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Belfast [20050912|11:31]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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It looks as though the violence that started in Belfast on Saturday during an Orange Order parade and continued through last night was premeditated.

Northern Ireland, for me and probably for a lot of other largely apolitical people, was rather low on the list of countries I wanted to visit before I die. It's a place that you tend not to think of when you're coming up with holiday plans, like Rwanda, Niger or Iraq. Because personal risk assessment tends to preclude deliberately putting yourself in a situation where you might get caught in the crossfire. Because viewing misery and oppression in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty isn't most people's idea of a pleasant vacation.

Except that Northern Ireland isn't a third-world country. The standard of living is up to that of the rest of the Westernized world. However, it's been so torn by internal strife since its inception that it's difficult to conceive of its inhabitants being able to enjoy fully the luxuries of being a developed post-industrial nation. Despite its member status in the UK, the overarching vision of Northern Ireland to outsiders is one of a divided society constantly under threat of violence.

Michael Collins, one of the Irish republicans who signed the 1921 treaty that divided Ireland into kingdom and republic, said of Northern Ireland: "A large portion of her fair province has lost all its native distinctiveness. It has become merely an inferior Lancashire. Who would visit Belfast or Lisburn or Lurgan to see the Irish people at home? That is the unhappy fate of the North-East. It is neither English nor Irish." His scorn can easily be attributed to his political bias against Britain. Perhaps unwittingly, he makes another point about Northern Ireland. The cultural mix between English and Irish, between Catholic and Protestant, could conceivably produce a rich, colorful, cosmopolitan society. Instead, the sectarian attitudes of a portion of its citizens have produced a tense, unhappy, bitter one, and it continues this way because the militant elements have kept feeding the flames of mistrust.

Our Derry tour guide explained republicanism thusly: an Irish republican is willing to use any means, including violence, to achieve a unified and independent Irish state. A nationalist would restrict him or herself to the avenues of constitutional and peaceful political channels in the hopes of reaching the same end. It's a generalization, but it works fairly well to explain the difference between loyalists and unionists as well (those who favor separatism for Northern Ireland and continued alliance with the British government).

Militant attitudes tend to breed factionalism, as can be seen in the disparate branches of the Irish Republican Army (the dominant Provisionals, the Continuity and the Real) and the Ulster loyalists (the Ulster Defense Association, the Loyalist Volunteer Force and the Ulster Volunteer Force), particularly when the organizations are secretive and reliant on informal networks of trust. Attempts to instigate political change through violence rarely seem to result in the desired outcome for the inciters, which is usually too radical for most of the moderate populace to stomach, especially when they are clearly militarily outmatched. Loyalist paramilitaries probably don't have the arsenal or the manpower to defeat the British Army decisively. It doesn't help that the inciters also rarely seem to have a coherent agenda. For instance, it's ironic that the "loyalists" should be attacking the agents of the government to whom they supposedly proclaim their allegiance.

This, to me, underscores the real intention of paramilitary violence. Whatever political stance a group might take, whatever demands they might make, the agenda is simply to keep the discord going. To open fresh wounds over the ones that never closed in the first place. To ensure that a new generation carries with them a sense of injustice and disenfranchisement, by allowing them to participate, perhaps even before they really understand what they're doing, in some exhilarating destruction. Although on a rare occasion, a violent attack may prove to be the flashpoint for political change, most of them result in retaliatory action of the same ugly, petty flavor as the original. It's a truism to say that violence breeds violence, but until recourse to such means can be shown to be unproductive, paramilitary groups will continue to attract members.

It's heartening that in this case, the government appears to have learned from its past mistakes. The lack of fatalities and the number of injuries sustained by police officers seems to indicate the exercise of restraint and a desire to avoid repeating the kind of mistakes that lead to thirty-odd years of grudge-holding a la Bloody Sunday. The insistence by the chief constable that the Orange Order must face up to its culpability for the rioting helps to send the message that sectarian violence will be considered primarily as a criminal act, not as an agent for political change. There is hope. Perhaps even hope that eventually, Northern Ireland will be able to see its own diversity as a strength instead of a weakness.

[User Picture]From: chickenfeet2003
2005-09-12 10:47 (UTC)
I think it's worth remembering that the para-militaries on both sides are deeply involved in various kinds of criminal racket. These "business activities" are very lucrative and the main source of income for the foot soldiers on both sides. If the terrorist groups were really to disarm and disband it seems likely that the police would roll up the criminal networks putting a lot of larlgely otherwise unemployable people out of "work". Not unnaturally there is a large group of people who will go to any lengths to perpetuate the violence.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-09-12 19:56 (UTC)
I think there are ideological and non-ideological reasons for the perpetuation of paramilitary organizations, although it's difficult to distinguish which ones are most effective tools for recruitment and retention of members. I'm hesitant to assume that the money-making potential of clandestine, armed organizations (one of the features of which is disobedience for the existing legal structure) is only reason for the continued existence or said organizations although I agree it's probably a major contributing factor.

It's depressing that the violence itself doesn't really prove profitable - after all, it requires the expediture of ammunition and destruction of valuable property - but the potential for it does.
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[User Picture]From: chickenfeet2003
2005-09-12 20:04 (UTC)
I accept that ideological reasons often do exist for para-military organisation. I think what's happened in NI though is that by and large those reasons have pretty much ceased to exist (not least because of the EU membership of both the UK and the RoI and the convergence in living standards) as even seasoned terrorists like Gerry Adams have realised. What's interesting now is that the ideological leaders can't control their rank and file and get them to disarm.
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[User Picture]From: kreie
2005-09-12 14:35 (UTC)
I was curious about Bloody Sunday, as I know some of the generalities but not the specifics, so I went to Wiki to open it up, and ironically enough, the article is in dispute. I wonder if that tends to happen with highly politicized articles. I've never actually seen it before.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-09-12 14:45 (UTC)
I linked to it in my travel journal on Derry: here. I saw the neutrality dispute notice on another Wiki article: the one about the Orange Order.
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[User Picture]From: edoggy
2005-09-12 20:17 (UTC)

Bloody Sunday

You mentioned the officers' restraint when dealing with the violence at the Orange Parade. You have to keep in mind the Bloody Sunday violence was directed at Catholic protesters. The police and British military have a deep bias when dealing with each side. There is rarely lethal force used against Loyalist groups, yet the Republicans and Catholics have a disproportionate number of funerals after a conflict. This is part of what has fueled much of the hatred. There are no equal rights in Northern Ireland. Being Catholic in Northern Ireland is like being black in Los Angeles. If you read more about the NI conflict, you'll likely find that most Protestants don't draw a distinction between Catholic and Republican. In all likelyhood, they have never even talked to a Catholic person from the North. It is a terrible state of affairs.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-09-12 21:26 (UTC)
Mm, in the witness statements collected in Don Mullan's Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, some - undoubtedly a minority, but some - of the participants in that civil rights march identified themselves explicitly as Protestants. I don't doubt that the Paras probably assumed that everyone in the march was both Catholic and Republican (as is evidenced by the repetition of the "Fenian" label they applied to the marchers, reported by the witnesses), but I think it's important to keep in mind that the delineations between Catholic, Protestant, unionist and nationalist are not as clear as the Republican/Loyalist divide would seem to indicate.

I think it's too glib to say that the tendency of the government to use lethal force against Republicans but not Loyalists has fueled much of the continued hatred. The present violence, after all, has ostensibly arisen because of Loyalist fear that the current peace process will disenfranchise Protestants. I think that the paramilitary groups adapt their perceived resentment against constitutional political channels depending on the current situation, as well as drawing on historical events to give incentive to their foot soldiers.

I can't disagree that Catholics historically have had more to fear from the government as the minority group in the NI state. However, I think a lot of the continued fear comes from the retaliatory tit-for-tat killings between paramilitary groups. I also think the fear is fueled by their tendency, once a disarmament agreement with official government channels has been reached, to split into factions, those who agree that the terms of their agenda have been met, and those who won't be satisfied by anything other than complete (and totally unrealistic) concession of power to their side.

I doubt that most Protestants draw the blanket assumption that every Catholic is a Republican you're making here, any more than most Catholics would assume that every Protestant is a Loyalist and I don't think the Protestants alone are to blame for the lack of communication which perpetuates mistrust. I think most normal people who just want to go about their lives probably adopt a policy of avoidance to assuage their fears. A NI Catholic dealing with a NI Protestant is always going to have at least a tiny worried voice in the back of his/her mind wondering, could s/he be a Loyalist? And vice-versa for the Protestant. I think, when you live under constant threat of violence from a radical minority, that the miniscule potential that the person to whom you're speaking could be a member of a paramilitary group is enough to keep most people from reaching out to one another and trying to foster understanding.
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