March 17, 2009

Under discussion: Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast, Atlantic Books (2009), 288 pages. 

The recent killings in Northern Ireland have everybody over there wondering whether this is a dying sputter of republican terrorism, or the beginning of a new round of “Troubles.” Two British soldiers were killed on the evening of March 7, when they went to the gate of their compound to accept an ordered-in pizza delivery. On March 9, an on-duty policeman was shot dead while answering a call for help from a woman in distress. These were the first killings of police and soldiers since the Good Friday agreement of 1998.

The killings show that what Irish republicans refer to delicately as “the physical force tradition” within republicanism is still alive. It has always been there in latent form, emerging at times of stress. The history of modern Irish republicanism brings to mind one of those primitive life forms that reproduce by fission. The movement splits, a larger faction seeking accommodation and a laying-down of arms, a smaller one angrily arguing for a continuation of the armed struggle. The larger faction makes peace while the smaller one sulks in the shadows. Then something happens to bring the gunmen to the fore. Now they are the movement, and the armed struggle breaks out again. It turns out, however, that there are moderates and extremists among them, too, and sooner or later the moderates make peace. Extremists break off and go underground … and the cycle begins again.

The old IRA (Irish Republican Army), which was the losing side in the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, split in 1969, the Provisional IRA taking up arms in the Troubles that followed. With the 1998 Agreement, Provisional IRA leaders like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness acquired government jobs and chauffeured limousines, but small dissident factions never accepted the Agreement and scorned the Provisional leaders who had, as they saw it, sold out. It is these splinter groups that are claiming responsibility for the killing of early March.

There are, however, good reasons to think that there will be no new outbreak of Troubles. For one thing, the level of sectarian grievance is much lower now than it was in 1969. That former situation was, and still is, much misunderstood in the U.S.A., where republican propaganda pretty much had its own way “€” that way being, to paint a picture of snarling Protestant Englishmen stomping on the faces of helpless Catholic Irishmen.

Things were much more complicated than that. Both communities in Northern Ireland were aggrieved. Both perceived themselves as besieged and betrayed minorities: the Catholics besieged by the Protestants and betrayed by their fellow Catholics to the South, the Protestants besieged by the Catholic majority in the island of Ireland and betrayed by politicians in London. (As a corrective to the republican propaganda in which Americans have been bathed, I recommend Antony Alcock’s sensible and even-handed book Understanding Ulster.)

For another thing, Northern Ireland has settled into a rather comfortable Euro-style welfare socialism. The public sector accounts for 63 percent of the economy of the province, higher even than in any of the Scandinavian countries, and far higher than the Republic of Ireland’s 36 percent. The British have essentially bought off Northern Ireland’s population.

Nevertheless, the appalling awfulness of the Troubles of 1969-1998 is still vividly remembered in Northern Ireland. For those elsewhere who may have forgotten it all, or who may just be unacquainted with it, here is Irish journalist Kevin Myers with a reminder. From 1969 to 1978 Myers was in the thick of it, reporting from Belfast on the events of those dreadful years. “I personally knew nearly forty people who were killed in the Troubles,” he tells us. “Eight others were killed at my side.”

Myers was born to a Catholic-Irish family living in England. He thus grew up without an Irish accent, a thing occasionally helpful in his subsequent career. After attending University College Dublin, he drifted into Irish journalism just as the Troubles were starting. For ten years he watched it all from Belfast, a city he came to understand very intimately. After describing the gray, gritty, rainy quality of the place, its short winter days and monotonous starchy diet, he tells us that notwithstanding all that:

[T]he natives of Belfast live lives of enormous colour in their parades and their imagination, and within the walls of their ghettoes … While in the commercial heart of the city, they administered a sedative to their facial muscles; yet these pursed lips, these unseeing eyes, came truly alive within the tiny, warring sanctuaries where they lived, and where they alone felt truly free. Here, their faces could be liberated from the tyranny of city-centre tolerance; here they could exult in the triumphs of their tribe; and here they could freely indulge in Belfast’s most powerful indigenous art form, the sculpting of ancient grievance into a dynamic life-force.

Naturally that life-force found its most vigorous expression in killing. Myers starts his book with a flash-forward to the summer of 1972, when he witnessed at close quarters an IRA ambush of a British Army patrol. Two of the British soldiers were shot dead. There follows a catalog of madness and horror, of shootings and bombings, ending after 265 pages with the La Mon attack of February 1978, which was appalling even by Northern Ireland standards.

La Mon was (and still is) a country-house hotel a few miles east of Belfast. Some dog fanciers had gathered there, all Protestants, the particular dog they all fancied being the Scottish collie. The IRA bombed the place, using a device described in Lost Lives, the invaluable encyclopedia of the Troubles, as “a blast incendiary … hung on the grille of a window with a meat-hook.” The effect was similar to that of napalm, a huge fireball engulfing the room. Myers:

Suddenly dog fanciers became screaming human infernos. Men pulled down long curtains in vain attempts to extinguish the pyres that were their burning wives … Twelve people “€” including three married couples “€” were burnt alive at La Mon: one moment they were chatting happily, and some five minutes later “€” a long five minutes “€” they were burnt beyond recognition, reduced to ashes.

Lost Lives explains that “three of the men and two of the women were finally identified only after extensive studies of blood samples from the bodies … Two people could not be identified at all except by elimination.”

That was as much as Myers could take. He left Northern Ireland, going on to a full journalistic career elsewhere, reporting from Lebanon in the 1980s and Bosnia in the 1990s, with other assignments in Africa and the Middle East.

Those early years in Northern Ireland stayed with him, though, and he has now put them into this memoir. He spares us nothing, neither of the shot, burned, or bomb-disintegrated corpses he saw (and smelled), nor of the irrational, lunatic passions that inspired it all, nor of his own retreats into drink, danger, and sex. He takes no sides, and makes the pointlessness of taking sides perfectly plain. Both sets of terrorists were mad as hatters, and the British military were often, at the tactical level, cruel and stupid, while their masters in London never really had a clue.

Maddened at the [financial] losses it was incurring, the British government spent two years devising a foolproof multi-million pound system that would prevent fraud in the building industry in Northern Ireland. It was introduced on a Monday, and was mandatory in all government-subsidized building projects “€” which meant just about all building work in the province. By Thursday the IRA had cracked the system, and by the following week it lay in ruins.

The sheer amoral beastliness of the Troubles illustrates the powers of tribal identity and historical grievance. It illustrates, too, the fact that once those powers let loose the killing passion, mayhem can continue for years, even in a modern European nation, against all that law and statecraft can do.

So the Provisional IRA actually wanted the [early 1972] ceasefire to end. Even the Official IRA … wanted war. Moreover, Northern Irish loyalists also wanted war. The vote for hostilities was unanimous amongst those people with guns: and those without were not consulted.

This is a terrible, terrible story, in which the evil prosper, while the good are blown to bits, or tortured before being shot. In Watching the Door we see it all through the eyes of a reflective and sensitive young man. Read it in daylight.


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