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A View North Recycled circularities go round and round

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The North has always been afflicted by circular arguments, beginning with the Unionist government’s belief that Catholics were by "nature" disloyal and therefore had to be treated as such. This treatment — discrimination and so on — created the grounds for the survival of the IRA through the long, lean decades of political isolation. Its effect was to ensure that the disloyalty it feared survived. Then came the Rev. Ian Paisley’s bully-boy attacks on the civil rights movement in 1968, based on the claim that it was a front for the IRA. Such was the viciousness of the sectarianism that the IRA did indeed soon replace the civil rights movement as the vehicle for change in the North.

Most recently, we’ve been faced with a somewhat similar situation in regard to the argument about demilitarization. The British security forces have been, until recently, asserting that to make a serious gesture in this direction, such as the removal of the watchtowers in South Armagh, would strengthen the capacity of dissident republican groups like the Continuity IRA and the real IRA, to launch attacks. Peter Mandelson, when Northern Ireland secretary of state, constantly reiterated this argument. The risk factor was too great to make a dramatic move in that direction. The fear was, according to this position, that dissidents would exploit any sign of military vulnerability.

The circularity in this is easy to see. A strong military presence in nationalist areas strengthens the political argument of republicans who reject the peace process because they claim it is unable to effect a real change in the lives of nationalists, e.g. a lessening of the British military presence. The key word here is not "military" but "political." It is a political, not a military situation. Every military action has a political impact.

It’s politics, stupid. And the political impact of maintaining watchtowers is that it undermines the pro-peace process republicans because, in many people’s eyes, it proves them wrong.

This is not to say that taking down watchtowers, or whatever, is risk free. It is not. The Real IRA and the Continuity IRA would attempt to exploit an opening if it were offered. But it must be remembered that watchtowers, while they may inhibit certain types of attacks at certain times, will not in the long run make it impossible for CIRA and RIRA to operate, as recent actions in Derry city and Claudy have demonstrated. The risk is there, anyway, so you might as well take it by doing something that will bolster the peace process rather than by falling back on an old strategy that can only in the end undermine it.

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Mandelson, it is known, was partial to the military argument until his last weeks in office. But the history of Northern Ireland shows that the military argument, if followed through, only inflicts political damage and has at times the potential to almost destroy any hope of political progress entirely. The Provisional IRA has long accepted that fact. Its current strategy is based on the realization that the "war" in Northern Ireland cannot be won militarily. One hopes that Mandelson’s successor, Dr. John Reid, is in agreement.

Ethnic cleansing

As was reported last week, in January there were 28 pipe-bomb attacks against Catholic homes in Northern Ireland. In the early hours of Feb. 1, another two Catholic homes were attacked. These attacks have been going on now for a year or more. However, it is clear that the current spate is not just the noxious emanation of sectarian hatred, but the result of a carefully planned offensive aimed at driving Catholics out of

certain areas.

Most of the attacks have been concentrated in Southeast Antrim, where Catholics living in Larne have been a favorite target, and in North Antrim, especially Ballymoney and Ballymena. There have also been attacks in East Derry and North Belfast.

The pattern reflects the changing sectarian map of the North. The areas where most of the attacks are occurring lie East of the River Bann, where the Protestant majority is still solid. Already, Catholics are in a majority west of the river. It is where they still are a small, vulnerable minority that they are coming under pressure from loyalists, who clearly know where they want to draw the new sectarian border. It is a form of "ethnic cleansing," Ulster style. It is a continuation of a process that began, at least in this historical period, in August 1969, when Catholics were driven from their homes in the streets between the Shankill and the Falls roads in West Belfast and it parts of North Belfast.

The blame for organizing the campaign has been put on the Ulster Defense Association. The UDA is still on cease-fire, but its adherence to it is purely nominal at this stage. The problem is that as an organization the UDA itself maybe purely nominal. It is riven into factions, so that it is difficult to say how much support the campaign has in the organization’s upper echelons. It has lost a large part of its political wing, the Ulster Democratic Party, 14 of whose local branches defected two weeks ago. Most of the defectors were in the East Antrim area, where the pipe-bomb attacks have been concentrated.

Several questions arise from this situation. The first is that if the security forces are so sure that the UDA is behind the attacks — and the RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan says it is — why has the government not made it clear that the UDA has in fact ended its cease-fire and act accordingly?

The second relates to the earlier matter of security measures. There is no rush to erect watchtowers in loyalist areas where potential Catholic targets live, which might seem strange, since, if the security experts are to be believed, those installations are so useful in the war against terrorism. Perhaps the lack of watchtowers there explains why there have been so few people charged in connection with the pipe-bomb campaign. But there we go — another one of those circular arguments.

Another, and final observation. The conflict in the North has often been described in the media as a "tit-for-tat" war of Protestants vs. Catholics. Yet, as far as I am aware, there has not been one attack on a vulnerable Protestant home by sectarian thugs from the other side. Will this lead the media to draw the conclusion that its characterization of the conflict is, therefore, somewhat oversimplified?

Of course not.

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