Saturday, July 8, 2017

Thoughts on Northern Ireland

I've been reading a book called Biting at the Grave by Pádraig Ó Malley. It's an account of the 1981 Hunger Strikes in Northern Ireland, which resulted in the deaths of ten Irish republican hunger strikers in prison. Ó Malley is fairly neutral, and has plenty of criticism for everybody involved-- the British government, the Irish government, the hunger strikers, the IRA, the nationalist community in the North, the unionist community, the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches, and pretty much everybody else. I think most of the criticism is quite fair.

I picked up the book through pure accident-- it appeared on the book exchange shelf outside the library. However, it's had me thinking about Northern Ireland.

I'm too young to remember the Hunger Strikes myself. I was only four. The Troubles were in media res as I became aware of the world around me, and I assumed they had gone on forever and always would.

At this point, I'm going to indulge in another numbered list-- perhaps not the most elegant way of writing, but a good way of keeping focused, and of dispensing with forced segues. Here are my thoughts on the Northern Ireland Troubles, and Northern Ireland in general:

1) I can't stand Sinn Féin, the party which was the political wing of the IRA during the Troubles.  Not so much because of their former links to the IRA-- I don't see any benefit in holding onto bitterness about that-- but because of their social liberalism. Atheist Ireland, some years ago, ranked Sinn Féin as the most secularist party in Ireland. Having had Marxist leanings for decades, they are now passionate advocates for every left-wing social measure, including gay marriage. They've had to fudge about abortion in the past, more out of tribal Catholicism than anything else, but it seems they are now coming to an openly pro-abortion position. Many devout Catholics in Northern Ireland have started voting for the DUP, a unionist party which is socially conservative-- and so would I, if I lived there.

I'm also baffled and disdainful of Sinn Féin's attitude towards immigration. They seem to be in favour of open door immigration, or something close to it. For years, one of the most common Irish republican slogans was: "Brits out!". In some quarters of the internet, I've seen Sinn Féin taunted with the mock slogan: "Brits out, everybody else in." What's the point of that?

Of course, this simply highlights the conflict that has long existed in Sinn Féin between Irish nationalism and Marxist internationalism.

2) I  grew up during the Troubles, and like most of the population of the Republic, I regarded the acts of terrorism by both sides with genuine horror and loathing. Looking back, I realize that I was quite proud of public opinion in the Republic. It was decidedly nationalist (it wanted a United Ireland), but also overwhelmingly opposed to the use of violence to achieve this end-- especially violence against civilians

The Hunger Strikes were something of an anomaly in this regard, as public opinion in the Irish Republic was strongly supportive of the hunger strikers (who wanted to be treated as political prisoners, rather than common criminals). It has to be admitted that the book I'm reading identifies a good deal of hypocrisy in public attitudes to the issue, south of the border. It seems to have been temporarily forgotten that the hunger strikers were unrepentant members of a terrorist organization. It also seems to have been forgotten that the Irish state itself had let IRA prisoners die on hunger strike, in previous decades.

While I've never lost my loathing or my opposition to IRA terrorism, I've come to realize that it's very easy to be sanctimonious. South of the border, we had very little idea of the conditions under which both communities lived in Northern Ireland. Hundreds of very ordinary men and women were radicalized by their experiences-- harassment by soldiers, internment of innocent civilians, being driven from their homes by petrol bombs, and so forth. None of this justifies any of the atrocities that occurred, but it's all too easy to condemn without understanding.

3) During the Troubles, the term "Norn Iron" came to be derisively used in the Republic, mocking the mechanical way the words would be rattled off by newsreaders and politicians. Norn Iron. Norn Iron. Norn Iron. We were sick of hearing about Norn Iron. The whole saga was unutterably tiresome and irksome.

I can certainly sympathize with the notorious words of Winston Churchill, frustrated at having to deal with the "Ulster question" again, after the high drama of World War One: "The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous change in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world."

To be honest, I very much sympathized with that irritation. I don't want to offend anyone, but the very sound of a Belfast accent grated on me, and it still does. Northern Ireland seemed (and seems) like a de facto foreign country to me. The nationalists do not seem Irish as they claim to be, and the unionists do not seem British as they claim to be. They seem more like each other than anything else.

Here's an example of the irritation that Norn Iron often provoked in me. In the year 2004, I took some philosophy classes. One of my class-mates was a chap from Northern Ireland. During one class about free will, the lecturer (an Armenian lady) took the example of the hunger strikers who had come off the hunger strike, compared with those who had persevered. It was a bad example, but the Norn Iron student suddenly came to life, angrily insisting that the hunger strikers who had come off the strike had wanted to persevere with it. I remember feeling extremely irritated. I felt like snapping: "Oh for goodness sake, she was only using an example. Do you people ever miss an opportunity to be aggrieved?"

The same student, in a later class, insisted he would happily hook himself up to Robert Nozick's happiness machine (a thought experiment in which purely artifical happiness is created directly in the brain). He was a middle-aged, overweight, ostentatiously cynical fellow who showed no hint of idealism or intellectual curiosity-- except for that one moment of high-horse-climbing. And in this he seemed all to typical of Irish republicanism-- at least, the representatives of it that I'd met. Doubtless I was prejudiced.

4) In complete contradiction with the above, I've felt an intermittent fascination with Northern Ireland, the Troubles, and the conflict. Whenever the subject forced itself on me uninvited, I would resent it. But sometimes I would read up on it myself, for periods at a time.

What interested me most of all were the ideologies at work. I have always been fascinated by ideologies, causes, movements, belief systems, struggles, and the intensity and idealism all these things generate.

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: "You say it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say unto you: It is the good war that hallows any cause". I don't believe that for a moment, and yet the idea has a certain power.

Though I despised the killing and violence in Northern Ireland, a lot of the non-violent aspects of the struggle fascinated me and even appealed to me. The murals. The rebel songs. The folklore. The traditions. The idea of prisoners learning and speaking the Irish language in prison. The marches. The solidarity. The tribal rituals on both sides-- for instance, dustbin lids were rattled off pavements when a hunger striker died, and houses in nationalist areas were expected to switch their lights on to mark the event, even in the middle of the night. (Not to do so was to risk a stone through one's window.) The slogans-- tiocfaidh ar lá (our day will come) was the most famous republican slogan. The historical debates-- I would often hear commentators deplore the fact that centuries-old history was a live issue in Northern Ireland, even an explosive issue. I didn't understand why this should be lamented, in itself. It seemed a good thing to me. It still does.

I've often found myself wondering-- why can't we have all this kind of thing, without the killing and violence? Why does it take a life-and-death conflict for people to celebrate their culture, and to prefer solidarity over individualism? Why did popular interest in Irish cultural revival rapidly diminish, south of the border, after independence had been won? Does it always have to be this way?

(Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I'm so interested in the Alt Right. I find it fascinating that they've evolved their own vocabulary, iconography, and internal debates: red pill, black pill, cuckservatism, Pepé the Frog, normie, "don't punch right", etc. etc. I think it would be great if traditionalist conservatives could do something similar.)

On a lighter note, the book contains one of the most unintentionally funny lines I have ever read. In a biographical description of Brendan "Bik" McFarlane, a republican prisoner who helped organize the hunger strikes, we are told this about his time as an altar boy: "The sacristan of Holy Cross puts him in the top ten per cent of the altar boys he has trained and worked with". This made me laugh out loud on the bus.


  1. Séamus (Australia)July 8, 2017 at 11:45 PM

    I was about 7 at the time the HBlock protests went on in Dublin. It was, to my innocent mind, the scariest thing imaginable. Even now, I'm not sure that I've seen any protests which were as riotous, as angry or as violent, although I only ever saw broken bottles or windows after the occasion.... When Sands actually died I really thought there'd be an actual war-as in guns and bombs -and I was praying for a happy death that night. I didn't really understand the whole thing, notwithstanding placards with disturbing pictures of prisoners. One comment that escaped my mother's mouth was "that's all to do with the North" Even now, I'm not sure what they expected Haughey to do. Had he taken a harder line the Thatcher government could have well blown Oireachtas to smithereens. Cardinal O'Fiaich seems to have agreed that there was some just cause there. I still remember my happiness on hearing that it was all over. My mother gave me a brief explanation "their mammies told them to eat" We were in Phibsboro at the time, being closer to the city-I remember once the protest going down Phibsboro Road-it would have made more of an impression on me, even if I had of been your age.

    1. Well, the book is very interesting because it shows how EVERYBODY was caught in a dilemma and a lot of double-binds. I doubt Britain would have attacked the Republic, though.

      O'Fiach's interventions seems to have been very inopportune. What is interesting is that Protestant clerics and newspapers had quite a sophisticated critique of the Catholic attitude. They asked why Catholic leaders could be so inflexible when it came to mixed marriages but so nuanced when it came to the hunger strikers.

      Your mother's explanation is hilarious. It reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon I really like: a little girl in a museum looking at a reconstructed dinosaur with a worried expression, and her mother saying: "Because they didn't listen to their mommies, that's why".

      I had a similar experience to yours with the first Gulf War. I thought it was the start of WWIII.

  2. As a Protestant from East Belfast I would like to point out that Sinn Féin is one of the least corrupt and most principled political parties in Europe, which is why it has such great appeal. Soon it may jettison its 100-year refusal to sit in the British House of Commons and actually help to resolve the Border problem created by "Brexit". It was "the political wing" of the IRA only in the same sense that the Conservative and Labour parties in the UK are "political wings" of the massive arms industry of the UK.

    1. Thanks for your comment, auban. Do you consider SF a nationalist or an internationalist party?

    2. I think those are false categories. It's nationalist in wanting a united Ireland which is a reasonable desire given the small size and homogeneity of the island, and it is internationalist in being a keen supporter of the EU - as well, of course, uniquely having representatives elected to three different legislatures in two countries.

    3. It wasn't always a keen supporter of the European project. Its former stance made more sense to me. I can't see the point of the long struggle for independence if we are just going to become another multicultural, globalist corner of the world. We may as well have stayed in the British Empire if all it comes down to is the colour of the flag. I respect your opinion though.