Britishmen

Tom Paulin

  • Too Long a Sacrifice: Life and Death in Northern Ireland since 1969 by Jack Holland
    Columbus, 217 pp, £7.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 396 07934 2
  • A History of Northern Ireland by Patrick Buckland
    Gill and Macmillan, 195 pp, £3.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 7171 1069 9

Two months after the suspension of Stormont in 1972, Belfast’s retiring Lord Mayor, Sir Joseph Cairns, delivered a farewell speech in which he reflected on the political situation. Ulster, he said, had been cynically betrayed by Britain’s policies: policies that had relegated it to ‘the status of a Fuzzy Wuzzy colony’. The Lord Mayor’s parting shot is one of my favourite quotations, for as well as being banal, ridiculous, righteously angry and very dim, it offers a profound insight into the Northern Irish troubles. It has an ironic resonance – a sort of Belfast ou-boum – which must haunt and torment anyone who probes the nature of Ulster Loyalism. It’s a deeply parochial statement, and like all such statements, it issues from an intense love of place, while also containing a definition of nationality and cultural identity.

On his last day as civic chief of Belfast, Sir Joseph Cairns was claiming to be something called a ‘Britishman’ and asserting an imperial idea that once flourished in many places, but which now clings to the Rock of Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and parts of the north-east counties of Ireland. The Gibraltar equivalent of Sir Joseph Cairns is a politician called Sir Joshua Hassan who believes that the Rock is indissolubly part of the United Kingdom.

Although Jack Holland ignores Cairns’s rich insight, he does explore the confused nature of Loyalist identity. In a revealing anecdote he describes a train journey towards the Loyalist stronghold of Larne. Three youths were clowning about, throwing cans and bottles out of the window:

In the middle of the mayhem one of the youths shouted breathlessly, ‘No wonder they say the Irish are mad!’ There was a short but sudden silence. His two companions looked at him uneasily, and he almost blushed with embarrassment. It was as if a taboo had been broken, and in front of strangers. After a second or so the biggest youth, obviously the leader of the group, shouted with bluff confidence and an aggressive voice, ‘Hey, what d’ya mean? We’re not Irish – we’re British.’ They laughed at each other, but rather self-consciously. It was obvious they were discomfited, unsettled, and they flung themselves with increased vigour into another round of furious and distracting activity.

This fascinating story follows a subtle and intelligent discussion of Loyalist terrorism. That particularly sadistic form of terrorism partly issues from a cultural quality which might be described as a trapped and backward-looking anger: the Protestant working class is unique in Europe, ‘in that it is the only working class not to have been radicalised by World War One.’ When UVF terrorists were imprisoned in Long Kesh they named their huts after the battlefields of the Great War. Like the Lord Mayor, they believed they were Britishmen and they were prepared to torture and kill in order to remain in their chosen imperial time-warp. As Holland shows, there is a firm connection between the ethic of Britishness and the practice of torture, and the notorious ‘five techniques’ which were employed during the interrogation of internees followed an established practice that had been resorted to in all of Britain’s colonial wars since 1946. When these interrogation techniques were investigated by an inquiry headed by Lord Parker, two reports were issued. Parker’s majority report justified the use of sensory deprivation, claiming that it provided the authorities with ‘much-needed information about the terrorists’, while Lord Gardiner’s minority report dissented.

Gardiner stated that the five techniques ‘were and are illegal’, and he argued that Parliament should not legalise them because ‘we should both gravely damage our own reputation and deal a severe blow to the whole world movement to improve human rights.’ Yet Gardiner also exculpated the Government of Northern Ireland and the RUC by arguing that the Minister of Home Affairs (Brian Faulkner) ‘had no idea’ that the techniques were illegal. The fact that someone of Gardiner’s legal eminence should employ such an obviously invalid argument demonstrates ‘the extent to which Northern Ireland was clouding British thinking’.

This is a most important point, and the nub of Holland’s argument is that ‘British democracy has been poisoned by repressive legislation’ which in many ways resembles the kind of laws the Civil Rights movement set out to change in Northern Ireland. The recent, hasty legislation which prevents convicted terrorists standing for election in Northern Ireland is another example of this sapping of legality and so, too, is the case of Constable William McCaughey. Along with a police sergeant called Weir, McCaughey was tried and convicted of murdering a Catholic shopkeeper in revenge for an attack by the Provisional IRA. Both policemen were also convicted of kidnapping and threatening to murder a Catholic priest and of bombing a Catholic bar. Holland comments:

One of the remarkable things about this case was the sentences handed down by Chief Justice Robert Lowry. While McCaughey and Weir were given life sentences, the other policemen involved in the bar bombing were let off with suspended sentences. McCaughey’s father, who aided his son in concealing the priest on his farm, was also released with a suspended sentence. In his summing-up Lowry stated that the action of McCaughey in murdering the Catholic was ‘understandable’ but ‘inexcusable’. He described it as ‘really an act of retribution, or revenge because of other murders that had been committed’. The victim was a totally innocent man, a father of eight children with no connection to the IRA or the Republican movement. Why it was ‘understandable’ to murder such a man was not at all made clear by Justice Lowry.

This is an example of the way legality is being undermined by its representatives and a compelling illustration of Protestant middle-class sympathy with Loyalist terrorism – Lowry is a former Unionist politician.

One of the most valuable sections of Holland’s study concerns the relationship of the UDA – the chief Loyalist paramilitary organisation – with traditional Unionist politicians. Over the last four years, the UDA has moved towards the idea of an independent Northern Ireland. In a discussion with two American Congressmen, Glen Barr, until recently the chief UDA theorist, explained the reasons for his organisation’s change of attitude:

On the Loyalist side, the Loyalist politicians have manipulated the Protestant people, who believed the Unionists. And we also believe that on the Catholic side they have been used and manipulated by emotional-type politicians. Because, over the years if you look at politics in Northern Ireland, no one has talked about pure politics. Every election time, all you have is a flag being waved at you repeating threats to your constitutional position ... We are not prepared any longer to be used by these manipulating politicians. What we are saying is that we want to formulate a policy that will serve the two sections of the community in Northern Ireland, the Protestant and Catholic people.

Barr also called for ‘a complete withdrawal of Britain out of the scene’ and his policy has recently been endorsed by James Callaghan. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this argument: an argument which shows that one section of Loyalist opinion is breaking out of a backward-looking Britishness and beginning to formulate a truly Northern, non-sectarian identity. In a sense, the UDA has begun to move away from the traditions and values of ‘Carson’s Army’, the Ulster Volunteer Force of 1912, towards the ideals of the United Irishmen, the revolutionary organisation founded by Wolfe Tone and a group of Belfast radicals in 1791. Holland, however, is sceptical about the change that has taken place in Loyalist attitudes: some Loyalists, he says, have replaced ‘a sheep-like willingness to follow their middle-class leaders’ with populist anger and frustration at the way those leaders have misled them. What is still lacking is a purely political ethic.

Holland also probes the internal politics of the IRA and describes the tensions between Dublin intellectuals like David O’Connell and the Belfast leaders. As in his account of Loyalist terrorism, he both analyses the movement’s theoretical ideas and describes some of their murderous acts. His work is not polemical and it is remarkable as much for its open-mindedness as for its fidelity to ordinary experience of the troubles. Although he is often critical of the RUC, he also argues sympathetically that the organisation has been damaged by the policy of ‘criminalisation’: the term given to the removal of Special Category status, which was the first stage in the British policy of ‘Ulsterisation’. This meant giving the RUC the primary role in dealing with violence, in the hope that doing so would gradually lead to a reduction of British Army commitments. Holland argues shrewdly that this policy is merely ‘a compromised form of withdrawal’ which places dangerous burdens on the policemen themselves. Although Too Long a Sacrifice is repetitious and rather scrappily constructed, it is an intelligent account of the Ulster troubles, and one which is unusually sensitive to the experience of the last 12 years.

In his conclusion, Holland cites a phrase which A.J.P. Taylor applied to India and Pakistan and suggests that Northern Ireland is a ‘non-historical state’. Its population exists and suffers in the kind of ahistorical vacuum which Eliot imagines in ‘Little Gidding’:

    A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

It is one of the tasks of the self-conscious historian to seek out those timeless moments and form them into a pattern. If Northern Ireland were to become a genuinely independent state, then it’s likely that a historian connected with the UDA would offer an epic account of the formation of that state, but as Northern Ireland is merely an administrative entity like the Borough of Hendon or South Humberside it can only – at least from the Unionist point of view – possess a kind of parish history. For the Official Unionist, who believes that Northern Ireland is permanently part of the United Kingdom, history is static and therefore parochial, while for the Republican it is a developing process which aims at the establishment of a full cultural identity.

Unfortunately, Patrick Buckland has not meditated on these questions and his title, A History of Northern Ireland, is offered without irony. Although Buckland is more of a memorialist than a serious historian, he has performed a valuable service in such works as The Factory of Grievances and James Craig, in both of which he cites example after example of Unionist incompetence and mediocrity. He has gathered masses of valuable facts from Cabinet and Civil Service records, old newspapers and various published sources. What he lacks is a vision of his subject and a prose style. (Furthermore, his present work at times recycles sentences which first saw the light of day in his earlier books. In his biography of Craig (1980) he describes Edward Carson as a ‘vain, hatchet-faced, hypochondriacal but talented lawyer with a penchant for histrionics’: in A History of Northern Ireland Carson appears again as a ‘vain, hatchet-faced, hypochondriacal but talented lawyer with a penchant for histrionics’.) The result is a rigidly arid work whose sentences are often distracted by exclamation-marks and which has little empathy with its subject. Even so, Buckland does put his incremental fact-gathering historiographical method to some purpose. He writes of the ‘political immaturity’ of Ulster Loyalists and he remarks on their failure to develop a political philosophy. He opposes the two-nations theory, insists the Ulster Protestants have ‘only a very hazy sense of nationality’ and explores the complex financial relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. He notices a remark of Brian Faulkner’s objecting to Northern Ireland being treated as a ‘coconut colony’ and cites this statement which a UDA leader made in 1973: ‘For four hundred years we have known nothing but uprising, murder, destruction and repression. We ourselves have repeatedly come to the support of the British Crown, only to be betrayed within twenty years or so by a fresh government of that Crown ... Second-class Englishmen, half-caste Irishmen.’ Although Buckland doesn’t say so, this is another example of that cultural self-pity which many Loyalists suffer from. It also represents a stage in the evolution of Loyalist paramilitary thinking, and Glen Barr’s call, five years later, for complete British withdrawal clearly follows from it.

It is a pity that Buckland has failed to consider the nature of British and Irish identity in any depth, because every discussion of the Northern Irish situation must start by asking questions about those identities. Some historians clearly agree with Brian Faulkner and that ex-Lord Mayor of Belfast and base their writing on the premise that Northern Ireland is not a colony. Others take the view that a colony is precisely what it is. Every historian who writes about Northern Ireland is either a Loyalist, like J.C. Beckett and A.T.Q. Stewart, or a Republican like Michael Farrell, though I suspect that Buckland attempts to occupy the middle ground which is represented politically by the Alliance Party. Future historians will be grateful to him for his diligent burrowing in government archives. Meanwhile that non-historical state has produced a book which resembles the minutes of a borough council.