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A View North: Decent folk dodged an indecent conflict

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

One of the most striking things about the conflict in Northern Ireland is how it has largely unaffected the province’s middle classes. This was brought forcefully home to me when I moved back to live in Belfast in 1991.

I was invited to a dinner party given by a friend who worked in TV. The other guests were media people mostly, with a sprinkling of politicians — nearly all of them moderate Unionists. Among them was the owner of a major Belfast newspaper, the head of a travel agency, and a councilwoman from Bangor. Nice, decent folk.

Around the time of the dinner party, the trial had opened of a group of loyalists accused of the murder of a young Catholic woman, Anne-Marie Smyth. An unmarried mother, she was lured to her death by some Protestant women who told her they were going to a party. They took her to a house in East Belfast where, instead of a party, there awaited a group of UVF men who beat her and cut her throat, then dumped her body on a waste ground near the Ravenhill Road. I knew the spot well — on my morning jog I would frequently run past it.

During the dinner party, we each were asked to say a few words on the media and the Troubles. I mentioned the Anne-Marie Smyth case as an example of the incredible sectarian hatred and bigotry that existed in Northern Ireland and that was rarely if ever mentioned in the media as a factor in the violence against Catholics. This provoked a near riot at the table. One of the guests stood up and declared that he was leaving the room and would not return until I had stopped saying such things.

As the discussion went on, turning to more general questions about violence in the media, the councilwoman from Bangor — a member of the Conservative Party — was so outraged about my remarks (I had merely asked why was it acceptable to portray some forms of violence on television when scenes of love making were heavily censored) that she also threatened to leave.

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The occasion gave me a graphic insight into the double-standard about media depictions of violence and sex (one which is shared in places other than Northern Ireland of course). The dinner guests’ angry and defensive reaction to the assertion that Protestant hatred of Catholics lay behind such killings as that of Anne-Marie Smyth was indicative of something else: a refusal particularly by middle-class Protestants to accept certain realities of the state in which they lived and thrived. Anne-Marie Smyth’s body was found no more than a mile from where were sat enjoying our elegant dinner, yet that desolate, puddled waste ground might as well have been in Bosnia.

During that time, I lived off the upper Ormeau Road, in southeast Belfast. My home was on one of the beautiful tree-lined avenues that lie on the east side of the road going out of Belfast. It is less than half a mile from there to the lower Ormeau, a working-class Catholic enclave on the other side of the Lagan. It is only a matter of a few minutes’ walk to the Annadale Flats complex, and the little streets around it, an area dominated by the Ulster Defense Association.

During the three years we lived there, about a dozen murders, most of them sectarian, occurred in the surrounding working-class districts. The first death was that of a 48-year-old Catholic who delivered Chinese food. The UDA shot him dead across the road from where we lived, on the Protestant working-class side, as he delivered a meal. In the most infamous incident, on Feb. 5 1992, the UDA killed five Catholics in one attack on a betting shop down the road.

There were occasional IRA retaliations in the Annadale area against UDA targets. One claimed the life of the son of an imprisoned UDA man. In another, just before the cease-fire of 1994, two leading UDA men were shot dead crossing the Ormeau Road, a few yards from our street.

So, violence was all around us. But we on the middle-class side of the road enjoyed immunity from attack. This despite a third and a half of the residents on our side being Catholic. They were journalists, teachers, academics, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen of one sort or another. We lived within a few hundred yards of the stronghold of a virulent sectarian organization, responsible for killing hundreds of Catholics, yet we lived in complete safety. No middle-class Catholic I knew on the street had the slightest fear of being attacked, even as UDA death squads were picking off working-class Catholics that came into the Annadale area, and raiding over the river, shooting up the streets in the lower Ormeau district. Taxi drivers, take-out restaurant workers, and bakery workers went in fear of their lives, while we set off to work at the BBC or UTV or the newspaper office without concern.

Housing prices are an index of anxiety. In the three years I lived there the houses on our side of the Ormeau Road appreciated by about 30 percent. And this was in the middle of the worst violence that south Belfast had experienced in about two decades.

I thought this a remarkable fact. In other civil-war situations, the middle class is frequently the target of violence, especially its academic or journalistic elite. But not in Northern Ireland. It seems never to have occurred to the UDA to single out middle-class Catholics for reprisals even though it would have generated an enormous amount of publicity for the organization. It was too busy wreaking revenge on people who were — economically speaking — mirror images of themselves.

One reason for this is that in many ways the Northern Ireland problem is a territorial dispute. Loyalists were angry that the lower Ormeau, once Protestant, had been taken over by Catholics. Working-class Protestants, living in their housing projects, never saw the spacious homes of the middle-classes across the road as having anything to do with them. Yet it was precisely the middle-class Catholics who were benefiting most from the changes that were overtaking Northern Ireland and making Protestants so insecure. That they have been, generally speaking, left to enjoy those benefits without worry is one of the ironies of the conflict.

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