May 9, 2021 8:44 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Article by Geoffrey Heptonstall

There is not one border in Ireland. There are several. There is the physical line between separately administered areas. There are the new and confusing border controls between the island of Great Britain and the north of Ireland. Then there are the boundaries between differing perceptions. From these we may discover the shaded area between bitter truth and comfortable deception. A war has many casualties.

The Troubles are history now, although peace was always uneasy in the north of Ireland. The conflict that once seemed intractable was resolved by a marked generosity that is acknowledged in Britain begrudgingly if at all.

Neither the war nor the peace were explained by the British establishment. The years of conflict were reported as an aberration without known cause. The peace has been taken for granted, having lasted for a generation. The threat of a retreat into entrenched positions, with all the possibilities of violence, returns to haunt Ireland not because it is desired but because the line of division may be an unintended consequence of British isolationism. It is timely, therefore, to look back to a recent history that Britain as a nation has never wanted to face.

In Brian Moore’s masterly novel The Doctor’s Wife [1976] a woman goes out of the house and never comes back. Soon she is far away from her native ground, but the memories of the British soldiers on street corners, guns in hand, have not left her. She searched for love in a time of war. That is never an easy hope.

The truths of history can be awkward, inconvenient things. Of all the dramatic interpretations of the Troubles it is hard to find one that unequivocally and uncritically takes the Unionist side. Ron Hutchinson’s powerful Royal Court play, Rat in the Skull [1984], balances the arguments without giving credence to a lost cause. Partisan positioning is not the territory of serious cultural responses. Objectivity is never easily achieved in a time of conflict, but there have been some sensitive and perceptive portrayals of the conflict in all its complexities. Stewart Parker’s play Catchpenny Twist [1977] is a disturbing reminder that conduct in war is not played by the rules of civil society.

The literary response to the conflict was often oblique, a reaching back into the history that shaped the deterioration of social relations. A major contemporary reflection by Seamus Heaney distinguished itself by the quality of language, the depth of feeling and the carefully nuanced plea for understanding how ordinary lives were being crippled by a relentless violation of civilised values. North [1975] gave voice to the powerless and oppressed.

But the war followed a monotonous pattern of failure. One response deserved more prominence at the time of its showing. It deserves to be remembered now. Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks in 1991 offered an unusual take on the conflict with a Jewish central character, memorably played by Warren Mitchell, distanced in one way and yet undeniably involved. So You Think You’ve Got Troubles did what television drama needed to do more often – respond imaginatively, sensitively and with good humour to the prolonged crisis of identity that was tearing a society apart.

Many films examined the historical roots, with more than one portrait of Michael Collins. All the films were noted for their sympathetic responses to national feelings. Ryan’s Daughter [1972], an early, English response to the crisis, was admirably understanding of both sides. But it is the Irish cause that wins in that film.

Where was there a creative plea for the maintenance of the Union as constituted by the Treaty of 1921? Douglas Livingstone’s television film We’ll Support You Evermore [1985] was told from the British side without voicing serious reasons for the continued occupation. The case for continued occupation was stated emotionally, and not argued in reasonable terms. The viewer, perhaps, was invited to draw the conclusion that the Union was an emotional position rationalized after the fact.

The case against the division of Ireland has been articulated repeatedly. In so far as the world understands the Troubles, it has little time for the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The harsh and stubbornly proud Orangemen, bowler-hatted in a parody of British bourgeois civility, became a familiar sight on broadcast news. It could be seen only as a tragic anachronism, a cause without a future. The Puritan legacy, rooted in history, was indeed a curse.

If defeat was inevitable, and according to creative responses it surely was, it took a generation-long denial before Britain accepted the undeclared war could not be won. The evasions and pretences proved self-defeating. Strategic killings were routinely labelled motiveless. The gunmen, with their cold and hard calculation, were routinely dismissed as ‘psychopaths’, the vogue word applied indiscriminately, and over-used to exhaustion. The only strategy of the British was to remain indefinitely as an occupying force for an unstated purpose. Tactics of ridicule and demonization were deployed without serious reflection of the consequences, and without serious consideration of alternative courses. ‘If we say it long enough and loud enough we can make everyone believe it.’ Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda [1990] exposes the wilful and prolonged deception.

There was no discussion, at least not openly. Terror was fought with terror without anyone heeding Trotsky’s dictum that terror solves nothing. Once the dust has cleared, the bodies are buried and the wreckage repaired normality returns. Vendetta lacks strategy and purpose beyond the moment of violence. The enemy detonates a bomb. The occupying force detains and brutalizes suspects. Nationalists become Republicans. Campaigners become gunmen. And it’s all the fault of ‘the other side’.

The case for withdrawal was never made. The word was rarely uttered. As a respected Anglican theologian, Bishop John Austin Baker, observed, it was the one option never considered. There was to be no resolution beyond the hope of victory. Or, as the Daily Mail put it when negotiation was finally considered: ‘Why should we change? Either they surrender or they will be ground into the unholy dust?’ There was a marked failure to say how this extreme and desperate end might be achieved.

That was because, short of total annihilation, it could not happen. How could a necessary understanding be achieved but by looking at the realities? The Republicans called the British government’s bluff: they agreed to a twelve week ceasefire after which talks should begin. Nobody on the British side anticipated this. That was evident. The British tried to if and but without success. The world was watching as the British surrendered their position. They had sued for peace as a tactic. But it became the strategy that proved viable. Occupying forces began their withdrawal without victory. The surrender was to a process of peace. 1 September 1994 was the most hopeful day in Ireland in a quarter of a century.

Creative responses were always ahead of the game. In the Name of the Father [1993] and Some Mother’s Son [1996] portrayed the human realities behind the sense of injustice. That humanity was too often ignored. The longing for a resolution of conflict was generally ignored. The peace process took public commentary by surprise. Entrenched and historically irrelevant positions were now so obviously an impediment to a necessary understanding. History was moving beyond the control of wishful-thinking.

A reporter on the Today programme, interviewing Peter Mandelson objected: ‘But this will appeal to Republicans and Sinn Fein people.’ Calmly the secretary of state reminded her, ’There are Republicans and Sinn Fein people in government.’ After an infinitely long pause the reporter, subdued now, indicated in polite, meaningless words that the interview was over.

The peace process undermined conventional responses. Established credulities crumbled. Opinion-makers found themselves uninformed onlookers. Unanticipated but undeniable events were blowing away the myth of a righteous Britannia slaying the demons of irrational violence.

Myths, however, were a factor on every side of the conflict. Young Republicans were given to adapting Yeats’s Easter 1916, and to singing Bob Dylan’s Masters of War. They saw themselves as freedom fighters. Violent, ruthless even, they were not dreamers. Educated in the liberal ethos of modernity, these graduates of Queen’s and Coleraine knew their Cuchulain and their Catechism, but also their Marcuse. They were men and women of sharp intellect and extraordinary determination playing a long game. Political indolence and mediocrity were outclassed.

But the phrase ‘a terrible beauty’ was not chosen casually. The implication was of violence to come that would answer the oppression of the past. Yeats, who was himself given to myth, and to dangerously romantic politics, for all his failings had the vision to rise above his circumstance and to articulate unspoken truths. Some may call that genius. The approval extended to the men and women of 1916 [and no-one can deny their self-sacrifice] was offered in awareness of the consequences. So began a phase of history that cast a long shadow.

Or, as Harold Wilson put it, there was nothing permanent about the division of Ireland. He sent in peace-keeping troops to protect the Nationalist community. And then he lost the election he was expected to win, and so began the war of attrition, undeclared, unacknowledged but so evidently there in streets that looked familiar to the British at home in their sitting-rooms. What they saw was not a faraway place.

One thing was clear, however: Ireland was not Britain. 1969 was the year Samuel Beckett won the Nobel. That didn’t stop London cabbies from calling him Paddy. There were those in Britain who just didn’t want to understand Ireland. They refused to understand that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a political fact but a social anomaly. As for the Republic, it is a sovereign nation with a great cultural heritage. Either the heritage means nothing to Britain, or its truth is uncomfortable.

‘You took away our language. We gave you your literature,’ said Séan O’ Faolain. That position has to be understood. Republican violence, as vindictive as any conduct in war, was engendered by the need for dignity, to be taken seriously, to be acknowledged as ‘a nation once again.’ If the methods were aberrant, and the attitude was self-deluding, the root cause demands consideration. The cause lies at least partly in the aberrant self-delusions of an occupying power.

‘The Catholic community has nothing to fear from the Unionists,’ was the statement issued by a victorious campaign of sedition in 1975 to defeat the first and short-lived Power-Sharing Agreement. The statement was so obviously a lie. Had Harold Wilson’s government been in a strong enough position to send military force to sustain power-sharing it could have done so legitimately. The escalation of violence would have been relatively brief. In the long term the assurance given could have saved the long war of attrition from ruining so many lives.

In recent years the secular culture developing throughout the island of Ireland has lessened sectarian contrasts and marginalised sectarian fears. The absence of a sustained and substantial response from Ireland’s neighbouring island is marked. Contemporary Irish culture continues the task of assessing how the present nature of things has come about. Co-operation, initially in economic activity, has enabled a network of common understanding. Membership of the European Union succeeded where national politics of any kind failed to square the circle. It is the people of Ireland who so nearly achieved the dream. So nearly, and yet…

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