Bloody Ulster

"England must rule us, directly, totally," writes a former Ulsterman, who sees firm rule from London as the only hope for peace in tortured Northern Ireland.  

We are driving in on a wet afternoon, coming from the town of Lurgan, where I spent the night at my sister's house. The new motorway is called the M.I. It is international in design, kin to the Ventura Freeway into Los Angeles, the Long Island Expressway into New York, the Autoroute Paris-Sud: to those new roads I took away from this place which still, foolishly, I sometimes call "home."

We veer right. The car flees into an off-ramp and, precipitate, stops with a rubber-mouse squeak of tires. Now, in an older, familiar world, we move forward again. A wet, mean street. Belfast.

To our left, in a narrower street, paving stones have been uprooted from the sidewalks and lie ready in handy, hurl-size fragments. A giantess' knitting ball of barbed wire is strewn across the middle of the roadway. A young British soldier, in tin hat, his waterproof cape decaled with camouflage patterns, an automatic rifle crooked under his left armpit, waves us on. Hurry it up. Keep moving. We are tourists: he seems to know it.

Coming off this new motorway, I do not know what part of the city we are in. But now we join a slow queue of cars sightseeing these troubles. My father was doctor to the nuns at Beechmount Home for the Sick, a few hundred yards from here. And, further down this road, I would sit, a schoolboy in short trousers, waiting in our old Austin car while he made afternoon sick calls at Saint Mary's Training College for Teachers. The Falls Road. The Catholic part of town.

The British Army commander has said the damage is as bad as in a war area. That is true. I am reminded of war. Street barricades, yards of broken windows, buildings burned down. There are soldiers everywhere; some even nap on the sidewalk, heads pillowed on their helmets. Buildings need paint. The city is as neglected and run-down as in the war years when Hitler bombed its insides out. I remember how slow they were to clear up that mess. It occurs to me that there is something sick about Belfast. Perhaps it has always had this sickness. Perhaps it is incurable. We must talk about that.

But talk about what? And who am I to talk? A Catholic who is no longer a Catholic, an Ulsterman who holds a Canadian passport and lives in California, an Irishman who has lived longer out of Ireland than he lived in it. What can I know of Ulster's present troubles?

Yet here I am. These are the British soldiers I saw last summer, advancing across the tiny screen of a portable television set in the living room of my house in California, six thousand miles from here. Stood, my arm around my Canadian wife, my back to the Pacific Ocean, staring at the set while Walter Cronkite of CBS told us that this is the way it is, and the way it is is that, suddenly, I hear an accent I never thought to hear on the American airwaves, a flat honest-to-Ulster voice, thick with rage, talking about "the civil rights march in Darry." Civil rights? In Londonderry? What in the name of Cromwell is going on over there?

Now, in Belfast, I stare out the window of my brother-in-law's car. This is what's going on. Riots. The same old riots we had in my childhood. Mobs of rampaging Protestant lumpenproletariat; trying to terrorize their equally ignorant Catholic lumpenproletariat neighbors. Street fighting, beatings, burnings; people forced out of their homes; a death or two. Ordinary people set against ordinary people because there is something old and rotten still alive here: there are not enough jobs to go around, and religious issues help to mask the truth, which is, in large part, that this Ulster is the backward fief of a Conservative oligarchy, a group which makes up only 9 percent of the population yet owns 92 percent of the land. "Nice" people, who maintain themselves in power by exploiting their poorer Protestant brethren and discriminating against the large Catholic minority. People who went to the British schools, who served in Guards regiments. Who sit on the boards of the interlocking directorates which control what industry there is, and who, naturally, want it to continue this way in saecula saeculorum; just as the local Catholic hierarchy and the few remaining old Catholic "Nationalist" politicians don't really want any drastic change either. Martyrdom keeps the faith strong; Martyrdom gets the old rabble-rousers re-elected. The same old garbage, yes. The same old, stupid mess.

And yet, this time, there is a difference. These troubles, unlike all the other riots in the fifty years of Ulster's unhappy constitutional existence, were inspired by an outside force. Television. American television to begin with. Programs on which the Catholics saw the success of the population numbers game as exemplified by black civil rights marches, on which would-be local rioters could see looters scooting through the streets of Watts and Philadelphia with major appliances in tow; television on which clashes between students and police at Berkeley and Columbia could be absorbed as an educational visual aid by the students at Queen's University, Belfast.

Television, the agitprop of modern revolt. For the first time in Ulster's history the marching mobs in Londonderry and Belfast carry banners other than pictures of King Billy crossing the Boyne River to defeat the Papists, signs other than the old Orange yells of No Surrender! F--- The Pope! and the old Irish countercries of Up The Rebels! and Erin go Bragh! Now the signs are not inflammatory, but propagandistic: One Man, One Vote: Ulster Civil Rights Association. The standard-bearers of these new banners dutifully incline them in the direction of the television camera: the devout making obeisance toward their altar. And rightly so. Television begat them. Only television can win for them.

For Ulster has had worse riots before. Much worse. You should have seen the 1935 riots. The point is, you didn't. Riots? Not to worry if you were the Northern Ireland government. The police force was, and is, a Protestant force. If Catholics stage a protest march, the police will charge. If Protestant mobs, frustrated by unemployment, want to let off steam by bashing a few Papishes, the police will look the other way. That is the status quo. But that is becoming history, as the absolute powers of the old Ulster Prime Ministers, Lords Craigavon and Brookeborough, are now history. Now the Electronic Eye sees. Police make a baton charge at noon, smashing their heavy truncheons into civil rights marchers' faces. At six that evening, blood flows from those beaten faces on the BBC television news and is seen by millions of British voters. Can this be happening in what is, after all, part of "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland"? A British Minister of the Crown is sent to investigate. Correspondents are flown across the Irish Sea. And troops. If you are the loyal government of a loyal corner of the United Kingdom, it is hard to protest the sending in of British troops.

Meanwhile, those nosy television crews poke in everywhere, creating their own violent tale: they have made a folk heroine out of Wee Bernadette Devlin, the Rosa Luxemburg of the Catholic civil rights movement; they stuck their cameras in front of Major Chichester-Clark, Ulster's Prime Minister, and the kindest thing one can say about him is that he lacks charisma. That is supplied by the Reverend Ian Paisley, the Frankenstein monster figure created by the major's policies. A tall violent commanding man, the Reverend P. is führer of the Orange militants, a man in love with his queen, a hater of the Pope, his fantasy enemy.

Heroine and Heavy. Confrontations staged for the BBC national television news. No wonder the Ulster Establishment is alarmed. A word with the British General Officer Commanding, and now the troops are lens-shy. Near Saint Paul's Catholic Church I notice that the street adjoining the church has been barricaded by its residents against Orange intruders. Bakery vans have been placed end to end across the street, blocking all access. Bernard Hughes, Bakery, says the legend on each van. Memory takes me in sudden painful emotion. I ask my brother-in-law to slow down. I lean out of the car window, thinking to take a photograph.

But a soldier comes up, fast. He thinks I am photographing him. "Not allowed, mate," he tells me, waving his gun barrel like a man shooing off a cow. I lower my camera. Hughes Bakery. The madeleine of memory.

My father, in an infrequent traverse through the kitchen, stops and asks the maid: "Where did we get this?" There is a loaf of wrapped bread on the kitchen table. Ormeau Bakery is printed on the wrapping paper. My father is puzzled. My mother is summoned. "Hughes and Kennedy are the Catholic bakers," my father says, holding up the offending loaf. "But Ormeau is cheaper, and they say their bread is very good," my mother tells him. "Hughes's bread is very good," my father says. "I don't care if it's a few pennies more. We shouldn't buy from Ormeau. They're Protestant bakers."

Catholic butcher, Catholic baker, and definitely Catholic candlestick maker. Besides, they will lend their bread vans to defend your street.

We drive on. My mind oscillates. UP THE I.R.A. is painted on the back wall of a working-class dwelling. Was it painted thirty years ago? Or last night?

The I.R.A. A young man in the prisoner's box in the Crumlin Road courthouse in Belfast. He would be asked if he had anything to say before sentence was passed on him. He would stand up, pale-faced, undernourished, wearing the ill-fitting black suit of the thirties urban poor. He would say: "As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army, I refuse to recognize this court. Long live Ireland!" He would then be sentenced to death, or to life imprisonment, depending on whether he had shot a policeman or tried to blow up a police barracks. He and others like him would be off in back fields somewhere in Enniskillen or Dungannon, with one of their number keeping watch, while the others went through some antiquated small arms drill, learning to be soldiers of the Irish Republican Army. This "army" was illegal in the real Irish republic to the south. This "army" did not recognize the Republican government because that government had made truce with the British. The I.R.A. was our Black Panthers. We despised them. Because of them, Catholics were beaten up by special police. Because of them, the Old Etonians, our masters, could keep the silent Protestant majority in a state of dumb fealty to the British Crown and the Ulster Unionist Party. The I.R.A. was like a foolish boys' game. It gave some purpose, I suppose, to the pinched lives of those unemployed, undereducated young Irishmen who joined it. Its leaders were small losers, willingly headed up a fascistic back alley, fledgling Nazis who admired Hitler as Britain's enemy. It kept us all, Catholic and Protestant alike, frozen in the past, unable to better our condition. It was, and is, the perfect red herring.

My brother-in-law drives on. The graffiti announce that we have left the Catholic area and are moving in Protestant streets. NO POPE HERE announces a whitewashed wall. GOD BLESS OUR QUEEN says the sign under the papal warning. Protestant territory; but these streets are equally drear, the same shut little workingmen's dwellings, the same stale corner pubs, tawdry sweetie shops, and gimcrack, sludgy little grocery stores. Is this all that the right to vote, the pick of available jobs and housing, the welfare state, has brought the Queen's Irish Protestant liege-men and -women? Yes, it is. They have so little, they feel they cannot afford to share it. So turn the Papish out.

As we enter the Crumlin Road, I see a chalked warning. REMEMBER 1690. It is the one date in history I will not forget. I was born, further down this road, in Clifton Street. When I looked out my bedroom window on the top floor of our house, across the street I could see, graven into a stone plinth on top of a building, the figures 1690. On the plinth, a cavalier stood in his stirrups, brandishing his sword over his head as he stared in stone-eyed triumph at the chimneys of the York Street Flax spinning Mills. He was William III of the Dutch House of Orange, atop the Kremlin of the Orange Order, the central Orange Hall, world headquarters of the Orangemen's movement. Yes, that same King Billy "Of glorious, pious and immortal memory," who defeated James II, the Papist champion, at the Battle of the Boyne on July 12, in the year of grace, 1690. REMEMBER 1690? Yes, I do.