By Jack Holland
The year 2001 began on a familiar note. Checking my reporter’s pad for the beginning of January, I see the usual — notes on demands for the Provisional IRA to begin decommissioning and a note on Joseph Legge, a former UDA hit man, found with his throat savagely cut, the victim, apparently, of his former comrades, angry over drug money gone missing. Or so it was being said. Demands and murders and pipe bomb attacks and expressions of disillusionment over the Good Friday agreement. It was the usual fare for Northern Ireland.
There was no hint then that 2001 would turn out to be anything but the “usual” and that by the end of it the United States would have suffered the most devastating attack since 1941 — an attack the ramifications of which had a profound impact on the course of the Irish peace process.
2001 would bring many “firsts,” some of them unwanted.
It would see the first journalist murdered in the course of the conflict. Sunday World reporter Martin O’Hagan was gunned down in Lurgan at the end of September by the Red Hand Defenders — generally thought to be a cover name in that area for the Loyalist Volunteer Force.
It would see the appointment of the first Catholic to become secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Dr. John Reid. At the end of January he replaced Peter Mandelson.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
It would see the IRA begin decommissioning on Oct. 23, a first in the history of militant Irish republicanism.
It would bring a first in sectarian hatred in a land where it was thought every variety of that ugly malady had already appeared. Over the years men and women had been its victims, but schoolgirls? That was one of the nastiest surprises the year had for us.
2001 unveiled the spectacle of Catholic schoolgirls forced to pass through a gauntlet of vile abuse directed at them by adults, hurling obscenities, as well as rocks, balloons full of urine, and then home-made bombs. It was the beginning of September. The world watched amazed and horrified during that first week back to school for the girls of Holy Cross Primary in the Ardoyne, North Belfast. By the following week, the world itself had been sent back to school to learn another, even more terrible lesson in hatred when it saw the barbaric lengths to which fanaticism can drive those who want to kill and destroy.
There was politics, of course — but it was largely politics as usual. The Labor Party once more came thumping home with a landslide victory in June over the Tories. David Trimble threatened to resign as first minister of the power-sharing executive and carried it out on July 1, over decommissioning.
There was, however, an opportunity for breaking the political mold. A new political generation finally got a chance to take the reins in the SDLP with the resignations of its leaders, John Hume and Seamus Mallon. Mark Durkan replaced Hume. Would it be politics as usual? That remains to be seen.
Germinating in the womb of time was an event which occurred on Aug. 11: the arrests in Bogota, Colombia, of Martin McCauley, James Monaghan and Niall Connolly, all with IRA and Sinn Fein links. They were accused of helping the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia train in the use of barrack-busting mortars. The full ramifications did not become clear until after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. This precipitated a change in how the administration views terrorism. The IRA had to clean up its act, stop messing around in America’s backyard and begin to decommission. There was a lament of “I Feel Your Pain” from Gerry Adams and his apparatchiks as they nursed the Provisional IRA through the trauma of getting rid of Col. Gaddafi’s guns and explosives. But the vast majority of people were delighted.
All decent people everywhere were also happy when the loyalists of Glenbryn who were protesting against the Holy Cross schoolgirls announced they were suspending their actions, just in time for Christmas.
I will let an anonymous versifier who describes his or herself as a “supporter of the Holy Cross Pupils and Parents” have the last word.
Behold the Sons of Ulster
(A poem dedicated to the brave men on the front line at Glenbryn.)
Tell me son, my father said, as we spoke upon the twelfth
What have you done for Ulster, and how’s your mental health?
Father dear I cherish that flame that’s been held in Ulster fair,
By men like Carson, Gusty and Mad-Dog Johnny Adair.
I’ve worn the smock of the UDR, the tattoos of the UDA,
From Sandy Row to Drumcree Hill, from the Shankill to Dolly’s Br’.
I’ve harassed taigs at roadblocks, shot fenians in their beds,
I’ve been in jail, done social work, got youngsters off their heads.
But my bright and shining moment, the bravest thing I’ve done,
Was with the folk of Glenbryn, when we took on Primary One.
The junior hordes fell on us, vile disgusting creatures,
With Barbie bags and felt-tip pens and apples for their teachers.
Undismayed we stood our ground, resolve as hard as nails,
Then we opened up with gobs of spit that soaked their pony tails.
A volley of “f” and “c” words, we’d die before we’d quit,
And the schoolgirl cowards squealed as we showered them with shit.
Chilling threats, balloons of wee, bottles, porn and rocks,
Then we really turned the heat up and pipe-bombed the bobby socks.
And when the dust of battle cleared, we counted up our gains,
The victories that we had won Ulster for our pains.
Kids on valium, broken minds, an international fuss,
And if we pray to God above, they’ll fail the Eleven Plus.
So Father dear, I hope you know how hard I’ve hit the Croppy,
Fought the papist thugs and earned the right to wear my poppy.
But best of all you must agree as we have this nice twelfth chat,
The papers and the TV say it’s just North Belfast tit-for-tat.
By the way, the girls from Holy Cross were off to the pantomime on Jan. 7, thanks to those traders on the New York Mercantile Exchange who, despite the horrors of Sept. 11, sent their funds to Belfast to help — as they do every Christmas season — Irish children in need.
(Visit Jack Holland’s website: www.jackholland.com.)