Bleeding Ulster

Part one: Catholics and Protestants

Since the "troubles" first began in Northern Ireland eight years ago, the press has repeatedly reported that the "vast majority" of people there support peace. Yet, a cruel fact in Ulster politics has been that the same "vast majority" has also supported violence, indirectly or directly, unintentionally or intentionally: whether it be the violence of the security forces or the paramilitaries, official or illegal.

The irony is not academic. It explains why the "men of violence" prevail, and why peace is no closer now than it has been for the last eight years. It points to the profound ambiguity with which the Northern Irish, both Protestant and Catholic, view themselves and their sectarian opponents. On the one hand, there is the desire to find reconciliation. On the other, there is the incapability to compromise on points of belief and the adamant unwillingness to concede anything in the name of moderation.

The division of sympathies is complicated because each group has reason to fear the other. In the foreign press and the propaganda of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the conflict in Ulster is often portrayed only as a struggle of a Catholic minority against an oppressive Protestant majority backed by the British government. In reality the struggle is that of a "double minority." It is both the Catholic attempt to secure long-withheld civil rights; in Ulster, and the Protestant desire to insure British identity in the face of the Catholic majority to the south.

It is often said that the Irish love their history. In truth, the Irish love their myths, which bear only indirectly on their history, but which have become powerful forces in themselves. The greatest myth in Northern Ireland is that of the monolithic opposition. The Catholic sees all Protestants as irrevocably bent on depriving him of his rights; the Protestant suspects all Catholics of being incorrigible republicans.

In a sense, this is an understandable state of mind, since moderation has never succeeded in Ulster, even before the present troubles. But it is also a self-fulfilling attitude, which is based on an exaggerated fear of the opposition and its intentions, and the moral blind spot of too many Catholics and Protestants is that they perceive the extremism of the other, without suspecting their own.

Many outside observers argue that the conflict now stems from "social" or "economic" factors, religion having lost its prior importance. In fact, the "troubles" remain religious. This is how it is perceived by the people of Ulster, who are deeply religious and who accord a certain preeminence to their beliefs. The conflict is still essentially the contention of two faiths, traditions that are inseparably intwined with racial origins and conflicting historical aspirations. Traditionally, the Catholic is an Irish Gael, a descendant of a people who predated British domination. The Protestant is a descendant of Scottish immigrants, whose succesful colonization of Ulster was an instrument or that domination. Religion animates the political contentions, gives them their violent intensity, and explains their centuries-old persistence.

Another fact seldom appreciated outside of Northern Ireland is the extent to which the conflict exclusively takes place in the working class. In the larger cities, particularly Belfast and Londonderry, where the violence predominates and where Protestants and Catholics live in tense proximity, the population is heavily working class. Virtually all the major violence occurs in working class neighborhoods. The main para-militaries--the IRA, and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), both Protestant groups--are all manned by residents of these communities. Even the British army, manned by recruits from the back streets of Leeds or the gorboels of Glascow, is a working-class force.

This accounts for a singular state of affairs in Northern Ireland. The responsible editorials, the government, the political parties have all gradually lost control over the course of political events. In the tough, sectarian enclaves of Belfast or Londonderry, sensitive registers of the political situation, these voices have an air of irrelevance. After years of constitutional paralysis, the working class has little faith left in its civic institutions. In the vacuum, paramilitary power has gained.

It might then be expected that the clergy, whose influence has not waned, would take the lead in opposing the paramilitaries. This has not been the case, tragically, and its failure to do so is one of the major reasons the use of violence receives the tacit and continuing support it does.

In Catholic communities, the IRA, though highly visible, is difficult to describe. The two branches of the organization, the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA, are hostile to British sovereignty for different reasons. The Officials, who claim to be the intellectual successors to the old IRA of the Irish Civil War or the '10s. have adopted a Marxist ideology, "forsworn" violence (though they have kept their guns), and oppose the British as part of a greater opposition to sectarianism and imperialism. The Provisionals have grown out of the present troubles, and their credo is the visceral hate of the British army, which they are actively fighting. Their slogans, which are painted everywhere, leave little doubt about their unremitting opposition: "Brits Out--Peace In," "Fuck the Queen," "Stuff the Jubille," "No!," etc.

Most Catholics will tell you they have relations or friends in the IRA. Whether these are actually IRA members, or a part of the shifting number who sympathize with or aid the few who are actively engaged, is never clear. Whoever they are (and it is not the kind of thing people are eager to know), they are effectively in control of the Catholic communities. The British army patrols these areas as if it was an occupation force; the police, called the Royal Ulster Constabulatory, never enter.

Although Catholic communities are often accused of fully supporting the IRA, they probably give it less true support than the Protestants do their paramilitaries. In private, many Catholics, especially older people will express their dislike or even hatred of the IRA. But very few would actively oppose it to the extent of siding with the police or army, and the reason is not merely fear of retaliation.

The IRA, no matter how unpopular it may be, is nevertheless a partisan of the Catholic cause. The army, with its strong anti-Catholic bias, is an antagonist, as are the Protestants. Most Catholics feel that the IRA is no more murderous than its enemies. The IRA is no more murderous than its enemies. The IRA is an organization of "their boys," Catholic boys. In a situation where moral choices are no longer black and white, loyalty to the religious group is an instinctive and natural reaction.

The IRA also benefits from the romantic aura which surrounds the early days of Irish rebellion. Every Catholic child knows the old IRA songs and, for many, the South's war of independence is within memory, or one generation removed. The IRA's promise of a united Ireland strikes a deep emotional chord in Catholics, whether they believe it is advisable or not. The sacrifice of Irishmen in a Catholic cause has a tremendous symbolic appeal. The Catholics have always revered their dead martyrs; the Irish constitution itself begins: "In the name of God and the dead generations..."

In short, for a variety of reasons, conscious and unconscious, the Catholic community is ambiguous in its feelings towards the IRA. A similar ambiguity is to be seen in the Catholic clergy who, though they have been vocal in the religious denunciation, have not earnestly considered their own role in perpetuating sectarian intransigence.

The Catholic clergy, particularly the hierarchy, has in general maintained that the final resolution to the "troubles" lies in the "peaceful" reunification of Ireland. Given each side's distrust of the other, this is not a serious approach to peace. It is not reasonable to call for peace one moment and in the next propose a solution that is unacceptable to Protestants. Thus the clergy tends to suggest to the Catholics that the only final solution can be unification and, in doing so, unfortunately echoes the IRA.

The parallel is not overlooked by Protestant extremists, who use it to justify their claims of Catholic disloyalty and subversion. Catholic demands for civil rights and economic parity are therefore easily dismissed by Protestants, not so much out of disbelief, as out of an unyielding conviction that any concession moves Ulster closer to Irish unification. The great fear of the Protestants is "Rome Rule," the religious tyranny and destruction of democracy they consider synonymous with Catholic rule. In its insistence on controlling many aspects of Catholic life, including its positions on divorce and birth control, and in the special relation to the state it maintains in the south, the Catholic Church has done little to dispell these notions.

As a result, the Protestants suffer a basic insecurity, which creates a "siege mentality." They see themselves as a the potential victims in a political vice, caught between a Catholic majority they fear and a British government whose committment to Northern Ireland they mistrust.

The UDA and the UVF consequently have more direct sympathy among Protestants than the IRA does among Catholics, because they are seen as the final guarantors of Protestant ascendance. They have managed to legitimize themselves in the eyes of many by claiming to protect the same "order" the police and army uphold. But, in fact, neither group will tolerate a government that concedes any power to Catholics. If the British government should compromise the Unionist cause, the UDA and UVF can be counted on to react with violence, their professions of "loyalty" and "order" notwithstanding.

Like its Catholic counterparts, the Protestant clergy has reneged on its duty. They have failed to rid their pulpit exhortations of blatant political intolerance. Extreme evangelical ministers--one example is the notorious Ian Paisley--have refused to lay aside the 17th century, and continue to thunder against the abominations of Catholic theology. The more moderate preachers are guilty of too often offering a blanket condemnation of the terrorists (i.e. Catholics), without looking critically at Protestant extremism, the chauvinism of the Orange Lodges, or the conduct of the security forces. Again, the effect is to reinforce indirectly the violent premises of the paramilitaries.

The main Protestant mistake has been to confuse democracy with loyalty, and so make the latter a precondition to the former. The main Catholic mistake has been to confuse unification with Catholicism, fueling the fears of the Protestants. This has led to a political violence little understood outside Ulster: an intense, brutal fratricidal violence. The divided religious sympathies of a single working class are at its root. These have been distorted in a tragic process of political misapprehension.

In conversations I had with people throughout Northern Ireland, I asked repeatedly whether they desired peace, and the answer was inevitable "yes." But what they said they would sacrifice for that peace, how much of their own political philosophy they would passively set aside to end the violence--that was an entirely different question.

Part II: The British Dilemma.

Christopher Agee worked last summer in the Ardoyne, a Catholic area in Belfast.