Dermot Sullivan gives a personal perspective on the Irish 'Troubles'.
'Genocide tends to cause bad feeling in the long term. This is really
where the problem began'.
The 30th January sees thirty years
since Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. Thirteen innocent people were
shot dead by the Parachute Regiment in the street, with one person
subsequently dying in hospital. The killing of these fourteen people
is really the pivotal moment of recent Anglo-Irish relations. The
consequences were disastrous. Attitudes hardened, the killing intensified
and what should have resolved itself in the mid-1970s is only just
unwinding now. The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 but
it will take a century or two for all to be forgotten.
Two dramas about Bloody Sunday have been shown on British television within
the last fortnight. It is quite unusual for British television to try
to tackle the subject of Northern Ireland (in an intelligent way). In
the past tremendous political pressure has been brought down to bear on
the makers of any such programme. Before we review the merits and demerits
of the two dramas, it is helpful to take a look back to the root causes
of what the British euphemistically called the troubles.
The Irish have long historical memories. The British do not on the whole.
I asked my mother when I was small about Northern Ireland
and she told me about Henry II arriving in 1169. Well, thats when
the English first arrived, and thats where the problem began. If
he had known the consequences then its unlikely that he would have
Fast-forward wars, then fast-forward to religious wars. When Henry VIII
broke with Rome and his son Edward VI introduced Protestantism to England,
Ireland still remained Roman Catholic. Fast forward to the English Civil
War and Cromwell, a Puritan fundamentalist zealot who, it is said, believed
it was his destiny to wipe the Irish Catholic antichrist of the face of
the Earth. Genocide tends to cause bad feeling in the long term. This
is really where the problem began. Most of the Catholics were driven into
the west of Ireland where the land was poor as their land in the east
was robbed from them. Protestant Scots settled in the northeast of the
country, in the province known as Ulster.
Fast-forward to the 19th Century and we have the misfortune of the Potato
Famine. There was no famine as such. The potato crop failed
due to a fungal blight. The English landlords (who were basically presiding
over stolen land) took all the crops as taxes. The Irish were left to
eat potatoes. When there were none, they were left to starve. A country
of eight million was reduced by a third, with three million people emigrating,
mainly to America. The British government pondered what to do and
left it at that. They still collected their taxes though. The population
was decimated while all sorts of homegrown Irish food was shipped out
to England. Millions of Irish and their children would ask for years afterwards:
did they want us to die? '
Fast forward to 1916. There was a deeply unpopular republican rising at
Easter in Dublin. However, the savagery in which the British army quelled
it appalled the Irish public and gave birth to the republican movement
proper (and the IRA Irish Republican Army). After a brutal guerrilla
war of independence the British government were ready to strike a deal
wit the IRA. The problem was that there was a sizeable amount of Protestants
in the north who wanted to remain part of Britain (and certainly wanted
nothing to do with Catholic Dublin). The British answer was to partition
the country. Six counties in Ulster would become a statelet known as Northern
Ireland. Its capital would be Belfast and it would be British.
Fast-forward to 1968. Things had not gone along to plan. When do things
ever in Irish history?
Northern Ireland had rather an unusual political system, created so that
those in power could cling onto it. If you owned property then you had
a certain amount of votes. The same applied if you owned a business. There
was no universal suffrage, as there was in the rest of Britain or in the
Republic of Ireland to the south. The city of Derry in particular, where
the population was, in the 1960's, 70% Catholic, was gerrymandered so
that Protestants or (Unionists, as they wished to retain the union with
Britain) controlled 80% of the city council.
Coupled with this were the worst living conditions in Western Europe for
the working class of Derry, especially around the predominately Catholic
area of the Bogside. The housing situation in the entire north was dreadful,
and in the main cities it was not uncommon to find three generations of
families living under the one roof. Jobs were scarce as well, and could
be even harder to find if you were Catholic. If Protestants controlled
the majority of businesses, the sad fact was that your name or where you
went to school could prevent you finding employment. The nearest comparison
that comes to mind is the situation of American blacks in the Deep South
of the USA in the 1960s.
When Martin Luther King lead his non-violent civil rights movement there,
he inspired people all over the world to do likewise. The young people
in the north of Ireland took notice and followed.Throughout Europe and
North America people marched for both rights that we take for granted
now such as the right to vote. Aims that we see today as hopelessly idealistic
(the end to capitalism( for example were cleary doomed. It is important
to note that the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland combined both
Protestant and Catholics of all ages.
On the 5th October 1968 a civil rights march of all ages was met by violence
by the Northern Irish Protestant State Militia known as the B-Specials.
This was done in full view of the television cameras, and one man later
died as a result of the beating he received. From this moment it was a
slippery slope to the British army being sent in to return order,
the birth of the Provisional IRA and a situation that we are all too familiar
The events of Bloody Sunday took place on the 30th January 1972 and quite
some water had passed under the bridge since 1968. The British army, which
had been sent in to the north to protect Catholics from rampaging Protestants,
had been unfortunately placed under the authority of the Protestant government
of Stormont. They used the British army to break the Catholic insurrection,
and thus turned the Catholics against the army. The army, not geared to
police but to fight, often behaved without either compassion or understanding
of the longterm issues. It responded with daily curfews and brutality.
Catholics saw the IRA as their only line of defence. With almost constant
rioting, Northern Ireland was in all but name a war zone, with hundreds
of people killed each year (in 1967 Northern Ireland had the lowest recorded
crime of anywhere within the UK).
Of the two dramas about Bloody Sunday, it was the writer Jimmy McGoverns
that actually detailed some of the history of the situation. Simply entitled
Sunday, it explained the inequality and poverty. The drama
focused on the families affected by the shootings. It showed the aftermath
with all the funerals, it showed the Widgery Report that the Prime Minister
Ted Heath had commissioned to discover the facts of what had happened.
It showed the young debating whether they should join the IRA or not.
Jimmy McGoverns view is that of the working class. Christopher Ecclestons
character of Major-General Ford was a caricature of an Upper Class toff.
Where he excelled (mainly because nobody else has bothered to explore
the territory before) was showing the situation of the Parachute Regiment.
Young working class squaddies, trained to kill and sent into what I described
earlier as a war zone. Edward Heath and the Brian Faulkner (the hardline
unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland who had called publicly for
the enemy to be annihilated) knew exactly what they were doing
by sending the Paras into Ireland.
Whereas Jimmy McGoverns Sunday felt like a drama, Peter
Greengrass Bloody Sunday was all shot handheld, with
colour desaturated and felt like a documentary. It starred the actor James
Nesbitt (from ITVs Cold Feet) as Ivan Cooper, who was
at that time MP for Derry. He was a civil rights lawyer and a Protestant
whose electorate was overwhelmingly Catholic. It was he, along with a
group of others who organised the march.
Focusing on the day itself, it was the Peter Greengass film that showed
the confusion of the situation. One watched with a sense of dread as the
nightmare scenario unfolded. Both films showed how the Paras found themselves
in the awful situation but also how they overstepped the mark.
The Greengrass film ended on the evening on the 30th January, with Ivan
Cooper, near catatonic with grief, and with Derry youths queuing up to
join the IRA. The McGovern film continued way past this and through to
the end of the Widgery Report. It showed how there was a political cover-up
to absolve the government of any blame. This film too showed how Bloody
Sunday was one of the largest recruiting sergeants the IRA ever had.
One wonders what good these films will achieve. Both James Nesbitt and
Jimmy McGovern have been interviewed repeatedly by the media, talking
of their moral obligation to make their respective films. It seemed that
the James Nesbitt film came across as the most unbiased, with its main
protagonist stretching out over the sectarian division. The Jimmy McGovern
film focused on the victims (and for McGovern that word includes the Paras
too) and those in Derry left behind.
The Saville Inquiry that is taking place now is supposed to get to the
bottom of what happened on the 30th January 1972. Personally I can why
the inquiry is happening after the Widgery whitewash, but I cannot see
what it can hope to achieve. Tony Blair, after apologising for the Potato
Famine, set up the inquiry as a sop to Sinn Féin who had used it
as a political football for years. Sinn Féin is after all the voice
of the people of Derry.
This is all well and good. What happened on the 30th January was wrong.
There is no justification for the deaths of 14 innocent people. What we
need to do now is move away from the culture of victimisation. By I mean
self-victimisation, where both sides feel the other has abused them and
this legitimises whatever they reaction they commit. Protestants
in the north of Ireland have this feeling that papists surround them and
at any moment they will rise up and kill them all. Ian Paisley has made
a career out manipulating Protestants fear for his own ends. Catholics
feel that they have been oppressed since 1169 and this legitimises any
victimhood they feel by the British government or their Protestant neighbours.
We see it quite clearly in Palestine where the Israelis are the descendents
of the Shoah and this gives them the right to treat the Palestinians appallingly.
Saville will achieve nothing in the long term. Sinn Féin will use
it as another example of British interference in the island of Ireland
while the Daily Mail newspaper will no doubt take the side of the Parachute
regiment. The entire killing and arguing will all be for nothing in a
few years anyway: the Catholic birthrate had ensured that Ireland will
be reunited once again. Then the Protestants can leave their 1690 mental
timewarp and the Catholics can do likewise with their 1916 one and everyone
can join the real one. (We hope)
As for the television dramas, I think the Peter Greengrass one was the
better. One just felt that was what actually happened on the day. Do we
need television now to tell us what is real or not? One plus though: that
drama pulled viewing figures of five million in the UK. Obviously not
everyone in Britain wishes to stick their head in the sand.
© Dermot Sullivan 2002
(This is Dermot's personal viewpoint of the two programmes and the events
that led up to it.
History is subjective and often people use history to oppress the present.
Ireland's curse is not just injustice but long memories. The Truth Commission
in South Africa has led the way to try and put the past behind them.
Perhaps the Saville Inquiry should be used in the same way and finally
allow Ireland and the Irish on both 'sides' to move forward in peace.
Let's hope so). Ed.
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