Punks against the Troubles

Image: Ricky Adams/mediadrumworld.com
Image: Ricky Adam/mediadrumworld.com

 

On one of my first research trips to Belfast, back in 2010, I was in a conversation with a fellow about my own age (at the time mid-40s) and the topic turned, as it often does in these circumstances, to what it was like growing up in a place being torn apart by brutal civil violence.

As a working class teenager in the early 1980s living in North Belfast, he was of an age and from a place in which it would have been all too easy to get drawn into the turmoil of the times, winding up with a gun in his hand, probably landing in jail, maybe ending up dead. So I asked him how he managed to stay out of things.

“Simple,” he said, “I was a punk.”

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2The punks stood apart.

I was reminded of this conversation today when I came across a set of photos taken in one of Belfast’s storied punk venues, a community center called, fittingly, the “Warzone Centre.”  The photos are from a recently published book by photographer Ricky Adams, Belfast Punk, which captures the era as it was drawing to a close.

The Guardian last month posted images from the book, with the photographer giving some commentary and context on each of the shots. In his review of Belfast Punk, writer Mark McConville emphasizes punk culture as a unifying force in a divided city and society:

PUNK is most often associated with anarchy but rare pictures have revealed unifying power of punk culture to bring together those from both sides of the conflict during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Rather than attempted to destroy society as the 1980s anarchists are usually portrayed, stunning images show Catholic and Protestant punks overcoming the problems of their community by mixing amicably and enjoying themselves at a Belfast youth and community centre, appropriately called “the Warzone Centre”.

In a long essay published by the Irish Times last December, Timothy Heron described Northern Ireland’s punk music culture as a nonsectarian common ground that allowed Protestant and Catholic youth to reject the violence and repression that surrounded them:

It is that ‘‘other nation” of ordinary individuals struggling to cope with the pressures of life which is the focus of this paper, or, more accurately, the ordinary youths, many of them school-age teenagers, who took part in an extraordinary musical subculture which helped them construct their everyday lives in the midst of the Troubles in ways which would conflict with and sometimes subvert the codes of the society they lived in: punk.

It is worth remembering that even under the worst conditions, people can often find ways to push back against the circumstances that might otherwise crush their spirits if not their lives.

The video below, for the Stiff Little Fingers (a legendary Belfast punk band formed in 1977 at the height of the Troubles) song “Alternative Ulster,” gives you an idea of what they and the other punks were rebelling against.

A border, seen or unseen

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PVCP_near_NewryThe first time I crossed the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic it was the summer of 1992, and it looked exactly like these pictures, taken at roughly the same time and in the same place, along the M1 motorway that connects Belfast and Dublin.

My wife and I were there on holiday, and we had decided to take a swing through the border counties of Northern Ireland en route from Connemara and the Aran Islands to Dublin.

Crossing into the north in our little rented Nissan Micra was a simple proposition. The border station near Belcoo, between Sligo and Enniskillen, was deserted. The booths were empty, the gates raised. Not a soldier nor customs agent was in sight.

Given that earlier experience, the British Army checkpoint on the M1 came as a shock of sandbags, soldiers, and machine guns.

The last time I crossed that border, this time by bus, was a year ago and the only indication that I had passed out of one country and into another was the change in carrier on my cellphone.

I will be back there again at the end of this week, this time traveling with my son, who will turn 18 on the overnight flight across the Atlantic. He’ll be the same age as many of those British soldiers who trained their guns on us as we crossed the border back in 1992, and likely the same age as some of the IRA volunteers who blew that checkpoint up with a 2,200 lb. bomb in May of the same year.

When we cross the border on our way to Belfast, it could very well be one of the last times that the border will still exist in essentially name only. With Britain voting to leave the European Union, of which the Republic of Ireland will remain a member, the reimposing of a hardened border may well be one of the most visible signs of the new Brexit reality.

If the United Kingdom really wants to reestablish strict border control, which was the emotional heart of the case for pulling out of the EU, then the UK will have no other choice than to restrict the Northern Irish border lest the unrestricted migration within the EU spill into the UK through this obvious back door.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has declined to back a special arrangement suggested by the Irish government that would allow the soft border with Northern Ireland to stay as is should Britain follow through with Brexit.

It won’t happen over night, but assuming Britain invokes Article 50 of the EU treaty and begins the formal process of withdrawal, the border as it stands today will be fundamentally changed, and gone with it will be many of the other unseen structures and dynamics that have contributed to the almost 20 years of peace bought by the Good Friday Agreement.

Should this happen the unseen border will once again be seen, with all that connotes. Perhaps it won’t feature as many soldiers, sandbags, or machine guns, but it certainly won’t be the invisible reality of today, marked only by a notification on your cellphone.

Moral force and “Bloody Sunday”

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A still from Paul Greengrass’ 2002 film “Bloody Sunday”.

 

Note — This post is by Nicole Diroff, a student in the Honors College at Oakland University double majoring in philosophy and cinema studies. Over the next few months, students in my course, International Relations on Film, will be contributing posts to the blog reflecting on the movies we are watching in class. Nicole’s piece is the first, presented here with only minor editing.

“What is force?”

That was the question asked by Maj. Gen. Robert Ford when he was asked whether or not the shootings that took place on January 30, 1972, in Northern Ireland were justified, as depicted in Paul Greengrass’ film Bloody Sunday. The use of force, and what force actually is, is not only a large theme in the movie, but this question is also essential to answering some of our own problems in 2016 America.

First, even though “What is force?” is a valid question that should be answered, using it in response to a question about the shooting of a peaceful protest is completely unfair. (You can watch the  entire scene from the film in the clip below.)

Asking “What is force?” in this situation completely absolves the British army from any responsibility for killing these protesters, and further can justify any action they do. Because, if they do not know what force is, there is nothing stopping them from going overboard.

However, force can be defined. And it should be divided into physical force and moral force.

Physical force is a clear concept, and it can easily be seen in the movie. It is clear that the troops attacked the protesters with violence when that level of violence was unnecessary. The paratroopers shot randomly into the crowd, and even after a ceasefire order was issued, they did not stop. A crowd of protesters ran from the shootings, but soldiers shot them from behind and even shot at them while they were down.

In this case, the question is not about what physical force actually is, but rather whether or not the force used was excessive. In short, yes, because the protesters did not pose a real threat to the troops, and also because they willfully shot at civilians.

Things change a bit when moral force is brought into the conversation, and this is also where America should reflect upon its own situation that has been happening for the past year and a half.

Moral force and physical force can be on two ends of a spectrum of force, but moral force can also be  a requirement for physical force. Police officers and the military are often seen as the embodiment of a moral force, thus, when they use physical force, it must be for a good reason. However, even if they can be considered a moral force, that does not mean that society cannot be a moral arbiter itself.

The police and the military should not be the source of morality, but rather enforcers of a morality that society has already set for itself. As the topic of police brutality becomes increasingly more relevant in America, more and more people continue to state that they support the police, not criminals.

Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification of the problem. It’s easy to claim a moral person does not support criminals, but a support of criminals is not the same as not supporting the ways in which those criminals are brought to justice. Maj. Gen. Ford says in the film that everything that was done by the British Army that day was to re-establish law and order, but if the massacre of civilians is what is considered law and order, perhaps society should reevaluate what they consider to be moral.

The film did have one other example of moral force, and that was force shown through the peaceful marchers. There were certainly some in the march who became less than peaceful, but the clear objective of the march was to protest for civil rights in the name of peace.

However, as stated above, moral force seems to be some sort of prerequisite for physical force, and Bloody Sunday explores this concept in a different form, as the way the military or police would. The protesters tried to be peaceful, but the nonviolent Northern Ireland civil rights movement was killed that day along with the 13 civilians shot down on the streets by British paratroopers.

At the end of the film, Ivan Cooper, the Protestant member of parliament who was one of the organizers of the march, says at a press conference that as a result of the killings, hundreds of able-bodied men were now motivated to join the Irish Republican Army. The use of physical force has led to a circular aggression, in which each group brings violence against the other, all for the sake of trying to achieve peace.

The indispensable Provisional IRA

PIRA

Much has changed in the past 21 years, but there is no such thing as a perfect transition from conflict to peace. How to fix what is broken is the next political challenge. — Brian Rowan writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Sept. 1.

The official acknowledgment that the Provisional IRA still exists and still retains key components of its organizational and command structures, and that its membership retains the capacity to engage in the lethal use of force, has thrown Northern Ireland politics into turmoil.

Turmoil at Stormont is hardly new. The institutions of government there, such as they are, tend to lurch from political crisis to political crisis. Pundits seem to daily predict the imminent collapse of power-sharing arrangements. On a seemingly daily basis one party or another declares that the crisis of the day constitutes the final straw that will break the back of the Executive.

Such are the claims being made now about the rediscovered existence of the Provos. Maybe this epiphany does change everything. Then again, maybe not. Instead of joining this debate, I want to change the conversation and argue the following:

Whatever happens to the existing political institutions, the continued existence of the Provisional IRA, and its willingness and ability to employ lethal violence when it deems necessary, has been indispensable to the continued success of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Let me be very clear at what I mean by success. I mean that the 30-plus years of combat between paramilitaries, police, and security forces, and murderous, indiscriminate attacks on civilians on all sides, is over. I mean that the armed conflict which turned city neighborhoods and rural countryside into war zones is over.

This is no small accomplishment. As I explain to my students and other audiences here in the US, the roughly 3,300 people killed and further 40,000 wounded during The Troubles would amount to 550,000 dead and 6.8 million wounded had the war been fought in the United States rather than Northern Ireland.

My assessment of the essential success of the Northern Ireland peace process is rooted in my perspective as a scholar who studies conflict and conflict management. I am neither a partisan nor a sympathizer. My assessment of the success or failure of the peace process is not driven by my assessment of whether the Provisional Movement, or the British state, or Loyalists “won” or whether the resulting political arrangements work to the advantage or one side or another. It is driven by the fact that the fighting is over, and has been over for nearly two decades now.

The continuing existence of the Provisional IRA has been a critical piece of the mostly unseen machinery that keeps the engine of the peace process running. The strategic and limited use of violence by the PIRA against Republican dissidents, which dates back to the earliest days of the peace process, has sent to others the very clear message that the costs of too-actively opposing the Provisional Movement’s leadership and political strategy are too great to make it worth the risk.

The killings of Charles Bennett, Eamon Collins, Joe O’Connor, Gareth O’Connor, Robert McCartney, Paul Quinn, and now Kevin McGuigan – not all dissidents, but all who crossed people it was unwise to cross –cast a long, dark shadow over anyone who might think about challenging the leadership and direction of the Provisional Movement.

When I interviewed him in 2013, Tony Catney described the killing of Quinn in South Armagh as “a marker being laid down” that would “put the thought into anybody else’s mind as well.” Of Collins’ murder Catney said,

I know some people who are still with the Shinners who have made reference to the death of Eamon Collins … The sort of thing as ‘this is what can happen’.

If a peace is to hold, then it must be enforced. And sometimes that enforcement will take the form of brutal violence and intimidation directed at those groups or individuals who might be perceived as threats to the peace, or who politically threaten one of the parties to the peace whose continued political dominance is viewed as essential for the peace to be maintained.

Certainly violence is not the only tool that the Provisional Movement has brought to bear to keep its critics and challengers in check. But it has been a fundamentally essential component of their strategy. If the Provos did not exist, that tool would be unavailable.

If the Provos did not still exist, if the Provos were not still armed, the leadership of the Provisional Movement, not to mention their rank-and-file followers, would be left vulnerable to liquidation by dissident factions that retained their weapons. The deterrent power of the specter of the kind of fratricidal bloodletting that characterized earlier periods of Republican feuding would vanish if the Provos were unarmed or out of the picture.

The Northern Ireland peace process has been far from perfect, neither politically, nor morally, nor ethically. But then, there is no perfect transition from conflict to peace.