By Jack Holland
Back in the bad old days in Belfast, we were frequently roused from our beds by the city’s own version of a dawn chorus: the clattering roar of metal on paving stone as hundreds of women took to the streets to signal a British army raid by the age-old custom of banging their bin lids. Indeed, the activity has recently inspired a dramatic production, which was performed to much acclaim in New York last fall, entitled, appropriately, "Bin Lids." Now however, the hoary practice has apparently run foul of political developments, at least according to a report in September’s Saoirse, the organ of Republican Sinn Fein.
The paper reports that a Strabane, Co. Derry, spokeswoman for that other Sinn Fein attacked bin-lid bangers for marking the anniversary of internment (Aug. 9) in the traditional manner, calling it "an insult to all those who were interned." Those taking part in the noisy commemoration of that day in 1971, when more than 300 Catholics were arrested and held without trial, she described as "thuggish," reports Saoirse.
"We wish to state categorically that Sinn Fein condemns this activity," the paper reported the spokeswoman as saying. The report claims that she also called on the local community "to challenge" the bin-lid bangers.
The very idea of Sinn Fein condemning something which is so much a part of republican working-class traditions is greeted by Saoirse as just another proof of the growing "respectability" of the Provisionals.
"Some people are finding the dulcet tones of the people’s music rather unnerving," observed the paper sarcastically. It asks in conclusion: "When will these constitutional clowns learn that they cannot keep the lid on people’s resistance?"
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Yes indeed. But perhaps keeping the bin lid on resistance is proving easy since the local district councils introduced wheely bins. These plastic contraptions, while much more convenient than the old-fashioned metal bins, are worse than useless when it comes to the art of bin-lid banging. Not only are the lids plastic, but the authorities with cunning connivance at the people’s oppression have attached them to the body of the bin. There is nothing really that one can do with a wheely bin except to, well, wheel it.
People who look with a jaundiced eye on Sinn Fein’s development in recent years see the whole thing as just another sign of the party’s growing respectability. Well-heeled politicians in suits do not rush to the streets at 4 a.m. to bang a bin lid, even if they could find one suitable for the exercise. Nowadays, they simply get on the blower to the Northern Ireland Office to register a protest at the harassment of their community. Maybe this is more effective than banging bin lids, but it can’t be as much fun. Anything that is politically correct rarely is.
When I was reading this report it made me think of George Orwell’s definition of a revolutionary as a "social climber with a bomb in his pocket." Certainly, no social climber will get very far with a bin lid in his or her pocket.
There is another story in last week’s press that has more to do with a head banger than a bin lid banger. I am talking of a remarkable interview with loyalist Jim Sands which appeared in The Observer. Sands, the source for numerous allegations of collusion between high-ranking officers of the Northern Ireland police, Protestant business leaders, well-known Unionist politicians, and loyalist assassins, reveals to the paper’s Ireland correspondent Henry McDonald that he made up the whole thing.
Sands’s allegations became the basis for a Channel 4 documentary, produced by Sean McPhilemy, and a book, called "The Committee," which McPhilemy also wrote. Currently, some of those named by McPhilemy as allegedly taking part in murder conspiracies are suing.
Sands, who has retracted his allegations before only to retract the retractions, told McDonald: "A local journalist first approached me at the end of 1990 and told me that Channel 4 were making a program about politics in Northern Ireland. I was a member of the Ulster Independence Movement, a small loyalist group. I thought, ‘This is great. I’ll get national publicity if I go on the program.’ There had been a lot of articles by the local journalist about a committee directing terrorism in mid-Ulster. He said to me, ‘We could make money out of this.’ We spun a big yarn to the Channel 4 people, and it all started from there."
Sands continued: "I wanted money and thought that by the time they researched all this properly Channel 4 would conclude that the whole thing was a hoax, and that it would not be worth doing. But by then it was too late. I knew nothing about any committee or anything like that, but the researchers said it was true. I told them the RUC was helping loyalists to kill IRA men. It was what they wanted to hear."
Sands claims he was astonished when the program appeared and he realized that he was the only source for its allegations. He told The Observer that he "didn’t think anyone would believe" what he told them.
Years later, the book came out in the U.S. with the endorsement of such figures as Tim Pat Coogan, who called it "one of the most important books to emerge from the Northern Ireland conflict . . . a must for anyone concerned about the Irish situation." Coogan was apparently not perturbed by the fact that the only source for the allegations was Sands, and a drunken Scottish hitchhiker one of the researchers picked up on a trip to Northern Ireland.
Niall O’Dowd also rushed to endorse the book, though in a somewhat contradictory manner. He wrote: "There is no denying the central thesis of McPhilemy’s book. If McPhilemy is right, then the RUC is as corrupt at the police forces in El Salvador. . ." But surely if there is no denying the thesis, how there can be a doubt about it?
It is interesting, in the light of these endorsements, that one of the reasons Sands gives for making up the allegations is he wanted to prove that "any journalist I met from abroad didn’t have a clue about Northern Ireland."
According to The Observer, Sands wrote a letter to the publisher of "The Committee" complaining that he had not said some of the things the book claimed he had said. He added a P.S. that if McPhilemy were interested, he had "information that the RUC had been colluding with the Martians."