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Violence in Ireland: An Exchange

This letter was written by Paul O’Dwyer in response to a letter from Conor Cruise O’Brien and the recent article by the latter in NYR.

My dear Conor:

Your letter of September 8, 1971 arrived here late. In the meantime, however, I have had the benefit of reading your article, “Violence in Ireland: Another Algeria?” in the September 23 issue of The New York Review of Books. From reading both, I think I can recognize the area of agreement and the points of difference between us.

Agreement would be in the premise that violence is not the appropriate instrumentality to cure society’s ills. Seemingly, you feel that the violence charged to the IRA is the issue, while I believe that the violence which brought them into prominence is the source of Northern Ireland’s present state. If we could somehow eliminate the latter, the IRA would soon disintegrate or become irrelevant.

That portion of your article which seems to swipe at Bernadette Devlin, placing her in a role of equal villainry with the IRA, leaves me bewildered. Since I don’t understand it, I must pass it by.

As to the activities of the IRA, I think that one must differentiate between aggressiveness or “retaliation,” with which I disagree, and a program of resistance against the weaponry of death aimed at a defenseless population locked in their ghettos like so many sitting ducks. I regard the latter as nothing more or less than a form of self-defense. Other claims as to the IRA’s ultimate objectives come under the heading of exaggerated rhetoric, which has accompanied many a protest to which you and I have lent our names.

If you say so, I must accept your evaluation of your constituency’s acceptance of your outspoken opposition to the IRA, but then your constituency has been known to be polite. However, you have not been elected by the people of Bogside or Ardoyne, and when the Saracen and Land Rovers come into those areas, it brings little comfort to the inhabitants there that your position has been justified by your neighbors. From the relative tranquility of a Dublin constituency it is not too difficult to speak dispassionately. As the old saying goes, “Tis easy to lie on another man’s wound.”

But whatever be the role of the IRA, one thing is certain, their existence is the response to long-standing oppression. The IRA has been around for years. For a couple of decades now it was an ineffective group torn by both theory and personality and, at worst, constituted a minor irritation. Then one day a group of young people attempted to walk unarmed from Belfast to Derry and their broken heads at Burntollet bore testimony as to where the violence really was. The determination of the people to end the oppression at home and the hypocrisy at London resulted in further tyranny and 12,000 “protectors.” The protectors gave a hand to the oppressors and the struggling ones found precious little help from the outside world, including your constituency. It was at this point of desperation that the IRA became a welcome sight. Any student of history knows that persistent oppression sooner or later begets violence. Belfast and Derry proved to be no exception.

It is obvious that your definition of causative violence and mine have come to differ of late. Violence is the treatment of your fellow man with derision and contempt. Violence is proclaiming him to be inferior. Violence is denying him a job because of his affiliations—political or religious. Violence is depriving his child of food or shelter. Violence is a political and social system which poisons the mind of a child against his fellow man. Violence is the segregation of a child in school or at play and sowing the seeds of bigotry and the consequent debilitating cancer of hate. Violence is a hell of a lot more than an IRA man on the roof of a building under Derry’s walls while the Anglian’s protectors move in their armor to teach the natives another lesson.

No, Conor, the IRA is not the issue. You may as well tell me that the Viet Cong is the issue and not my country’s army of occupation in Vietnam.

I would recommend to my fellow liberals in Dublin Paul Johnson’s appraisal of the situation recently appearing in The New Statesmen. I’m sure you have read it, but it’s no harm to repeat it. Neither Paul Johnson nor The New Statesmen is an IRA spokesman: (“In Ireland,” he writes, “over the centuries, we have tried every possible formula: direct rule, indirect rule, genocide, apartheid, puppet governments, real parliaments, marshal law, civil law, colonization, land reform, partition. Nothing has worked. The only solution we have not tried is absolute and unconditional withdrawal”). I believe it is time for those who love Liberty in one part of the world to close ranks with those who love Liberty everywhere. The place which has spawned more martyrs, fought hardest against the most overpowering forces and for the longest time in history requires that we stand as one and with our total energy and dedication while these oppressed people are on the threshold of a new day. Of course, we shall continue to have differences of opinion. So did Connolly and Pearce. So did Jefferson and Hamilton. It should be less hindrance to us to work toward Freedom in our day than it was for them at their time in history.

I must confess to a feeling of ethnic pride when in Columbia University a few years ago, you and I, lone Celts, stood at an early peace rally in protest against my country’s invasion and devastation of South Vietnam. We were not diverted by news of Viet Cong acts of cruelty. I thought in a way we were preserving the noblest traditions of our respective countries and common ancestry. Why should we be side-tracked now from standing together to meet the real issue and wipe away the reasons why men inevitably reach for weapons of destruction as the last desperate fatal means left to them of proclaiming their dignity.

As to your comparison between Algiers and Ireland, your experience in Africa leaves me at a disadvantage. The idea is a thought-provoking one, and I hope I can give it attention in the near future.

Paul O’Dwyer

New York City

Conor Cruise O’Brien replies:

Dear Paul:

Thank you for your letter.

You say: “As to the activities of the IRA, I think that one must differentiate between aggressiveness or ‘retaliation,’ with which I disagree, and a program of resistance against the weaponry of death aimed at a defenseless population locked in their ghettos like so many sitting ducks. I regard the latter as nothing more or less than a form of self-defense.”

I agree that one must, or at least should, make a differentiation between aggression and defense but the point is this, Paul, and this is what I wrote to you about:

How do you know, or why do you even believe, that those whom you would help to collect money in the United States make any such differentiation? I put it to you that you have no means of knowing that such a differentiation is made and no control whatever over what is done with the money.

A campaign of bombing is going on in the North at the moment. It is not entirely random bombing. This particular campaign is directed at places frequented by Protestants. Thus, a few days ago, a pub in the Shankill Road was blown up, two Protestants were killed and many others injured. Money for these bombs is coming from somewhere. It may be coming from the United States.

You will tell me that this leader or that leader of the Republican Movement repudiates such tactics. Some of them do. But when the explosives and the guns actually get to Belfast they get into the hands of people who are not interested in the kind of differentiation which you think “must” be made, and not much interested either in declarations made on their behalf in New York or Dublin.

In present circumstances the collection of money for guns and bombs does not make the lives of the minority in Northern Ireland any safer. On the contrary it makes their lives very much more dangerous, both in its own nature and by the British military activity which it provokes and—most dangerous of all—by the rising fury it has provoked among the Protestant majority.

Think about that a little and think about how regularly those who influence you on this use the expression “the people” when they mean the Catholics only. You yourself use the words in that way in your letter. Your words “the determination of the people to end the oppression at home and the hypocrisy at London” can be regarded as accurate only if Protestants are not people.

You remind me that I am not living in the Bogside or Ardoyne. Right. Neither are you living in the Shankill. But I am not helping people to collect money to be used for guns and bombs in these areas. You have helped in doing so—through your efforts to allow a man identified with these activities to proceed on a fund-raising tour in the United States.

I could well understand it if this was mid-August, 1969, if armed Specials and Protestant fanatics were forcing their way into defenseless Catholic ghettos, burning and killing, and the British Army were standing idly by—if then you were saying “we must give these people arms for their defense.” Well and good. But this is not now a case of self-defense, and don’t let any rhetoric persuade you that it is. The IRA are on the attack. They see the enemy as in the first instance the British Army and in the second instance the Unionists—that is to say virtually the entire Protestant population of the North. To the extent that they get their way they will provoke a holocaust whose victims will include, among many others, most of the Catholic population of Belfast.

Paul, when next you listen to the rhetoric of our latter-day Irish Republicans, just picture for yourself the wreckage of that pub in the Shankill Road and reflect that that was done in the name of the heritage of Wolfe Tone and “the common name of Irishman.” Don’t tell me that you repudiate that particular action and that the guns and bombs you were helping to finance were not intended for this particular exploit but for self-defense. Don’t tell me that, Paul, though I know you sincerely mean it. Go to Northern Ireland and tell it to a Protestant audience. Because of my affection and regard for you I would advise you to pick a quiet middle-class one.

The general question of what violence is I would be happy to discuss with you in a more leisured hour. At the moment I am interested in a specific kind of violence: the violence which you have been misled into fomenting and which I believe to be both morally and politically unjustifiable.

Who in their sane senses wants to bomb a million Protestants into a united Ireland?” That question was put recently by the Northern Catholic bishops. Neither you nor I supposes that something is necessarily right because a bishop says it, but in this case the bishops are “telling it like it is” and they don’t live in Dublin. Or in New York.

You commend to me what Paul Johnson says. What Paul Johnson says is demonstrable nonsense. He says the talk of Protestant backlash is bluff. We know it is not bluff. It is because it is not bluff that the British troops were deployed in the first place, in August, 1969, when the Protestant variety of killers came into the Catholic ghettos in Belfast. If the troops were withdrawn now, these killers would go in and finish the job. Paul Johnson’s formula of “absolute and unconditional withdrawal” is a formula which would mean in practice the massacre of the Catholics of Belfast, and civil war. This consequence is not accepted by Mr. Johnson, but it is accepted by the editor who prints Mr. Johnson, Mr. Richard Crossman, editor of The New Statesman. He says this withdrawal would be followed by a blood-bath in Ireland, but that this must be allowed for.

As regards the Vietnam parallel, as far as I am concerned the people who want to “bomb a million Protestants into a united Ireland” are on the same footing as the Pentagon planners who want to bomb the Vietnamese people into the free world. Military arrogance does not need a hat with gold braid. A cloth cap will do just as well.

In conclusion I would thank you for the tone of your letter as well as for taking up the argument. I know how deeply you feel about this matter, and there is an ethnic stereotype which requires two Irishmen who feel deeply but differently to exchange insults. I hope that I have avoided that as carefully as I know you have done. I expect to be in New York in the coming winter and hope we may talk then.

In the meantime, please don’t help collect money for arms in whose use you have no say.

Conor Cruise O’Brien

Dublin, Ireland

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