent of their annual incomes as a tithe to the Anglican Church of Ireland. By 1775, Catholics owned less than 5 percent of the land in Ireland, compared to nearly 100 percent less than 200 years earlier.
English and Protestant supremacy in Ireland created the social and economic conditions for a series of starvations, which culminated in the Great Hunger of the 1840s when anywhere from 1 to 2.5 million Irish starved to death. The entire time tons of food was exported to England by the British army and the Royal Irish Constabulary, the precursor to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which is now the state police force in the north. Mass murder was also an early tool of "pacification" in Ireland. Nearly the entire population of Cuige Mumhan (Munster Province) in southwest Ireland was wiped out in the 1580s by British forces who burned barns filled with people. This was in response to Irish resistance to a plantation of Mumhan by Sir Walter Raleigh, who later went to Virginia and did the same thing to indigenous people there. English poet William Spencer, who served as a secretary for the army, documented this, and several other generals bragged to Queen Elizabeth I about their exploits. The 1640s brought another mass murder coupled with large-scale deportations. Cromwell and the British army killed or starved to death one-third to one-half of the Irish population to put down an uprising brought about by the English civil war. Most Catholics were expelled from Cuige Uladh (Ulster Province) and banished "to hell or Connaught," the western, most barren and inhospitable province. Tens of thousands of Irish women and children were sold into slavery or indentured servitude in the Caribbean.
The economic and demographic cost of centuries of British rule becomes dramatically apparent when one compares population figures between Britain and Ireland. In 1840, Britains 20 million people was a little more than twice the population of Ireland, then at a peak of 8 to 10 million. In 1997, the ratio is 12 to 1. Britains 60 million population dwarfs Irelands 5 million, which is half what it was 150 years ago. Britain clearly redeveloped its first and last colony, enriching itself through the impoverishment of Ireland. Protestant evangelicals cynically took advantage of the massive starvation to convert thousands of Catholics in exchange for life-saving soup and tickets to the workhouse. Many contemporary observers concluded that the British deliberately starved the Irish to empty pasture land to grow cattle and sheep to feed Englands growing cities. Malthusian and laissez-faire economic theory were cited to justify Britains failure to provide any meaningful relief.
Playing the Orange Card
The Orange Order was created out of the Protestant terrorist group, the Peep o Day Boys, following the massacre of several dozen Catholics in a village near Portadown, southwest of Belfast. Although it ostensibly expressed loyalty to King William of Orange, its main activities were "wrecking," a term for the brutal, often fatal attacks on Catholic farmers in County Armagh that were denounced by one British Parliamentarian in 1795 as a campaign of "general extermination" against Catholics. Wreckers were motivated by a desire for the last remaining Catholic land, and were also furious that some Catholics, desperate for land to farm, were willing to pay higher rents than Protestant farmers. Wreckers usually destroyed a farmers tools, spinning wheels, and home. Because of the violence that regularly accompanied Orange marches, including hundreds of deaths in the 1800s, the British Parliament attempted to ban them on several occasions from the 1820s to the 1860s.
In the early 20th century, pro-British paramilitary groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force were financed by British industrialists to agitate against the pro-independence sentiment that was sweeping the rest of the country. Mob violence by the Orange Orderincluding sectarian attacks against Catholic civilians in which 100s diedwas also instrumental in securing British control of the north and diffusing labor strikes in the 1920s and 1930s. This divide and conquer strategy of "playing the Orange Card" became a staple of British policy in Ireland.
Anti-Catholic discrimination was official state policy in the north until the early 1970s. Even today, unemployment for Catholics is two-and-a-half times that for Protestants, and in some ghettos it tops 80 percent. This discrimination, coupled with police and army harassment, is functional in that it still causes Catholics to emigrate at a higher rate, preventing them from becoming the majority in the north even though they have a much higher birth rate than Protestants. Yet the British government spends millions overseas to lobby against fair employment principles for investment in the north of Ireland modeled after the Sullivan Principles for investment in South Africa.
Harassment of young people by security forces is routine in Northern Ireland. The Committee on the Administration of Justice reports that 26 percent of young people in the six counties have been harassed by British forces20 percent of Protestant or unionist youth and 50 percent of Catholic or nationalist youth. While 15,000 Irish nationalists have served time in jail, only four British soldiers or Northern Irish police have been convicted of crimes, even though hundreds of civilians have been killed by state forces since 1969.
So Protestant supremacy is not just a historical artifact. It is a contemporary reality in Northern Ireland that is part of a historical continuum of abuses that goes back centuries. People in the north of Ireland arent stuck in the past, as many outside observers simplistically conclude. Instead, contemporary actions have historical resonances and significance precisely because so little has changed there, precisely because not enough has changed there. Most nationalists think things will never change as long as the British state backs up Protestant supremacy.
Of course, many Protestants in the north have taken a stand for justice and human rights and are appalled at the violence evoked by supremacist marches, from the state or from terrorists. A substantial majority of northern Protestants in a recent poll backed negotiated compromises on contentious marches, and half of unionists in 1995 said they expected to see a united Ireland within 25 years. Protestants play a leading roll in several human rights organizations, including the Centre for Research and Documentation and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), a lawyers group derided as "Catholics Against Justice" by some loyalists. Yet, post-Drumcree, "Protestant-Catholic relations in Portadown have been set back 25 years," said Sister Laura Boyle, a Garvaghy Road resident. An ecumenical faith and justice group, which had met for eight years to bring members of both communities together and fight discrimination, stopped meeting in July 1996, as it was no longer considered safe. Moderate Protestant voices are largely silent out of fear of loyalist reprisal.
History of Pain, History of Hope
This year is the 150th anniversary of Black 47, the worst year of The Great Hunger, in which 1.5 million Irish starved and a similar number emigrated, even as over 100,000 occupying British troops oversaw the export tons of food to England. But next year, when the talks are scheduled to conclude, marks the 200th anniversary of another event, one tinged with sadness but also hope: 1798 was the year the Protestant-led Irish Republican Brotherhood [sic], inspired by the French Revolution, took up arms against the British to create a free Ireland where all could live in equality, "Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter." Most of the leaders were executed by a superior British military force. Perhaps, two centuries later, the dream of these Protestant martyrs for Irish freedom can be actualized.
Sean Cahill is a member of PeaceWatch Ireland and teaches political science at Northeastern University.