IN BELFAST, PROTESTANT ANGER DROWNS OUT TALK OF PEACE
IN BELFAST, PROTESTANT ANGER DROWNS OUT TALK OF PEACE
You have to ring the doorbell before they unlock the front door to the Berlin Arms pub on Belfast’s hardened Shankill Road. Every time the bell sounds, the conversations inside stop while eyes swivel to the entrance for the moment it takes to judge whether the new arrival is friend or foe. “A barman’s got to protect his customers,” explains a stocky man who has obviously spent a good many hours at the Arms. “It wouldn’t be good for business if his bar was getting shot up, would it?” On the Shankill, a lack of caution can be deadly. Last month, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorist walked into Frizzell’s fish shop, 50 m from the Berlin Arms, carrying a bomb meant for leaders of a Protestant paramilitary group who were believed to be meeting upstairs. They were not, but the bomb exploded anyway, killing the
23-year-old IRA man and nine Protestant civilians, including a pregnant woman and a seven-year-old girl. Bouquets of flowers now mark the spot where Frizzell’s once stood.
The Shankill is the spine of Belfast’s
Protestant working-class majority, a street of food stores, bars and betting shops that extends from the city core towards the hills be hind the city. Here, the Protestant community’s resistance to any union between Northern Ireland and the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland is most vociferously and
violently expressed. Throughout Northern Ireland, the Oct. 23 bombing, and the spree of revenge killings by Protestants that followed, provoked the usual outrage and pleas for peace. More significantly, it prompted British Prime Minister John Major last week to announce that his government was prepared to sit down and negotiate with the IRA if and when it renounces violence. “The right memorial to the dead, surely, is to make sure no one else is killed,” Major said in his opening speech to a new session of Parliament. Ending the conflict in Northern Ireland, he added, was “the head of our priorities.”
But in the bleak, working-class housing developments that surround the Shankill, the response was different. “I’m constantly surprised by how hard the attitudes are here,” says Geoffrey Beattie, a Belfast native who recently wrote a book about his Shankill Road childhood. “People were saying, There’s no point going on like this. We need a bloodletting. Only a war will settle it.’ ”
The men and women of the Shankill do not easily forgive or forget. In the Berlin Arms, they speak of local volunteers who were “sacrificed” while fighting under British command at the Somme in 1916 as if it happened only yesterday. The pub’s Protestant patrons know exactly who their enemies are, and they include almost everyone: the Catholic nationalists who want to unite Northern Ireland with the Republic; British politicians, who they believe would sell out their interests to achieve peace; and moderates within the Protestant community who violate the loyal-
ist code of “No Surrender.” A suspicious and often sullen lot, they are determined to ensure that Ulster remains part of the United Kingdom—even if the rest of Britain shows little enthusiasm for the idea. The result, paradoxically, is that the most extreme loyalists—members of either the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) or the Ulster
Volunteer Force (UVF), both of which have been outlawed—are now waging a campaign of terror against Britain in order to preserve their place within it.
In recent years, Protestant killers have surpassed the IRA in their ferocity. Hundreds of young Protestants turned to their own paramilitary groups for protection and revenge, convinced that the province’s security forces were ineffectual against IRA terrorism. They have adopted the weapons and approach of their enemies—including such vicious tactics as knee-capping—and this year added a strategic twist: the loyalists declared war on a “pan-nationalist front,” making every Catholic, including politicians and civilians, a target for murder.
The aim is to make the Catholic community so fearful that it will ultimately beg its own terrorists to sue for peace.
The plan has not worked. Tit-for-tat killings continue—75 so far this year—and the violence escalated in October after the IRA’s Shankill Road bombing. Protestant gunmen retaliated within days, shooting two Catholic workers on a Belfast street and spraying bullets through a pub in the town of Greysteel, killing seven people on Halloween. “Each time there is an attack, the
‘The right memorial to the dead, surely, is to make sure no one else is killed’ British Prime Minister John Major
politicians promise to hunt the killers down,” says Gary Long, a soft-spoken, unemployed Protestant machinist who lives in a quiet Belfast suburb. “But it never stops, and everyone quit listening a long time ago. That’s why people join the paramilitaries. If the government won’t protect us, we have to defend ourselves.”
There are signs everywhere of the Protestants’ lack of faith in the British government. In the Berlin Arms, the walls are plastered with loyalist posters asking for information that might lead to the IRA terrorists who were behind the bombing of the fish shop. The climate in the bar is thick with paranoia. “My brother did two tours in Belfast with the British army,” says one man who will only give his name as Joe T. Joe’s brother now serves in Cyprus, but Joe insists that the IRA has a long reach. “If anything happens to him over there, I know that it was ordered from here,” he says, leaning forward
for emphasis. “And if it does, I’ll take a Catholic out for him.”
October’s killing spree frightened a population that is already hardened to violence. Most people stayed off the streets except for essential business, and Belfast’s nightlife nearly ground to a halt. Not until people were satisfied that loyalist gunmen had evened the score of murders did the city reawaken.
At the same time, however, fears that Northern Ireland was slipping further into the grip of the paramilitaries provoked renewed appeals for peace. Major and Albert Reynolds, his Irish counterpart, plan to meet in Dublin on Dec. 3 to discuss potential solutions. They were undoubtedly encouraged by last week’s peace rallies across Northern Ireland, some of the largest public demonstrations since the massive peace protests of 1976. “There are two
communities in Northern Ireland, all right,” said Nancy Gracey, a Catholic whose son was wounded by IRA terrorists when he resisted their efforts to steal his taxi. “They are the ordinary people on one side and the paramilitaries on the other. If the paramilitaries would go, this bitterness would disappear.” Major and Reynolds are building upon a peace initiative begun last spring. John Hume, leader of the Social Democrats, Northern Ireland’s largest Catholic party and a constant critic of all terror, and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, secretly drafted an outline of principles for a new agreement. And despite the British government’s stated refusal to talk to Sinn Fein, Adams claims that the Major government quietly joined backroom talks several months ago. Last week, Major finally laid out the way ahead. He urged the IRA to declare a ceasefire. After an undefined “sufficient interval” of peace, he said, Sinn Fein would be invited to join peace talks. All sides, Major added,
“will have to show courage, court unpopularity, break down old barriers and take risks.” Downing Street sources suggested that one possible solution might entail sharing control with the Irish Republic over issues such as trade and security in Ulster. In return for those concessions, Dublin would drop its constitutional claim to sovereignty over the province. But the secrecy surrounding the negotiations so far has stoked the natural paranoia of the Protestant community, which fears that its desire to remain under British rule may be sacrificed for peace. Major’s comments last week were a clear rebuke to hardliners such as Rev. Ian Paisley, who insists that he and his followers will never surrender sovereignty to the Irish republic.
From the raised pulpit of his Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast on a recent Sunday, Paisley warned his followers not to let down their guard. “Some peace movements are propaganda ploys to keep people from realizing the issues that have to be settled before there can be peace,” he thundered. Paisley is not merely a minister preaching to a fundamentalist congregation. He is also leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which collected more than 200,000 votes in the 1992 British election and now has three members in the British parliament. His reaction to any hint of compromise underscored the depth and passion of Protestant resistance. “Do not be fooled by people who talk of peace,” Paisley shouted at his congregation. “That’s the peace of surrender. Until the evil is conquered and dealt with, there can be no peace.”
While the politicians talk, the segregation of Northern Ireland’s working-class communities continues. In a bare downtown shelter so cold that you can see your breath, 24-yearold Billie Jo sits with her boyfriend, William, and two children and explains why she wants
to leave the province. She and her family are Protestants living in a tough Protestant neighborhood. But for reasons that remain murky, they have become a target of local paramilitary groups. Last Sept. 15, police came to the door at 10:30 p.m. and warned them that their names were on a list of targets drawn up by Protestant terrorists and given to the police—a common method by which paramilitary groups chase their victims out of a neighborhood. The reasons vary from wanting to clear a Catholic family out of a Protestant housing estate—a local version
of ethnic cleansing—to punishing someone who has offended the paramilitaries. Billie Jo insists that she does not know why the paramilitaries have targeted her. But she was sufficiently worried to abandon the house within 20 minutes, leaving all her furniture behind. The family did not return home until Nov. 11, and were threatened again three days later. Now, they want to leave for good.
Forcing people out of their homes has become so widespread that the local housing authority has a policy of buying homes from people who have been threatened and paying to relocate them. It is one sign of the degree to which paramilitary groups have become ingrained, Mafia-like, into the local culture and economy. Protection rackets flourish. Paramilitary groups run the local taxi services, and insist that they, not the security services, will police neighborhoods. The paramilitaries on both sides have a policy of administering beatings to people accused of “antisocial behavior.” Often that means disciplining local teenagers who make a habit of joyriding in stolen cars. But it has also become the brutal method of resolving disputes between neighbors. “Lots of
people now say, ‘I’ve got a problem, I’m going to see the UDA,’ ” explains Henry Robinson, a former IRA member who now works for a nonsectarian social agency. Belfast’s working-class areas are among several front lines in the province’s sectarian war. Sporadic shooting continues along the border with the Irish Republic. For years, loyalists have accused the IRA of striking at Protestant and British army targets from safe havens in the Republic, making those picturesque counties with their rolling farmlands another battlefield. Along the border,
the war is never far away. On Halloween, an IRA sniper shot and killed a Protestant policeman in the border town of Newry. But the siege mentality among Northern Ireland’s Protestants also results from a less visible, creeping threat. A generation ago, Protestants accounted for two-thirds of the province’s population. Now, their share is 58 per cent, in part because of the Catholic community’s higher birthrate. And although many Catholics do not share the nationalist dream of a united Ireland, Protestant loyalists are clearly worried by the trend. Increasingly, members of the community are retreating into Protestant enclaves, or emigrating from Northern Ireland altogether. In Altnaveigh, a pastoral hamlet just outside Newry, 19-year-old Roger Dodds
says that his goal is to learn a trade and leave the province quickly. And there is nothing proud about Altnaveigh’s Orange Lodge, an occasional gathering place for members of the shrinking local Protestant population. It is a tired old bam, covered in hostile graffiti of which the most polite is: “Orange Scum.”
Although hopes for peace are now higher than they have been for years, the greatest barrier to a settlement probably lies with Protestant loyalists, not Irish nationalists. “After all this loyalty to Britain in the face of terrorism, the British government now says, “We want to get rid of you,’ ” complains Ian Paisley Jr., 26, who works as a researcher for his father. The younger Paisley is a mildmannered, more academic version of his father, but is every bit as unbending. “We have to stand up for our rights. To many Protestants, democracy has become an abstract concept, and that is very dangerous.” The coming months will test the British government’s ability to soothe hardline Protestant suspicions and desperation. If the peace initiative fails, the gun-happy young men who prefer the power and influence of terror are almost sure to prevail. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.