We always regretted moving back to west Belfast in the 1960s—and two decades since the peace deal Northern Ireland is still recuperatingby Philip MacCann / March 30, 2018 / Leave a comment
Contemplating violence in Northern Ireland is unavoidable this year, half a century since society imploded, and celebrations of the last two relatively peaceful decades must be sombre.
My family always regretted moving back to west Belfast. In 1966 my mother resigned from Manchester Grammar School, pining for the genteel Catholic community she had left behind. Genteel under Special Powers. She tended our new garden, planted Canterbury bells.
Dad joined the second Derry protest against the long denial of Catholic civil rights. On TV she watched the Royal Ulster Constabulary bludgeon peaceful marchers, which included Protestants, liberal Unionists. One night IRA volunteers broke through her blossoms, apologised. She chased them as she did nervous Brits in jungle camouflage. Like most neighbours, she believed all violence was alike, resisted pressure to take sides. From our car, I saw rows of large vacated houses. Catholics moved in from the east and I heard about alternative security forces chaining you up and singing as you burned.
History can read like a list of war crimes. I imagine distant ancestors passing parcels of agony down interminable lines. What DNA mutations do we carry from Britain’s protracted thwarting of Ireland, massacres, convoluted concessions? All evidence indicates that in the 1970s British involvement further paramilitarised the province, tightening the tangled mesh.
Yet thinking as a child, Britain appeared civilised. The bad guys were the few Republicans, haggard with early understanding of the socio-pathology of imperial self-interest, who ghettoised our suburb and exacerbated the violence they opposed. Their thugs beat our neighbour, Nobel Laureate Mairead Corrigan, as the RUC had beaten marchers. Nobody’s friends, peacemakers were ahead of their time when the Provisional IRA disappeared Catholics like Jean McConville for showing Brits humanity. Republicans gave Catholic families hours to vacate their homes, which they assigned to cronies; graffiti-ed threats on our properties to reconfigure our values; redefined the citizen as combatant.
A long-haired gunman commandeered cash and two Yorkies from Mr Manning’s sweetshop. A second spread-eagled him against candy jars, kicked his feet apart—the very treatment Republicans objected that British troops did to us.
“These are not our people,” Manning remarked.
A skinny mother pushed a stroller, her toddler thrashing. “Shut up, you wee fucker!” she rasped. He wailed as the stroller went down and up kerbs. “Ok, you have it!” She plucked her cigarette from her lips. He opened his mouth. She let him puff, he fell quiet and rolled his eyes. “You fucking wee bastard!”
As I tugged Mum’s hand she discussed with women: pacify at any cost? She was glad Gran died before witnessing these grotesqueries. Ochlocracy is corrupting, violence ramifies.
Later that toddler became a local gangster, knocking off garages until the Provos shot him.
Another boy wanted my sister’s new bike and gashed her leg with a carpet knife. Catholics had no police. Valium assisted parents. Mum called Sinn Féin. From upstairs I heard whispered a girl’s pretty name that was also a common Republican surname. Tender? Ruthless? Within days a family left for Manchester, the parents aghast at their boy’s generation, this new upside-down world.
But Carol hadn’t dared identify the true culprit.
By ten, I was already betrayal’s child when a neighbour took a famished Mother Theresa to our house for tea. The Church opposed her educational centre on the Ballymurphy peace line. Hoping to catch a Dublin train, she worried about where she would stay that night. I came in with a football under one arm. The tiny saint-to-be turned, eyes sparkling, squeezed my hand, somehow endorsing my grasp of institutional dysfunction.
I enjoyed the civil destruction campaign: buses halted, passengers ordered off, petrol bombs lobbed. I practised piano lessons over the different gun sounds on the street; wrote about courtly love on a warm May night, window open, distant bin lids clanging. My cousin worked in a supermarket in a mixed neighbourhood—groceries were free at his till. Catholic and Protestant employees worked civilly together, material advantage, career paths, helping to rein in competing primal influences. Fridays they asked each other, “Youse up for another riot tonight?” They congregated on a waste ground to hurl rocks and petrol bombs at each other. Both sides were equally tyrannised and indoctrinated by killers.
Arlene Foster sees no place for innuendos of violence in border negotiations today. But lack of viable politics returns people to communal conflict, especially when social utility and materialist ambition aren’t options. By the time the British government conceded the economics of peace-making it had already created a mafia region and opportunities had to be gifted.
Social Investment (funding the occasional paramilitary pet project) and vast amounts of EU peace money produced tremendous development (in addition to EU regional aid and Common Agricultural Policy funding). After peace, government and subsidies we’re no longer the poorest performing of the UK regions, but still recuperating. Even if Britain’s ex-EU happy daze comes true, we’ll suffer. Will Britain’s default indifference to the north extract our tit-for-tat regression to old form?
The reduction of everything to ethnic politics excludes moderates like myself from local contentions. And yet the fog is lifting. Partition was designed to collapse into unity. Northern Ireland government has always been a disaster. We have no clear prospect of institutional restoration. The 1998 settlement, an interim position, was badly mismanaged.
Britain, whose interest in our good governance is at best fitful, disregarded our majority Remain vote. Theresa May would push for special status if she wasn’t propped up by the DUP which was linked to paramilitarism, and still aims for the past. Meanwhile Sinn Féin is evolving, incredibly, into a conventional left-wing party, like the Italian Communists or PASOK in Greece (both with a history of resistance). Ireland’s Protestant tradition could absorb northerners in a united Ireland, though unionism would parody Sinn Féin in reverse gear, oppressed and agitating towards an United Kingdom.
Some friends, former unionist stalwarts in the Northern Irish Civil Service, now compare unification to daunting but inevitable surgery: just get it over quickly.