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Who Began the Killing?

In response to:

An Ulster Fable from the February 21, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

I think it should be pointed out to your readers that Conor Cruise O’Brien, in reviewing Jimmy Breslin’s World Without End, Amen [NYR, February 21], contrives to give a version of the situation which is quite as distorted as he claims Breslin’s to be. He is, after all, the minister of Propaganda in the Republic, exercising a severe censorship through radio and television, and a slightly more subtle one through the Government Information Bureau, which he reconstructed by drafting into it men who would faithfully reproduce his own views of events in the North.

He makes the implication that the Provisional IRA began the killing in the North. Not so. It was the Royal Ulster Constabulary who did this, using armoured cars and Browning machine guns on unarmed and unsuspecting Catholic citizens in the Falls Road area in 1969. He also states that the British army’s role in the North is, fundamentally, to protect the Catholic population. This was originally so, but to state that this situation persists is a lie. Who protects the Catholics from the massive campaign of Protestant assassination gangs (accounting now for over 220 deaths of the 1,000 O’Brien snidely attributes to the IRA)? The British army has killed scores of innocent Catholics in various areas—Bogside, New Lodge Road, Strahane, Ballymurphy, and many other places. That army has killed a further eighty civilians in what are euphemistically called road accidents since it came to Northern Ireland four years ago. These deaths are the consequence, in most cases, of a campaign against the Catholic populations of the main Catholic ghettos in Belfast and Derry, one favorite form of which is the high-speed driving of armoured cars through heavily populated areas, day and night, but often without lights and often with two wheels on the footpath.

I have seen many examples of this, one fatal, in Derry, my home town. There is also considerable evidence that the notorious British Army SAS units are operating in the North, bombing and assassinating, chiefly, although not exclusively, in Catholic areas. Such allegations are denied, in London and in Dublin, although no other explanation for the bombs in Dublin, which killed two people, is likely. Further, the British army has been shown on several separate occasions to be guilty before the law (despite the degree to which that law has been distorted by special legislation) of murder, torture, wrongful arrest. It operates the policy of internment which the SDLP is pledged to end, because it chiefly affects Catholics. But internment is also the policy of the Republic’s government, even though O’Brien, one of its most fervent supporters now when he is in power, opposed the legislation which made it possible when he was in opposition. No doubt he will quote Burke on circumstances to defend himself from the charge of inconsistency on this score.

The reasons for O’Brien’s obsession with the IRA as the sole or even the primary cause of Ireland’s ills are peculiar to him and therefore not very interesting. But that he should be given the opportunity in your columns to make this obsession the basis of an argument which pretends to penetrate more deeply than does Jimmy Breslin’s book into the sources of the Northern Ireland problem, is surprising. The Northern Irish situation is much more complicated than O’Brien is willing to allow, especially on that side which he pretends to have a special anxiety for—the Catholic side. One of the complicating factors, which it is his duty as a minister of propaganda to subdue, is the savagery of official British policy “on the ground” (as the Army says) in the North, a savagery which he hypocritically sponsors and supports as a policy of protection. The “Catholic killers” are one element in the situation; but what about the “Catholic killed”? That largest single group among the 1,000 dead which O’Brien snidely attributes to the IRA have been created by the “protection” afforded to them by the British Army, which killed many of them and protected the remainder from the depredations of the RUC, the UDR (ex-B Specials), the UDA, the UVF, the UFF, and the Red Hand Commandos. All of these latter organizations are Protestant; their aim is to kill, not IRA men, but Catholics. O’Brien rarely speaks of their existence; yet he is anxious for the protection of the Catholic minority. We might also consider the fact that there is a certain sleight of language to which ministers of Propaganda are prone. When, for instance, the British army suffers a fatality (207-250 so far), that is a “murder”; when the IRA, Provisional or Official, suffers a fatality, it is a “casualty,” if not, indeed, a triumph. Or, to leave the IRA for the moment, we might consider the statement made in September, 1972, by a prominent member of the SDLP, the elected “Catholic” party whom O’Brien supports against the IRA. This statement was published, in an interview with me, in Atlantis, No. 5, April, 1973, p. 69. The spokesman said that the SDLP’s “experience with the Labour Party (in the Republic) has been made difficult by the presence of C. C. O’Brien as Labour spokesman on Northern Affairs. I am dismayed by the attitude of the party; had Northern Ireland been a matter of more urgency for them they would have got rid of O’Brien.” The same, sir, applies to The New York Review of Books….

Seamus Deane

University College, Dublin, Ireland

Conor Cruise O’Brien replies:

I did not claim, or imply, “that the Provisional IRA began the killing in the North.” The sequence of events is set out quite clearly in my book States of Ireland. The fact is that the renewal of violence in the modern period—starting in 1966—came from Protestant extremists and was directed against Catholics. Elements of the old RUC—a largely Protestant force—and of the entirely Protestant B Specials participated, in various places, on the side of the Protestant extremists, or functioned in the same capacity. As a result of this situation, the British Army was deployed in August, 1969, for the protection of Catholics and the process began of reforming the security and other structures of Northern Ireland. During this period, the Catholic population fraternized with the British Army.

Responsibility for the return of violence in this new situation, after the deployment of British troops and the introduction of reforms, rests squarely with the Provisional IRA, which set itself to break up the fraternization which existed at this point, and to replace it by confrontation, beginning with organized stone-throwing by youths and boys and proceeding later to armed attacks on the troops, coming from out of the Catholic ghettos, and by a savage campaign of indiscriminate bombing. Inevitably—and unintentionally as far as the IRA was considered—this drew the British troops into the ghettos, in pursuit of the IRA and their weapons and explosives, and thereby involved the Army in collisions with the civilian population.

In the course of these collisions elements of the Army—as is also stated in my book—behaved brutally and on occasions killed indiscriminately (as on Bloody Sunday in Derry), and the Catholic population became strongly antagonistic to the British Army. This was one of the intended results of the IRA campaign. Another result of the campaign was to inflame Protestant opinion—not only extremist opinion this time—against not only the Provisional IRA but the population which was seen to harbor them, the Catholic population. Thus the extent and intensity of Protestant antagonism towards Catholics is far greater now than it was in August, 1969—the date on which the Army was deployed to protect Catholics from Protestant fury. It is clear therefore that if these same troops were now withdrawn, the result in terms of violent collisions between Catholics and Protestants would be far worse than in August, 1969. In Belfast where Catholics are heavily outnumbered the likely result would be a massacre of Catholics. In other areas, depending on the balance of forces, either Protestants or Catholics might become the victims. It is my opinion, and I believe that of most serious observers of the Northern Ireland scene, that as long as antagonisms between Catholics and Protestants remain at anything like their present pitch, the withdrawal of the British Army would entail violence on a far greater scale even than the serious violence which accompanies their presence there.

The best hope for Northern Ireland is that sustained experience of power-sharing—with both Catholics and Protestants in the executive—will tend in the long run to reduce antagonisms. There is also ground for hope that existence of the power-sharing executive—meaning that the British Government from now on will be advised by a body representative of both sections of the community not just one—will ensure that the British Government’s use of its armed forces will take into consideration the reactions of both sections of the community and thus prevent the excesses which occurred at an earlier period—mainly coinciding with the period of Mr. Reginald Maudling’s responsibility for Northern Ireland.

The core of the Sunningdale agreement is power-sharing inside Northern Ireland and friendly relations between the power-sharing communities. To make Sunningdale work will require a great deal of patience and nerve, in the face of both physical and verbal violence. Some academics, on both sides of the fence, have contributed to raising the level of verbal violence, thereby increasing the momentum towards Civil War. Mr. Deane’s letter is an average specimen of this kind.

Perhaps now, if Mr. Deane can calm himself sufficiently to attempt some kind of analysis, he would reply to a precise question: What exactly does he think would be likely to happen in Belfast if the British Army were now to be withdrawn?

As regards Mr. Deane’s comments on myself, your regular readers will be aware that I have been writing for you for a good many years—long before I became, just a year ago, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs—described by Mr. Deane as “Minister for Propaganda”—in the government of the Republic of Ireland. I wrote for you on Northern Ireland several times long before I became a Minister and those of your readers who may be interested in the subject will be able to judge whether my views on this subject have in any way changed since I became a Minister.

Mr. Deane’s statements about my “exercising a severe censorship through radio and television, and a slightly more subtle one through the Government Information Bureau” are false. Irish broadcasting, which is a State monopoly, has always operated under certain statutory restrictions. These include, under an act of parliament passed in 1960, the power of the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs to issue directions to Broadcasting Authority as to what it may not broadcast. This is an arbitrary and hence an objectionable power and I propose to remove it in new legislation which I hope to introduce in the Autumn. In the new legislation, while removing the Minister’s power of arbitrary intervention I shall propose that the Authority itself have the responsibility of ensuring that the national radio and TV services are not used to undermine the democratic State itself, through the glorification of either wing of the IRA, or otherwise. Pending the introduction of the new legislation, the Authority operates under a direction issued by my predecessor aimed at the same objective. This direction, together with that section of the law under which it was issued, will lapse with the new legislation, but the object at which it is aimed will continue to be safeguarded.

The Government Information Service has no powers of censorship, being merely an agency for keeping the public informed about the activities of the Government.

Internment, that is imprisonment without trial, is not in operation in the Republic of Ireland. Specified offences concerned with firearm and explosives and membership of the IRA are tried before special courts consisting of regular judges sitting without juries.

So far from having opposed this measure when I was in opposition I publicly argued then—as I do now—that, in circumstances where there is or is likely to be intimidation of witnesses and jurymen, there is justification for courts sitting without a jury.

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