Ulster’s defiant mood

ROSS LAVER January 20 1986

Ulster’s defiant mood

ROSS LAVER January 20 1986

Ulster’s defiant mood


Outside, an icy north wind swept across the dreary, rain-drenched streets of East Belfast. But inside the cavernous Orange Hall, a gathering place for many of Northern Ireland’s one million Protestants, tempers last week were running high. “Ulster expects every man and every woman to do their duty,” boomed Rev. Ian Paisley, the fiery, 59-year-old Unionist leader. His huge fist pounding the air, the charismatic clergyman vowed to resist to the death the two-month-old Hillsborough agreement, which gives the predominantly Roman Catholic Irish Republic to the south a voice in Ulster’s affairs. Then, Paisley’s deep baritone led the chorus of about 250 loyalist followers in a thunderous rendition of God Save the Queen.

Declared Paisley as the anthem ended: “We were British-born and British we will die.”

Those scenes of defiance were repeated in the villages and towns of Northern Ireland last week as Ulster’s Orangemen pressed their fight for repeal of the fiercely disputed Anglo-

Irish accord. The campaign will culminate in a series of byelections next week brought about by the resignations of Paisley and 14 fellow Ulster Unionists from the British House of Commons. Covering all but two of Northern Ireland’s 17 parliamentary constituencies, the byelections are, in

effect, a series of mini-referendums on the Nov. 15 accord, which many Ulster Protestants regard as an act of betrayal by Britain—to be followed eventually, they fear, by direct rule by their Catholic neighbor.

For all of Paisley’s inflammatory

rhetoric, the outcome of most of the byelections is not in doubt. Protestants outnumber Catholics in Northern Ireland by two to one, a margin which all but guarantees that many of the Unionist MPs who resigned their seats in protest against the agreement will be returned to Westminster. But British officials say that what worries Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher even more than the threat of a political repudiation is the looming prospect of a new round of violence involving the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) and a variety of armed Protestant paramilitary groups. Said George Seawright, a virulently anti-Catholic Belfast city councillor: “Our backs are to the sea and we are fighting for our very existence.” Added Seawright, who carries a .38calibre handgun to defend himself against IRA attackers: “If Mrs. Thatcher won’t give in peacefully, then all of the signs point to a military conflict.”

In fact, the fear and suspicion among Protestants has raised tensions to the point of bloodshed in a land that has already been washed in blood. Ear-

lier this month a Unionist demonstration at the headquarters of the new Anglo-Irish secretariat at Maryfield, near Belfast, ended in violence. There, more than 100 rioters in camouflage clothing and balaclavas wrenched the gates to the complex from their hinges, overturned and burned two unmarked police cars and pelted police and journalists with bricks and masonry, injuring 28 people. An embarrassed James Molyneaux, leader of the Official Unionist Party which helped to organize the rally, condemned the violence and said that the Unionists might have to stop holding street demonstrations. But another OUP politician, Dorothy Dunlop, chairman of the East Belfast Unionist Association, refused to denounce the rioters. Said Dunlop: “Would any one of us shed a tear if Maryfield, the outward and visible sign of everything abhorrent about the Anglo-Irish agreement, were to burn down some dark night?”

Privately, some observers blamed the Maryfield attack on one of several Protestant guerrilla organizations that have sprung up in recent months, including the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). Their declared purpose is to seize control of Ulster if the British ever decide to withdraw from Northern Ireland. In addition, the UFF spokesmen have threatened to murder any civil servant who works for the intergovernmental commission responsible for administering the Anglo-Irish accord.

Despite the threats, the British authorities appear more worried about the IRA’s continuing campaign of violence. Since the signing of the Hillsborough agreement, nine people have been killed in terrorist attacks and seven police stations have been hit by IRA mortars. The police responded on Dec. 28 by arresting 18 leading members of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s aboveground political wing, but a week later all the men were released without being charged. Still, the British claimed at least one victory last week when three members of a Marxist republican splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army, abandoned their hunger strike in Ulster’s top-security Maze prison. The three men, all serving life sentences for murder, were among 26 terrorists convicted last month on the word of an alleged accomplice and were protesting the use of uncorrobated evidence of police informers. The British acknowledged that if the fast had continued it might have swung undecided voters to vote for hard-line Catholic candidates in the byelections.

And there has also been a trend away from violence—last year 54 peo-

ple died as result of terrorist attacks, compared with 1972, when “the troubles” were at their height and 321 civilians and 146 police and army personnel were killed in sectarian shootings and explosions. British authorities also hope that by ceding some authority in Northern Ireland to Dublin, particularly in such areas as human rights and the courts, they can reduce Catholic alienation and undercut support for the IRA.

Still, hatred seems as deeply ingrained as ever. In the red-brick Victorian ghettos of West Belfast, nearly every surface is etched with graffiti that mark out sectarian territories— slogans obscenely damning the Pope in the Protestant Shankill area, and “Kill the Prods” in the nearby Falls Road,

the principal thoroughfare of Catholic Belfast. Along the divide, thick concrete and steel fortifications, some of them more than 20 feet high and 100 yards long, separate Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. “As long as I can remember, they’ve been throwing stones at us and we’ve been throwing them right back,” said Patrick Davey, 54, an unemployed taxi driver who lives with his wife and five children in a narrow, three-storey house that stands just 30 feet from the wall. “Sometimes it gets so bad that the kids refuse to go to bed in the back room. Bricks, stones, milk bottles—you can hear them smashing up against the house all through the night.”

Like his neighbors, Davey has no intention of retreating from his frontline position in Ulster’s long-running war. “The Protestants would love to push us out, but we’re not moving an

inch,” he said. Neither does he see any chance that the Anglo-Irish agreement will lead to an eventual reconciliation between the two sides: “As far as I can see, the British are never going to give us anything. We’re headed for a civil war, and my only worry is that I might not live to see it. But it’s going to come—it’s written in the sands of time.” For its part, the Thatcher government, is determined to make the Hillsborough agreement work. But Westminster is clearly taking Paisley and his supporters seriously. Indeed, observers of Northern Ireland politics draw a parallel between the current crisis and that of 1974 when an attempt by London to impose a Protestant-Catholic power-sharing arrangement collapsed following a two-week

general strike by militant loyalists. And Paisley told Maclean’s that unless Thatcher’s government agrees to scrap the Hillsborough agreement, he will lead Protestants across the province in a campaign of civil disobedience. “Systematically and deliberately, the people of Ulster will entirely withdraw their consent to be governed,” vowed the Democratic Unionist party leader.

As well, Paisley indicated that if nonviolent tactics fail to break the government’s resolve, he will resort to more severe tactics. “The only thing that is preventing a civil war at the present is the determination of the political leadership to go for a democratic and constitutional settlement,” declared Paisley. “But if we don’t win at the ballot boxes, then upon the heads of the British government it will have to be.”

—ROSS LAVER in Belfast