A Nation of Victims? Northern Ireland's Two Minorities

By Lennon, Brian | Commonweal, March 14, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Nation of Victims? Northern Ireland's Two Minorities


Lennon, Brian, Commonweal


Last year, speaking to a group of Catholic high-school students in Omagh, a small country town in Northern Ireland, I put forward the view that the Irish conflict was not a colonial one. Rather it was rooted in the fact that there are two minorities in Ireland, one Catholic and one Protestant. At the end, one of the students asked when I was going to catch on: the conflict was clearly colonial. The British "robbed our land," he said. "Which land?" I asked. He lifted his right hand and pointed over his shoulder toward the fields outside the window. "Where is it?" I said. "Where is the field that you lost?" Again the hand waved, but no words came out. He couldn't name the field because the field was a myth in his head.

This is not to say that there is no field in reality. There may or may not be. Very often there is no way of finding out. That is one difference between our conflict and that of the Israelis and Palestinians: many Palestinians still have the keys of the homes from which their families were expelled in the late 1940s in what is now Israel. We Irish have no keys to our fields, because we are a mongrel race. We came to the island in successive groups: as Firbolgs, Celts, Normans - many of whom became Old English, as Elizabethan or Jacobite Planters. Many of us also changed our religious denomination: from Roman Catholic to Anglican or to one of the Protestant denominations, and sometimes back again. Right now, many of us have given up on religion altogether.

Finally, I asked my high-school friend, "When are you going to let go of that field?" Not having lost any fields myself, it was an easy question for me. For him it is difficult to answer. He sees himself as a victim and reads history to reinforce that image. And there are plenty of other issues to reinforce his sense of victimhood.

One of these is "justice." In Northern Ireland, it is a Nationalist word, so much so that one is unlikely to get agreement to use it in joint ecumenical statements. Nationalists have successfully presented themselves internationally as victims; for them, "justice" means righting their wrongs; this in turn means taking things away from Unionists.

Bloody Sunday, 1972, is an example. The British army shot and killed thirteen unarmed people in Derry. A government-appointed inquiry headed by Lord Chief Justice Widgery chose to admit as evidence only 15 out of 700 eye-witness accounts. He decided not to call Dr. Raymond McClean, who had been appointed by Cardinal Conway to attend the postmortems. McClean found that some of the victims had been shot by bullets traveling in a downward direction. Together with other evidence - all available to Widgery - this suggested that the soldiers of the First Parachute Regiment, who said they acted in response to gunfire, were in fact correct: another British unit was also firing into the crowd.

In his report, Widgery implied that some of those killed had been handling weapons, a claim later denied by British Prime Minister John Major. Widgery accepted the statements of the soldiers, all of whom claimed to have been firing at bombers or snipers. None of the soldiers was ever charged and their commander was awarded an Order of the British Empire later that year. The Widgery inquiry and the persistent refusal since of successive British governments to allow a new investigation confirmed the belief of many Nationalists that due process in a British system of justice is not possible.

In this case Nationalist perceptions of injustice are accurate. But many Nationalists remain blind to injustices carried out against others by members of their own community. Recipients of Sinn Fein e-mail get reams on British and Unionist injustices, but when it comes to the IRA they are told only about successful or unsuccessful "operations" against British occupation forces, as if the IRA were made up of deft hospital surgeons.

For their part, Unionists are incensed at all the attention given to Bloody Sunday. …

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