By Jack Holland
If there was going to be a riot at Drumcree on July 4, the most likely instigators would have been the hordes of bored reporters wandering around in search of a crisis. One could see the headline, "Crazed hacks attack peaceful Orange marchers." The huge press contingent was left with little to do but interview the residents of Garvaghy Road or the stray Orangeman while 150 international observers looked on.
The rule of thumb when dealing with Northern Ireland is that the crisis never comes when it is expected. How often have we been marched to the edge of the abyss by frenzied headline writers only to find that the abyss has moved farther away.
Take one example. During the summer of 1981, Northern Ireland was said to be tottering on the edge of the abyss. The hunger strike was front page news. It was a crisis, far worse than anything we have seen in recent years. People were dying every day on the streets, as well as in the prison. The rioting was vicious and deadly. And yet, for the most part, Belfast was peaceful. That is, if you moved away from the West side of the city. A short drive over one the bridges of the River Lagan into East Belfast brought you to another world, one without rioters, hunger strike posters and the heavy military presence that was imposed on West Belfast.
A large, mostly Protestant section of the city’s population lives in East Belfast, which sprawls out to the Castlereagh Hills, with their patchwork of fields and farms. They are the very image of tranquillity, and were so even at the height of the hunger-strike crisis.
From the west of the city, it did look as if Northern Ireland was peering into the abyss. But in the eastern suburbs, it was probably peering at a cow in a field quietly munching grass.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
It should have been clear to any observer at that point that the IRA could never win, hunger strike or no hunger strike, if for no other reason than that a huge proportion of the city’s population were not involved in the crisis, and relatively unaffected by it. They saw it on the nightly news, and no doubt wished it would end. But the convulsions were largely confined by the security forces to the west of the city, where the working-class nationalists were bottled up. Abysses would come and go without changing that.
This year has so far been no different, except it has been up to the present far less troubled than during the earlier periods of turmoil. Indeed, in the middle of the Drumcree "crunch," 600 members of the British Medical Association were holding a convention in Belfast. It was the first time they had been back since 1962. Despite the doom-laden headlines and the grim predictions, they went about convention business with no disruptions.
Next week, they are to be followed by a convention of plastic surgeons, some 200 of whom were scheduled to arrive in the city.
The reasons why the critical point has never been reached in Northern Ireland, unlike in so many other crisis situations in the world which have toppled over into the abyss, are various. But the main reason is simply the overwhelming power of the British state security apparatus and the weakness of its opponents. The scene at Drumcree last week was typical: the barbed wire, the armored vehicles, the barricades, the troops and police officers ready and waiting. They were impressive enough, but they were only the tip of a huge iceberg. Thousands of troops were waiting to be flown from the nearby Gough Barracks in Chinook helicopters to reinforce those already there. A few thousand disgruntled Orangemen accompanied by a couple of dozen drunken louts — which is what, in fact, the demonstration amounted to — were totally outmatched.
On other occasions, it has worked out differently, but these have been the exception in the history of the North. In 1972, the massed and masked ranks of Ulster Defense Association forced the British to intervene to end the Catholic no-go areas. At the time, the UDA was about 20,000 strong, making it the largest paramilitary organization in the world. Two years later, the UDA again forced the British to change course and allow the power-sharing government to collapse under loyalist opposition.
Loyalist paramilitary might has declined drastically since the early 1970s. By the mid-1980s, the UDA was down to a few thousand members, unable to engineer a crisis in the streets or to take advantage of one. That is one reason why it is the older, more traditional loyalist group, the Orange Order, which has been responsible for bringing about the more recent confrontations with the forces of law and order.
Unlike loyalists, nationalists have never been in a position to seriously challenge the British state, at least not on the streets. The IRA’s campaign, while damaging, never was able to inflict enough damage to force the kind of crisis which republicans sought to bring about that would lead to a withdrawal. The British army was always strong enough to keep the lid on the republican pot, not allowing it to boil over.
Journalists in search of the abyss in Northern Ireland were probably always bound to be disappointed. Drumcree this year was no exception.
In the meantime, Sinn Fein continues to confound with its political flip-flops. Just recently, the front page of The Irish People was emblazoned with the headline, "Adams: We Think We Have Succeeded . . . " A glance at the story which follows reveals that what Sinn Fein "thinks" it has succeeded in doing is getting the British and Irish governments to produce a "no-alternative" plan to activate the new Northern Ireland assembly. If I could have shown this front page to republicans, say, 10 years ago, they would have rubbed their eyes in disbelief, thinking I had picked up some organ of the Workers’ Party or the SDLP.
The same issue contains a quote from President Adams in relation to the Good Friday agreement. He said, "Those who do not want this future offer us only the chorus . . . that would put young men and women in their graves."
Commented Bernadette Devlin McAliskey: "There are undoubtedly matters Adams is entitled to lecture others about. Sending people to their graves is not one of them."