By Ray O’Hanlon
Johann Sebastian Bach wasn’t thinking of South Armagh when he composed his masterpiece about peacefully grazing sheep. And if the composer was to come back and wander the area’s hills and valleys these politically baroque days, he would find little joy and even less of man’s desiring in the manner in which a peace process has been working its spell over what should be tranquil countryside. The place, in short, still looks and sounds like a war zone.
That at least is how the South Armagh Farmers and Residents Committee sees it. And given the fact that the committee’s members call South Armagh home — as opposed to the favored British military appellation of "Bandit Country" — it would be churlish to doubt their word. Besides, they seem to have statistics to back up their argument. Statistics that point skyward to daily swarms of British army helicopters and earthward to a lot of dead sheep and other creatures that provide local farming folk with the crusts of a living.
Two members of the committee, Toni Carragher and Maria Caraher, are in the U.S. this week spreading the word that their corner of the wee North is missing out on the peace dividend — big time. Carragher is from Glassdrummond near Crossmaglen. A British army observation posts overlooks her family’s farm. While Bessbrook, up the road a bit, might lay claim to the title of helicopter capital of the world, little Glassdrummond is well up there. According to Carragher, there were 3,461 flights into the post between the resumed IRA cease-fire on July 20, 1997 and Feb. 5 of this year.
"There has been a heavier deployment of British troops since the cease-fire. The people of South Armagh have not seen any peace dividend," Carragher said.
Indeed, quite the contrary. The committee points to what it says are hundreds of dead farm animals as a result of low-flying helicopters. And not just your average choppers, but huge smoke-belching Chinooks and Sea Kings. The committee also points to rampant TB among farm animals and fears of radiation contamination of people as a result of surveillance equipment in the observation posts.
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"There has been no move toward taking down the observation posts. In fact they have reinforced them," Maria Caraher, from Cullyhanna, said. Maria’s brother Fergal, readers will recall, died in a hail of bullets fired by Royal Marines in 1991.
The committee has twice met with Mo Mowlam but reckons that even she doesn’t have much of a clue as to what is going on in South Armagh by day, and, more especially, by night.
According to the women, residents resent the description of South Armagh as "Bandit Country." As far as they are concerned, it is tourist country, not terrorist. Unfortunately, South Armagh’s current "tourists" come in a green uniforms, helmets (still) and get their views from machines that look as if they have been plucked from the set of "Apocalypse Now."
GOP takes the offensive
Late last week, a so-called "Special Orders" debate took place on the floor of the House of Representatives. The main purpose of the session was to create an opportunity for several members, including GOP Friends of Ireland chairman Jim Walsh, to draw a line in the sand with regard to the Good Friday accord, decommissioning and the RUC. Suffice it to say, there was little to comfort a unionist in the content of the speeches.
An ironic twist of late is that those Republicans representatives who take an interest in Ireland, though members of the majority party in Congress, are more often sounding like vocal members of an upstart opposition. The Democratic White House must play its peace process hand very carefully because it is in charge of the U.S. role. The Republicans, chastened by the collapse of their impeachment effort, seem able to vent on the likes of Northern Ireland with rather more abandon.
Rep. Ben Gilman is expected to do just that in April when the House International Relations Committee, which he chairs, is due to hold hearings into the RUC. This despite reported recent efforts by at least one visiting British official — Northern Ireland Office security mandarin Steven Leach — to persuade Gilman and his GOP colleagues to long finger the hearings until after the Patten Commission concludes its business. Bill Clinton is not alone in finding solace and wound-healing balm in foreign adventures.
No rest for Joe
Joe Crowley’s Washington career is only days old and back in his district there are already rumblings in the Democratic fold over ’99 elections. Crain’s New York Business recently reported that Queens City Councilman John Sabini is mulling an assault on Crowley’s barely warm seat in next year’s Democratic primary.
"Mr. Crowley is considered vulnerable because of the way he won the seat: He was hand-picked by Queens Democratic Chairman Tom Manton, the former congressman, in a backroom maneuver that avoided a primary challenge but provoked widespread outrage," Crain’s said.
And speaking of backrooms. What of that vacant Democratic seat on the Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs? Crowley is up for it, as is Eliot Engel of the Bronx. And, "IF" hears, so too is Donald Payne, the New Jersey congressman, who, if he prevails, would become the first African American Ad Hoc Committee co-chair.
Way to go, Ken
It’s not often that "IF" has reason to cheer on Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionist Party’s tough-talking security spokesman. But red, white and blue Ken came out with choice words during a recent incident in which he was set upon by a gang of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s men. Maginnis and other UUP luminaries have been touring the wee North of late speaking to the party’s grassroots. But along the way they have been shadowed by the night riders of the DUP, who apparently cluster outside meeting halls greeting the UUP arrivals with catcalls such as "Fenian lover" and "here comes another Shinner."
Anyway, Ken and some pals arrived at one such meeting at Fivemiletown, Co. Tyrone, only to be greeted by a DUP posse. Words, blows and kicks resulted. Maginnis, according to an "IF" source, gave as good as he got, in deed and word. The deeds don’t need much describing but the words are worth recording for bruised posterity. He described the DUP men as "fascist thugs" who, if the dummy-tits were pulled out of their mouths, wouldn’t have a political word in their heads. Lord save us, but red, white and blue Ken wouldn’t even say that about our Gerry.