Thursday, July 08, 2004

Belfast and Derry (1991)

Belfast City Hall and the city centre. The barriers are still in place at the entrances to the downtown shopping district but the body searches have been stopped. People on the street seemed blithely unconcerned with the heavy security presence, which, after 20 years of it, is hardly surprising. The RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary, the overwhelmingly Protestant police) had their rifles and flak jackets, as usual, and there were plenty of armoured cars, known as "Pigs", to be seen. I went to the Europa Hotel near Donegall Square to arrange for a car and driver. One of the desk clerks introduced me to Sean and we set off together in his taxi on a two-hour tour of the ghettoes. A "ghetto", says Webster, is " a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live esp. because of social, legal or economic pressure" and this seems a fairly accurate description of both the Nationalist and Loyalist enclaves in the inner city, to which most of the troubles are confined. There are large areas of Belfast, particularly in the southern and eastern suburbs, where the keenest observer wouldn't be able to tell that anything out-of-the-ordinary was going on. We were to have our first taste of trouble within minutes, as it happened; but before I get into that, a word first on the local decor.

You know immediately whose territory you are in from the flags and graffiti and from the murals on the gable ends of the houses. As a general rule-of-thumb, anything with an "I" for Ireland is Republican and anything with a "U" for Ulster is Loyalist. The green-white-and-orange of the Irish tricolour flies over the Falls Road and the Ardoyne and Ballymurphy where the walls read "IRA", "Up the Rah!", "Provos Rule" and "PIRA" ("Provisional" IRA who broke with the "Officials" in January 1970), "INLA" (Irish National Liberation Army: even more extreme than the Provos), "Brits Out", "Tiocfaidh Ar Lá" ( chocky ar la: Our Day Will Come ) and "FTQ" -- Fuck the Queen. In the Loyalist areas the flags are all British and the murals show the Red Hand of Ulster and King Billy on his white horse. (We last made the acquaintance of William III in Dublin, on the tapestry at the Bank of Ireland. He was hardly the model of a British monarch since he was a foreigner (Dutch), probably homosexual, and had the full support of the Pope in his war against James II of England -- known in Ireland at the time as "Seumas the Shit".) Other reminders of the Williamite wars are "No Surrender" and "1690-1990" on the walls, along with the initials of the various Protestant paramilitary groups: UDA (Ulster Defense Association), UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters) and PAF (Protestant Action Force). There's also "British Troops Welcome", "Kill the Taigs", i.e. Catholics, and "FTP" -- Fuck the Pope. It gets a little monotonous. One of my favourites was a huge "NO POPE HERE" and under it, in smaller letters, "Lucky Old Pope!". It's gone now.

We stopped so I could film a mural of Bobby Sands on one of the houses in the Falls Road. A bit further down a British patrol with a Pig and a Saracen troop carrier had pulled over and I was zooming in for a long shot when the guy in the back turret saw me. "Come on," says I to Sean, "time to move along." We'd no sooner pulled away from the kerb when the Saracen roared alongside and cut us off, and out jumped some soldiers with two RUC men in flak jackets. Half a dozen rifles were pointed at us. "I think the wee men want a word with ye," says Sean. "Just play the tourist and let me do the talking." So we got out of the car, slow and easy, with our hands in view -- uh, what seems to be the trouble, officer? The next ten minutes were damned unpleasant. One little RUC fanatic with his half-crazy light blue eyes was all for running the pair of us in immediately. His partner managed to calm him down a bit, but only after he'd listened to my tourist routine and settled down considerably himself. RUC men are favourite IRA targets and are wound up very, very tight indeed. Do you know that flat Ulster accent? "Hooryew -- wha'r ye doon?" This went on for an age. They checked my papers -- a Republic passport, not the most endearing thing to have, perhaps, but at least familiar. The last time I had had a run-in with the RUC I had produced a Japanese drivers licence and they'd gone berserk. I thought it better to play it straight this time. They checked Sean's papers. They searched the car. They fiddled with the camera. More questions. The soldiers stayed out of it, some covering us with their guns and the rest keeping an eye on the street. Finally everybody put their safety catches back on (What??!!) and they let us go -- with dire warnings as to what would happen if they ran into us again. "Wee pumps," was Sean's comment as they pulled away. Wee what, Sean? "Pumps, so they are, pumps an' hures!"

Parts of Belfast look devastated but it's not because of bombs and riots, or not directly. When the Troubles began in the late 60s a lot of borderline areas became unsafe to live in so the people moved out and left the houses to fall into ruin. This in a city with a chronic housing shortage. We drove up to the Ardoyne, a front-line area divided by the so-called "Peace Line", corrugated metal walls that separate one side from the other. The "Fools" quotation on the wall (see image)is taken from the famous funeral oration made by Patrick Pearse over the grave of O'Donovan Rossa in 1915. There have been many "Fenian Dead" before and since that speech, and nearly all of the recent ones were in their teens and twenties, as a visit to Milltown Cemetery clearly reveals. Bobby Sands and the other nine volunteers who died on the Hunger Strike are buried here, as are the three members of the unit shot down by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988. Every time I visit Belfast the Republican plot has grown larger. Sean walked along with me pointing out the fellows he had known: "I went to school with this lad," -- "This fella here was a grand musician," -- "Yer mon here was only a week out of the Kesh," (the internment centre, now a huge prison) -- "They pulled 12 bullets out of yer mon here before they left off countin'."

As an outsider it is difficult to understand what is really going on in the Six Counties. The shooting war is a low-intensity conflict in terms of weapons and casualties -- nothing at all like the former Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s, for example. The IRA has become very streamlined and sophisticated with no more than 250-300 full-time volunteers organized into 3-5 member cells known as ASUs or Active Service Units; a far larger number are part-timers used for logistics and support (cars, safe houses, transporting weapons) and for policing the Nationalist areas against a plague of young "hoods" and joyriders. Amsterdam heroin has made serious inroads in Dublin but the IRA has kept it out of the North through the simple but expedient method of executing dealers. Nobody bothers calling the RUC into Nationalist areas to report a crime. IRA "courts" can't send people to jail so the punishments tend to be physical and painful and range from severe beatings through "breeze-blocking" -- dropping concrete blocks on the limbs of offenders -- to knee-cappings and executions. On the military side, a lot of high-tech communications equipment is being used nowadays to scan police and army frequencies and to co-ordinate attacks; electronic timers, magnetic signals and photosensitive cells are used to set off bombs. The level of commitment remains high and there is no shortage of volunteers.

But what are they fighting for? Ostensibly, a 32-County united socialist Ireland, free of the British presence, in which the Catholic and Protestant working classes can both pull together to alleviate common problems of poverty and unemployment. This is the goal according to Sinn Fein, the political arm. Sounds good, but awfully vague: why should Catholics and Protestants suddenly decide to cooperate after 300 years of being at one another's throats? And through an IRA victory, at that? Sinn Fein doesn't like that line of questioning because it's "sectarian" -- a very bad word. "The Brits are the enemy: 'the never-failing source (quoting Wolfe Tone) of all our political evils.' Once the Brits have been removed the Protestants will realize (they will?) that all these years they've been used as pawns in the British policy of divide-and-rule." So the hostility of the Republicans -- and a very fierce, pure hatred it is -- is directed not against the Loyalists, as such, but against the British "army of occupation" and their "lackeys" in the RUC.

Viewed from the other side, the "security forces" (this is very much a war of terminologies) are engaged in "suppressing terrorism" and "restoring peace". What this means, in actual practice, is that they are engaged in fighting the IRA (while largely ignoring the Protestant paramilitaries) in an effort to restore the situation that existed before the Troubles began. Since that situation was the discriminatory one that gave rise to the fighting in the first place, British policy in Northern Ireland leaves itself open to question. Is the army really there as a "peacekeeping force" to "avoid a sectarian bloodbath", as the British media would have it, or are they simply up to their old tricks of putting down the rebel Irish? In spite of the fact that the professional army would just as soon keep Northern Ireland as a training ground and a fast-track for promotions, the British government, I believe, would dearly like to extricate itself from this endless drain on its resources but hasn't been able to find the correct "Peace with Honour" formula.

The RUC are much more in the foreground now but depend heavily on the army for back-up. The same tired old tactics continue, year in and year out: constant patrols on foot, in armoured cars, and in helicopters ("Belfast Muzak"); roadblocks, random identity checks, arms raids and general harrassment in Nationalist areas; arrests, interrogations and the occasional shooting-to-kill of known suspects. The massive presence of the army in the Catholic ghettoes and the very free use they make of baton rounds (6-inch plastic bullets fired at a velocity of 160 mph; lethal at close range or when children are the victims) results in a further alienation of the people they are supposed to be "protecting from terrorism". The IRA couldn't last six months, let alone twenty years, without the continued support of the Catholic population. Sometimes this support is grudging and reluctant -- particularly after one of their all-too-frequent "mistakes" or "accidents" in which innocent lives are lost -- but, as has been aptly remarked, (by a Cabinet Minister in the Republic) "whenever the IRA are flat on their backs, the Brits do something stupid to put them right back up on their feet again." Internment. The Hunger Strike. Another child killed or maimed. Gibraltar. Another teenager shot for joyriding. More harrassment. Another shooting. It goes on and on. Sinn Fein regularly polls a third of the Nationalist vote in the Six Counties as a whole, and absolute majorities in the ghettoes. It has posed a severe electoral challenge in recent years to the more moderate Nationalist politicians of the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) so that they have had to distance themselves from the security establishment in order to retain their credibility with the electorate. Elections are carried out in an orderly fashion: if they weren't, particularly in the highly politicized atmosphere that prevails throughout Northern Ireland, the world would hear all about it.

Militarily speaking, the fighting is at a stalemate and has been since the late 70s. The British have stopped coming out with their Vietnam-style pronouncements of "turning points" and "final pushes" and "last gasps". They can't smash the IRA and they know it. Instead, they've settled for a battle of attrition with "an acceptable level of violence" -- an unfortunate turn of phrase used by Reginald Maudling when he was Minister for Northern Ireland. On the other hand, the IRA cannot realistically hope to defeat the British Army in the field. Their aim is to force the British government into a political withdrawal. The situation demands a political solution since neither side can "win" in a military sense. In the continued absence of a political settlement, however, what can we expect? More of the same? Another twenty years of violence . . . fifty? . . . a hundred?

The Loyalist population represent the key to the whole problem, to my way of thinking. Sinn Fein and the IRA dismiss them as dupes of the British who will see the light in a free and equal united Ireland. I don't think so. These are the Scotch-Irish, remember, the backwoodsmen who did the worst damage to the redcoats during the Revolutionary War (one of history's little ironies in the present context), the same stock as the flinty characters who pushed across the Cumberland Gap, who produced Dan'l Boone and Davy Crockett and Kit Carson as well as Andy Jackson and a whole string of U.S. Presidents. These are the people -- they really do have a lot to answer for -- who brought moonshine and country music to America. Do you think these people are going to roll over and play dead? Fat chance.

But right now they don't have to do much of anything. As long as the Brits and the IRA are banging heads they can sit back and say No, No, No, Not an Inch! No Surrender! in the face of any attempt at finding a political solution. This, in fact, is what they are best at and they've been saying NO to the rest of Ireland since the very first boatloads arrived in Ulster from Scotland in the early 1600s. They claim to be British -- and you'll see more British flags in just one Loyalist street in Belfast than in the whole length and breadth of Britain -- but the very moment they open their mouths on the mainland they're pegged as Irish. Well, by now they are Irish. The whole point of their claim to be British is that they don't want to be confused with the CATHOLIC Irish. "Wurr Bruttish!!" they roar and come out every "Twalfth o' July" (Battle of the Boyne time: set your watches back 300 years) with their orange sashes and parades and Lambeg drums. Even the English find them a bit distasteful -- all that flag waving, the ferociousness, the . . . the bigotry, don't you know? But the English themselves -- particularly the Tory party -- were glad enough to use them in the past as a way of bludgeoning down Home Rule in Ireland: in 1886 (Randolph Churchill's "Orange Card"), in 1892, and with near-disastrous results in 1912. The Sinn Fein claim of divide-and-rule is not altogether without foundation. Few people remember that Britain was faced with an army mutiny and the very real prospect of civil war over the Ulster Question in the summer of 1914. World War I saved them, if you could call it saving. After the Tan War in 1919-21 Ireland was partitioned with the Free State (later the Republic) in the southern 26 counties and a 6-county mini-state in the north to accommodate the Protestants. Dissatisfaction with the Treaty led to a civil war in the Free State, while the North dug in and held on. It's been holding on ever since.

The very creation of Northern Ireland was an act of sectarian politics: three of the nine Ulster counties -- Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan -- were excluded from the beginning because they had majority Catholic populations, while two others (Fermanagh and Tyrone) were considered doubtful; in the end a Six County state under British protection was created with a comfortable two-to-one margin of Protestants. The Catholics have been viewed as the "enemy within" ever since. Given the facts behind the partitioning of Ireland it seems a little disingenuous, to say the least, when successive British governments proclaim the lofty ideal of "protecting the will of the majority". What about the will of the majority of all the people of Ireland? What about the will of the majority of all the people of Ireland AND the UK? Forget it: . . . "Wurr Bruttish!!"

I don't want to spend too much more time on the politics of the situation apart from two further comments.

The Loyalists have no interest in negotiations of any kind because negotiations would inevitably call for concessions on their part and a closer political relationship with the Nationalists in Northern Ireland and with the Republic. As long as the British are willing to remain there is no reason for them even to consider such an unwelcome prospect. If, on the other hand, the British signal their intention to withdraw from Ulster then they would be forced either to negotiate a new political settlement within Ireland or fight for an independent state. At the very least they would be forced into doing some serious thinking about their future. The great danger, of course, given the recalcitrant nature of the people, is that they would choose to fight for an independent Protestant Ulster that would leave them considerably worse off than they are now and the European equivalent, economically, of Bangladesh. With the guarantee of a continued British presence, however, the Loyalists can dispense with the need to think: they have only to say NO.

The British are unlikely to pull out unilaterally. I doubt if any Tory government would even seriously consider it. A Labour government, on the other hand, might press hard for some transitional plan -- bringing a great deal of pressure to bear on the Loyalists -- that would involve both the Republic and Northern Nationalists. Nothing has ever worked along those lines so far -- I have in mind Sunningdale in 1973 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 -- and nothing in the future will work either unless Sinn Fein and representatives from the Protestant paramilitaries are included in the process. So far the British have adamantly refused to talk to "terrorists" which is a grave mistake. If they are really as neutral as they wish to appear and honestly in search of an agreement then they will have to do so.

At the end of our tour I paid Sean a well-earned £25 and he insisted on taking me for a drink to the "Crown Liquor Saloon", a lovingly maintained 19th century watering hole on Great Victoria Street. I had an hour or two before the train and it was only with the greatest difficulty that I could manage to pay for my own rounds as the two of us settled in for a long and increasingly candid conversation at the bar. Sean had lived all his life in Belfast and knew the city from before the Troubles. To him the town was the warmth of the people, the "crack", and not the politics. "What's the good of being dead for the rest of your life?" There were too many fellows he'd known planted in Milltown Cemetery as a result of politics. Not that he had any time for the Brits or the RUC or the whole power structure ("totally corrupt"), but he had little time for the Republicans either. "Lookut, man," he said, "I was born in Belfast, right? And I want to live me own fookin life. This is my fookin town, do you follow? I don't care what fookin happens, I'm not leaving the fookin place. So they can all go FOOK themselves." Well, I got the "fookin" idea all right: to hell with the military, and with the politicians and reporters, to hell with the IRA, the UDA, the UFF and the whole alphabet soup, and above all to hell with these two-day bloody wonders with their video cameras and preconceived notions. Not that he ever said or implied such a thing but I got the message. And he was right.

Nothing would do when the time came but that Sean would drop me up to the station and he did, bless him, in one of the more hair-raising drives of the day. I caught the train as it was pulling out and settled back for a trip across the North to Derry. The countryside was hardly distinguishable from that of the South, very green and peaceful with lots of (Loyalist?) cows, and the stretch along the coast from Coleraine to Limavady was particularly nice.

We pulled into Derry-Waterside in the early evening and a taxi man drove me over the Craigavon Bridge (police checkpoint) and up through the walled city. I found a Bed & Breakfast on the second try at Ryan's on Clarendon Street, and went out for a stroll with the camera. "Now be a good young idiot," said I to myself, "and don't get yourself arrested."

First impressions of Derry were very favourable. It's much smaller than Belfast and has a pleasant setting along an arm of Lough Foyle. The Old Town is surrounded by walls with four large arched gateways at each point of the compass and with a square in the centre called the Diamond. It's quite compact and the whole area within the walls can be explored on foot within a couple of hours or less. I walked along the riverbank until I came to the Craigavon Bridge and then walked through the Old Town from the Ferryquay Gate straight through to the Butcher's Gate at the far side. From here you can look down over the Bogside where most of the Catholics live. The Bogside was a "No-Go" area for police and troops in the early 70s when the Derry IRA were led by the young and near-legendary Martin McGuinness. He went on to become chief of staff for the Northern Command and is still going strong, one of the few leaders to survive from the early days of the struggle.

Derry was the site of the famous siege in 1689. As the troops of James II came to garrison the town the gates were slammed in their faces by a group of Apprentice Boys. The town held on defiantly for the best part of a year until it was finally relieved by a fleet of ships that broke the boom blocking the entrance to the River Foyle. This is where the cry "No Surrender!" comes from and every year an Apprentice Boys Parade commemorates the Protestant victory. You'll see the Siege Heroes' Mound in the grounds of St. Columb's (Church of Ireland) Cathedral and a plaintive wall painting in the nearby Loyalist enclave of the Fountain: "Westbank Loyalists -- Still Under Siege." Derry is a predominantly Catholic city which may account for the relaxed air of the place compared to Belfast. I suppose it's my own sense of tribal identity coming to the fore but throughout my brief stay in the North I never felt the slightest sense of unease in Nationalist areas whereas the sight of a Union Jack or Silly Billy on his white horse would always put me on my guard. The feelings I recall were not so much of fear or apprehension than they were of annoyance, even anger. An incident took place the next day that left me rather unsettled because it showed me how easily I could begin to identify with local feeling against the British.

I was lounging about the Diamond area in the centre in the hopes of getting some of the troops on camera. I'd been warned at the guesthouse to be very careful since filming was frowned upon by the army and apart from confiscating your film they were capable of arresting you for a few hours just for the sake of harassment. The incident in Belfast was still fresh in my memory as well. The Diamond was an ideal location since the armoured cars would come roaring past every five minutes or so, and every now and then there'd be a foot patrol as well. There was a war memorial surrounded by a tiny park with benches at the very centre of the square. Nobody would say anything if they saw me filming the war memorial, I reasoned, and if some troops got into the picture, well, it was an accident, wasn't it? So there I was pretending to film the war memorial when a voice behind me said, "Hullo -- where you from?" I turned around and found myself facing a British squaddie in full battle gear. Here we go again, I thought. "Dublin," I said. "Oh, yeh? Come up for the demonstration, have you?" Demonstration? What demonstration? Then it came back to me that August 9th would be the 20th anniversary of the mass arrests in 1971. "Well, no," I said, "I'm going back this evening." "Oh," said he, and then, almost as an afterthought, "Just being friendly, like." I looked at him more closely. Up to then all I had noticed was the helmet and the rifle. He was a young guy -- no more than 21 or 22 -- with pale blue eyes, a weak chin, and was trying, without much success, to grow a little moustache. "Seems like a nice place, this," he went on. WHAT?! Is this guy for real?? Nice place? Doesn't he realize there are people here who want to shoot him? Up to a few minutes ago I might even have applauded the idea. Now I wasn't so sure. He was just a young geek trying to have a friendly chat with one of the "locals". He rattled on a bit more and I began to wish he would go away. Who's watching me talking to this Brit? It's not my idea. Honestly. But I couldn't stop myself asking him, "Why did you join the army? Why did you come over here?" "Oh, I dunno," he said, "it seemed like a career, I suppose." A career. He was probably from some godforsaken industrial slagheap in the North of England with a choice between the army or unemployment. "Well, don't shoot anyone," I said, " and don't get shot yourself. Take care." "Orright, mate. Ta ta." And that was it as he went off to rejoin his patrol.

The encounter confused me. I had to sit down for a few minutes and think it over. I felt sorry for the guy. A few minutes ago he had been just another one of these faceless bastards, one of the "enemy troops", in fact, as I had come to regard the soldiers. Now he had revealed himself as a human being and I realized that I had found it difficult to respond to that. The local mentality had seeped into my mind further than I cared to acknowledge. If I had been born in Northern Ireland or even if I just lived there, how well would I have managed to resist getting involved in Republican politics? I knew the answer to that one and it was not reassuring. After two days I was already beginning to identify with them on an emotional level. Well you might as well face up to it, I decided, and just get on with what you were doing. So I spent the afternoon shooting a few soldiers -- on film, that is -- and I still have them on the video.

On the previous evening (to get back to the sequence of the story) I had a quiet meal in a restaurant before wandering along to the pubs in Waterloo Street, just outside the northern walls. The pubs here are frequented by young working-class Catholics and I got into a chat with a group of them in the first place I walked into. They directed me to the "Rosses", a small pub up the road with traditional music. Once it had been established that I was up from Dublin they didn't mind me filming although the place was so dark that the pictures didn't come out very clearly. The question in the North is not "Who are you?" but "Where are you from?" In a way it's the same question but tailored to the need to place strangers in the tribal context. "What foot does he dig with?" is another very Northern question. It seems when the Protestants first came to Ulster they brought spades with handles. Grasping the handles they would use their right foot to push the spade into the soil. The Catholics, on the other hand -- or foot -- used spades with no handles and with their hands on the shaft had to dig with their left foot. So in an urban setting where some people wouldn't know one end of a shovel from the other the question is still used to determine a stranger's religion.

The next morning I went down to the Bogside. On one of the walls of the flats in Rossville Street is a picture of one of the kids killed recently by the army. Further along is the Free Derry wall which is really only a facade since the building itself is gone now. This is where the "No-Go" area once began. Just below the city walls is a memorial to the thirteen men killed, seven of them under 19, when the Paratroop Brigade fired 108 rounds into a crowd of demonstrators on Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972. Thirteen others were wounded. Three days later, on a national day of mourning called by the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister), the British embassy in Dublin was burned to the ground by an angry crowd as the gardai (Irish police) looked on. The Paras have the worst reputation of all the British regiments sent to Northern Ireland and the IRA bided their time, waiting for an opportunity to settle the score. It came at Narrow Water in South Down on August 27, 1979 when 18 Paras died in a carefully planned ambush. Lord Mountbatten was blown up on the same day. The killing goes on.

Late in the afternoon I collected my bags from the guesthouse and caught a taxi near the Guildhall to take me over the bridge to the station. I had my last encounter with the army when I had to spell my last name and give my date of birth to the squaddie who was holding my passport at the checkpoint. His mate had the usual rifle trained on me. You get sick of these guys very quickly.

I spent the rest of the day on trains with a stopover for a meal and a stroll in Lisburn, south of Belfast. This is Union Jack territory, Loyalist to the core, and, not uncoincidentally perhaps, British Army HQ for the North. King Billy was on his horse all over the town and the Orange Hall was nothing if not prominent. The Orange Order was founded in the village of Loughgall near Armagh in 1795 after the battle of the Diamond when the Protestant "Peep O' Day Boys" gave the Catholic "Defenders" a thrashing. In its early days it was a crude organization whose aim was to drive Catholics from their homes by threats or actual violence, and it was condemned by most Protestant landowners and politicians. Nowadays it is still a true-blue organization but has become quite "respectable". The various "Lodges" come out in force with their orange sashes and banners during the summer marching season.

The next train brought me across the border to Dundalk where I had a long wait for the express to Dublin. I arrived about 10 that evening, and was struck by how sane and normal and civilized the place seemed. No King Billy, no helicopters, no soldiers, no armoured cars. I walked over to Madigan's on North Earl Street with the feeling I was home again.