Too Much Memory: A Beginner's Guide to the Irish Question

Article excerpt

When I arrived in Northern Ireland last July 1, among other reasons to observe the local "marching season", I bought the Belfast News Letter and the London Times. The former devoted sixteen of its thirty-two pages to the pending crisis over the Drumcree Orange "march" and the threat of local Catholic nationalists to protest by putting women and children in its path (with, according to this Protestant newspaper, IRA agitators operating behind this cowardly cover). The Times on the other hand devoted not a single word to the march in all fifty-six of its pages (not including the computer advertising supplement).

One may read too much into such a discrepancy. But, at the least, it reflects the weary British attitude to all Northern Ireland matters; a wish that they would all just vanish. The vast majority of the British (and I here include Scots and Welsh) know little and care less about Northern Ireland. They have scant understanding of the IRA's elaborate constitutional, historical, and metaphysical justifications for its bloody actions, and see only the work of fanatical madmen who enjoy violence for its own sake. As to the Ulster Protestants, and especially the extreme voices of the Orange Order and the Democratic Unionists, the British public is mostly mystified and obviously irritated. These sectarian fanatics invoke religious and political agendas that belong properly in the seventeenth century.

The Catholic nationalists if anything make more sense to most British observers: They want union with the Republic of Ireland. But do they really? While paying lip service to a united Ireland, polls have a majority of Catholics expressing fears of this actually happening, since they would lose all the social service, pension, unemployment, and national health benefits they now enjoy under "British rule."

The Protestant Orange loyalists, despite their insistence that "Ulster is British" (an ideological, not an ethnographic assertion), do not want "British rule" either. They want local Protestant rule in the province, restoring things to the simple way they once were: Protestants on top, Catholics at the bottom - the Orange order of nature before "British rule" intervened, disbanded their parliament (Stormont), and imposed direct rule from Westminster in 1972.

Then again, the IRA/Sinn Fein (and do we mean the "official", i.e., Marxist, or "provisional", i.e., nationalist?) is not interested in ending "British rule" so that Northern Ireland can pass into the hands of "Dublin." What is little understood outside Ireland is that the IRA (either flavor) is as opposed to the Dublin government (of whatever party, not that anyone can tell the difference) as it is to "British rule." It is a banned organization in the Irish Republic also, and is pledged to unseat the "unconstitutional" government there and install itself as the legitimate successor to the almost mystical "first Dail" of the 1916 Easter Rising. The IRA, from Eamon de Valera onward, has never had much time for the democratic process. By its holy "blood sacrifice" it established itself to its own satisfaction as the voice of the "real Ireland", and if a majority of voters still think otherwise then so much the worse it will be for them. The Irish are not averse to killing each other (remember Dr. Johnson's remark: "The Irish are a fair people; they never speak well of one another"). Indeed, the IRA, under the evil influence of de Valera, fought a civil war to thwart the wishes of the majority of a democratic electorate. In the process they treacherously killed Michael Collins - the man who, with Sir James Craig in the North, might just have found an early solution to "the problem." (Neil Jordan and Liam Neeson have given a fair if confusing rendering of this bloody period in the recent film Michael Collins.)

(Note how in this paragraph and elsewhere virtually everything pertaining to Northern Ireland has to be put in scare quotes, since nothing is what it seems to be. …