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Getting real in Ulster

Open the websites of the major Northern Irish political parties and the first thing you set eyes on is a sea of smiling Paddies, indistinguishable from one another by their looks, their clothes, their haircuts. The smiles are for the unobserved observer. They are, of course, the richly unctuous smiles of Central Casting politicians everywhere, but in Northern Ireland these insincere grins are more chilling than encouraging.

As in all polities, they are saying, ‘We are the good guys, the ones you can trust.’ They want swing voters to believe in them. The difference here, however, is that the swing voters come from their own side—the smiles are only for other nationalists or unionists. Sinn Fein tries to claw votes from the constitutional nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP); Ian Paisley’s hawkish and misnamed Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) strives to capture the supporters of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party. The factional political warfare so familiar to Australians is brought to a fine pitch in Ulster politics.

The events of September 11, 2001, swept the Irish peace process off the international pages of the world’s newspapers until the massive robbery of an Australian-owned Belfast bank and the hideous murder of a Catholic Sinn Fein supporter by drunken IRA men in a pub fight brought to life a protest movement in Belfast this European winter. Those stories are still unfolding as police investigations advance, but behind those terrible crimes lies the troubling issue of what is happening in the Irish peace process. The question must be asked whether the two sides in the North see the peace process as an end in itself, a perpetual work-in-progress, or as a route to a final resolution of four centuries of conflict.

Among the many paradoxes apparently inherent in Irish politics are the facts that, as the peace process has progressed since the IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the power of the moderate parties has waned and the radical parties have achieved majority support within their own camps. If the Northern Irish Assembly, which has been suspended for about two years, was now to take control of the internal affairs of Ulster, Ian Paisley would become chief minister with Gerry Adams his deputy. Shortly before Christmas 2004, it appeared that just such a deal was about to be made. It came to nothing in a bout of hissy fits by both sides, Paisley insisting on Sinn Fein wearing ‘sackcloth and ashes’ and Sinn Fein standing on their pride. A week later the IRA carried out the biggest bank robbery in British history and the peace train entered a very long tunnel.

During the course of the so-called ‘Armed Struggle’—in reality a nasty, inglorious period of sectarian gang warfare—moderate voters in both the nationalist and unionist camps clung together in the middle of Ulster politics, adhering in their mutual disdain for violence to a belief in constitutional politics. Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley could only attract hardliners in each community. Following the Good Friday Agreement, with Adams being invited into the fold, it seems that significant numbers of Ulster Protestants shifted their allegiance from the Ulster Unionist Party, which ruled Northern Ireland from Partition in 1922 until the Stormont Parliament was dissolved during the Troubles, to the DUP because they saw the power of Sinn Fein rising and feared it.

Paisley is easy to make fun of, and often is, but he is a serious politician and, more importantly, he carries with him a majority of the majority in Northern Ireland. Like Pauline Hanson in Australia, he attracts many who do not agree with all his ideas because he stands for one big idea. In his case it is Protestant identity.

Since the time of the Home Rule campaigns in the late 19th century, but especially since 1922, when Ireland was partitioned, a wall of invincible ignorance has divided Protestants and Catholics culturally. I first met an Ulster Protestant in 1972, a mathematician tutoring at the University of NSW. When I remarked how odd it seemed that most of his Australian friends seemed to be from Catholic backgrounds, he said that he imagined that if he had ever met Catholics in Belfast he would have liked them too, but that the two communities never mixed. He said that, strangely, he was learning more about Catholics and Catholicism in Australia than he ever had at home, where the questions were far more important but rarely asked or answered rationally. Northern Irish Catholics in Australia had similar experiences with Protestants.

The Good Friday Agreement marked an extraordinary turning point in the fraught history of Ireland’s relations with Britain. Among other things, the Irish government agreed to alter the republic’s constitution to remove its claim of jurisdiction over the North and the British government agreed to leave Ireland for good upon a majority of Northern Irish citizens democratically making that decision. For nationalists, the political battle now, as it has been since 1922, is to persuade the northern Protestants that it is safe for them to make such a decision and in their interests to do so.

In his awkwardly titled but luminous book Enough religion to make us hate: reflections on religion and politics, Victor Griffin, the distinguished ex-Dean of St Patrick’s (Church of Ireland) Cathedral, Dublin, makes the case that Irish Protestants made strategic errors, first, in opposing Home Rule (‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’) and, second, when some form of Irish independence became inevitable, in demanding partition.

The title of Griffin’s book comes from Jonathon Swift’s aphorism, concerning Ireland: ‘We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.’
Despite this, in Griffin’s view:

Irish Protestants, it now seems, would have fared much better in a united Ireland. There, as a significant minority with increased numerical strength and influence and the support of liberal Catholics and others, they would have presented a serious challenge to the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in political affairs, thereby giving a lead to many liberal Roman Catholics and others who were unhappy with the Roman Catholic ethos of the state and who wished for a more pluralist, tolerant and open society. As an integral part, and fully supportive of the state, Irish Protestantism would have received more respect and favourable attention from the Irish people as a whole than at present is enjoyed by the northern Protestants among the people of the United Kingdom, for many of whom, perhaps a majority, they are an enigma and embarrassment. The UK would shed few tears at the departure of Northern Ireland.

Partition—and all that it brought in suffering—was probably inevitable once the link was made between Irishness and Catholicism. De Valera, the Catholic clergy and the Vatican so keenly pursued the goal of a ‘Catholic state for a Catholic people’ that, in the republic, to be Irish and Catholic were virtually synonymous notwithstanding the long history of nationalism among many Irish Protestants. The reactionary combination of nationalism, Catholicism and Gaelic romanticism was a sharp rejoinder to centuries of Protestant ascendancy. It was, nevertheless, Ireland’s misfortune to be liberated not by Irish equivalents of Mandela and Tutu but by violent revolutionaries imbued with primitive, tribal notions of religion and culture, utterly illiberal and authoritarian in outlook.

In 1920, ten per cent of the population of what shortly afterwards became the Irish Free State were Protestant. By 1990, only three per cent of Irish citizens identified themselves as Protestant. A sort of ethnic cleansing had taken place. The Catholic Church, by allying itself so closely with De Valera and the nationalist politicians who sought Home Rule and then full independence from Britain, bears great responsibility for dividing rather than uniting the Irish people. This is remembered in the North.

In different ways, some dramatic, some virtually unnoticed, progress towards unity in Ireland seems to be coming, like it or not. The bank robbery before Christmas has caused the British and Irish governments to stop tolerating IRA criminality and to place pressure on Sinn Fein to disband the IRA. Perhaps even more important,  has been the overwhelming support among nationalists for the McCartney sisters whose brother, a lifelong republican, was murdered by IRA men in full view of 70 people in a Belfast pub. For the IRA to kill a Protestant is one thing, but for them to sadistically murder one of their own led to a powerful revolt in the nationalist community, leading Gerry Adams to declare, ‘I am not letting this issue go until those who have sullied the republican cause are made to account for their action.’ Sinn Fein’s electoral support has not collapsed, but its credibility within its own community is now under question.

Whether real peace can be brought to Northern Ireland by politicians like Adams and Paisley and parties like Sinn Fein and the DUP is highly dubious. They are forever manoeuvring within the ‘peace process’, stringing it out to gain an advantage, never wishing to see it end because, as they perceive the world, when it does there will be a winner and a loser. Neither can face the prospect of ‘losing’, but neither wants to return to the abyss of sectarian conflict, if only because each community has now grown so used to the contingent sort of ‘peace’ that the current settlement has brought that it would revolt against leaders who reignited a shooting war.

Sinn Fein, at its party conference in February this year, published a discussion paper, grandiosely described by Adams as a ‘roadmap’, on Irish unification. It said all the right things about ‘the unity of the people of Ireland’ and ‘national reconciliation’. Nestled away on the party’s website, however, is its online shop where memorabilia glorifying dead IRA volunteers is advertised. Elsewhere on the website we find banal genuflections to the sainted rebel James Connolly, the party’s inspiration. The discussion paper declares that it is the duty of democrats to persuade unionists to join in reunification of Ireland. Does Sinn Fein seriously think it is the party to do that?

The Good Friday Agreement means that the old war between Britain and Ireland is over. At some time in the future, northern Protestants may come to view the south with far greater benignity, but the decades of beleaguered tribalism, bolstered by memories of the Battle of the Somme, IRA atrocities, Catholic triumphalism in the south and English perfidy, will not easily be swept away or whited over.

As Adams and the IRA apparently do not understand, but any outsider can, they are the principal obstacles to peace and, ultimately, the reunification of Ireland. The Protestants are too weak to do anything except retain their own patch, but they are strong enough to defend it, no matter how many guns the IRA holds or self-aggrandising books Gerry Adams publishes. The peace process cannot be driven by men of violence. Sinn Fein and the IRA cannot bring about peace and reconciliation—the preconditions of reunification—much less reunification itself, because no unionist can trust them.

A cold war is probably the best solution Adams, Paisley and their cohorts are capable of. Real peace is likely to come only when a new generation, which has grown up without seeing gunmen as their protectors and heroes, replaces them and, respectfully but decisively, sets aside the long-dead icons of 1916 and 1922—Pearse, Connolly, Carson and Co. (Where else in the democratic world are political leaders still mired in the debates and ideologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries?) Genuine peacemakers will bring about a paradigm shift, building not on religious difference and antique brands of nationalism but on a common ground of economic development, liberal-democratic values and human rights. Their authenticity will be proven by an insistence that paramilitaries in both communities disband and disarm.  

Hugh Dillon is a Sydney magistrate with ancestral roots in Ulster.



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