A little bit of hell
When the Irish revolution resumed 60 years ago, Yeats wrote: ‘A terrible beauty is born.’ But there is nothing beautiful about babies blasted from their mothers’ wombs
Hubert de Santana
In Fermanagh, one of the six counties of Northern Ireland, a Catholic butcher was found shot dead, impaled on meat hooks in his own refrigerator. He had been castrated, his testicles crammed into his mouth.
In Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, a businessman was called to the city morgue to identify his secretary’s body after she and her Catholic lover had been murdered by Protestants. She had been ripped open, a crucifix jammed into the wound.
In County Tyrone two brothers and a sister were blown apart by a booby-trap bomb. The girl was eight months pregnant, but this was not known until some time later, when her unborn baby was discovered several hundred feet away among the debris and wreckage of the explosion.
On Friday, May 17, 1974, three cars were hijacked in Belfast, packed with explosives and driven south to Dublin in the Irish Republic. They were left on Parnell Street, Talbot Street and South Leinster Street. (After office hours these streets are thronged with commuters hurrying to railway stations for their trains.) I happened to be walking across the playing fields of Trinity College and was some 300 yards away when, at 5.30 p.m., the car on South Leinster Street exploded. Even at a distance the shock waves were staggering. An acrid brown cloud of smoke drifted over the area. Racing to South Leinster Street, I was confronted by a sight I am not likely to forget. A young woman who had been alongside the car when it blew up was killed instantly, smashed against a wall and cremated in a sheet of flame. Across the street another woman lay dead. In nearby Leinster Lane an old man weltered in a huge pool of frothing blood, both his legs blown off. He flopped about like a seal as the blood spread terribly.
The car in Talbot Street exploded at five-twenty-seven. Seven people were killed. The body of a man was taken from the window of a department store: faceless, its limbs enmeshed with those of a dead woman. Limbs and flesh were scattered about the street. There were bursts and splashes of blood everywhere. Scores of injured lay sprawled grotesquely in the street, shrieking for help. Twelve cars were wrecked.
The bomb in Parnell Street exploded at 5.30 p.m. Five people died instantly A baby was blasted into the cellar of a pub. A
man’s leg was blown away. So was half his skull, which lay bloody on the pavement, like a bowl of bone. One woman walked to a hospital and collapsed, a fragment of the exploded car lodged in her back. Time literally stood still; the force of the blast had stopped all the clocks in the area at exactly five-thirty.
That same evening a car-bomb exploded in Monaghan Town in the Irish Republic at 7 p.m. It had been placed in Church Square, the town’s main shopping centre. Five people were killed, and 16 were injured. The final tally for the day was 30 dead and several hundreds maimed and injured. All were civilians.
This is the reality of contemporary Ireland, the complexities of religion, race, history and politics reduced to the simplicity and immediacy of terror. There are no longer any clean hands in Northern Ireland, where rival paramilitary groups, Catholic and Protestant, each infatuated and imprisoned by its own mythology, have been locked in mortal combat for six long years.
To understand the titanic and murderous passions that have let loose the dogs of war in Northern Ireland, we have to examine Ireland’s turbulent history. When we speak of Ireland’s troubles as a religious quarrel, it is important to qualify the term “religion,” for in Ireland it has a special connotation. The English took control of Ireland in 1601, following the defeat of the last of the Catholic earls, the great Hugh O’Neill. His lands and those of the other Catholic noblemen were confiscated and turned over to Protestant immigrants from England and Scotland. The Protestants held the land and were loyal to the Crown; the dispossessed Catholics were loyal to the Pope. Right from Elizabethan and Jacobean times, then, religion, politics and economic status were inextricably intertwined, and polarized the community as distinctly as iron particles in a force field. The historical milestones that followed are easily summarized: there was a massacre of Protestants by Catholics in 1641 ; the indiscriminate butchery of Catholics by Cromwell in 1649; the siege of Protestant Derry by Catholic forces and its relief by Protestant forces in 1689; and the final victory of the Protestant cause in 1690, when the deposed English King James II was defeated by the Dutch monarch William of Orange at the Boyne, in whose brackish
waters Catholic hopes were drowned. The Boyne was a victory not of an English king over an Irish one, but of a Protestant king over a Catholic one. By 1700 Catholics owned only one seventh of the land in Ireland, and the harsh penal laws—which forbade Catholics to own land, receive education, take part in political life or practise their religion—ushered in the age of Protestant Ascendancy. This situation was to last for more than a hundred years.
In 1791 the Protestant Theobald Wolfe Tone, seeking to overthrow the privileged order in Ireland through a union of Catholics and dissenters, formed the Society of United Irishmen, whose members, already stirred by the French Revolution, pledged “never to desist in our efforts until we have subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence.’’The movement failed, but neither Wolfe Tone nor his cause are forgotten.
His grave at Bodenstown is a holy place of pilgrimage for the Irish Republican Army.
Tone’s cause is their cause.
In 1800 William Pitt’s Act of Union abolished the Irish Parliament and integrated Ireland into the United Kingdom.
By this time Belfast, riding the wave of the Industrial Revolution, developed into a great city, with linen, and later, shipbuilding, providing the basis for its wealth.
Its industrial prosperity attracted immigrants: Protestants from England; both Catholics and Protestants from rural Ireland—which served only to heighten sectarian animosity. In the 1840s a potato blight caused Ireland’s worst disaster, the Great Famine of 1845-49. Those hardest hit were Catholics, subsistence farmers whose staple diet was the potato. One million people died of hunger and related causes, and another million emigrated to America, crossing the Atlantic in hellish “coffin ships,” strewing the waves with Irish dead during the long, nightmarish journey. That mass emigration was to have far-reaching consequences, as some clearsighted Englishmen foresaw. On August 25, 1848, John Bright warned the House of Commons that Irishmen, driven from their own land by degradation, poverty and 2; famine, had emigrated, and “in whatever * quarter of the world an Irishman sets his 5 foot, there stands a bitter and implacable enemy of England ..Herein lies the reason for the Irish-Americans’ unfaltering support for the IRA. The descendents of the famine’s victims have been nurtured on a hatred of England which is a part of Gaelic tradition, and no power on earth can milk the toxin from their blood.
The revolutionary secret society that called itself the Fenians was founded in America in 1858. It had a branch in Ireland known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, forerunner of the IRA. In 1905 the Irish Fenians organized themselves into a political party called Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone). Today the Sinn Fein is still a legal party in Ireland, though it is merely a front for the outlawed IRA. In 1916 the commander-in-chief of the Irish Republican Brotherhood was Padraic Henry Pearse, poet and schoolmaster. Shortly after midday on April 24, Easter Monday, Pearse, armed with a Browning 7.62 automatic, led a group of 150 rebels to the general post office in Dublin, and, before occupying it, read out a proclamation declaring Ireland a republic: “In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom ...” It was a fine moment, they were brave words, but there was never any chance that the rising would succeed. It was an elaborate act of suicide played out with theatrical extravagance. After a week of ferocious fighting, with heavy casualties on both sides, Pearse and his men surrendered. It was then that the British made their great blunder. Instead of holding the rebels up to ridicule, they executed them. Pearse was 36 years old when he died before a firing squad. The slaughter of these romantic idealists became mythologized: “A few men faithful and a deathless dream”—the mystique that guides the IRA today.
The Easter rising of 1916 was a pivotal event in modern Irish history. It accelerated the political chain reaction which led to “Home Rule” six years later. A home rule bill had been passed by Parliament in 1914, but because of World War I it was not implemented until the signing in 1921 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty-which divided Ireland in two—the Irish Free State, consisting of 26 predominantly Catholic counties in the south, and the six counties of Ulster, predominantly Protestant and an integral part of the United Kingdom, in the north. The IRA opposed the treaty, fighting first against the British mercenaries known as the Black-and-Tans, and then against their own countrymen. But in spite of the vicious civil war, their protest was in vain.
The Dublin government proclaimed the Free State a republic in 1949 and withdrew it from the Commonwealth. England’s answer was the Ireland Act, under which Ulster would remain a province of Britain, with its own Parliament at Stormont, until such time as she chose to unite with the
south—a remote contingency. The Ireland Act condoned a regime in Ulster that openly mocked every democratic principle, excluding the Catholic minority from sharing any power. The deprivation of elementary human and civil rights to the Catholics of the north is what the present troubles are all about.
Northern Ireland has a population of 1.5 million (two-thirds Protestant, one-third Catholic). Since 1969, when the present troubles began, nearly 1,500 people have died as a result of terrorist activities, and nearly 14,000 have been injured. If these statistics were applied to the United States in terms of relative population, the number of dead would be 200,000, or roughly four times the number of Americans killed during the Vietnam War. I mention Vietnam advisedly, for it offers many parallels to the situation in Northern Ireland. The Vietcong was a small guerrilla force which ultimately defeated the army of the mightiest nation in the world. In Ulster a couple of hundred IRA gunmen have immobilized 15,000 British troops—and if they cannot defeat the British army, they know at least that they themselves cannot be beaten. (The army, of course, would argue that it cannot win because it is not on a war footing, and its hands are therefore tied.)
There are other similarities beetween Ulster and Vietnam. In December, 1973, the London Times described how the British Army in Northern Ireland uses wall charts showing “kills” and “captures” in order to keep up morale and delude the soldiers into believing that they are winning the fight against the IRA, in precisely the same way that Americans collected Vietnamese ears and pinned them to wall charts as a tally of their “kills.” The Times also mentioned the British army’s “dirty tricks” department, which is understandably kept under wraps. My own in-
quiries have confirmed that the army was responsible not only for some of the early assassinations of Catholics (part of a general policy of “softening up the papes”) but for some murders of Protestants in order to further incite the Protestants against the Catholics. Members of the IRA have told me that many of its bomb warnings have been deliberately ignored by the army, which knows that civilian casualties are counterproductive to the IRA campaign.
In 1971, as fighting and rioting escalated in Belfast and Derry and it became increasingly obvious that a military solution could not solve a political problem, Northern Ireland’s new prime minister, Brian Faulkner, took a fateful step. Invoking the draconian Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) of 1922, which permits a suspension of all basic human liberties from habeas corpus to freedom of the press, he introduced internment without trial. Faulkner said: “I have taken this serious step solely for the protection of life and security of property. We are, quite simply, at war with the terrorists and in a state of war many sacrifices have to be made ...” Internment provoked the worst rioting Ulster had yet seen. Twelve people were killed and more than 150 houses burned down on the first day. By August 12—in four days of internment—23 people died (20 had been killed in the whole of the previous year). By the end of 1971 the death toll was exceeded only by the hundreds of homes burned. It became apparent that internment had protected neither life nor property. It was also apparent that Faulkner was at war not with terrorists but with Catholic terrorists. No Protestants were arrested. But the most disturbing result of internment was the treatment of the arrested Catholics. They were taken to various detention centres, the most notorious of which was Long Kesh concentration camp outside Belfast. Here was a mini-Dachau, complete with watchtowers, guard dogs, barbed-wire cages and metal Nissen huts in which the prisoners were housed.
On August 9, 1971, 342 men were arrested, all supposed members of the IRA, although the command structure of the IRA was left virtually intact: the leaders had gone underground. By mid-December, 1,576 people had been arrested. They were not charged with any offense, since the Special Powers Act did not require it. Of these, a dozen men, believed by the army to be “hard-core” terrorists, were flown to a camp at Ballykinler in County Down. There they were subjected to “interrogation in depth” by Englishmen who worked for MI5, the counterespionage branch of the Ministry of Defense. The arrested men were made to stand against a wall with their legs spread, leaning forward, with their full weight on their fingertips—a position resembling “the hypotenuse on a right-angled triangle.” One man, James Auld, was kept standing like this for 43 hours. If the men moved an inch from this agonizing posture, they were savagely beaten with batons. They were deprived of food and sleep, and subjected to maddening electronic noises. These disorientation techniques were designed to break minds as well as bodies, and many of the men suffered permanent psychological damage as a result of their treatment.
When news of these tortures first leaked out it was largely ignored by the British press, with the exception of the Sunday Times and the Guardian. Public disquiet compelled the then home secretary Reginald Maudling to appoint a committee of inquiry to investigate. Its chairman was Sir Edmund Compton. The Compton report substantiated the charges made by the complainants, but with typical bureaucratic hypocrisy it attempted to draw a fine line between “physical ill-treatment” and “physical brutality.” The report concluded that ill-treatment had indeed taken place, but that those responsible were somehow not guilty of “brutality.”
Amnesty International set up an independent commission to inquire into the matter, and received no help from either the British government or the security forces in Northern Ireland. The Amnesty team examined 30 cases, and, except where they were denied access to a prisoner, found that medical evidence corroborated the statements made by internees. Amnesty’s report, published in March, 1972, had some important things to say. According to its findings, the treatment of internees in Northern Ireland offended laws which represent “the absolute minimum standard of civilized behavior”: it contravened Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Articles 3 and 15 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the Geneva Conventions Act of 1957. In a memorandum submitted to the Parker Committee, a second committee of inquiry set up by the British Government, Amnesty warned that the approval of the measures taken against the prisoners “would be taken throughout the world as a statement by the English judiciary that torture was not only permissible but desirable.”
The government of the Irish Republic has filed a case against Britain for the torture of internees in Northern Ireland; evidence is now being heard by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It may be another year before the court passes judgment, but it is expected that Ireland will win the case and Britain will be ordered to pay compensation to the victims. Long Kesh was burned down by the prisoners in October, 1974. This led to several of the men being beaten to a pulp by the guards. The huts were soon rebuilt, the camp was renamed the Maze Prison, and it was business as usual. Last December, the last of the “special category”—that is, political—prisoners were released, but Long Kesh has won for itself an unenviable im-
mortality in the racial memory of Ireland. For Ireland remembers everything, as W. R. Rodgers has noted: “her sorrows are her glory; her love songs... are those of suffering and exile; she has built a window into her wound. Her graveyards are her nurseries.”
The Protestants have a threefold power base in Ulster: the Orange Order, the Unionist Party and their church. The instruments by which they governed the province without consensus were the gerrymander (the manipulation of constituency boundaries in order to ensure an electoral majority) and multiple votes. Rich businessmen, usually Protestant, had
extra votes; many of the Catholic poor had none. In this way the “business vote” effectively disenfranchised 250,000 Catholics from local government elections.
Catholic grievances in the late 1960s centred around discrimination in housing and employment. For instance, Harland and Wolff, Belfast’s giant shipyard, employs about 10,000 workers; of these, fewer than 400 are Catholic. Inspired by the example of Martin Luther King, Ulster’s Catholics formed their own Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), and organized peaceful demonstrations against the inequities of the past 50 years. The Protestants, chronically suspicious of the Catholics, whom they have always regarded as disloyal, their allegiance divided between the Roman Church and the Dublin government, mistook the movement for an attack on the state of Ulster itself. Their paranoia was skilfully exploited by a malign and inscrutable Protestant clergyman, Ian Kyle Paisley. A complex man, intelligent, charming, a fine orator and an able Member of Parliament, Paisley is also an obscene religious bigot who, more than any other man, bears the responsibility for filling the poisoned chalice and passing it around the banquet table.
It was Paisley’s hate-filled diatribes that incited Protestant mobs to attack Catholic civil rights marchers in August, 1969. As the Catholic ghettos of Ulster erupted, the IRA began to rearm and mobilize. The troubles had caught it unaware, at a time when the organization was all but extinct. It was too weak to offer any effective resistance to the combined forces of the Protestants and the police, so the Catholics appealed to the British government for help, and troops were flown into Derry and Belfast. Initially, the beleaguered Catholics looked upon the soldiers as a bulwark against the wrath of the Protestants, but the"behavior of the troops soon convinced
them that they had misplaced their faith. Arms searches in Catholic areas were carried out frequently and with maximum harassment. Protestant houses were searched perfunctorily, if at all, though it was wellknown that Protestant arms caches far exceeded those of the Catholics. The army eventually found itself “protecting” a hostile minority, though it must be said that its presence has had a restraining effect on the Protestants: today one Catholic is killed every three days; it is reliably estimated that were it not for the army’s presence the figure might be 20 a day.
Catholic resentment was brought to a climax on January 30, 1972—Bloody Sunday. Thousands of people had gathered in Derry to take part in an anti-internment demonstration, although marches had been officially banned. The day was bright and sunny, and the crowd was in a gay and festive mood. Twenty-six barricades of concrete and barbed wire had been erected to impede the marchers, and it was at these barricades that fighting broke out. British troops were pelted with rocks; they replied with a massive bombardment of cs gas, rubber bullets and streams of purple dye from a water cannon. Suddenly, members of the First Paratroop Battalion took deliberate aim and commenced firing. They kept on shooting for 20 minutes. When it was over, 13 men lay dead (many shot in the back) and 15 more were wounded. The city coroner described the killings as
“sheer unadulterated murder.” The British government appointed a Tribunal of Inquiry, consisting of one man, Lord Widgery, the lord chief justice. To no one’s surprise, the Widgery report largely exonerated the troops, who claimed that they had acted in “self-defense.”
Bloody Sunday caused a national change of mood in Ireland. Irish scholardiplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien described the reaction as “a great wave of emotion, compounded of grief, shock, and a sort of astonished incredulous rage . ..” On the night of February 2, a huge crowd—which included members of the ira—gathered at the British Embassy in Dublin and set fire to the building, feeding the flames with wooden coffins marked with the symbolic number 13. After Bloody Sunday, support for the IRA soared, even among moderate Catholics.
Bloody Sunday was a deathblow to the Ulster government. On March 24, Britain suspended the Parliament at Stormont and brought Ulster under direct rule. The province had had three Prime Ministers in four years: O’Neill, Chichester-Clark and
Faulkner. Now it was ruled from Westminster. Ulster’s politicians were consigned to limbo.
Ten years ago Belfast was a prosperous Victorian industrial city. Today it is unrecognizable: an armed garrison where British army troops in battle dress and flak jackets man checkpoints and guard steeland-concrete barriers. They search pedestrians and go through their shopping bags; they patrol the Catholic and Protestant ghettos in armored cars or on foot, guns at the ready. (No policeman will enter the ghettos unless he is escorted by the army.) Many of the buildings look like relics of a successful air raid. In the “purple zones” of central Belfast, no car may be left empty: at least one person has to remain in a parked car as proof that it is not a carbomb. If an empty car is parked in the city centre, it is quickly blown up by the army in what is known as a “controlled explosion.” Walking the streets, you feel peculiarly exposed and vulnerable, as though you knew you were being watched through a sniper’s sights.
And yet the ordinary people of Belfast have put up with these conditions for nearly eight years—longer than the duration of World War II. For them, peace would bring freedoms which Canadians take for granted: freedom to watch television in a room with uncurtained windows without providing a sniper with a target. Freedom to stop at a traffic light without worry that the car alongside you may contain a gunman ready to blast you into eternity. Freedom to answer the doorbell without fearing that your visitor may be a killer who will provide you with your last look at life—the black muzzle of a Magnum 357. Freedom to meet with friends and have a drink in a pub without being blown up. Last year there were 628 armed robberies in Belfast by mid-summer; by the end of the year, the Royal Ulster Constabulary had charged 138 persons with murder, 88 with conspiracy to commit murder, 459 with firearms offenses, 98 with explosives offenses, and 411 with other crimes, such as hijacking. Protection rackets operate in hotels, taxis, massage parlors and comer shops. Since half the public houses in Belfast have been blown up, illegal drinking clubs called “shebeens” have taken their place. These money-making activities are controlled by the IRA in the Catholic areas, and by their Protestant counterparts, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, in the Protestant areas. It is estimated that these organizations net some £20,000 a week in profits.
In January, 1970, the IRA had split into two wings, the “Official” IRA and the more militant and hawkish “Provisional” IRA. The Provisional IRA is the most formidable guerrilla organization in the western hemisphere. Its membership probably runs into the hundreds, its sympathizers into the thousands, but it is unlikely that the actual gunmen number more than 200. They are
concentrated in and around Belfast, Derry and South Armagh, with a brigade in the Irish Republic as well. The Provos receive financial support from Irish-Americans and from Colonel Qaddafi of Libya. Their arms come mainly from America, Libya, Eastern Europe and Japan. Their favorite weapon is the Japanese Armalite, a highvelocity rifle that weighs only seven pounds and can be dismantled to fit under a raincoat or into an attaché case. They also have rockets, mortars, and at least 250 Magnum 357 handguns. The IRA claims that most of their saboteurs received their training during former service in the British army, and their best bomb makers were taught their deadly skills in the Special Air Services, the army’s elite counterterrorist branch.
The IRA operates on many levels. The command structure is made up of dedicated Republicans committed to finishing the work begun by Pearse 60 years ago. Almost without exception they are devout, churchgoing Catholics; they are abstemious, determined and brave, but politically myopic, unable to see that the vague socialist utopia they propose for Ireland is only fascism in disguise. At the next level, there are those who see themselves as defenders of the Catholics in Northern Ireland. Then there are those who are in the IRA purely for the financial profit and who are not unduly fastidious about the origins of their funds. At the lowest level are the
bigots and the social misfits, the dangerous toughs and illiterate psychopaths, men who care nothing for the Republican Catholic cause, but who seize on it as an excuse for their murderous and antisocial impulses. The IRA is plagued by internecine feuding of the sort that goes on between rival families of Mafiosi. The Officials and the Provos and the fledgling Irish Republican Socialist Party fight each other as bitterly and often as they do the British Army or the Protestants.
In Belfast I managed to get an interview with a Provo chief. We met in an unheated garret, the window screened with newspaper. There were guards on every landing of the stairs, but we were not disturbed during our long conversation. He was an engaging man, with a youthful, unlined face, a fresh complexion, prematurely white hair and blue, watchful eyes. Echoing Pearse’s words (“Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”), the Provo told me that so long as one British soldier remained on Irish soil, the IRA would never lay down its arms. All they wanted from Britain was a declaration of intent to withdraw from Ireland. What if the British refused? The color drained from his face, and his eyes became as cold and gray as slate. “They’ve occupied our country for 800 years,” he said with restrained anger. “In the past 350 years there have been seven armed insurrections; when will the bastards get the message? This is the last battle, a fight to the finish. We’ll win because we’ve nothing more to lose.” He paused, and then went on in a calmer tone: “I’m an old man now. I’ve seen the inside of many a jail, I have been interned and tortured. You can cage men and break their bones, but you cannot break the heart of Ireland. If I don’t see my dream realized in my lifetime, there’s a new generation that will see it come true.”
I asked him how he could reconcile his idealism with the sordid horrors of the IRA campaign, or with the medieval barbarities of their rules of “discipline”: the tarring and feathering of young girls for consorting with “enemy soldiers”; the execution or kneecapping of informers. (The latter practice has evolved from the old Irish custom of cattle houghing; depending on the angle of the shots, a man may be walking again in a few weeks, or he may be crippled for life.) The Provo admitted that these things were horrible but sometimes necessary. He mentioned that the killing of civilians was also abhorrent, but unavoidable. And then, with a breathtaking twist of logic, he said, “It’s the Brits who are responsible for every civilian death, because if it hadn’t been for their army of occupation, England and Ireland would not be at war.” He added grimly that IRA strategy had now shifted: they were going to carry their campaign to mainland Britain and intensify the bombing until the pressure of British public opinion forced the government to withdraw its troops from Ireland. I pointed out that if the troops withdrew, it would leave the field clear for the Protestants to carry out a fearful pogrom against the Catholics. What would the IRA do then? “We would fight them,” he said simply.
The Protestant paramilitaries, who vastly outnumber the IRA, constitute the greatest single threat to a peaceful settlement of the trouble in Northern Ireland. (The atrocities described at the beginning of this article were all perpetrated by Protestant extremists.) The Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force have no tradition behind them; they were formed for a limited purpose: to fight the IRA and maintain the Protestant Loyalist Ascendency by force. Six of the main Protestant paramilitary groups (not including the UVF) have banded together under an Ulster Army Council, which seeks to forge an army of 20,000 men capable of staging a military-style coup in Northern Ireland. If such a coup took place, it is obvious that the police forces would join with the Loyalists. The British army, if it were still around, would do nothing.
But the Protestant paramilitaries, too, have their problems. Infighting has decimated their leadership. Tommy Herron, UDA vice-chairman, was shot dead in September, 1973. His brother-in-law, Michael Wilson, was shot in his bed. Ernie “Duke” Elliott, head of one of the UDA’S brigades, had his head blown open with a shotgun in a pub brawl in December, 1972. In March, 1976, Sammy Smyth, a former UDA chairman, was murdered. As he lay with his legs shattered by bullets, one of the gunmen who had attacked him walked up and, taking careful aim, shot him in the eye. The UDA and the UVF have adopted kneecapping as a “disciplinary” measure. They also have their “romper rooms,” where members of the organization who have offended its code are beaten and tortured to death.
There is no doubt that both the British public and the British government would dearly love to rid themselves of the Ulster incubus. The only weapon left to Britain now, faced as she is with a Loyalist population which is personally disloyal, is a few sharp turns of the economic screw. Over the past 10 years Britain has spent £ 140 million to keep Harland and Wolff afloat (costs are escalating: £60 million in July alone), and yet the shipyard continues to lose some £500,000 a week. (Those costs are dwarfed by the £400 million a year Westminster pays to keep Ulster solvent.) It costs Britain £45 million a year to keep the army in Northern Ireland. From 1968 to 1975, Britain paid out £ 133,945,686 in claims for malicious damage to property and £18,738,244 in claims for personal damages. In December, 1975, there were 8,994 personal claims and 23,544 property damage claims outstanding, estimated at £ 13,814,784 and £47,088,000 respectively. It is an insupportable burden for a country whose economy is already a shambles. And so Britain is quietly cutting
its subsidies and withdrawing its investments in Northern Ireland. The RollsRoyce plant at Dundonald and the Standard Telephone and Cables factory at Larne are to close down, adding 1,400 men to the ranks of the unemployed. Three RAF maintenance units are to be closed, with the loss of 2,000 jobs. Many observers see these closures as politically motivated, and predict that the British presence in Ulster will end within the next two years. By raising Ulster’s unemployment figures (already at the 56,000 mark) to an unacceptable level, Britain could provoke drastic action on the part of the Protestants, in the form of a take-over. In the civil war that would follow, Britain could then withdraw her troops as it did in Palestine in 1948, leaving the Irish to write their own ending to a long chapter of blood. The two main flaws in this are first that Northern Ireland is constitutionally a part of the United Kingdom, and second that independence in Ulster would give impetus to Scottish nationalism, and Britain wants to hold on to Scotland because it hungers for North Sea oil.
The violence in Ulster, which had reached a peak in 1972 and then tapered off, has taken a sharp upward swing this year. Seventy-four people were killed in the first two months of 1976, compared with 27 in the same period in 1975. The only hopeful signs I found were in Derry where, ironically, the troubles began in 1969. I visited several factories and observed Protestants and Catholics working in harmony on the shop floor. I spoke with Catholic shop stewards, who said that labor relations were good, in spite of intimidation by the IRA (two Protestant workers had been shot dead in one factory, and the building-itself had been bombed). It would appear that sectarian differences can be overcome, if people are given a chance.
“My mission is to pacify Ireland,’’declared Gladstone in 1868. The mission has not yet been accomplished, and it cannot be accomplished by Britain. Eight bloodstained centuries have proved that. Surely it is time Britain admitted the failure of its Irish policy, which is one of rudderless drift, and withdrew its presence from the last of its colonies. The words spoken by Padraic Henry Pearse on Easter Monday, 1916, are as relevant today as they were 60 years ago: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.