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A Bleeding Ulster

Part Two: The British Dilemma

By Christopher Agee

This is the second of a two-part series about the present troubles in Northern Ireland. Last week's section discussed the violent emnity between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster.

The British created the sectarian problem in Ulster; they have perpetuated it; and now they must solve it. Whatever sway the paramilitaries have in their respective communities, they cannot claim to arbitrate the politics of Northern Ireland. That unenviable honor belongs to the British government. No one doubts that it can determine the future fate of the province, whether it lapses into outright civil war or retakes the road to peace.

Great Britain retains this incongruous piece of territorial jurisdiction because, in a sense, its past policies have succeeded. Northern Ireland is one of the few places in the British Empire where colonialism reached its intended fruition. Whereas in other colonies the British never established their own people firmly enough, or inevitably alienated them when they did, in Ulster they were completely effective in their creation of Protestant plantations. The Protestants subordinated and supplanted the native (and hostile) Catholic population, and established themselves as the loyal majority. To the discomfiture of the British government, they have remained steadfastly loyal ever since.

But the British colonization was a Pyrrhic success. To a great extent, British policy failed in Ireland and continues to fail in Northern Ireland. To be specific, it is the English who have failed. As a nation, they have never understood "those impossible people," the Irish, nor truly cared to, and the Irish dislike of the English is legendary. At every turn of English policy towards Ireland--with Essex, with Cromwell, with the 'black and tans' (infamous British in the war of independence)--there is ceaseless bloodshed, rebellion and repression.

Few historians would dispute that in the heyday of colonialism the British government consciously cultivated religious antagonisms. A good case might be made that it continued to do so until very recently. Certainly its support of the Unionist political machine which controlled Northern Ireland from its creation with an iron hand until the troubles began demonstrates a very self-benefiting partiality in terms of retaining the province. No honest observer of the situation in Ulster during those years could have overlooked the undemocratic and oppressive nature of the Protestant-dominated provincial government at Stormont, but it is possible--and there are innumerable political precedents for this--that the British government was ignorant of it. Only when the Catholics rose up in protest in 1968 and the present troubles were ignited (and Ulster became a burden, and not an asset) did the British government reassess its position and begin applying political leverage. Its first major move was the introduction of troops in 1969 to quell rioting, particularly of the Protestants, who were gearing up for full-scale violence.

As the violence first surged, then abated, the British government was increasingly compelled to advocate an equitable political program. At first, its efforts in this direction were feeble, and did not seriously threaten Protestant ascendance at Stormont. But, after the fall of Stormont in 1972, the British government supported a new Ulster government which gave power to both Protestants and Catholics. Under the pressure of a general strike organized by Protestant extremists, however, it abandoned the experiment. Since then, the British government has ruled the province directly from Westminister and has become highly impatient with the Unionists' refusal to compromise on power-sharing.

As a result, the Protestants no longer see the British government as their true ally. They feel more isolated and beleaguered than ever. They are apprehensive that the once impregnable Unionist party is split. At the same time, due to the conduct of the army, the British government has been badly discredited in the Catholic community and is in the potentially dangerous position of having the full support of neither side, but holding complete power.

The upshot of this has been an agonizing political impasse and motionlessness. The political parties which have garnered substantial electoral support--the Social Democratic Labor Party, the moderate and major Catholic party; the Alliance Party, a non-sectarian party; and the Unionists--all still retain local and parliamentary influence. But in terms of their ability to influence the direction of the whole province, they are jockeying in thin air. Only the Alliance Party, which stresses reconciliation and espouses both the link with Britain and Catholic civil rights, gives indications that it might one day unite enough moderate Catholic and Protestant support to form an electoral majority, which is the formula necessary to overcome the political deadlock. The more extremist parties are too closely associated with the paramilitaries to be overly concerned with constitutional questions.

In this situation of rising frustration, where Catholics and Protestants are neither appeased nor powerful, an ominous political sullenness has developed. The British government is in the curious position of being 'not wanted' and at the same time, "not unwanted." So far, this dislike has been tempered by the ever-present fear, "What will happen if the British pull out?" But time and patience are exhaustible. Inevitably, people will begin to desire "to fight it out," "to settle it once and for all"--in fact, such genocidal sentiments are often expressed by ordinary persons in private. If new initiatives are too long forthcoming from the British government, the 'men of violence' will eventually take the initiative themselves, erasing the inroads the security forces have made and sliding the province towards greater violence.

In the meantime, the British Army has emerged by default as the dominant political force in Ulster politics. To speak of the government alone is not a truthful description of British involvement in Northern Ireland. A full account must include a description of the unique role which the army has appropriated itself in the province. One of the most crucial facts in Ulster politics is that the army has not acted with the equanimity the government claims to support. Essentially, the army's role as a "peace-keeping" force has not dissuaded it from adopting a political bias of its own. It is not simply carrying out an impartial policy of order and law. Either the government condones the army's behavior, or it is ignorant of it.

The army is in a very difficult position in Ulster. It may be an impossible situation. It may be that no other army could have conducted itself better, or with more restraint. But whatever the case may be, the army's operations have had disastrous consequences.

The army's problem is that it is an army. In a non-military conflict such as exists in Ulster, a conflict of unseen gunmen and clandestine bombings, the instincts of an army are dangerous. By nature, an army feels uneasy without a clear enemy; and in Ulster, there are no clear enemies. The British army has, unfortunately, judged their enemy to be the Catholic community. Subject to the constant attacks of IRA, it has been obliged to concede that the entire Catholic population is in hostile sympathy with the paramilitaries. Indeed, given the secretive nature of the IRA, it has had no choice but to operate on the assumption that every Catholic is a potential terrorist. The army is unable to discriminate between the IRA and its mineu, and so must approach every Catholic area on a war footing.

This belligerent attitude, founded or not, has produced a series of tactical disasters for the army. Indiscriminate army searches, groundless arrests, the use of rubber bullets, and especially the internment of political suspects (now ended)--all these have alienated the Catholic community. Whatever argument can be erected in the defense of these as military necessities, no argument can defend the general "tone" of the army's conduct in carrying them out. Despite the denials and counter-accusations, there is little doubt that the army has committed with some regularity acts of gross harassment, beatings, psychological brutalities and other rights violations. That is, it employs 'counter'-'terror' in the true sense of both those words. Even if in part untrue or distorted, newspaper articles, personal testimony and the incidents of harassment that can be seen daily in the streets attest to a continuing pattern of army misconduct.

This, then, is the dilemma of the British presence in Ulster. In the Protestant communities, any move by the British government to impose and then maintain a dimunition of Protestant power will be opposed, perhaps violently. The army, which until now has been strongly supported by the Protestants, may be in the difficult position of opposing them and losing their support--though that does not imply that they question at all the link with Britain. In the Catholic communities, the army has already discredited the law which it was sent to uphold and undermined the pronouncements of the government. In both communities, the authority of the government's direct rule is secondary to the sectarian objectives of the two groups, and is (or will be) attacked when it is seen to stifle those aspirations.

The recently improved security situation has led many to believe that a solution is in the offing. Indeed, no return to self-government in Ulster can occur without an abatement of the violence, but the abatement does not in itself mean a solution is near. Political quietude is dangerous when nothing in a once explosive situation has changed. A persistent, crushing history weighs on Ulster, and it will not be erased with cosmetic political adjustments.

There is no final solution in Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future. Those who say there can be a final solution generally are just asserting that their own position is the right one, nor that it should be. The incontrovertible obstacle remains national affiliation. The Catholic side desires unification with the south, while the Protestant side insists on maintaining the link with Britain. The disagreement is absolute with no space for compromise or concession. Power-sharing may succeed on a pragmatic basis and as an effective counter to the 'men of violence,' and the present troubles may even end, but the question of national affiliation will continue to plague the province. Unification or union, the only final solutions, are completely unacceptable solutions. Only an astounding shift in the thinking in one of the two groups will alter the situation--but this would take generations of enlightened and conciliatory politics which does not seem likely.

One point remains certain: if the British government is to retain its sovereignty, it must do so without the active presence of the army. The army cannot indefinitely remain as the major political power in Ulster. Morale is low, and Britain's will to support it is weakening. Though the British will never unilaterally abandon their political link with the province, they are equally unwilling to maintain direct rule at the cost of an endless army presence. The British are eager to see the army withdrawn--and seeing that delayed, they desire (in a sense) that it be compelled to withdraw. Inevitably the army will withdraw. If a workable political solution is not in effect by then, the people of Ulster will have a future as bloody and mischanced as their past.

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