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Sunday 25 February 2007

Dinosaurs once again stalk the northern terrain

IT WAS roaring dinosaurs who turned Northern Ireland into a hellhole, and it is roaring dinosaurs who are now set to take it into a depressing future. If the British and Irish governments have their way, the Reverend Ian Paisley - the icon of intransigent, bigoted fundamentalist unionism - will be First Minister of a restored Executive. And Martin McGuinness, who with Gerry Adams is the chief icon of violent, intransigent, bigoted fundamentalist nationalism - will be his deputy.

This will be their reward for having ruined Northern Ireland and brought misery to its people. For without Paisleyism and the IRA, Northern Ireland could have resolved its problems peaceably. There was no need to descend into the sectarian quagmire to which the dinosaurs plunged it. Secretly, in the dead of night, Paisley and McGuinness must think kindly of each other. Without Paisleyism, McGuinness would have stayed an unknown: without the Provos, Paisley would have remained just a two-bit provincial demagogue.

Both of these dinosaurs hated and undermined moderates of both political persuasions and clung to the prejudices of the past. Paisley had to content himself with rabble-rousing to undermine moderate unionism, but the Provos helped him on his way by assassinating progressives like the Reverend Robert Bradford and Edgar Graham. Of course they never laid a finger on Paisley himself: every time he beat his chest, shouted sectarian slogans and encouraged loyalist violence, he acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA and a scriptwriter for its propaganda department.

From the time of partition, encouraged by empty rhetoric and drum-banging from the south, northern nationalists did everything to try to undermine the Northern Ireland State: it was their clergy who insisted on educational segregation and their politicians who inhibited Catholics from joining the police and the public services and urged them to put unification before any other political considerations. Frightened by the fate of southern Protestants, by the Republic's claim that it owned Northern Ireland and by IRA attacks, unionists developed the siege mentality, the tunnel vision and the petty-minded discriminatory tactics that increased the Catholic sense of exclusion.

Irish governments held out no hand of friendship to Northern unionists: the British government looked the other way.

Then came the breakthrough when three years after the failure of the stupid, vicious pointless IRA border campaign of 1956-'62, Taoiseach Sean Lemass went to Belfast to talk pragmatically to Prime Minister Terence O'Neill. What if there had been no Paisley to whip up loyalist paranoia at that time? And what if there had been no IRA for him to frighten his supporters with?

Thinking unionists believe that without Paisley and the IRA, business would have driven cross-border economic co-operation, tourism would have encouraged north-south understanding and, in time, nationalists and unionists would have found a way of running Northern Ireland together. Indeed, there are many who think that enlightened self-interest might have brought about a United Ireland: it would never have been possible to bomb Ulster Protestants into submission, but they might have been wooed into a mutually-beneficial partnership. Instead, the dinosaurs wrecked it.

The civil rights movement that began in 1968 had such achievable aims as fair electoral boundaries, the end of discrimination in housing and jobs and the extension from England of the principle of one-man-one-vote in local elections (the existing system favoured property owners and therefore discriminated against the poor of both communities).

Many Ulster Protestants, who rubbed along happily enough with the Catholic neighbours, were sympathetic to the campaign and some were part of it though, increasingly, there was resentment at the hysterical exaggeration that preposterously compared anti-Catholic discrimination with what was suffered by American blacks. Paisley was able to use the IRA bogyman to shout of how appeasement would lead to a United Ireland and Rome Rule. Then, when campaigners took to the streets, Paisley was there to goad the opposition; as marchers were attacked and violence spilled over to sectarian flashpoints, so the IRA infiltrated and then hijacked the civil rights movement. All the reasonable demands had been implemented by 1972, but the killing would go on for another quarter-century.

What did the dinosaurs give us? Well, for a start, more than 3,700 deaths, tens of thousands of injuries and hundreds of thousands of damaged people (republican paramilitaries killed almost 2,200, loyalists killed 1,100 and the security forces 360). Our republican dinosaurs will claim that they were in the business of protecting Catholics, yet in truth not only did they kill more Catholics than everyone else combined, but had there never been IRA violence, there would have been no British Army presence and no reactive loyalist terrorism.

In addition to creating bitterness that will not disappear for generations, violence increased sectarianism, encouraged people to live among their own, polarised the electorate and pretty well destroyed the Northern Irish economy. Before 1969 Northern Ireland was economically far ahead of the Irish Republic: these days it lags so far behind that the British Treasury has to subside it to the tune of around €6bn a year and the very Provos who murdered businessmen and blew up their factories now bleat unsuccessfully for foreign investment. On all counts, these murderous clowns set back any prospect of a United Ireland by generations.

If the Northern Irish electorate behaves as is predicted in the March election, these dinosaurs will take over (they hate each other but they will strive to achieve a sectarian carve-up of power). And if the Southern Irish electorate behaves likewise in May, Sinn Fein dinosaurs may soon be wielding power in the Republic. Whatever Bertie may say, he will pay the necessary price to Sinn Fein if he needs its support to become Taoiseach: Sinn Fein will want plenty - pork-barrelling in their constituencies, less rigour about electoral fraud and an even greater input into foreign policy could be just a start.

In fact, ideally, they will want the cheque Bertie signs to be blank.

And that is what our two governments are telling the world is a model of conflict resolution?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards