Bloody Sunday Follow-up

My ‘Bloody Sunday’ article from last week received a critical comment from a reader, and I wanted to respond.

I wrote to the commenter – Taicligh – as follows: No response to critical comments is likely to satisfy entirely either your criticism or my defensiveness 😉  But I hope you can see my response as an opportunity to continue dialogue, rather than to shut it down.  I apologise in advance for what I’ve got wrong this time round – we are all frail and faltering, and looking toward the same light.  I hope we can keep talking.

To take each of Taicligh’s points in turn:

>wow, you’re certainly not biased.

I’m sorry that my article gave rise to such a critical response; it was not my intention to entrench division; the article was actually an attempt at expressing a broader view of things than is often seen in conversation about divided societies; one that would endorse the Bloody Sunday enquiry, respect the pain of the families, and endorse the British Prime Minister’s apology while suggesting how the context could expand beyond (and because of) this single event.  I’m sorry also that my article seemed biased and insensitive.  At the same time, I’m not sure that biases can ever be avoided in writing about something so powerful as the history of a violently divided society.  What might be better would be if we could all acknowledge our the existence of our biases, and dialogue in the knowledge that none of us has a monopoly on truth.

>let’s see, how many orange paramilitaries refuse to disarm? i was living in dublin during 9/11, and that october the IRA disarmed. what were the main loyalist groups reactions? not us. we’ve got britain on our side.

1: The International Decommissioning body has, in fact, confirmed that all loyalist paramilitary groups have decommissioned their weapons.  They did this by stages over a period of time, beginning in 1998.  Loyalist paramilitary decommissioning was confirmed as complete by the start of 2010.

The IRA’s complete decommissioning was confirmed in September 2005; Sinn Fein was in government with Unionists within just over a year and a half after this.  Such time lapses were characteristic of the peace process, it having originally been stipulated in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement that parties would seek to use their influence to bring about decommissioning by May 2000.

You are right, however, to say that there was more public pressure on the IRA to decommission than on Loyalist paramilitaries.  This may, as you suggest, have had something to do with residual Protestant ambivalence toward Loyalist violence, and the fact that Unionists had more to fear from Republican violence than that of mainstream Loyalists (although Unionist politicians agreed that decommissioning needed to happen on both sides); but it was mostly due to the fact that Sinn Fein wanted to become partners in the power-sharing government, whereas Loyalist political parties did not have enough seats in the assembly to grant them a position in the government.  Part of the reason for this lack of support is that Protestants did not vote for parties directly linked to mainstream Loyalist paramilitary organisations in the same numbers as the Catholic community voted for the party linked to the IRA.  The sudden and untimely death of David Ervine, the leading moderate Loyalist politician, probably also contributed to the reasons why Loyalist decommissioning took longer.  The chief reasons that there was more pressure on the IRA to decommission was the potential role of Sinn Fein in government, and the fact that the Loyalist paramilitary groups did not appear to represent significant enough numbers of people to be eligible for a role in government.

> the *massive* and *egregious* civil rights violations against gaelic irish/native irish/”catholic” irish people in NI for centuries is not brought into context properly here.  oh no, it’s the IRA that’s to blame for it all.

2: You’re right that the article does not fully contextualise the situation.  But this is merely the consequence of it being impossible to name every dimension of the conflict in every article I write about it.  Far from ignoring the divisions and injustices in Ireland and northern Ireland, I have worked to promote understanding about these issues.  The book that I co-authored twelve years ago on the history of anti-Catholicism is an attempt at a relatively comprehensive outline of the systemic and individual injustices against the Catholic population of the island, for instance; the book that I’m co-authoring now is a history of the role of the churches, Catholic and Protestant, in the peace process.  I participated the earlier book as someone who would be perceived to be a Protestant from a mixed background, as an attempt at facing the shadow side of my own community.  I do not think that ‘the IRA is to blame for it all’; nor do I think that it was all the fault of agents of the state.

>yes, using violence as a means to achieve a political platform is wrong, no if’s, and’s or but’s.  however, for decades the average irish “catholic” person in NI felt that there only protection was found in the IRA.  being a “protestant” i doubt you’d understand that.  the police, the military, the foreign occupiers, the orange paramilitaries & the greater size of the population they “represented” were all against irish “catholics”.

Of course I agree about the immorality of using violence as a means to achieve a political platform.  There was no justification for the use of the violence by the IRA, even by the most open-ended interpretations of ‘just war’ theory, on a number of fronts – but this one fact would be enough for me: non-violence had not been exhausted as a means for resisting oppression before the IRA formed itself and started killing people, police, soldiers, and civilians alike.  This happened.  It’s not the whole story, but it happened.  Of course the Loyalist paramilitaries were also utterly wrong in their use of violence; and the treatment of northern Irish Catholics as second class citizens, backed up by repressive security measures was absolutely indefensible.  Had I been in my mid-teens or older in the late 1960s, I hope I would have become sensitised to the divisions in our society, been taught to listen to others, and had the courage to join the non-violent civil rights movement, and to work for a long-term non-violent strategy to bring about its goals.  I wish more people had done that.  I wish the leaders of the US civil rights movement had been able to be more deeply involved in training our own civil rights activists, as some of our local leaders surely wanted.

But we must deal with history as it is, and not as we might wish it to have been.  The fact is, the civil rights movement did not achieve enough traction as a non-violent movement to sustain itself long-term in the face of the overwhelming Unionist opposition to its goals; and the events of Bloody Sunday were so shocking that the movement did not recover.

However, I don’t accept your proposition that the average Catholic person in northern Ireland felt their only protection was found in the IRA.  The majority of Catholic people did not vote for Sinn Fein until after the Good Friday Agreement was signed and the IRA had largely ended its combative activities; most instead voted for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the non-violent party established to address social injustice and bring about a united Ireland by peaceful means.  The majority of people in the Irish Republic had no IRA sympathies whatsoever.  The IRA came into being when some people decided that they were unwilling to pursue the path of non-violent resistance.  Most people in northern Ireland completely disagreed with this position, both morally and strategically.  It demeans a large number of my Catholic friends to suggest that they supported the IRA, an organisation that was willing, among other things, to blow up shoppers at bus stops, shoot businessmen dead in their gardens in front of their families, and detonate a bomb that killed 11 people attending a religious service.  Of the people I have been close to who were directly bereaved by the IRA, perhaps the most striking and horrifying story belongs to someone I used to know whose father was strapped into his vehicle, forced to drive to an army checkpoint, and blown up by remote control.  He was a Catholic.  It demeans the larger part of his community to suggest that IRA support was typical of the ‘average’ Catholic.  And it demeans those who supported the IRA to say they were only motivated by blood lust.  Like I said, it is impossible to write about this topic without seeming biased.

As for my own personal experience of the conflict and injustices in and about northern Ireland, it’s difficult for me to respond without seeming churlish or defensive.  But I’ll say this, briefly: you’ve made assumptions about my background that are incomplete.  You may have no idea what suffering was caused to me and my loved ones by either the IRA, Loyalist paramilitaries, or the British Army or Northern Irish police (RUC).  You may have no idea what risks I may have taken to be involved in peace-building.  You may have no idea how much my mental health may have been challenged when I was involved with others in dialoguing with people who might previously have threatened us.  I don’t say this to be snarky, but merely to reflect on how easy it is to allow political prejudices to overwhelm personal empathy.  And at the same time, I have no idea about your life experience and pain; I’m sorry if I’ve said anything here that offends; and I’d like to hear from you again.

>so, in retrospect, there’s far more to the story.  but, again, let’s
alleviate the loyalists of any wrongdoing, as with “great” britain.  and we can justify “great” britain stealing land that they had any right to and say “protestants were there long before…”.  well guess who was there long before them?!?!  good gracious.

4: I did not cite the fact that Protestants have been in Ireland longer than Anglo Saxons have been in North America as a means of justifying everything or indeed anything that has been done in the name of Protestantism in Ireland.  It was merely to show that the argument that the ‘British’ should leave is an impossible ask; as inconceivable, or at least as misdirected as suggesting that the only way to get justice for the Native American population of what is now the United States would be for every white person to go back to England, the Netherlands, or Germany.  There may well be some understandable logic to that suggestion, but there are probably better ways of resolving the questions of historic and contemporary injustice.  I don’t know why you think I was trying to absolve the British in general or Loyalists in particular from responsibility: my original article clearly referred to horrific Loyalist violence, and was primarily an enthusiastic endorsement of a British Prime Minister apologising for an act of monstrous injustice perpetrated against Irish Catholics.

Being Protestant in northern Ireland over the past forty years did not necessarily mean to be consciously engaged in perpetrating injustice; and being Catholic did not mean to be a member of an underclass equivalent to, say, the experience of black South Africans under apartheid.  There was discrimination, to be sure; there was a lack of equal rights, of this there is no doubt; and worst of all, there was violence perpetrated by Loyalist paramilitaries, repressive security tactics by Army and police, and a blind eye often turned by Protestant leaders.  But sectarianism – and the violence it bred – was a two way street.  We ignored, belittled, and harmed each other.  The IRA killed more people than any other organisation, and so some say they are mostly to blame; while its defenders would say that they had more reason to engage in violence, due to the state-sponsored injustices.  I would say that both are wrong.

>i was hoping to find this to be a great article by a writer i had previously found enjoyable via the god’s politics email list, but you’ve certainly lost a fan.

I’m grateful that you enjoyed my writing before!  I hope we can dialogue further.  One of the glories of the internet is the facility it affords strangers to talk with each other; one of its shadows is that it’s too easy for blog posts, and comments, to be written in haste and produce more heat than light.

To that end, let me state my biases, inasmuch as I can, faltering toward the light: the unequal society that prevailed in northern Ireland since its inception in the 1920s was unjust, and unjustifiable.  No one should have endorsed it.  The violence used by both Irish Republican and Ulster Loyalist groups was also unjustifiable, and, at times nothing less than a manifestation of evil.  The repressive tactics of successive British governments were unjustifiable too.  The motivations for people who joined paramilitary groups or the police or British Army may have come from all kinds of places, including a mixture of the honourable desire to serve and protect, fear of the other side’s violence, and group cohesion.  And tragically, there may, for some, have been no more complex motivation than the desire to kill.

But these things are neither the whole story, nor do they matter as much now as they used to.  We talked to each other, and decided to stop using violence as a political tactic.  We share government together.  We have human rights and equality legislation that, if applied elsewhere, could transform the world.  And we have our wounds, and our memories, and the desire for truth.  The Bloody Sunday enquiry opens up possibilities for change in our society as it establishes a precedent: that a common vision of facts (or at least the beginnings of such) can actually be arrived at, and that sometimes one side of a story is more factual than another*.  Don’t you think that those bereaved by the IRA deserve the same kind of acknowledgement received by those bereaved on Bloody Sunday?  And wouldn’t it be quite something if the current Deputy Prime Minister of northern Ireland could offer the same kind of apology for some of the IRA’s actions as did the Prime Minister of Great Britain?

*To those readers who have now written me off because they think I don’t understand postmodernism, three brief responses:

1: You’re right: I don’t understand postmodernism.  To say that I did would be rather a modernistic statement, don’t you think?

2: The place of facts in the debate about truth needs to be re-asserted.  That’s one of my truth claims.

3: The Bloody Sunday enquiry was a kind of community hermeneutic, if ever I saw one: 12 years of people telling their stories in public, filtering into a process that attempted to get to a larger story that could liberate the community that told it in the first place.  I don’t imagine that Derrida would object to that.

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4 responses to “Bloody Sunday Follow-up

  1. Yet another good article and reaponse Garreth. Nothing about the north of Ireland is ‘black and white’ or should I say Orange and Green? There has always been enough ‘blame’ to go around and yet plenty of people willing only to blame the other side, appropriately or not. Somewhere along the line the majority of very ordinary decent people said very loudly ENOUGH and did so repeatedly. Further, the more violent the paramilitaries became the louder the cry. Perhaps there is now an uneasy truce, a breathing space where people can get to know each other as ordinary people trying to get by as best they can without let of hindrance. I wonder sometimes if it is a good thing to think of northern Ireland as having a fragile grip on peace. Perhaps such a perception helps avoid complacency and a desire to continue to face down violence with peace. The road thus far has been very long and painful perhaps as the echoes of the recent past fade we can at least pray collectively for them to never return.

  2. Wonderful response! I enjoyed the read.

  3. Hey Gareth,
    I would very much like to get hold of a copy of your book sir. What’s the best way for you for me to purchase?

    Andrew
    Currently working in New Zealand

  4. Thank you again Gareth for these excellent posts.