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Violence in Ireland: Another Algeria?

The people have risen,” according to Miss Bernadette Devlin.

Polarization between Catholics and Protestants is complete,” according to Mr. Tom Connaty, Chairman of the (Catholic) Central Citizens’ Defense Committee in Belfast.

The people” of whom Miss Devlin speaks are in fact the half-million Catholics of Northern Ireland. The Protestants, one million people, are not part of “the people” in the sense in which the various leaders, spokesmen, and pamphlets of the present insurrectionary movement are now actually using the term “the people.”

There has been a change here. Two or three years ago, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland were actively—not just formally—discouraging the trend toward sectarian conflict between Protestant and Catholic. So was the Irish Republican Army—a left-oriented organization at that time. Then in vogue were various forms of a general theory that the civil rights conflicts and parallel militant activity on nonsectarian social issues would raise the level of consciousness of the working class (thought of as including Protestants and Catholics) and would eventually precipitate a genuine class war.

Vestiges of this concept remain in the language of the best known spokesmen—no longer really the leaders—of the Civil Rights successor movements when they address international audiences. But in reality no one any longer thinks in terms of revolutionary unity, of the solidarity of Protestant and Catholic workers. More and more openly, the real revolutionary leaders based in the Catholic ghettos acknowledge that the Protestant working class is a part of the enemy: they are not seen as Irish; they are settlers, colons.

Those who hold this view most plainly are the Provisional IRA: those who broke with the official leadership of the IRA in January, 1970, on the ground that that leadership was too Marxist, too theoretical, incompetent, insufficiently military, and insufficiently grounded in traditional Irish Republicanism. One of the ways in which the official leadership had been too theoretical was in its scrupulous care to avoid sectarian conflict, in conditions where sectarian conflict formed such a conspicuous part of the environment. The Provisionals accepted this fact of life from the beginning, and prospered accordingly in the Catholic ghettos. And the IRA “Officials,” where they survived, did so by imitating the Provisionals.

The reality of a war of Catholics (natives) against Protestants (settlers) continues to be formally denied, but with less and less conviction. The socialist convictions or professions of so many of the revolutionary or militant intellectuals (including some of the more intellectual of the Provisionals) make a formally anti-sectarian position obligatory. More important, because affecting a deeper emotional level, is the Irish Republican tradition.

The founders of the Irish Republican tradition were Protestants, many of its earliest martyrs were Ulster Protestants. The IRA of today—both sections—were brought up on the writings and lives of these eighteenth-century men and women. But the militant Republicans now pursue an Irish national concept which—so far as any mass identification is concerned—has become a Catholic affair. And it is to these militant Republicans—the IRA—that the Catholics of the Northern ghettos look, as their defenders and, as they hope, their liberators. Defenders against or liberators from the Protestants, as far as the ordinary Belfast Catholic—not traditionally a Republican—is concerned.

The Republican defenders have increasingly accepted this role. But they have done so uneasily. They would much rather think of the struggle as one against England, against British imperialism, and they have had considerable success in making it look like that, especially in the present phase. To many people following events in Northern Ireland at a distance, through press and television, it must seem that the British army is waging a kind of war on the people of Northern Ireland, using tactics similar to those of the Black-and-Tans in the Twenties. This impression is partly correct. So far as the tactics used against Catholics are concerned the parallel has been, in some cases, shockingly close. Yet when the British troops were first deployed, in August, 1969, it was mainly for the protection of the Catholics—both in Belfast and Derry—against the sectarian police force of the Stormont regime and against armed Protestant mobs. At that time anyone could see—I saw it myself—the Catholics welcoming the troops, fraternizing with them, offering them cups of tea.

Later, within the ghettos, the IRA in its new, more militantly aggressive form built itself up, with some help from Dublin and elsewhere, into a considerably more aggressive and somewhat better armed force than it had been in 1969. Ironically, this happened behind the screen which the British provided as a protection from the Stormont police apparatus. For the Catholic population generally the British troops were welcome in that capacity. But, from the viewpoint of the IRA they could not be welcome in any capacity. Harassment of the British troops and occasional skirmishes against them, fomented by the IRA, led to the inevitable results: retaliations often involving innocent people and arms searches in the ghetto, roughly conducted by troops determined to stand no nonsense from people who had shown themselves ungrateful for the protection they had received. As early as midsummer of last year relations between the Catholic population and the British troops were definitely bad: almost no trace remained of the friendliness of a year before.

This process was then speeded up by three factors, each of which reinforced the others. One was the change of government in England, bringing in the Tories, traditionally more sympathetic to the Northern Unionist oligarchy, and given to toughness in the repression of “lawlessness.” The second was the anger of the Protestant population at the relative immunity which the IRA had seemed to enjoy behind the British army screen, the so-called “nogo” areas. The third was the increasing tempo of the IRA attacks on the British forces, and the killings of several soldiers, on and off duty.

The troops, originally restrained under provocation, were authorized to ease this restraint. Where CS gas had been the response to stone throwing, now a stone thrower might be shot dead on suspicion of being about to throw a bomb. After two such killings in Derry, the killing in Belfast of a completely innocent man, and the beating up by the soldiers of his equally innocent companion, the atmosphere in the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland by the second week of August this year was electric.

It was in these conditions that the Stormont government, with the concurrence of Westminster, started interning citizens without trial. Those who were interned were well-known activists—often not military activists—from the Catholic area exclusively (although Protestant terrorists had also been active against Catholics). Their arrests provoked an eruption of whole Catholic communities and a shoot-out between the British and the IRA, which soon ran out of ammunition. The greatly embittered resistance of the Catholic population then began to take the form of civil disobedience—mainly refusal to pay rents and taxes. This is announced as a nonviolent movement, but it seems improbable that the IRA will not try to make use of it, and regroup under cover of it. Whatever happens, and however tactics may change, the IRA is likely to remain for some time to come the main force in the ghettos of the North.

What can happen now? The IRA—especially the Provisional IRA—is almost alone in having a fairly clear picture of what it thinks will happen. The picture is like this:

The Catholics of Northern Ireland have become ungovernable. This condition, and the inability of the army to deal with it, will provoke such serious trouble among the Protestant community that only a government of the far right (Paisley, Craig) will any longer be acceptable to that community (the majority in Northern Ireland, on which every government in Northern Ireland has always exclusively rested). A government of the Protestant far right will not, however, be acceptable to Britain, because damaging to Britain’s international image. Britain will therefore resort to direct rule, suspending or abolishing the Stormont parliament. But direct rule also can be made unworkable. The Catholics will be encouraged to resist it: their hopes for a united Ireland will be all the higher after the abolition of the hated Stormont system.

But the Protestants also will be disaffected and will resist the operation of direct rule. In these conditions, the pressure on Britain to disengage—a pressure already perceptible—will become irresistible. British troops will be pulled out and then—possibly after an interval in which a United Nations peace-keeping force will hold the lines in Northern Ireland—Ireland will be united. The Protestants of Northern Ireland are—in the belief of the IRA—hardheaded realists who will understand that the game is up once the British pull out.

It is true that the Protestants are in a majority of almost two to one in Northern Ireland but—as Mr. Rory O’Brady, the head of the Provisionals, has stressed—they are in a minority of one to three and a half in Ireland. So they will negotiate, find they can get satisfactory guarantees, come to terms, accept their role in a United Ireland. A small number of extremists who cannot accept this will emigrate to Britain or elsewhere.

This scenario is quite credible, up to a point: that point is the departure of the British troops. Even after that, it still seems credible to some outside observers, relying on apparently close analogies: in Algeria, for example, the colons, for all their bluster, made no attempt to stand their ground once the French army was withdrawn. The Europeans of Kenya and Zambia capitulated in the same way.

I believe that this analogy contains very serious flaws: so serious that people thinking in these terms may inadvertently lead the Catholics of Belfast to their doom. These flaws might be listed as follows:

Even if all Ireland is taken as the unit, the Protestants constitute a much larger minority—more than twice as large—than did the Europeans of Algeria. They are also much more compact. They constitute a clear majority in the densely populated eastern part of Northern Ireland, whereas Europeans did not form a majority in any city of Algeria. (The Kenya and Zambia analogies being much less close may be ignored here.)

The majorities and minorities in question are also qualitatively different. The majority that Mr. Rory O’Brady is thinking of is made up of both Southern and Northern Catholics. But most Southern Catholics, having had a very different historical experience from Northern Catholics, especially in the present century, are in only a rather vague sympathy with their Northern co-religionists. For centuries there have been important differences between the two groups. Fifty years of partition have widened these.

In the South, some politicians, some journalists are speaking and writing as if engaged in a kind of crusade: the Irish Press (controlled by President de Valera’s son Vivian) has written of an impending “final solution.” But so far there is little sign of a mass response proportionate to such appeals. There is not, in fact, anything like the same emotional solidarity among Irish Catholics generally (embracing both North and South) as there was among Algerian Moslems generally, preceding the independence of Algeria and the capitulation of the colons.

Moreover, the Protestants of Northern Ireland are not really very like the colons. As a community they are very much older. Their deepest roots go three times as deep: the colonization of Ulster began at the beginning of the seventeenth century, that of Algeria only toward the middle of the nineteenth century. In this regard, and many others, the Ulster Protestants are much more like Afrikaaners than they are like the former Algerian colons. They have an archaic but serviceable ideology, many generations of conditioning to a siege mentality, a blazingly simplified conception of history and of the history of their enemies. They also have a military tradition and are well armed.

In these conditions it seems to me extremely unlikely that these Protestants will simply cave in if the British troops pull out. It seems much more likely that if that happened, the Protestants, resisting incorporation into an Irish state, would try to fend off such an outcome by crushing the Northern Catholics. Specifically, they would go into the Catholic areas of Belfast—where Catholics are heavily outnumbered—looking for the IRA and its weapons. As they would be resisted, and would be uninhibited in their response to resistance, the outcome could only be the liquidation of the Catholics of Belfast, sectarian mass murder throughout the province generally, and the intervention of the small army of the Irish Republic in the South.

This army would be capable of restoring order to the Catholic-majority border areas of the present Northern Ireland, but not capable of subduing the hard-core Protestant industrial area including Greater Belfast. A cease-fire line would become a new border. The new Northern Ireland would be smaller, but it would have no Catholic minority. In both parts of Ireland such a struggle would bring right-wing extremists to the top, Green and Orange forms of fascism.

It is easier to see that this is where the combined escalation of violence must lead than it is to see how it can be averted. Far-reaching reform to assure the Northern Catholics of their political rights, at the insistence of London, seemed probable—and did begin—after August, 1969.* The IRA revival and its inevitable repercussions set it back. It may be that it is now too late for reform, that Northern Ireland—and Ireland generally—is now on a collision course. Yet this is not necessarily so: there are many people, in both communities, who see the full extent of the danger—and actual experience of the results of limited violence may well increase their numbers.

I have argued elsewhere (The Times, London, August 14) that any settlement that could hope to bring peace to the area would have to include granting power to Catholics in Northern Ireland in proportion to their numbers. It would also have to include a clear recognition by the Dublin parliament of the legitimacy of a Northern Ireland in which the Catholic minority received such a degree of recognition and power. This would mean that Belfast would have to drop the idea of “a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people,” and Dublin would have to drop the quest for imposed political unification.

At the moment the Lynch government combines nominal support for the minority’s civil disobedience campaign with a reiteration of the claim for unification and tolerance for IRA activities inside the Republic directed against Northern Ireland. It would be hard to think of a better formula for uniting Ulster Protestants against any concessions to the minority, but these Lynch positions constitute a reflex to the Heath government’s get-tough-with-Catholics policy. Genuine reforms in Northern Ireland on a scale sufficient to impress the elected representatives of the Northern minority would certainly elicit a positive response in Dublin.

Moreover the majority of the population in the Republic are appalled by the news from the North and clearly more interested in seeing peace return there than in the unification claim. But if any progress is to be made in the desired direction the initiative must come from London, which should recast the political structure of Northern Ireland so as to include the Catholics and request Dublin to acknowledge the legitimacy of this reconstituted entity and to co-operate in deterring attempts to subvert it. These things are within the bounds of possibility and the London government should seek to secure them.

Those who can influence the Tory government should seek to influence it in that direction, not just in the direction of pulling out the troops. Everyone would like to see the troops out, but what is important is to create political conditions such that the troops can leave without precipitating massacres. It will be very hard to create such conditions, but as long as a serious possibility of doing so remains—and I believe it still does—to call for absolute and unconditional withdrawal of the troops, as a section of the British left, among others, is now doing, is cruelly irresponsible.

In all such discussions, the Algerian parallel plays little specific or overt part. But the general idea of decolonization plays a very important part. Both the Irish press and an important sector of the British press regularly evoke in connection with Northern Ireland the image of the imperial flag being pulled down in so many places, the departure or capitulation of so many one-time loyalists. Most of these stories bear little or no relation to Northern Ireland: the comparison of Britain’s role in Northern Ireland to that of the United States in Vietnam, for example, is merely a street orator’s weapon.

Among decolonization situations, the closest parallel is Algeria. I have tried to show that that apparent parallel is dangerously misleading. Northern Ireland is unique: a long, grim history has made it so. The measures to be taken for it and in it should be specific to its problems, not just the application of routines applied elsewhere. To places like the Kingdom of Ashanti the British came for the first time, and went forever, during the lifetime of one man. But Ulster Protestants have been in Ulster as long as white men have been in what is now the United States. And Irish Catholics have been there, coping with the English Question, much longer still.

Letters

Trouble in Ireland December 30, 1971

  1. *

    Northern Ireland is the poorest part of the United Kingdom, and Catholics make up a larger proportion of the poor than of the total population. It is not, however, true to say that the roots of the problem are economic. There are more poor Protestants than there are poor Catholics and appeals for class solidarity across religious lines have been a total failure. Well-off Catholics are as disaffected as poor ones and poor Protestants are as loyal as rich ones. See Richard Rose’s recent illuminating study Governing Without Consensus (Faber & Faber, 1971).

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