What simple, imaginative elisions might suffice a genuine reconciliation for Northern Ireland?

Yesterday, Martin McGuinness (and a cohort of SF politicians from north and south) was at Messines, where thousands of Irishmen died in the Battle of the Somme. 

An important gesture, no doubt. But in 2016, how is that decade of centenaries coming along in real Northern Ireland?

In Derry the council has ordered the halting of work on the war memorial in the city’s Diamond. And in Magherafelt there’s an out of the blue proposal for a statue of Pádraig Pearse. 

The sheer randoness of these highly localised (and therefore almost media invisible) acts leads you to suspect that it’s all to do with complex constituency management rather than any actual politics, or indeed Rembrance.

On Tuesday McGuinness was at the Menin Gate in the lavishly reconstructed town of Ieper (Ypres). I’ve never been to that part of the old western front, but I’m told the sheer number of the dead named there is dizzying to behold.

It was certainly a dizzyingly stupid war, contrived at by superpowers who had little clue as to the long deep misery  they were getting themselves – and their soldiery – into. 

From a certain perspective it represents a long slow collapse of imagination, to the point where, as Captain Blackadder so eloquently put it, ‘no one could be bothered not have a war’…

British and Irish patriots died side by side at the Somme, and in their tens of thousands. Men who just a few years before had been prepared to fight each other had it come to that. 
It’s a strain of patriotism – largely written out of official histories – that’s being slowly recovered: not through crass revisionism but through a slow – in many ways introspective – revisiting of those events and the precise biographies of those men. 

By the light of Blackadders ‘dictum’ most wars are pretty stupid and horrific collapses in the broader will to maintain peaceful relations. Remembrance itself is no inoculation against repetition.

In the Vosges valley in Alsace each village has a memorial to the dead. Unlike almost every other such monument in France the words Pro Patria Mori are missing from the top.. It’s an elegant elision for men who died for the ‘wrong side’ in 1914-18. 

Whatever the public gestures say to the broader world it is clear that a post conflict Northern Ireland remains a long way from being at peace with itself over its own bloody shortcomings of the past. What simple, imaginative elisions might suffice? 

Or is it more the case that we just cannot be bothered not to have another one?

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  • Nevin

    WWI battlefields.

    “at Messines, where thousands of Irishmen died in the Battle of the Somme.”

    Messines is in Belgium and the Somme is in France. I understand SF is still considering any invitation to a Somme commemoration.

    ‘Elision’ is a curious choice. It can be about leaving out or merging together. SF will probably follow in the footsteps of the Irish government by erasing the British aspect of commemoration. The iconography will be that of four green fields.

  • Gopher

    “It was certainly a dizzyingly stupid war, contrived at by superpowers who had little clue as to the long deep misery they were getting themselves”

    “The utility of war even to the victor may in most cases be an illusion. Certainly all wars of every kind will be destitute of any positive advantage to the British Empire, but war itself, if ever it comes, will not be an illusion—even a single bullet will be found real enough”

    Winston Spencer Churchill, Hansard March 1912

    Nope people knew what they were getting into, well in Britain anyway.They understood it would be the economic ruin of the country and after the recent experience of the Boer War knew it would be a bloody affair, though they underestimated how bloody.This was due to the fact in the history of Europe the entire industrial base had never been turned over to weapons manufacture. The Nation state was a relatively new concept.

    Britain did not want to go to war with its biggest trading partner it jumped through all the diplomatic hoops to avoid it but the treaty obligations to Belguim made it impossible to stay out. The whole Schlieffen plan was based on the assumption the Liege forts in Belgium could be destroyed, Ludendorff, later the de facto dictator of wartime Germany worked out how to do that in 1908. What were the British plans for a continental war in 1908 again?

    People forget the Barbara Tuchman book was mainly an allegorical work to warn against the possibilty of Nuclear War between power blocks to the paranoid sixties. The main difference between Communist Russia and Imperial Germany was there was a powerful political brake in Russia, Germany had no such interface since the Kaiser got rid of Bismarck. Not that the Soviet generals were thick anyway but there was that political “fail safe” in Russia that just did not exist in Germany. Nice title Guns of August but I would tend to look a little deeper.

    “”The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”

    Edward Grey longest serving Foreign Minister in British history at the outbreak of war

  • Nevin
  • Granni Trixie

    Surely a lack of leadership in commitment to reconciliation is a key factor? By this stage occasional public gestures, whilst welcome, are not only Insufficient but fuel cynicism as,taken in the round, gestures are at odds with other signs which sustain the divide. For example, public discourse is a resource politicians can use to promote reconciliation or divide eg “the unionist family” type of language, disrespect for each other’s culture – as often happens at election time or July but which could be used to heal.

    And whilst I am not using South Africa as necessarily a good example of reconciliation or exactly comparable to the situation in NI it is a model to draw on for possibilities. I remember back to Cape Town in 1994 when ANC were in power and shops and public places all over had large posters on their windows illustrated with RDP and large dove images. I remember thinking that I couldn’t see say the likes of M and S here participating in a public display of something ( in context of 1994) likely to be perceived as “too political”

    The Reconciliation and Development Programme (RDP) in public policy in SA was an intervention intended to get buy in to reconciliation from commercial sector. Unfortunately, although they got behind the initiative I believe it was not deemed by government to be worth the investment and abandoned after about 3 years. Nevertheless it does illustrate commitment lacking here.
    That said, we are where we are in NI and I’m crediting all the new MLAs of wanting to do a better job than previously so there are opportunities to build on goodwill. Arlene claims “we are going to do things differently now” – lets see.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Interesting for me, Nevin, is the use of the more general name for the 1917 battle and the particular history that its now general use erases. Until I was in my teens I did not particularly encounter the usage “Messines” locally in the north of Ireland. All of those Irish who had actually been there thought of the action as the “Battle of Wytschaete”, and centred their recollections on their own battle north and south of that village. It is of some interest that the site selected for the Island of Ireland Peace Park is much further south at Messines itself well away from the fields both divisions of Irishmen fought across:


    The older memorial to the 16th Division, a simple cross at the Wytschaete Cemetery, “Do chum Glòire de agus Onòra na’ hÉireann”, marks the place that many of those remembering from veteran’s stories the one battle where Irishmen fought side by side, would usually visit, although as years pass and memory fades, the newer, more dramatic round tower will probably supersede it for people who have only encountered the fighting in text, and not from living people’s memories.

    And yes, Messines was on the eastern face of the Ypres salient much, much further north to that territory fought over in the Battles of the Somme in 1916 and later in 1918. It is interesting that the Irish Peace Park should be the elected site of this act of commemoration in 1916, rather than the broad landscape just east of the River Ancre. Far be it from me to be so ungenerous as to suggest any possible hidden transcript in this.

  • Sharpie

    At this stage in Northern Ireland everyone has to make their own journey to reconciliation. We are so fractured now, split into hundreds of little splinters of truth, experience, perception, and assumption about who started, when it started, who did what, who saw but didn’t speak, who acquiesed, who said what and what they meant, who provoked, who suffered more, who was deserving, what was it all for. These sharp shards of difference are scattered and it is the job of no one to put them together to form a new mosaic.

    To remove ourselves as a people (or two peoples) we must do it ourselves and that means every small local, personal gesture becomes significant. We have to find out how to be open, how to reserve judgement, to listen, and to act generously. Many people have intuited this and just do it – they live by example without any formal badge or funding or academic theory underpinning them.

    Casual conversations – especially ones where you listen more than talk, are a great way to practise reconciliation.

  • Sharpie

    If you are a Catholic – read the “proddie” articles in your local newspaper.

  • Granni Trixie

    Whilst I completely agree with you about the efficacy, indeed the necessity, of micro level approaches to reconciliation, I still think that change is hindered without models at the top.

  • Sharpie

    I agree, but the rescuer is not coming. There is no messiah. We have to accept that and if someone comes to help great – but it probably won’t happen – or they may look like Donald Trump.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, “A dizzyingly stupid war?” Well, one that certainly seems less of a just cause than WW2 The Blackadder version rings true for how it was fought at least up to late 1917. A case of “lions led by donkeys” was glimpsed during the Easter Rising in the battle of Mount Street bridge. But a weightier verdict is necessary to explain such a titanic event. Wars between big states are not fought mainly for ideals. They happen when threats and rivalries escalate into fears for survival, real or imagined.

    All big states were empires. Little did they know they were all soon to end.

    In my view, the Great War was fought to contain palpable German aggression on the continent, at a time Germany feared the rise of industrialising Russia and wanted to get in their blows first. We still marvel at how European rivalries produced the terrible clash of alliances almost mechanically. There is a good case for saying that the path to disaster was laid when Britain opted out of the concert of Europe system in the 1880s in preference for “splendid isolation” and concentration on the overseas Empire. Otherwise Pax Brittanica had made a big contribution to keeping the balance of power for much of the century – unlike after 1918 when the big continental empires had been superseded by the chronically unstable “freedom for small nations”of the Versailles settlement

    It requires quite a feat of imagination to get hold of this analysis. Much easier to dismiss it as “ imperialist.” Today we still fight wars but like to think they are about liberation and humane assistance based on the dominance of human rights thinking. Wars are opposed for precisely the same reasons. Are we any clearer about why we fight them today than many are about 1914? Strategic aims like containing Arab expansion out of chaos are played down but are real enough.

    The Leninist analysis of imperialism is attractive but too easy. McGuinness inherits it out of today’s republican agitprop about the freedom struggle. On the WW1 battlefields it’s a poor theme for promoting reconciliation. I welcome the German taking part in commemorations of D Day and the battle of Jutland. This is about true reconciliation, and not before time But I’m glad to commemorate victory as well as sacrifice. . I’m sure McGuinness isn’t with me there..

    I suspect the war memorial in Derry’s Diamond will eventually be restored. Republican memorials are already part of scene. Creating them in generally acceptable styles and numbers is part of reconciliation. Look at France which has rival left- right memorials of 18th and 19th century struggles all over the place but which have merged into the overall French tradition. That time will come for us.

  • Gingray

    Well said

  • Croiteir

    This is reconciling SF to the legitimacy of partition, that is the undercurrent. To do this the acceptance of the border and the legitimacy of the imposition of the border must be established – it is the logic of accepting the unionist veto in the GFA. To do this first you have to accept an equivalence of those who died defending the wish for the border to those who wished to remove foreign interference in Ireland, to do that the first step is to establish that it was a valid and legitimate cause, and to do that you have to establish the validity of fighting for the British abroad before you can hope to establish the validity of fighting for them at home.

    You will also note the death of Irish soldiers in foreign armies is only to be commemorated if they happen to serve in the British Army. I wonder if anyone remembers Fontenoy when in Belgium? I suppose that this bleeding away of Republican principles is for Ireland. But then who fears to speak of Landen?

  • Nevin

    Glenn Barr provides an explanation in the linked nationalist-orientated video.

  • Declan Doyle

    You don’t offer an explanation for the two issues in Derry and Magherafelt? In Derry it seems to be an issue with monies to complete the job and in magherafelt it appears to be an effort to commemorate the centenary of 1916. Is it that nationalists and Republicans should not enjoy the same rights of commemoration for their fallen heroes while at the same time respecting others? Surely reconciliation involves accepting our neighbours differences including differences of opinion and differences in historical remembrance.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    the rescuer may come through the middle, in the form of the weight of academically rigorous analysis and fact-checking. I tend to agree with Michael Ignatieff’s view that the main role of truth recovery processes to reduce the number of viable lies in circulation. There are some very big ones widely believed right now.

    I’m not sure Ignatieff was very optimistic about actual reconciliation. Reconciliation is not always an uncomplicatedly Good Thing either. With people who maintain their support for illegal violence in our recent past, all there can be is uncomfortable co-existence – and it would be wrong to become reconciled to narratives that justify murder as a legitimate weapon in politics. It just isn’t one. There’s a limit to how much reconciliation is possible with people holding such a view. The only way to come together as a society is to ostracise those views. For that, there could be cross-community consensus. Sneaking regard-ism, or worse, isn’t going to reconcile anyone to anyone.

  • Sharpie

    There is a lot there I agree with you. We may not reconcile to each other but we might as well do it to ourselves. If we each take responsibility for what we are in charge of then the rest is academic. That includes taking responsibility for how we are in the present as well as how we take responsibility for how the past shaped us.

    The rigorous academic fact checking though is a fallacy – there is no such thing as impartiality.

    If we get with the reality that we all have good and dark within and no one is pure and saintly and no one is inherently evil then maybe we can get past the judging.

  • Declan Doyle

    You have hit the nail on the head by your words that serve to reinforce the notion that only one narrative is acceptable. Your murderers are murderers pure and simple while your neighbour sees them as fighters for a just cause. Your neighbour is wrong whilst you are right? On that basis, you are correct indeed that reconciliation is not possible.

    You don’t have to agree with your neighbour but reconciliation means accepting their right to hold that view whilst agreeing to build a mutually benificial future you can share based upon agreed principles

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Everyone bring something of themselves to any analysis, sure, but there are still such things as facts; and it does not render all qualitative analysis meaningless, or I’d be out of a job!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “…accepting their right to hold that view whilst agreeing to build a mutually benificial future you can share based upon agreed principles” – if that’s all reconciliation is, then we’re there already. I was seeing true reconciliation as something deeper and more meaningful than that.

    What you’re describing is the kind of mutually resentful co-existence we have now – and it’s all we will have as long as a bunch of people insist on excusing the inexcusable and refuse to budge on that. There is no reconciliation in terror apologism – sorry, it’s unrealistic to pretend healing can come from that way of thinking. Trying to justify violent extremism breeds new waves of hatred, it’s the opposite of what we should be doing.

    All I ask is that we condemn all the murders of the Troubles, ALL of them, from the bottom of our hearts – and stop making out it was somehow part of a ‘war’, a ‘liberation struggle’ or any other baloney the paramilitaries on both sides want us to think. Surely everyone can get together and reject the terrorist groups who plagued us for so long? We can say no to them now – so let’s do it.

    If we fall at that hurdle, how far exactly are we going to get …

  • Sharpie

    We know the facts. The bit we don’t know, and struggle with, is who and why. We will never find that without talking without pre-conditions or expectations that are any higher than seeing the humanity in the other.

  • Declan Doyle

    Right so again, and with repect; you are dictating the conditions upon which you will accept a reconcilied society. It simply does not work like that, in fact it cannot work so.

  • eamoncorbett

    I don’t know how old you are but there are still a few around who remember what happened before the troubles , which was in its own way a contributory cause of the conflict , I have yet to hear an apology from anyone , even an acknowledgement that people could be treated as second class citizens . Maybe reconciliation should begin with everyone telling the truth right from the very beginning .

  • ted hagan

    Germany, Britain and France have managed to get over these recent bloody conflicts because they wanted to. Here in Northern Ireland we are addicted to them, and relish them; and chew on them, from both sides, and because, through various insecurities, we seem to need them, to reinforce our fragile identities.

  • ted hagan

    And who is left squabbling over the whys and wherefores of the First World War? Not the French, the Germans and the British; who lost great swathes of their populations, but the blessed Irish, north and south, who are never done fighting the bit out. This island is too small. Too petty.

  • ted hagan

    Neither side trusts the other and you can talk til the cows home but nothing will develop until that disappears. Until we get parties that represent something other than sectarianism, until we get an education system that is neutral and with children side by side and religion ignored, until we get rid of “tribal” populations, then we are going nowhere fast.

  • Thomas Barber

    I think the starting point is when all sides, especially unionists, agree that no party holds the moral high ground and that no victims are superior than others. A commitment by all sides to work together on an agreement to build some sort of monument/memorial wall to everyone who lost their lives as a result of the past conflict. As difficult as it seems it is a neccessry step in the path forward.

  • Granni Trixie

    I subscribe to the work camp theory – that from working together trust can grow. …..crucially dependent on the will to do so.

  • Gopher

    I think debates about World War One occur in more places than Ireland. I remember when Constantine Rocca missed the crucial putt in the Ryder cup the German tabloids theme was “Thats two world wars and a Ryder Cup the Italians have cost us” . Today Turkey recalled the their Ambassador to Germany over the Armenian Genocide Vote. Ask a French political forum about the Nievelle Offensive and the subsequent mutinies and you will be assured lively debate. You know how many books on Jutland there are? You know relatives of the Admirals and Designers, fight and re fight with each other every controversy of that Battle in print on behalf of their dead ancestors.

    There is absolutely no squabbling in Ireland, you want to remember the dead of world war one you go to a Royal British legion service. You want to remember the Easter Rising you could go to anyone of the events that takes your fancy. You are free to do either, neither or both.

  • NotNowJohnny

    While I recognise the failures of the old Stormont unionist government as regards its treatment of the nationalist community, the difficulty with your point above surely arises when one is asked to explain why the conflict (including the murder of innocent civilians of whatever class) was still continuing in 1992, a full twenty years after the unionist government had fallen

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I was born in 1969.
    There have been many apologies, including famously by David Trimble when he said unionists in the past created a cold house for Catholics. I’m not into apologising for things I didn’t do or support in the first place, but for what it’s worth I also deeply regret that many Catholics were treated less well in the middle decades of the last century than they had a right to expect by some Protestants. I don’t think there are many unionists now who would defend the snobbery, sexism and sectarianism of some of the old unionist party of the 30s, 40s and 50s.
    The problem has been that there has been so much over-claim and distortion by some nationalist leaders on this topic that it makes it harder than it should be to have proper honest conversations about that era. But I don’t resile from the judgments of historians like Henry Patterson and Paul Bew on the unionist politicians of that era, which are pretty scathing. None of it though either explains or excuses a single Troubles death. The Troubles were a whole different set of decisions by a whole different bunch of people.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Not setting pre-conditions, just a hint of realism. Most people will never accept terrorism was in any way necessary or OK. That is an inescapable fact. Reconciliation won’t work if it tries to sidestep that – people then will not really be reconciled, just paying lip service to reconciliation.
    And by the way I think on the Protestant side I think there could be a real readiness to disown not only Loyalist violence but those actions by state agents which amounted to murder. But not if nationalism is still piddling around making excuses for the IRA and pretending they weren’t complete tw*ts.

  • Declan Doyle

    You have done it again. ‘Realism’ in your neighbour’s mind might include believing that in the context of the time the IRA where fighting a legitimate war, moreover they might not accept it was terrorism. However, what you are saying is thus; it was terrorism, it was murder, it was unjust and unless you accept that, we cannot be reconciled for the future. You are – maybe without realising it – putting down preconditions before reconciliation is possible.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Yes, the project of the Irish Peace Park was apparently developed by people who had read that Irishmen of differing persuasion fought side by side at “The Battle of Messines” and simply did not bother to think about how it was perceived by those who actually fought, or even where they had actually fought. A generalized ahistorical abstract response.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The Problem again, MU, is that you seem to habitually divide the issues of conflict into the (good) state on one side and the (bad) terrorists on the other. The problem is that this has always been a far far grayer issue here than this instinctive classification would allow. At the very inception of the NI statelet the special constabulary from which the new RUC would be crafted were aggressively carrying out sectarian murders, burnings and even sniping at the British army in its attempts to protect the Catholic communities, and all without any intervention by the new government at Stormont. By the Unionist failure to even address such “discipline” issues a future was ensured where any trust in the new government’s integrity would be impossible for the many in the minority portion of our community.

    Without an understanding of these deep memories, built on direct community experience, it is I realise all too possible for an observer to ahistorically simplify the minority community’s response as a willful refusal to accept the new statelet on entirely political grounds. But for those who have in Yeats’ words seen “The State…as the mob that howls at the door”, habitual trust of the integrity of the state will be far more difficult a thing. I’d recommend Tim Wilson’s excellent ” ‘The most terrible assassination that has yet stained the name of Belfast’: the McMahon murders in context” in Irish Historical Studies Vol. 37, No. 145 (May 2010), pp. 83-106, as a good grounding in the background of those months in 1922 when this habitual mistrust was encoded in the minority community’s natural response to Unionism by far far more brutal actions than simple “snobbery, sexism and sectarianism”.

    As you say below “Most people will never accept terrorism was in any way necessary or OK. That is an inescapable fact. Reconciliation won’t work if it tries to sidestep that – people then will not really be reconciled, just paying lip service to reconciliation.” Until it is recognised that Unionism itself was born and developed out of the threat of a violence which was uncontrollably unleashed in the first year of NI’s existence by men in the livery of the new state, the exercise of attempting to limit the term “terrorism” to non-state agency only is an evasion.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The MHSI (of which I’m a member) were involved in the 250th anniversary commemorations of Fontenoy in 1995. There is an article on page 238 of Vol XIX of “The Irish Sword”. Yes, some people remember.

  • Croiteir

    I will guess that is the military historical society of Ireland? The white rose is not forgotten.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’ve inherited membership, rather. My grandfather was a friend of that doyen of the White Cockade, Sir Charles Petrie. And yes, our own (correctly named) Irish “Loyalists” of three hundred years ago are not forgotten.

  • eamoncorbett

    Trimble ‘s statement was more of an acknowledgment of the facts than an apology , but that’s beside the point . The troubles were in the main an over reaction to a political problem which had its origins in the 1920s , an extreme over reaction .
    I’ve always believed that if NI shared the same relationship with Dublin as with Westminster from the word go , the rampant sectarianism that poisoned politics could have been prevented . The absoluteism of Republican and Unionist philosophy is the biggest obstacle to constitutional dialogue .
    There are now signs that politics might be turning the corner , if so well and good , if not then the future for NI looks bleak . Watching Sammy Wilson last night would not install a great deal of optimism.

  • cu chulainn

    You support the continuation of colonialism and the sectarian statelet it spawned, so you haven’t really disassociated yourself from them.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    colonialism, really? I struggle to see how the Good Friday Agreement dispensation is colonialist. But look, there will always be republican dissidents; happily most people are solidly on board with the peace process. And not just unionists either.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The greying though consists, to very crudely boil it down to levels of wrong-doing, of a state that was committing wrongs at 1 or 2 out of 10 level in terms of scale and types of wrong-doing – maybe it’s 2 maybe it’s 1, the debate is somewhere within those limits – and terrorist groups that were committing wrongs at a 9.9 or 10 kind of level (and we can debate within those parameters where they were). So yes there are grey areas but putting them into the same grey area is well wide of the mark.

    I know very well that the nationalist narrative often seeks to play down the level of paramilitary violence and play up the level of state violence. But it is not only muddy thinking, but lacking in either self-awareness, fairness or regard for the big picture facts of both the Stormont years and the Troubles.

    The relationship between unionism and violence isn’t perfect of course, I wouldn’t suggest it was. I do think though the influence of the ideological belief within Irish nationalism in the legitimacy of ‘political’ violence is of an entirely different order. It was the single most important factor driving the use of violence in N Ireland in the 20th Century, at the risk of stating the obvious. The sheer scale and persistence of Republican terror can only be explained with reference to the intellectual and moral case made by mainstream Irish nationalism for the illegitimacy of the state and the legitimacy of violence against it (and its people if they get in the way, which they of course did).

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you MU for your effort to seriously answer my points raised. You are perfectly correct to insist that the legitimisation of violence is an unacceptable activity. The thing here is that rather than in any way attempting to play down or even excuse paramilitary violence, or to offset it in any display of “whataboutery”, I’m actually trying to show that this tendency to legitimise paramilitary violence what Unionism itself is doing when it represents its own inevitable legitimacy as a given thing! Such legitimacy can only be credited when the simple factors of origin, the threat of violence explicit in the 1912 Ulster day and its aftermath and the terrorist actions of those “in state livery” following the opening of Stormont and into the first half of 1922 are safely filed away from memory and ignored.

    I’m a constitutionalist, who believes with Thoreau in “The Duty of Civil Disobedience”, and abhor all recourse to violence, but in this I do not discriminate between a self pointed group of revolutionaries in the north either in the years 1912/14/22 or of another group of Revolutionaries in the north after 1969. Clearly during 1921/2 your 9/10 grading unquestionably applies to Unionism where men in state uniform were murdering Catholics and sniping at the British army, a precedent which would influence the less obvious practice of future generations within Unionism!!! Both lots of revolutionaries looked to violence for an answer, both practiced violence and the success of the first in 1922 was only at the expense of the writing out from the state’s interests of a sizeable portion of the community within its borders. So I tend to judge what occurred on its own violent terms rather than attempting to establish a league table of culpability.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The answer is to be equally against all force except that necessary to the enforcement of law and order by the state. I have no desire to sanction on one side what I wouldn’t sanction on the other side. But all states have to be allowed a monopoly on the use of force in enforcement of the law, or they cannot survive as states. We also have to accept that that force will sometimes be misapplied, or over-used. In extreme examples, this could render the whole state illegitimate (as in Nazi Germany). But it surely takes a lot – and I’d suggest, a whole lot more than ever happened in Northern Ireland.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    MU, I’d entirely agree with you in theory, but please look at the article by Tim Wilson I first posted if you can access it, and you’ll perhaps begin to see how I believe that such behaviour (well outside of any rule of law) indulged in by men in uniform, with no serious rebuttal of their conduct by those in authority, can effect permanent damage on how even the most reasonable and law abiding people in any community so attacked must view their relationship to such a state.

    This is not a matter simply of “force will sometimes be misapplied, or over-used”, it is what would be unquestionably be described as “terrorism”, “intimidation” and “murder” in the opinion of any reasonable person when it might be conducted by men out of uniform. That it was sanctioned by both overt and covert state approval does not in any sense endorse “free play” for others to counter it with similar behaviour, but it clearly does brings the moral authority of any government into serious question that does not confront (let alone punish) such actions by men wearing the state’s own livery.

  • Sharpie

    Really interesting point and one that articulates a real division in perspective.

    Ireland from one side’s perspective was invaded, occupied, settled, colonised, partitioned, and oppressed.

    For the other side it gained glorious victories over the impoverished and perfidious natives in the name of the King and the law and undertook the god-given job of bringing industry and establishment ways to civilise in the image of the King.

    In between everything is grey no matter grey shade one or grey shade 9.9

    The democracy we have today is only a mechanism of the times we live in. It is in the grey. Everything that took place in the last 40 years is in the grey.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think we should have a Smokescreen Alert message every time someone tries to portray terrorism as morally grey. It just isn’t.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree it undermines the authority of the state somewhat when bad policing happens and t’s not dealt with adequately, e.g. Stephen Lawrence affair happen, corruption in the Fraud Squad in the Met, South Yorkshire and so on. But it seems to me a stretch for those things to render the entire state illegitimate. It does make one wonder about other agendas, especially from people who do see the state as illegitimate anyway. That not to get the police or the state out of cleaning up their act, but the question of the legitimacy of the state and of police forces for that matter is not easily removed, in a democracy, even an imperfect majoritarian one like NI was in those days. Incidents like the 1922 murders you referred to would have had to have been perpetrated many times over, consistently over a period of years. That isn’t what happened. It’s possible the state was over-policed, though the events of 1969 suggest otherwise; but the reality is things pooled along fairly quietly for several decades, there was relatively little violent incident.

  • Sharpie

    And likewise for absolutists. I am a pacifist but not a stupid one. There is moral ambivalence everywhere.

    Even in our everyday decisions of what we are going to eat; what technology we will use, laden with rare earth minerals from conflict zones; what we will eat either harvested directly from, or prepared using ingredients from exploited communities; what we will wear sewn by whom in what factory; what we will sit on made from timber from which hardwood forest.

    Every little decision is wrapped up in this ambiguity that does not lend itself to naive platitudes of good and evil. There is a bit of both in all of us and in our societies.

    There’s a worrying number of posters on this site who like to remind everyone of their innocence and their non-responsibility for the troubles or any of the stench emanating. Guess what – you, me, we are all contaminated with that whiff of Northern Ireland. Fair enough to argue who has a slight smell and who has a stench but guess what; loads more people than you think stink of trouble and it doesn’t mean they shot a gun and they may wear green or they may wear orange or even something else.

    It doesn’t have to drag us down but it has to be acknowledged before spraying peace process febreeze all over it.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    You are glossing over the all important issue here, MU. “Stephen Lawrence……. corruption in the Fraud Squad in the Met, South Yorkshire and so on” were not acceptable to the central authority in England, and when they were disclosed, they were not simply ignored by the governments of the day. The legitimacy issue is not only about the state’s employees acting as terrorists, its about those in power doing nothing about it, and even absorbing some of these people into their new police force. In the case of Inspector Nixon who commanded the Specials in the Marrowbone area of Belfast where most of the worst atrocities occurred, while he was named as the organiser and director of such activity in the Free State report into the McMahon murders, and was dismissed from the new police force for extremist political views, he was then recommended for an MBE which was awarded. The all important thing is that the standards of British fairness and justice which should have informed the behaviour and attitudes of the new administration were conspicuously absent. Regarding the notion that “things pooled along fairly quietly for several decades” that might just depend on which section of the community such cohesion was viewed from. For those burnt out of Lisburn or the Marrowbone or close to those victims of sectarian murders at that time, this might not have seemed so settled a situation, any more than it can for some of those today who consider that similar injustices have been perpetrated on their lives by some now in power.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    But the Met did little about corruption for decades, it didn’t make the whole state illegitimate …

    I think the nationalist attempt to use the inadequacies of the old RUC, or poor government by the UUP, to suggest the state is illegitimate fall down because ultimately, they are non-sequiturs. Nationalists make that leap because they want(ed) a united Ireland anyway. Failures by unionists in positions of authority will be legion as you would expect – failures always are – but it’s deeply unhelpful when such instances are used to build some contrived argument about the need for a change of sovereignty. The nationalist critique of unionist rule suffered from that self-undermining tendency from the start. There were good and tough critiques of the unionist period of rule, but the best are surely those that have sought reform of NI, not using grievance as a vehicle to overturn the people’s free, democratic choice on sovereignty.

    On the ‘things pootling along’, the point is, whatever angle you look at it from, there simply wasn’t much violent happening in those decades. You mention a few exceptions and of course things weren’t perfect, but they were exceptions. It doesn’t amount to the kind of government that demands violent overthrow.

    Its imperfections, it seems to me trying to be objective about it, did run deep but the effects on people’s everyday lives were better described as mildly negative rather than spectacularly negative. To those experiencing them, they probably felt very negative. I would just ask people looking at this to read a fair overall appraisal of the record, such as that done by Henry Patterson, rather than rely on the more polemical accounts.

    The nationalist body politic was little, if any, better when it came to cronyism, ethnic preferment, irredentist views on the border or willingness to work together. It wasn’t a great situation, but it wasn’t like nationalist leaders until the 60s were far-sighted modernisers any more than the unionists were. Northern Ireland was a backwater, sorry to say it. One with a degree of ethnic unfairness bequeathed by a long history of ‘us’ and ‘them’, never really tackled and with no great urgency about tackling it.

    My grandfather was a farmer near Strabane and ran a farm shop. I know he got criticised locally back in the 50s or 60s for hiring a Protestant to work in the shop, when it was a very Catholic area. On one level, yes that was a form of discrimination. He’s not around to explain, but this was not a sectarian man. He didn’t care about much apart from the farm, the business and his family – that was his life. But I think if you’re in the Protestant community in areas like Strabane, there aren’t many of you and it is very close-knit; the opening was probably made known among friends and family, who would have been Protestant, and snapped up by someone within that circle without ever being advertised. He probably didn’t think anything of it. I suspect a lot of what goes down as discrimination in that era was that kind of thing, though I’m sure active sectarianism also featured.

    I tell the story though because it seems to me that in many cases nice and fairly blameless people perpetuated social disadvantage without meaning to, just by getting on with their lives. When we judge ‘unionists’ of that era, it’s worth remembering that not every disadvantage experienced by Catholics and caused by unionists was intended as such. The whole hyperbole of “oppression” and “Orange state” etc does just make me think the speaker is talking about a different place than I ever experienced, and one inhabited by an entirely different kind of people. The Nixons of this world did exist, but anyone who knows Northern Ireland knows how rare people like that are. Not rare enough perhaps; but still pretty rare.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    MU, a good and full response as usual. thank you! But did I anywhere mention “a change of sovereignty”? I do believe that the Unionist reject of Constitutional Home Rule by the threat of violence was a serious mistake which has led to a century violence in its wake. But I believe that what I’m saying about the uses of the term terrorism is quite separate to any wish for a united Ireland. I simply cannot see how anyone can be so emphatic in the blame of others for this fault when the state they support was born through similar methods, and in its failure to offer protection to all its citizens, its quite tacit support of the uniformed terrorists themselves, it set the very example that those who would seek to overthrow it would follow.

    You speak about “the speaker is talking about a different place than I ever experienced, and one inhabited by an entirely different kind of people.” Having been raised in a quite sheltered middle class protestant community myself, I had to take the critiques my elders raised on faith! Yes, it was very comfortable and secure. But as I began to have increasing numbers of friends from “themuns” during my teens, I could easily see just why they were so concerned about the unitary Unionist state my elders had criticised from liberal principals, and the ruthless “Project Fear” crushing of the naissant growth of Labour by Unionism in the 1960s showed just how little those in power here would wish for British conditions to genuinely develop.

    I take your point about reform, but experience has made me more cynical bout the efficacy of such an approach under the old dispensation, in the light of the unwillingness of even people like O’Neill to countenance change on any terms but his own. When the NICRA and the PD attempted to redress many of the wrongs of decades and to bring NI into line with Britain on important issues, this was confronted by aggressive street violence, something which had been simmering away from the foundation of the state. This is why I simply cannot differentiate the Nixons of 1922 and the men they directed, and Ronnie Bunting Sr and similar men under his direction all too willing to go to any lengths again, and with very little interference from the RUC. The point is, that the statelet may have had a veneer of decency for those of us cushioned from the harsh realities, but with even a hint of reform the burnings end evictions reminiscent of 1922 recommenced in mixed areas.And when “the Nixons of this world” resurfaced, all too many “decent protestants” simply sat back and let them do their dirty work.

    This was not a system of governance that anyone seriously concerned with justice and equable treatment of all could take seriously as their protector. I am not following the conventional nationalist line here and in any way suggesting that such a system justified a recourse to violence, but I’d suggest that the unresolved polarisation of such a system, and the constant threat of violence that, for example, the “B” Special armed patrols, (jolly and casual as they may have been in the “protestant” country side of the 1950s as I remember them) ever implied the use of weapons on their fellow citizens, and reminded those who needed “to be kept in their place” of a not too distant past when these had been employed unrestrained by authority. In 1968, the atrocities go 1922 were only 46 years in the past. The events of 1968/70 lie at a similar gap of time form those of us writing today.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    sorry the ‘change of sovereignty’ thing was aimed at nationalist critics of pre-72 N Ireland, not yourself.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    On reform, O’Neill was changing though and a lot of the anomalies being complained of in 68 were pretty much addressed and done and dusted by 1970. So yes there were forces of conservatism aplenty but I don’t get that peaceful change was impossible.

    PD were hardly innocent in the promotion of street violence themselves – this wasn’t some pure unionist-on-nationalist scenario. Remember, the Troubles themselves started in Aug 69 with a nationalist mob attacking a police station. People had experienced nationalist violence before, were wary of the IRA and having seen them parading around among big crowds in 1966 didn’t know how weak or strong the IRA really were, that only came out later. I think it’s not unreasonable for people sitting at home to feel deeply anxious at what was happening on the streets in 68-69. Most did not join in, whether marching, attacking or anything else – many like my parents could see what those involved couldn’t seem to, that it was pouring petrol onto the Province’s latent mutual sectarian divisions.

    There was reason to want reform of the politics of N Ireland in the late 60s, but I don’t think it’s relying too much on hindsight to say both those wanting change and the NI and UK governments made some howling mistakes in how they moved things forward. The worst mistakes were those on both sides who resorted to violence. Take the violence out and everything could have been resolved much more amicably, and more quickly. I dare saw we’d have similar structures in place that we have today, but we mightn’t be dominated by two stridently partisan parties hated by the other side; we wouldn’t be missing almost 4,000 people who should be here with us; and we wouldn’t be trying to live together amidst the resentment, hatred and trauma caused by so many murders and deaths.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “PD were hardly innocent in the promotion of street violence themselves – this wasn’t some pure unionist-on-nationalist scenario.” I wonder were the notion that the PD, a body committed to passive resistance, were responsible for the abusive and violent behaviour carried out against them. They were certainly not a “nationalist” organisation, you have only to ask anyone seriously engaged in the PD today, or to read any interview to be disabused of that, but you may in this be unconsciously running in the same groves as those decent Unionists of 1968 who did not trouble to look beyond the misinformation they received via the paranoid rhetoric of Bunting and Paisley. It’s very interesting that you should have dated the origin of the violence to August 1969, and to Catholics, rather than to the efforts to intimidate the NICRA at Coalisland a year earlier and at two Derry marches, with the clear elements threat, intimidation and open violence by Bunting’s gangs on the second.

    I fully agree with you that in 1968 peaceful change was possible, but only should O’Neill have begun to work outside of the Unionist paternalism, whose moral worth was for reasons I’ve long ago explained, utterly threadbare. From the late 1940s decent people within the Unionist project such as Brian Maginess and Clarence Graham attempted to reform their party and perhaps even the statelet into a more equable place, but met with the solid resistance of extremism and the indifference of the “decent ” people. I entirely agree with you in general that “The worst mistakes were those on both sides who resorted to violence.” but with the encouragement of extremism by many of the Unionists at the centre of power, is it any surprise that the encoded nature of Unionism resorting to freelance and even on occasions uniformed “terrorism” re-asserting itself to avert change. As this was something not simply going on outside of t6he centre of power, but encouraged by the influential anti-O’Neill dissidents, culpability for the direction taken by its re-introduction must begin with those within Unionism, intoxicated by a belief in the efficacy of violence by their mythic valorisation of 1912 and the lamentable violence of a decade later.

    Again I believe with you that “Take the violence out and everything could have been resolved much more amicably, and more quickly. I dare saw we’d have similar structures in place that we have today, but we mightn’t be dominated by two stridently partisan parties hated by the other side; we wouldn’t be missing almost 4,000 people who should be here with us; and we wouldn’t be trying to live together amidst the resentment, hatred and trauma caused by so many murders and deaths.” But I’d consider that the nature of Unionism, and its traditions of violence, needed to be honestly addressed from the ground up for this to ever have been possible. Rather than the clearly defined a “good” civil society assaulted by violent men, “White hats/Black hats” you are injecting into our situation, I’d see an historical situation with two rats fighting in a bag, neither holding any high ground.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Bless you, MU, I sometimes forget that we are having a many sided conversation, and respond in broad strokes.