COVER

THE VIOLENT MAJORITY

AN ANGRY PROTESTANT BACKLASH

ANDREW BILSKI September 26 1988
COVER

THE VIOLENT MAJORITY

AN ANGRY PROTESTANT BACKLASH

ANDREW BILSKI September 26 1988

THE VIOLENT MAJORITY

COVER

AN ANGRY PROTESTANT BACKLASH

On the surface, there is little difference between the Shankill Road and the parallel Falls Road. Both West Belfast streets are lined with long blocks of small, state-built row houses that share the same shabby appearance. In that grim area of Northern Ireland’s capital, unemployed men gather on corners of both streets to pass the day, occasionally dashing into a betting shop to place money on some local contest. But Shankill Road is populated by Protestants, while Falls Road is predominantly Catholic. And for the past 19 years, the two thoroughfares have been separated at regular intervals by 10to 20-foothigh walls and metal gates—known locally as “the peace line”—to keep the warring communities apart.

In his fourth-floor office on Shankill Road,

Tommy Lyttle, 52, the local commander of the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Defence Association, said that he is not concerned by the recent upsurge of IRA violence.

“The IRA are making a fundamental mistake that they keep on repeating,”

Lyttle told Maclean’s. “There are one million of us Prods [Protestants], and no matter how many bombs or guns they have, they can’t force us into a united Ireland if we won’t go—and we won’t.”

Like Lyttle, the vast majority of Ulster Protestants are adamantly opposed to unification with the predominantly Catholic Irish Republic. Most Protestants also resist any form of power-sharing with Ulster Catholics and condemn the 1985 Anglo-Irish accord, which gave the republic a consultative role with Britain in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. As well, Unionists—Ulster Protestants who want to retain political links with

Britain—and most British politicians are united in demands for tough new security measures against the IRA, ranging from increased intelligence efforts to internment without trial and even sealing the entire border with the Irish Republic with electrified fences. But Protestant extremists have also taken inde-

pendent action. In a spate of violence that parallels the IRA’s current terrorist campaign, Protestant paramilitaries have killed 17 Catholics this year—the highest number since a wave of random violence in the mid-1970s claimed about 700 Catholic lives.

In general, Ulster Catholics, the Irish government in Dublin—and, for the most part, members of the British government—argue that sectarian violence in Northern Ireland cannot be tackled by tough security alone. They say that the IRA of the 1970s and 1980s is an organic organization, with roots in a community that largely regards the organization as a defender of Catholic minority

interests. The result is a twin-track approach to peace in Ulster—security plus political change—which is inherent in the Anglo-Irish agreement.

But the vast majority of British MPs oppose making political concessions to the IRA. Both Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party favor maintaining Britain’s 10,200-member military presence in Northern Ireland. Thatcher advocates talks within the six-county area aimed at handing over some of Britain’s control to local residents. Labour, on the other hand, is in theory committed to reuniting Ireland with the consent of the Protestant majority in the North. But because that majority is overwhelmingly Loyalist—and so adamantly opposed to reunification—Labour’s policy when it has formed the government has been indistinguishable from the Conservatives’.

The exceptions belong to a small group of Labour MPs led by left wingers Clare Short and Anthony Benn, who last June launched a

petition—titled “The Time to Go”—demanding the withdrawal of British troops. About 100 prominent Britons have signed the charter, subtitled “Twenty Wasted Years,” to mark next year’s 20th anniversary of the current British military presence in Ulster. “There has to be a new political settlement that reduces conflict,” said Short. “We are calling for a year of action leading up to the anniversary. It will face up to the lack of progress in that 20 years, the 3,000 dead, the diminished standards of criminal justice, and unemployment.”

In Northern Ireland, most Unionists openly scorn internal political solutions. They see the so-called troubles in stark, black-andwhite security terms, continuing to regard the IRA as the outside terrorist force from the southern republic that it was in the 1950s.

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That view is entirely consistent with Unionist politics. If a Protestant acknowledged that the IRA is a natural outgrowth of Ulster’s Catholic community, he would have to admit that the violence has internal political causes—primarily the discriminatory treatment of Ulster Catholics by the Protestants.

Still, Unionists are divided over the future of the six counties in the North. Although some members of the largest political group, the Official Ulster Unionist Party, favor limited power-

sharing, party leader James Molyneaux and most of the hierarchy support full political integration with Britain. They want the same status for Northern Ireland that Scotland and Wales enjoy. In addition, the group’s leaders say that integration would remove constitutional uncertainty about Ulster’s future and discourage IRA violence.

The smaller Democratic Unionist Party, however, advocates a return to Protestant majority rule—or even independence from Britain. Led by Ian Paisley, a fundamentalist preacher and founder of his own Free Presbyterian Church, most members favor links

with Britain only to guarantee Protestant hegemony in Ulster. Although they call themselves Loyalists, their name actually signifies Unionist extremism.

Indeed, Unionism has its own violent element. It was Protestant paramilitary violence that led to the creation of the Provisional wing of the IRA, a more militant splinter group, in late 1969. The first people killed in the current troubles were Catholics gunned down by Loyalists. The first bombs that exploded in Ulster in 1969 were Protestant bombs. And the first policeman shot to death, in 1970, was killed by Unionist extremists.

Since then, Protestant paramilitary attacks have ebbed and flowed, generally in direct proportion to IRA violence.

Now, two major Protestant paramilitary groups continue to terrorize Catholics in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Volunteer Force is a highly secretive organization of between 200 and 300 members that has been outlawed since 1966. The much larger—and legal— Ulster Defence Association has about 6,000 members and has provided Unionist politicians with the muscle to fight unpopular British initiatives, such as a 1974 proposal for power-sharing with Catholics.

The association has also gathered a substantial arsenal of weapons. Last January, Ulster police intercepted a defence association convoy carrying dozens of AK-47 automatic rifles, pistols and fragmentation grenades that are believed to be only part of a huge arms shipment smuggled into Northern Ireland from abroad. And two weeks ago, police discovered a Loyalist gun factory at Ballynahinch, south of Belfast, which had been mass-producing Uzi submachine-guns. The fact that the defence association is legal, while membership in the IRA can bring a five-year prison sentence, arouses nationalist fury: to Ulster Catholics, it is an example of the British government’s double standard on sectarian violence.

Many analysts say that there will be no political settlement while IRA violence continues, and they point out that IRA violence will not end until there is a political settlement. In his Shankill Road office last week, Lyttle said that the solution is to “take the kid gloves off” and to “declare war on the IRA.” In the equally tough Catholic section of North Belfast, Social Democratic and Labour Party councillor Brian Feeney offered another solution. “The reason the IRA exists in the first place is because of the contradictions inherent in the Northern Ireland state. If Catholics thought they could get a square deal, and the British and the Unionists would treat them fairly, the IRA would disappear tomorrow.” For Protestants and Catholics alike, the tragest dy of Northern Ireland is that y rational dialogue long ago was supplanted by murder.

ANDREW BILSKI with ED MOLONEY in Belfast and IAN MATHER in London

ED MOLONEY

IAN MATHER