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Friday 30 September 2005

The view from the West

In the concluding part of our series focusing on Ulster's troubled Protestant communities, Ruth Dudley Edwards gauges the mood in rural areas where, she reports, the sense of betrayal is palpable

THEY'RE quare and cocky and confident at the moment, said a Fermanagh Protestant about young republicans. (In rural areas, particularly near the border, few want to be quoted by name if they are saying something even slightly contentious. Although these days they don't expect to meet the fate of murdered relatives, friends and neighbours, they are fearful of more subtle persecution.)

It is a typical comment from those increasingly embittered by the triumphalism that is accompanying Sinn Fein's 'greening of the west'.

"The younger of the tribe are in-your-face," said a south Tyrone policeman, "and it's increasing tension by the minute."

The PSNI is already perceived as a political tool and bargaining chip, and there is real fear that the government has already agreed that in exchange for Sinn Fein coming on the policing boards, known terrorists and criminals will be allowed to join. Even the older generation of republicans are becoming more provocative. "Won't the uniform look good on me?" smirked one notorious Provo to a policeman the other week.

In the past, although most rural Protestants saw the GAA as exclusive and aggressively nationalist, they now see it as republican. Indifference has been replaced by hostility. "Once," said a woman from a loyalist enclave, "we'd have wanted Tyrone to beat Kerry in the Gaelic football final. Now, because of the way their supporters carry on these days, we were mad keen for Kerry to win last weekend. We begrudged Tyrone their victory."

GAA followers from the south are reported to be civil, but locals to have moved from being unfriendly to downright abusive and sometimes violent.

After last Sunday's match and the noisy cavalcades with their blaring horns and people beating their fists on the tops of cars caught in traffic jams, in Cookstown, Dungannon and Omagh, there were fights between loyalist and republican youths until well into the small hours.

There is much alarm at what is happening to land prices west of the Bann. "Republicans have funny money," said a farmer. "They're buying land all over the place at inflated prices, particularly in Prod areas." Land he thought worth £4,000 per acre has gone for £16,000.

Orangemen have reason to believe it has been a republican strategy to take over pockets of housing on parade routes in order to justify protests. Now, Protestants fear that apparently unlimited resources will be used in towns and villages to advance the republican project and bring confrontation to hitherto peaceful places.

Many rural Protestants report republicans rubbing it in that they believe they are the masters now, though this merely stiffens the resolve of those who refused to be murdered into a united Ireland.

In localities that had more than three decades of what they saw as ethnic cleansing, there has been deep shock at the closing of nine border police stations (described memorably by the Fermanagh MP Michelle Gildernew as 'spy stations').

For isolated Protestants, there is a sense that real policing is disappearing. "All that local knowledge will go," said one. Hence the horror that greeted the news that the RIR will not remain to hold the line against the enemy.

The sense of betrayal is palpable.

It was no surprise to me to have a Tyrone friend speaking darkly of perfidious Albion and quoting Kipling's 'Ulster 1912':

The blood our fathers spilt, Our love, our toils, our pains, Are counted us for guilt, And only bind our chains.

Before an Empire's eyes The traitor claims his price. What need of further lies? We are the sacrifice.

It is not just that they believe that Tony Blair is sacrificing unionists to republicans, it is that they believe he is cynically sacrificing the law-abiding to the lawless. Blair may consider himself a devout Christian, but to the hundreds of thousands of fundamentalists, bible-thumpers, rednecks or however you want to describe them, he has chosen Barabbas over Jesus.

To Jim Dixon, a survivor of the 1987 Enniskillen bomb, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was well-named.

As he put it in an article in the News Letter, "government and religious leaders...put the Son of God on the cross and let out the murderers."

The Rev Desmond Bain, leader of the Methodist church, was enthusiastic about decommissioning, quoting Isaiah on swords being beaten into ploughshares. He was answered by Thomas, a Tyrone businessman, who quoted to me Isaiah 59.6 and 7: "Their webs shall not become garments, neither shall they cover themselves with their works: their works are works of iniquity, the act of violence is in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood: their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths."

Peter Hain is unlikely to understand, but if you deal in moral absolutes, you deal in moral absolutes.

In many congregations in little churches and halls, compromise with the wicked is seen as ungodly. As Ian Paisley well knows, these people are the bedrock of the DUP. What will they do and where will they go if he is seen to sell out to the forces of darkness?

When they watch loyalists rioting, there is an apocalyptic sense in many such people that those who supped with the paramilitary devil deserve to suffer the consequences. It is a view shared even by elements of moderate Protestants who would never have voted for a paramilitary and are outraged that Catholics vote for murderers.

Many of these, who dislike the bigotry of the Paisley wing, nonetheless defected to the DUP because they believed they could block the stream of concessions to republicanism. After the dismantling of the watchtowers, the release of Sean Kelly and so on, they realise that Paisley has, if anything, less clout than had David Trimble.

When the next stream of concessions comes in the wake of decommissioning, Protestants west of the Bann will see the future as one in which they will have little protection in their towns and villages from being increasingly dominated by ruthless, corrupt terrorists and their apologists.

÷Ruth Dudley Edwards is the author of The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions published by HarperCollins, £8.99.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards