The Good, the Bad and the Reality

Small people for peace

There is no good news for the families of the soldiers and police man murdered here last week in the course of their workaday lives. While some of us have the luxury of analyzing the stories and trying to interpret events, for those families life has been shattered and will never be the same. For them, it’s all bad news. But there is a further potential casualty that I don’t think anyone has thoroughly mentioned as yet. That is the sense of security and safety that we have come to take for granted in our everyday lives here in Northern Ireland, and the risk to that sense of peace is very unsettling. I’ve lived here for 17 years now, and perhaps the journey that I have come to see the people taking is different because it is seen from the perspective of an outsider.

About 15 years ago, when I worked in Social Services, I had a crisis over a Christmas weekend when a client did not get his dinner served by one of the local organizations who had volunteered to do it. As I had already taken some drink, as had my husband we could not deliver a meal to him. There were no taxis available, and the unlamented ex suggested that we phone the RUC. It seemed daft, but I did it and explained the circumstances. It was still in the bad old days when it took 3 squad cars and a helicopter to make sure that the turkey in Rostrevor wasn’t an ambush, but the officers duly collected the dinner, pudding and crackers. They then not only brought the meal to the retired priest, but sat with him while he ate and made sure he had some company for a brief while on a lonely Christmas day. I wanted to write a letter of thanks to the local paper and the Irish News following this, but that idea was firmly vetoed in the workplace. It was explained in no uncertain terms that ‘we’ just didn’t do that. We might use the services of the RUC when and where we had to, but we didn’t acknowledge it and there was a firm sense that we certainly wouldn’t offer praise for any of their actions.

Several years later, when I helped out in a local festival, the police came by the office one day. No-one seemed to mind that they were there, and I offered them a cup of tea. Once again, I had to be taken aside and it was explained to me that while it was now OK to acknowledge the police and co-operate with them to a limited extent, ‘we’ most certainly would not offer them a cup of tea. That was out of bounds, and completely unacceptable.

A couple of weeks ago, I did an interview with Linda MacAuley for Radio Ulster’s On Your Behalf. In the course of the interview, she mentioned that as well as the organisation I worked for there were other groups out there like the Army Benevolent Fund, among others. I panicked for a few moments but I thought it was possibly OK for me to get a mention in the same sentence as the Army. I checked it out with some friends, and we felt everything had moved on significantly and it was probably fine.

To me, this represents the slow but inexorable progress that had been made. A section of society that had rejected the representatives of law and order were now cooperating with them and there was a genuine sense that freedom of a very essential kind had returned to Northern Ireland. The freedom to choose your workplace, your friends, your neighbours and your hobbies. The idea of collective thought was fading from memory and the future really did seem bright. That had been the good news.

The reality is that we just don’t know what is going to happen to our sense of freedom and our sense of being able to choose. The actions of those who committed the murders last week not only extinguished the lives of three fine men, it also put into doubt the very core of normal existence here. Within the week, civilians who worked in areas of security were once again being asked to look over their shoulders and adopt precautions that had long lain forgotten.

That was probably the sense that struck me most at the rally during the week. The sense that going backwards isn’t an option, that the lives we have built for ourselves, our children and grand children cannot be returned to the men of violence. My only sense of hope lies in the fact that so many more of us are in this together now, and the minority is truly a minority. At the beginning of the week I thought of trying to draw parallels with the Irish Civil War, but those similarities don’t hold up. The overwhelming majority of people are content to share this land and find accommodation with those whose perspective on nationality is different. As Kate Carroll said, in the end it all really doesn’t matter. They can fight and kill and maim, but in the end we all end up in a 6 by 6 plot of ground.

  • Turgon

    Miss Fitz,
    An excellent article. I am a little unsure about some of your comments, however. In parts of Belfast and “The Pale” amongst the middle classes “The freedom to choose your workplace, your friends, your neighbours and your hobbies.” was, I feel real prior to the ceasefires. I would be inclined to agree that that freedom has probably been beginning to extend. However, you underestimate the ability of people here to pretend not to care about their neighbours etc. I hope you do not take this personally but I feel as an outsider you may be less well equipped to appreciate the remarkable ability of both sections of the community to pretend they are much more liberal than they actually are.

    In addition your suggestion has a number of easily demonstrable flaws. In working class communities there are now more, not less, peace wall than there were during the troubles. Also out here amongst the dreary steeples and where I was brought up in South Londonderry I do not think attitudes have changed much at all.

    I do agree, however, the fear of what you are describing is very real especially for those members of the chattering classes who wanted to believe that everything had changed. I am afraid it has not and this episode reminds us that it has not.

  • Miss Fitz

    Turgon
    I don’t want to get too drawn into debate, but I have to say that the idea of choice I am talking about is only too real. My eldest daughter has been house hunting recently and there has been a noticeable extension in the number of areas that she and her partner might consider. As a mixed religion couple, that is a prime concern.

    I am only too aware of how families continue to need to move either under a SPED programme or through the Housing Executive. Those are neighbourhoods where you need to exit in a particular hurry as your life is in danger.

    I have no doubt that there has always been a human side to Northern Ireland, and I am more than aware of how that was demonstrated. The point I really want to make is the slow march to normality. If you have only ever known abnormality, its a little harder to recognise.

    Thank you for your comments and compliment though, it is much appreciated.

  • KieranJ

    “At the beginning of the week I thought of trying to draw parallels with the Irish Civil War, but those similarities don’t hold up.”

    You are very perceptive.

    It didn’t stop the pundits and the editorializers from trying to make that comparison in various newspaper columns, however.

    They jabbered on with authoritative pomposity without even considering the fact that the civil war in Ireland took place between brothers who wanted freedom for their country but simply disagreed on the proper way to achieve it.

    In the six counties, the opposite applies.

  • 6 County Prod

    People in NI tend to be liberal when they see their liberality reciprocated, but they become very stubborn when things are shoved down their throats. Over the past few years that liberality has been on display as the two sides of the Northern Irish community have gradually gained more appreciation and respect for each other, as illustrated by Miss Fitz’s comments.

    Turgon, you said: however, the fear of what you are describing is very real especially for those members of the chattering classes who wanted to believe that everything had changed. I am afraid it has not and this episode reminds us that it has not.

    I must say, I am becoming increasingly annoyed with those people who have a grotesque and morbid desire to return to the past.

    It is not a matter of hoping that things have changed in NI. Things have changed, and it is absolute madness for anyone to want to revert back to how things were or, indeed, create the conditions that would precipitate such a return.

    Whether we accept it or not, republican and loyalist terrorists have been released or reprieved and were basically given an amnesty. That will not change. They are not going back to prison. SF/IRA have abandoned their armed struggle, and have no plans to go back to violence. Unionists now share power with republicans. That will continue. The war is over. Let’s move on.

    I know it is extremely difficult to see people who were involved in terrorism become part of government, but that’s the way it is. Jim Allister obviously had no problem in being involved with the negotiations at Saint Andrews, thus implicitly accepting the concept of SF being involved in government. He just happened to take cold feet at the last minute.

    There is only a tiny percentage of the population on each side who want to return to how things were before: the dissident republican groups on the nationalist side, and the TUV and maybe some individual loyalists on the Unionist side, but it it ain’t gonna happen. The situation has moved on. The majority of the people in NI, both unionist and nationalist, will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into such a situation.

    Turgon, in a different post you suggested that had you known the consequences of the IRA terrorist campaign in advance, you would have agreed to a united Ireland. Might I suggest that by agreeing to the present power-sharing agreement you might help avert a return to the violence of the past.

    The RIRA/CIRA/TUV wish to put the clock back is only courting disaster.

  • Turgon

    6 County Prod,
    “Might I suggest that by agreeing to the present power-sharing agreement you might help avert a return to the violence of the past.”

    I am afraid that my analysis is that by appeasing terrorists one simply increases the amount of terrorism in the future.

    Why do you make the scurrilous suggestion that somehow I “want to return to the past” by which you clearly mean I want a return to violence. I do not and any suggestion to that effect is simply a slanderous lie.

    I oppose power sharing when it is with unrepentant terrorists: that is not to say that I want to return to violence. I do not for a moment doubt your commitment to peaceful and democratic politics. Why do you insist on telling lies about my position?

  • “I oppose power sharing when it is with unrepentant terrorists”

    What do you propose as an alternative?

  • Turgon

    catholic Observer,
    I do not want to hijack Miss Fitz’s blog; I have done multiple blogs on that subject. In fairness I have not done so for a while and will do one again soon.

    Essentially I have always advocated not sharing power with terrorists. Hence, if I was in a position of political power (most unlikely due to my lack of talent, looks, charisma, ability to speak in public and having no ambition) I would refuse to share power with unrepentant terrorists. This would result in either a renegotiation of the agreement or direct rule.

    I am sorry and am not trying to be difficult but I think it is very bad manners to hijack Miss Fitz’s thread. As such I will do a proper blog on the subject soon. If I forget just remind me.

  • Rory Carr

    Turgon seems quite oblivious to the sensibilities of the nationalist community who might have considered that sharing political power with the unionist representatives of all that state terrorism and its paramilitary loyalist cohorts that had made life all but impossible for them since the inception of the undemocratic NI statelet was a bridge too far.

    Yet, in the interests of peace, and with hope riding high, they bit the bullet and extended the charity of engagement with unionist terrorism.

    The reciprocity has been slow and grudging, balking at every step, demanding renegotiation of positions already conceded, failing to live up to trust extended and yet still the republican side have demonstrated again and yet again their patience, their understanding of that side’s difficulties with its backwoodsmen and have given let to breathe knowing that it too had its own difficulties with reactionaries on its own side and might require a similar understanding from mature minds on the side of unionism.

    While Miss Fitz expresses the fear of many that the bad old days might return and hopes and prays that they do not, all of Turgon’s contributions inevitably, despite his smarmy protestations, lead us to believe that he actually is salivating at the very idea that they might – if only to prove him right – in order that, as it were, the prophecy might yet be fulfilled, and Turgon restored to glory.

    All the indications from the reaction across the board to date are that his is a voice crying in the wilderness. Where is exactly where it should remain – out of earshot of common, decent folk.

  • 6 County Prod

    Turgon, I know that you do not want to return to violence, but per your post 7 you want to cancel out the GFA and St Andrews and go back to direct rule. It is just so unrealistic.

    I don’t want to get bogged down in the semantics of ‘repentance’, but do you not realise that the PIRA actually sincerely believed that they were fighting a war. They strictly followed the rules in their little green book to reach their objective and were as ruthless with their own members as they were with ‘the brits’. I used to work with an IRA volunteer who was executed for being dishonour on the organisation.

    SF will never give the type of ‘repentance’ you seek, but they have clearly demonstrated that they have abandoned violence as a means to achieving their (legitimate) political aims. It is easy to be sceptical and refuse to accept that, but I believe they are genuine.

    They, like those on the loyalist side who have killed and maimed, will never be judged for their deeds on this side of eternity, but ‘it is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgement.’

  • 6 County Prod

    2nd para, last sentence: ‘bringing dishonour’

  • 6 County Prod

    Miss Fitz
    I appreciated your post. My favourite phrase was ‘slow but inexorable progress’. Here’s hoping!

  • Gregory

    “That is the sense of security and safety that we have come to take for granted in our everyday lives here in Northern Ireland”

    That’s a subjective view, for some people maybe, but by no means for everybody. The PSNI have struggled to deliver, if we are being kind. We still have political policing.

    Gregory

  • Gregory

    “They strictly followed the rules in their little green book to reach their objective and were as ruthless with their own members as they were with ‘the brits’.”

    The IRA fought ‘their war’ like criminals, without regard to the conventions of war.

    From the Geneva accords perspective.

    Gregory

  • 6 County Prod

    Gregory, I am not defending their actions, just trying to insert a little perspective. Terrorists never follow the Geneva conventions.

  • Greenflag

    6 county prod,

    ‘Terrorists never follow the Geneva conventions.’

    Neither have some Governments even in more recent times 🙁

    One of the arguments against the USA Government’s treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo was that they were in breach of Geneva Conventions in that ‘prisoners ‘ were tortured . Senator McCain to his credit made the point that if the USA did not observe conventions then it could not complain if and when future USA combatants were made ‘prisoners of war’and ‘tortured’ in return .

    The record of ‘torturing ‘ of IRA men in the Maze etc etc has been written about by so many that it’s now part of local lore in NI .

    Lest people think that opposing armies observing the ‘conventions ‘ means that ‘atrocities ‘ or torture won’t be carried out that sadly is not the case. There were examples from all sides in WWI AND WWII of ‘prisoners ‘ being killed out of hand by enemy combatants but there was general adherence to the rules also. It helped of you were ‘captured ‘ by one of Rommel’s divisions instead of say the SS .

    miss fitz,

    ‘The point I really want to make is the slow march to normality. If you have only ever known abnormality, its a little harder to recognise.’

    Politically Northern Ireland can never be a ‘normal ‘ state . It can however achieve a kind of ‘democracy’ without opposition . The last experiment in that kind of one party democracy lasted 52 years (1920 – 1972) . We’ll see how long this next experiment lasts and what if anything it will be replaced by?

    I don’t see these dissidents as being capable of returning the province to a past that most people in NI want to leave behind them .

  • Greenflag

    6 county prod ,

    ‘People in NI tend to be liberal when they see their liberality reciprocated, but they become very stubborn when things are shoved down their throats.’

    Same everywhere on the planet . People in NI may give the appearance of being more ‘stubborn’ simply because of the accompanying political and constitutionality ‘uncertainty’ of the future . The market hates economic uncertainty and political and civil normality ‘hates ‘ political uncertainty .