Distortion via simplification

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Gerry Adams on 60 Minutes.

 

One way to know that it’s Eastertide in America is the parade of Northern Ireland politicians that traditionally make pilgrimage here to: 1) receive yet another round of congratulations for “making peace” almost two decades ago; 2) accept checks from deep-pocketed American donors (in the case of Sinn Fein reps); and 3) go hat-in-hand for additional funds from the US government and investment from American companies. Most of the time these visits are largely ignored by the media here, and for good reason since they are by their very nature far from newsworthy.

This year was different in that Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, the former IRA commander who orchestrated the systematic bombing campaign that destroyed most of his native city of Derry in the 1970s and now serves as Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, pulled out of the annual trip in order to attend to a crisis at Stormont over welfare spending that his own party precipitated.

But while McGuinness wasn’t here, CBS’ long-running news program 60 Minutes made sure that Easter Sunday wouldn’t pass without hearing from Gerry Adams, the man who has led Sinn Fein since the mid 1980s and who is credited with (or blamed for, depending upon your perspective) orchestrating the IRA’s transition from armed struggle to conventional politics and thereby delivering the peace process. Adams’ interview, which you can watch here, garnered furious attention from the Northern Irish media, and especially from Adams’ numerous critics, who called him out for what was widely perceived as his selective and self-serving reinterpretation of events over the last forty-plus years and his own role in them.

To my mind though, what was noteworthy about the 60 Minutes interview was not what Adams had to say, but the way in which the interview itself and the reporting surrounding it revealed all of the lazy ways in which Americans tend to think about Northern Ireland, why it exploded into conflict, and what went on there during the long years of violence.

Veteran Northern Ireland journalist and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty captured this far better than I can in a scathing piece published a few days ago in the Belfast Telegraph in which he pillories 60 Minutes for its lazy and superficial reporting.

Take the simple description of the period as “a war between Catholics and Protestants” and “one of the longest wars of the 20th century”. Reporter Scott Pelley talked of how the Catholics rebelled against British rule.

Different people from different perspectives will take issue with these simplifications in different ways.

I reject the use of the word “war”, though I accept that others use it. The rules of war did not apply; the ordinary civil law did, though it was flexed and contorted.

There was no general rebellion against partition by the Catholic population. The nearest to a broad movement of protest was the civil rights agitation.

Yes, most of the members were Catholic, but they were not motivated by Catholic theology. And they were arguing for British rights in a part of the UK.

Now, maybe that is all a bit too much to encapsulate in a short link in a documentary film, but was an untruth required in order to summarise history as journalism?

Catholics and Protestants fighting each other is a gross misrepresentation of the Troubles. It implies that the violence of republican and loyalist paramilitaries was endorsed by the wider communities.

That simply isn’t true. The republican movement was only ever able to win majority support among voting Catholics after the end of the IRA campaign. And the loyalist politicians were never able to represent more than a fraction of the Protestant community. Do these facts not matter?

If you want to see a full display of all of the ways in which we tend to get Northern Ireland wrong, watch the report, and then go to O’Doherty’s commentary. It is well worth reading in full.

The irony in commemoration

I left Belfast a week or so before Easter, and so I missed the annual commemorations in which Republicans remember the 1916 Rising and honor those who have fallen in the cause of ending British rule in Ireland. The YouTube video embedded above is an excellent example of the kind of official commemoration that Sinn Fein participates in and helps orchestrate. In watching the video it’s easy to pick out the faces of many of the party’s luminaries and well-known supporters amongst the ranks of marchers.

The pageantry is all there: bands, honor guard and color party in paramilitary attire, re-enactors wearing the uniforms and carrying the (dummy one supposes) weapons of the Rising, dramatic recitations of fiery speeches from the past.

What I find fascinating about these events (like the annual national Hunger Strike commemoration which I attended in 2010 in the village of Bellaghy) is the unacknowledged irony with which what has become a status quo political movement deploys the language of revolution and parades the images of generations of dead revolutionaries.

As a partner in the Stormont regime Sinn Fein administers British rule in Northern Ireland. This is a simple statement of fact. And yet the party apparently feels no contradiction between this present and the revolutionary past it celebrates and claims as its own. The party’s critics call this deep hypocrisy and naked cynicism. The party’s supporters argue that the revolution has entered a new phase in which the foundations of British rule are being systematically eroded from within the political system itself, both north and south of the border.

As an outsider I can’t, and won’t, try to argue which of these perspectives is the more honest or accurate. Frankly I believe there is truth in both assessments. Either way it is smart politics. But as an outsider I can’t help but be struck by the contradictions on display in commemorations like this. If you watch the first few minutes of the video above, you will hear the words that Patrick Pearse in 1915 directed to the “Defenders of the Realm” when he delivered his famous oration at the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, founder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood:

They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.

Today, for the moment, those Defenders of the Realm include Sinn Fein. A cynic might count them among Pearse’s “purchased half.” And Ireland still holds the graves of her Fenian dead.

Tiochfaidh ar la*?

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It occurs to me that those of you who have been reading this blog over the last month would likely come to the conclusion that pretty much everyone I’ve talked to paints a dismal picture of the future, that pessimism rules the day. I’d say that’s true for the lion’s share of people that I meet, with two significant exceptions.

The first is that segment of society for whom the Troubles were little more than a nuisance. These are generally middle and upper-middle class Unionists whose social class and leafy residential districts kept them largely outside the killing zones that were working class neighborhoods and the rural countryside. It’s not that these folks are optimistic. Some are concerned that things could go off again, but they seem to assume that if it does they will again be able to stand on the sidelines as the other people bear the brunt of whatever should come.

The other group is unabashedly optimistic. These are the members and supporters of Sinn Fein.  They see themselves poised for the success. The party continues to gain influence and authority in the North. While some may argue that the Northern electorate is becoming alienated from the political system, Sinn Fein activists are energetic, disciplined, and committed. Even some traditionally Loyalist areas are now voting for SF candidates, activists tell me, because they know that SF is responsive to the needs of the working class community in a way that Unionist parties are not.  And even if some in the Nationalist community would prefer not to support Sinn Fein, the party has skillfully quashed the rise of any politically viable Republican alternative. It is one of the secrets to their success over the last 20 years.

Sinn Fein supporters see the very real possibility that they will hold the balance of political power in the South after the next set of elections six weeks or so from now, if not actually be the party in government. In short, from their perspective, 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising and the declaration of the Irish Republic, may be the year in which the movement will achieve through politics what it has never been able to accomplish through force of arms, all 32 Irish counties governed by one Republican party. Under such a scenario the border between the North and the South, they argue, will be effectively meaningless. With both Stormont and Leinster House in Sinn Fein hands, the country will be de facto united even if it remains partitioned on paper. And once that happens, the constitutional question will be resolved as a matter of course.

Given this scenario, it’s no wonder that Sinn Fein’s supporters express optimism for the future. The goal, they believe is in sight. United Ireland is an inevitability. It’s only a matter of time.

*”Our day will come,” an Irish language slogan beloved of Republicans. Kind of the equivalent of the phrase which traditionally ends the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

A first shot at final thoughts

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Today was my last working day in Belfast. Tomorrow I head back down to Dublin in advance of my flight home Friday. So this is as good a time as any to start trying to makes sense of some of what I think I’ve learned as a result of the time I’ve spent this time around.

There is a clear sense of relief that the horrors of the past are for the time being over. But many of the people that I talked to expect trouble to return, and only hope that the next time it isn’t as bad as what came before. And everyone I talked to who thinks things will “kickoff” again are equally convinced that it is the other side that will be responsible when it happens. Loyalists in South Armagh are convinced that it will be the Republicans. Republicans in Tyrone are certain the Loyalists will be the first to go back on the offensive.

People genuinely want a better life for their children and grandchildren. Maintaining the peace is central to those wishes, and everyone appears to know and acknowledge it. What is more difficult to understand, however, is that this common desire still doesn’t seem to provide the common ground that will make the peace sustainable. Working class Protestants and working class Catholics (for want of better labels) know that they share many of the same problems, and yet it is the differences between them that they seem to focus upon.

Case in point: Catholics resent the Protestant tradition of marching bands, July 12th bonfires, and the embracing of the Union flag, seeing each of these as obstacles to overcoming divisions between the communities. Protestants, at least in the working class (or what a respectable middle-class Unionist crassly referred to as the “benefits class”) see these as vital parts of their culture and identity which should be accepted as such by their Catholic neighbors. “Let us do our thing and let them do their thing and everyone leaves each other alone,” is how one of the fellows who showed me around the Loyalist neighborhood of Sandy Row this morning put it. This would be all well and good if Catholics didn’t view Loyalist parades through their neighborhoods the same way that Klan marches are viewed by African Americans.

Likewise, these Protestants resent what they believe is the privileged position the Irish language enjoys in the schools and they see displays of the Irish tricolor on St. Patrick’s Day as deliberate political provocation since there’s already a St. Patrick’s Cross flag (which can, not uncoincidentally, be seen as the red cross part of the British Union flag). Nationalists see calls for keeping the tricolor out of the festivities as tantamount to denying the Irishness of the holiday.

Symbols that each side embraces as indelible markers of culture, identity, and community are almost fully rejected by the others, which sees them as artificial, divisive, and intentionally provocative. No one seems to know how to bridge the divide of identity in a way that would acceptable across communities. Attempts to create new, “neutral” institutions that everyone can support, like the introduction of professional ice hockey to Belfast (a sport that no one plays and few actually care much about but has the virtue of not “belonging” to either community) is a case in point.

In short, no one really trusts the other side to keep the peace. And so they wait, hoping for the best but unconvinced that the present calm will last.