Breaking Ranks in Northern Ireland

Hard questions and dangerous silences

Northern ireland has served as a nursery slope war for many journalists who went on to cover strife in Beirut, South Africa and Kosovo. It has been suited to this because it is safer and has always been safer than those other places at their worst.

For most of the Troubles, up to the cease-fire of 1994, violence came in a steady drip that never produced more than 100 deaths a year in a region with a population of 1.5 million. Most of the likely targets knew who they were: police officers on patrol, soldiers guarding them, political activists, construction workers repairing bombed police stations, taxi drivers, anyone related to any of these categories who might share in the blast of an undercar bomb or take a ricochet, and random Catholics, or Protestants mistaken for Catholics, who might wander into a dangerous area or whose work might make them accessible. That’s what explains the targeting of taxi drivers. Then there were the people caught in explosions, over and over again, at La Mon House, Enniskillen, Claudy. These were the random victims. Any of us could have been among them, the journalist as much as the clergyperson.

I remember a colleague joking with me back in 1972, the worst year of the violence. He said: “I hear Don McCullen is in town. Things must be getting really serious.”

McCullen had made his reputation with his Vietnam pictures. The joke, recalling it now, tells me that even then our primary concern was that things would get worse. We could live with the violence as it was, but our dread was that a greater calamity was imminent. If McCullen preferred to be in Belfast, did that mean that he thought Belfast was more fearsome than Saigon? If so, then bigger fool him. Often during the worst violence, Belfast people felt the whole world was bored with them. They read intense news interest as a form of respect. That is what they felt when Kate Adie, the international BBC television reporter, arrived to cover street rioting in the mid-’90s. It indicated that the world was paying attention to us again after decades of bewilderment and disdain.

This is not to say that Northern Ireland hasn’t had its hairy moments.

“Do you know, you look a bit like Jim Campbell,” said a man in the headquarters building of the Loyalist—that is to say Protestant—Ulster Defence Association, when I went there to interview their leaders in the early 1980s. I did know I looked like Campbell because I had worked with him, perhaps even modeled myself a bit on him. The man drew a large folding knife from his pocket and raised it to my beard.

“With a wee bit off there and a wee bit off there, you’d look just like him.”

Humor? I wasn’t laughing.

Jim Campbell was the one journalist to be shot in Belfast. A loyalist, representing a different group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, shot him at his front door one evening because he had been writing about a UVF man shortly to be released from prison.

Jim survived the shooting.

“We sometimes drive past his house and give him a wee wave, just to see him shit himself,” said the man with the knife.

There is a protocol, accepted by those we have taken for the most crazed demons on earth, that a journalist, even from an enemy country, is due some immunity not extended to ordinary citizens and is exempted from the vague, ever-changing lists of supposed legitimate targets. In Northern Ireland, the Republican paramilitaries learned this protocol before the Loyalists did.

I very much doubt that Sinn Féin, the political party representing the interests of the Provisional IRA, would scare a journalist in their own offices like that. They have a better sense of public relations, always have. They also have a political need to define themselves as the businesslike diplomatic Republicans who can mediate with the passions of the IRA and their support community. Officials of Sinn Féin may be the same men who stalked with guns, plotted bombings or rose to political influence through murder and sabotage—but they recoil as coyly from the suggestion of this as any prim lady from a smutty joke. They train us, by their manner, not to even think about the blood on their hands, let alone to ask about it.

Go ahead and ask anyway, and they get very angry.

A former IRA man called Bobby Storey was described by Liam Clarke in the Sunday Times as the man whose job it was to police the IRA cease-fire. I knew little about him. I had read Kevin Toolis’ book, Rebel Hearts, and his interview with Dermot Finucane, describing how ruthlessly he and Storey would take over a family house for an attack. I had read J. Bowyer Bell’s account of how Storey acquired the nickname Brain Surgeon for shooting people in the head. I wrote a commentary for the BBC Radio Ulster program “Talkback” about the integrity of the peace process, saying, “We are dependent on this man now, all of us. How do we feel about that?”

This was a question about the integrity of the process. Storey took my point personally. Perhaps he felt that the nickname Brain Surgeon implied sarcastically that he was stupid. In Belfast humor that is most likely what it would mean. He took me into the corner of a bar and explained that I was a slug. He’s about twice the size of me. I listened with care. You don’t argue in those situations. If such a man invites you to consider that you are worthless and contemptible, then that’s what you apply your mind to, because intimidation works—it makes us timid.

Journalism, however, especially the journalism of the columnist and the book writer, allows you the last word, or at least a reply. I wrote up the incident as the introduction to my book, The Trouble With Guns, as much to manage the fright I had taken as to illustrate the moral complexities of the peace process.

When a colleague asked Storey why he had leaned on me, Storey said I should not presume to go into bars in Republican areas just because I grew up there and then feel free to criticize Republicans in my writing. There was a price to be paid for disagreeing, and that was that you kept your distance.

It is getting easier for people in Republican areas to express dissent, though most of this comes from people who “have backings”—former members of the IRA themselves, or of other Republican groups like the Official IRA. These people cannot be attacked without some risk of bloody and sudden retaliation.

For others it is different. I have often sat in the homes of people who are furious with the IRA, particularly because of the behavior of their vigilantes who supervise the behavior of young people and punish with leg breakings and gunshot woundings. They say to me, “Of course, around here you keep your head down and say nothing.”

Belfast is a small city, with a population of under half a million, but the people who live there tend not to move outside their own areas much. The west of the city, around the mainly Catholic Falls Road, is almost like a separate town. Many who live there would not contemplate living elsewhere; they would regard it as a risk to live close to Protestants. The boundaries between politically intense Republican or Loyalist communities and the neutral areas are often precise, and the remove one would have to make to get out of one might only be half a mile, even 100 yards.

An indicator of the call of communal allegiance is that people declare themselves Catholic and Protestant without meaning anything theological at all. The Protestant may be an atheist; the Catholic may believe in reincarnation. The clinging to labels is a symptom of their need to belong in separate camps and tells nothing specific about the body of beliefs they actually hold. In such a society it is very difficult for anyone to stand out and say, “Well actually, none of this applies to me.”

My freedom of expression was gained by moving three miles from where I grew up at the top of Belfast Falls Road. That has always been the main artery road of Catholic west Belfast. I went from there to live in a mixed area near Queen’s University, where a more normal civic polity applies. I have created a space for myself from which I can state bluntly, as an analyst and commentator, what I think are the flaws in the culture of Irish Nationalism.

I had already mentally left a Catholic and chauvinistic education behind before the Troubles started with a feeling like being released from prison. I had supported the first stirrings of a civil rights campaign precisely because it was making demands on the state without asserting an ethnic claim; it was about reforming the state, not overthrowing it. After 50 years of partition, most Catholics had accepted that the old argument was obsolete; the problem was how to find a secure place for Catholics within Northern Ireland, not how to topple Protestants into a united Ireland and replicate the problem of division with Catholics on top.

That is still how most Catholics think. I am not in a minority position.

In some ways I was as conservative as the Republican traditionalists who had assimilated from their parents as children the conviction that they had inherited an unfinished war.

I had been a republican at 13, but my mother scoffed at me reading braggardly accounts of guerrilla war in 1919. The old arguments about Irish identity and British oppression had divided generations of Catholic families, aside from what they had done to separate Catholic from Protestant. Other mothers were proud of sons who tended towards revolution. They shut their eyes to the damage they were doing and fantasized that they were fighting a war when they were blowing up shops, and often themselves, and shooting policemen and endangering the people they presumed to defend. I—when I got over the first trauma of what was happening—saw nothing more worthwhile to do than to question their mythologies and their self-delusions, though that response might have been a product of upbringing too.

I have drawn criticism.

One of the core ideas of working-class politics, promoted by both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries, is the need for community cohesion and solidarity around the cause. The paramilitary organizations on both sides have tried to monopolize the expression of the areas they occupy. Contradict them and you are not just a traitor to a political cause, you are a defector from your own root community.

It needles dangerous people at their most sensitive point when someone with roots in their community dissents assertively from what they say is the community experience. They argue that there is a higher form of democracy than electoral politics, the democracy of the community’s voice. The community, as they presume to define it, is what has rights of expression—not the individual. The individual’s divergent point of view is dangerous if it dilutes the community’s coherence and thereby undermines the political cause of Republican or Loyalist parties. In a profoundly divided society like Northern Ireland, a failure of community allegiance can be read as succor to the enemy.

A person who was raised as a Catholic and a Nationalist who attacks the IRA for unwarranted murder or criticizes their political proxies for dishonesty will be accused by some of being a traitor. I have been accused of sanctioning the loyalist murder of Republicans, and not just in whining letters to the editor but from the platform of a political party conference, while I was actually sitting at the press desk below the speaker, who was a convicted terrorist.

The background to that incident was the murder of Malachy Carey. He was a Sinn Féin party worker, and he had been shot dead on his doorstep by Loyalists. Sinn Féin blamed the media for jeopardizing their members by “demonizing” them. What the media had been doing was drawing attention to the fact that Republicans were the more aggressive terrorist faction and questioning the right of their political representatives to present an image of themselves merely as victims.

But the moral power of their blaming the media was fearsome. What journalist wants to be held complicit in murder? The political device of Sinn Féin, which baffled nearly every interviewer, was the insistence that the IRA and Sinn Féin be regarded as wholly separate, regardless of the fact that they shared membership on all levels, including at the very top of both.

Journalists who tried to penetrate that conceit were being told that they had blood on their hands, though it is absurd to imagine that Loyalist killers—who were content to kill any Catholics—were in need of journalists to connect Sinn Féin to the IRA before they would select a target.

I wanted to refuse the assumption that because I had an Irish name and had been raised in a Catholic family with Nationalist politics, that I was cast that way for life. I had a right to think my way through to a different position.

The division of society in Northern Ireland is all pervasive, and there is no real escape available, even for those who insist on independent thinking.

There is another community typecasting you, apart from your own, and you can have no control over what people there think of you. You can feel implicated by their anger. When a Protestant Unionist attacks the IRA, it is embarrassing to agree. You feel that that anger really addresses all Catholics, including yourself, and you react defensively, or you genuinely feel that you know better than the angry Protestant what makes someone join the IRA, and that you can’t fairly align yourself with simplistic hurt and bitterness.

Because the conflict is seen as ethnic, broadcasters and newspapers tend to seek balance by selecting interviewees and commentators according to their perceived ethnic background, rather than according to their actual political positions. I get invited as a commentator frequently onto television and radio programs, and routinely I am matched against a Protestant, on the understanding that that provides a simple, both sides of the house equation, even though we may actually agree. Perceived Catholic/ Nationalists like me, therefore, when matched against actual Protestant/Unionists will upset the actual balance of discussion if they break from expectation and argue against a home position.

Local newspapers try to field an equal number of Catholic and Protestant columnists. It doesn’t matter that they might agree, the difference in their roots will satisfy for ethnic balance, and that is what is seen to matter most. Yet, with this conscientious pairing, when one has crossed over, the betrayal is seen as even greater, because it deprives one side of any airing at all in that debate.

As someone who grew up in a Northern Irish Catholic home, in a Northern Irish Catholic area, I am perceived as letting the side down by joining these debates. A sense of community allegiance should oblige me to make the Nationalist case or let a real Nationalist take my place.

Northern ireland’s complexities demand fair assessment, but sometimes the best journalistic response to the repetitive ideological intransigence of politicians who sustain division is the unanswerable question that penetrates hypocrisy. In August 1999, Dr. Mo Mowlam, then Northern Ireland Secretary of State, was agonizing over whether the IRA, by murdering Charles Bennet, a young Catholic, had broken its cease-fire and drawn political exclusion on its proxy party, Sinn Féin. The appalling anomaly appeared to be that paramilitaries might be above all political sanction for murder, so long as Catholics only killed Catholics and Protestants only killed Protestants.

I asked Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness at a press conference, with no expectation of an answer: “Martin, if you shot me, would that be a breach of the cease-fire.” The other reporters fell about laughing. The point was made that the usual evasions were not taken seriously, even if they were always taken down and reported.

The irony of my position when I criticized Republicans in Sinn Féin and the IRA was that I simply compounded the danger for me that most people face already. As far as Loyalist thugs were concerned, I was still a taig, an Irish Catholic, and their ethnic enemy: I could no more have denied that to them than I could have insisted on not being male or white. At least if I had known my place as a taig I would only have had one set of angry men to worry about, the enemy that I had inherited as a Catholic—the Protestants. In terms of personal security, it made little sense to double the number of dangerous people who might be annoyed with me.

Yet my somewhat anomalous stance has its value because it expresses publicly the anger of many others who feel silenced not just by fear of the other side, but also by the protocol of the peace process itself. Nonviolent Nationalists who support the Social Democratic and Labour Party will defend Sinn Féin against Unionist criticism. That is what they feel they must do to preserve Republican involvement in the peace process. At the same time, they are embarrassed by Republican brutality.

The opinions that people air in private are, according to common lore, more pro-violent than those they air in public. In fact, for many it works the other way around. A lot of people in Northern Ireland are more accommodating in private and more considerate of the enemy’s point of view than they publicly acknowledge. They like it when someone like me stands up and excoriates paramilitary organizations. Their politicians, who are maintaining a diplomatic relationship with Sinn Féin, for instance, and hold their anger in check and risk appearing to take a soft line on violence, may be heartened to hear a journalist, tied to no party affiliation, scalding the very people they have to be nice to.

At the start of the peace process, journalists debated whether they should help it by confirming its orthodoxies, for instance, that conflict had been an inevitable product of the past. Some of us fretted whether, in challenging those orthodoxies and picking apart the spurious political argument of violent people new to politics, we might not be driving them back to violence. Most people want the peace process to work, but they want a process that is durable enough to withstand common logic.

People tell me that ordinary reportage and interviewing have failed them, that they have failed to cut through the conceits and the piety, that passionate commentary serves them better. In a frightened society, they tell me that quietly—but they tell me it often.

Malachi O’Doherty, a free-lance journalist in Belfast, Northern Ireland, writes political commentaries for The Belfast Telegraph, The Scotsman and the BBC. He is author of The Trouble With Guns: Republican Strategy and the Provisional IRA.

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