Issue 4-2022 small

17 April 1997 Edition

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Old footage now in colour

By Mary Nelis

Did you ever experience a feeling of deja vu? I'm sure most people reading the headlines and watching the news of events in Belfast this week were probably thinking, ``this has all happened before''.

As if it a tape was being re-run, we watched the fear-filled faces of poor people carrying their belongings in black plastic bags as once more they had to flee their homes in the face of vicious sectarian onslaughts.

The only difference between now and in the last century is that plastic bags and furniture vans have replaced the hand-carts of the 1850s.

I was reminded this week of the words of the writer Robert Lynd, who wrote that all history is but a repetition of the same old story, with variations. Certainly the news of sectarian attacks in Belfast this week bears out Robert Lynd's perceptions of history.

The situation in the Limestone Road was, in word and deed, practically a variation of the violent sectarian pogroms which have characterised Belfast society and other parts of the North to a lesser degree since the 1830s.

It is a history which seems hellbent on repeating itself, which is not surprising if one considers the common purpose behind the sectarian attacks on Catholics over the past 150 years.

Such attacks were, and still are, a symptom of a far deeper malady affecting the Six Counties which has condemned generations to live a nomadic existence in the interface communities that characterise our divided society.

The history of the North of Ireland has few parallels in the Western world. The cult of Britishness, which keeps Irish people of different religions and political views apart, had its origins in the attempts by the English to establish a purely Protestant Ireland which would serve imperial England's military and economic interests.

This grand design met with strong Catholic resistance and when the Ulster Presbyterians joined with their Catholic neighbours in the 1798 rebellion for political democracy and national independence, the English were alarmed.

Then, as now, the English were not really concerned about the religious affiliations of their leaders in Ireland but were more concerned that such leaders might identify with Irish rather than English interests as they had done in the past. To ensure that this would not happen, the English chose the Orange Order as the vehicle which would bind Protestantism with Toryism in the maintenance of the Union.

The manipulation of the Irish Protestants was consolidated by partition when Britain presented them with the job of caretaking the undemocratic entity of the 6 County state, thus convincing the Protestant people that this was now their territory, even though their consent for partition had never been sought.

The end result was the creation of a divided society and a mindset among the Protestant community of ``what we have we hold'' and ``not an inch''.

Having wheeled all the players onto the apartheid stage of the Six Counties the British government then presented the situation in the North of Ireland simultaneously as an emergency under threat from the IRA, or as a religious war, with themselves as the honest broker trying to keep the warring factions apart.

How else could the British government validate the contrived socially and practically divided structures of the Six Counties with its segregated housing, schools, old peoples homes, sports, pubs and even cemetaries? The dead as well as the living do not cross the great divide.

How could such a government explain the deep rooted divisions in employment which has produced patterns of discrimination which even Fair Employment Legislation has failed to resolve? How could the British validate the terrorism of their army, their police force, their laws, their death squads and above all their abuse and misuse of an entire population and how can they explain Drumcree or the Limestone Road, or Markethill? The time has come for the British to address the issue of their terminally ill sectarian creation, the Six Counties.

It is no longer acceptable for them to provide the ambulance service under the guise of the Community Relations Council, the Cross Community Projects, the Peace Movement or the steel peace lines. These have only served to prolong the agony by treating the symptoms rather than the disease.

As Fr Des Wilson pointed out, Protestant and Catholic can live so successfully together that the British have to organise pogroms every 12 years or so to separate them. The most impenetrable barrier to peace is the refusal by the British government to address the root causes of the conflict by first of all acknowledging their responsibility for it, and for their misrepresentation of the Protestant community. Do the British really need a thousand years of protest riot, death and tears?

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1