Backing from the Precipice | Haaretz

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1213There’s a lot of anger here,” says Jon McCourt, a former Irish Republican Army activist turned peace worker, speaking from Derry, Northern Ireland. “They’re saying they are killing for a cause, but they can’t seem to explain what that cause is and how doing what they are doing is going to get them there.” 

When McCourt says “they,” he means the IRA splinter groups that claimed responsibility for killing two British soldiers and a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland last month. 


These attacks trained the spotlight once again on one of the most publicized conflicts of the 20th century – a conflict between two communities over a small piece of land: one, a poorer, more religious minority with roots in the region dating back a millennium; the other, descended from immigrants s

ettled under the auspices of the British. The minority protested against oppression, disenfranchisment, discrimination and lack of jobs and housing. The majority felt it was living under constant siege, perceiving itself as more enlightened and progressive, and proud of the democracy it headed – despite the discriminatory laws it enacted, with the rationale that it was protecting itself from a demographic threat: The birth rate among the minority was considerably higher.

The twist in this very old story is rooted in the 17th century, when the British invited Protestant farmers to settle on the island, in an attempt to secure a loyal civilian stronghold against strategic threats by Catholic superpower Spain. The newcomers got land, mostly in the Ulster area in the north, and tax breaks; they subsequently also benefited from privileges denied the native populace. When foreign secretary Arthur Balfour sought to persuade his government to authorize establishment of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine in 1917, he spoke of constructing “a loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of hostile Arabism.” During that same period the seeds were sown of the last, violent round of the conflict, known locally as “The Troubles.” 

In the early 1920s, after years of struggling for independence, the Irish Republican rebels reached a compromise with the British government, anchored in a partition plan. Two thirds of the Irish isle became a Catholic protectorate of the British crown – an autonomous entity that would soon become the independent Irish Republic. The Protestant population of Ulster, the minority, received an offer to create its own autonomy, in which it would constitute an 80 percent majority over the Catholics. The Protestants promptly accepted the idea, confirmed their membership in the United Kingdom, and soon proclaimed Northern Ireland to be a Protestant state for a Protestant people. 

The Catholic population in the north was heavily discriminated against. For instance, in the city of Derry, where they constituted a strong majority, few Catholics were elected to public office. Many couldn’t even vote, because franchise depended on real-estate holdings and many Catholics had none, and lived in public housing. 

In the late 1960s, Martin Luther King-inspired marches began to take place in Northern Ireland, at which Catholic demonstrators declared, “British rights for British subjects.” The police, 98 percent Protestant loyalist, reacted aggressively. Loyalist activists perceived a threat to their community and assaulted the Catholics; the latter soon began responding in kind. Riots flared in Belfast, and Catholic houses went up in flames. The IRA – at the time, a rather quaint historic remnant – began to reorganize and rearm. At first it would say it was defending Catholic communities. Then, the old dream of kicking out the British and unifying the island was revived. Protestant civilians also became fair game. 

The British enacted administrative detention and internment, and the protest grew. Then, in 1972, British soldiers shot 13 Catholic demonstrators in Derry, in what would come to be known as Bloody Sunday. Militias mushroomed on both sides of the divide, and skirmishes and eye-for-an-eye attacks perpetrated by neighbors on each other became a staple of newscasts the world over. 

Forging an accord 

In the late 1980s, political and paramilitary prisoners began to talk, first between themselves, then group to group and community to community. Documents and proclamations on negotiations were issued from within the jails. Attrition, too, had done its share: Support in both communities for violent activities dropped drastically. After various successful cease-fires, a moderate Catholic-nationalist party and a moderate Protestant-loyalist party signed the Good Friday agreement, on April 10, 1998, establishing a new assembly and power-sharing institutions for the country. 

Dissenting militias tried to derail the talks, but an enormous 1998 car bomb attack in Omagh spurred a furious public backlash, forcing the organizations into an open-ended cease-fire. After three decades of sectarian violence, which had claimed 3,524 lives (out of a population of little over a million), the Good Friday agreement took effect. All prisoners were released on parole, and sectarian killings nearly ceased altogether. Until last month. 

The last decade has seen construction of many office buildings in the cities. Suspicion and hostility have not disappeared, but hundreds of activists are forging tentative connections, house to house and street to street. Asked if they would fight Protestant children today, Catholic children do not necessarily understand why they should want to do such a thing. 

A street in Belfast has been covered with an enormous dome of glass, creating the Victoria mall; before 1998, no one would have insured such a structure there. The mall is a symbol of just how much the security situation has improved. An even better symbol, perhaps, were the silent crowds that voiced their opposition to the shootings last month. 

The general elections of 2007 brought to the power-sharing executive two parties widely perceived as radical: the loyalist Democratic Union Party and the Republican-nationalist Sinn Fein. Against all odds, the uncanny partnership of their two leaders, former senior IRA commander Martin McGuinness and Protestant minister Ian Paisley (imagine Palestinian leader Ismail Haniyeh and Israel’s Avigdor Lieberman becoming deputy prime minister and prime minister in Israel), has thrived: Polls have shown over 50-percent approval for each leader in the other’s sector. 

When dissident Republican gunmen shot down two British soldiers and a (Catholic) policeman in early March, Northern Ireland seemed to have been flung back instantly to the edge of a precipice. Eleven men have been arrested since; three have been charged. After a decade of relative quiet and considerable progress, many feel as if they are slipping back through time. 

The leaders of the peace process – Gerry Adams, McGuinness, Paisley and his successor Peter Robinson – have received considerable media attention. Outside of the limelight, former combatants are walking the streets; they include actual field operatives (fighters to some and terrorists to others), who today are helping to push the process forward, forging connections, trying to eradicate bloodletting and suspicion. Some of them served prison time and were released either when they served their term or within the framework of the Good Friday agreement. Others were never apprehended for their acts, and today are not particularly anxious to reveal what they may have done, to whom or on whose behalf. 

Jon McCourt, today 59, joined the IRA when he was 19. “Up until 18, I didn’t care much for politics,” he says. “I heard people speak of discrimination, but I didn’t feel I was concerned – I was in college, had my views on a real job.” 

In the first year of his studies, McCourt encountered the aftermath of a demonstration that had been violently dispersed by the police. “I saw important people in my community – doctors, teachers, clergy,” he recalls, “running, dripping with blood and soaking wet.” 

Curiosity drew him to his first-ever political gathering, “and then I realized that I grew up in a boarding school not because my mother didn’t love me, but because as Catholics, we had no access to decent housing. I decided to leave university and join the fight for civil rights.”

‘Tolerance is not enough’ 

Jon McCourt | Photo: Grace Walsh

Jon McCourt | Photo: Grace Walsh

After a year of  many protests and little progress, McCourt joined the IRA. He spent eight years in the underground, but his frustration with rising violence and tit-for-tat killings sent him into “retirement” in the mid-1970s. “We set out to be an organization dedicated to defending rights, and ended up denying people the most fundamental right of all: the right to life,” he explains. 

With violence still raging, McCourt joined a few other activists and began working to turn the tide: “In the early 1970s, the IRA effectively expelled all Protestant businessmen from the city center of Derry, by targeting their shops. We rented a small bus and began ferrying Catholic traders to the Protestant neighborhoods across the river, to which their city-center neighbors had escaped.” 

He went on to work with youth and tried to diffuse tension in the area by convincing British commanders to reduce soldier’s visibility on the street. Today, he guides tours for groups from other conflict areas of in the world, and works in a local pub. 

McCourt doesn’t have much patience for the dissidents who carried out the recent shootings. “They can’t make a single argument to justify their actions,” he asserts. “They say Sinn Fein betrayed the cause, but they can’t offer a clear alternative that would result in lessening British involvement on this island. They talk about a working-class struggle and then go on wounding a migrant worker and killing a policeman serving his community, as well as two lads who may have joined the army to escape unemployment. We’ve made so much progress – people are still arguing, but in pubs and on staircases, not through guns. There are divides, but not the same abyss.” 

But another activist, who declined to be named, says: “There is a lot of frustration with Sinn Fein’s conduct in the Republican community. They used constructive ambiguity to get into the power-sharing process. It may have worked on the macro level, but on the micro level, it has caused a lot of alienation in the community, with people distancing [themselves] from them one by one.” 

Two IRA splinter groups claimed responsibility for the recent shootings: Real IRA and Continuity IRA. They were condemned by all members of the national assembly, and the word “treason” has also been mentioned in their connection in public discourse. 

“Let’s say I’m a man who lost his brother to the Republican cause, perhaps in active service in the IRA,” says the activist. “Now I hear Sinn Fein calling people like him traitors. Where does that put me then, even if I support the peace process and voted for the agreement?” 

McCourt agrees that the response by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to the incident was strongly phrased, but notes his words were taken out of context. “What he said was that the shooters betrayed the will of the people of this island, who overwhelmingly support the peace process,” he explains. “That’s not at all the same as calling them traitors.” 

“One of the major issues here is that we have a lot of young people who see violence as a clear, immediate and forceful possibility of action. They are then encouraged to assault state services – not just police, but even ambulances and firefighters. They’re almost being goaded into conflict,” adds McCourt. “The thing about Northern Ireland was always not just setting things alight, but keeping them boiling. It looks like it’s boiling again – I just hope we run out of gas.” 

Alistair Little | Photo: The Forgiveness Project

Alistair Little | Photo: The Forgiveness Project

Understanding of the Republican perpetrators of the killings comes from somewhat unexpected quarters – former loyalist prisoner Alistair Little. Little joined a loyalist paramilitary organization at 14, and at 17 was ordered to carry out the killing of a Catholic man in his home town. Little agreed. He was too young to be sentenced for life, but was held in prison from age 17 to 30. Since then he had studied facilitation in South Africa, and today works with groups of people affected by political violence, both victims and perpetrators. He had recently drawn some attention from the media, with the release of an autobiographical book, “Give the Boy a Gun”, and a film, “Five Minutes of Heaven”, in which he is played by Liam Neeson. Little says the volatile reality that existed during the Troubles, when every attack on one side would provoke immediate and murderous retaliation, is still very far away. 

“There are some people in the loyalist community who might wish to retaliate,” he says in a phone conversation from Belfast. “But the leadership of the paramilitary organization has made it very clear that no reaction will be forthcoming. They don’t want to go back there – they are very well aware of the human costs” 

He cites a wide array of motives and factors for the attack: ideology, the feeling of being betrayed and alienated by the establishment, and the fact that there are young people who feel that violence is the only means for making themselves heard – “like in your conflict and every conflict,” he adds. 

Little says people like himself, who work for peace, have an active role to play in dealing with the situation that spawned the recent violence. “If our activity comes from a profound commitment to change, we need to take bigger risks. Tolerance is not enough, we cannot just tolerate each other for all eternity. We need to build stronger, deeper, truer relationships.” When asked if he foresees negotiation with the dissidents, he says it’s hard to tell. “Governments will always say they never talk to terrorists, yet in reality on some level they almost always will,” Little explains. “It all depends on how much political power the dissidents have. Contrary to the official message, the local neighborhood riots that followed the arrests would indicate that some support exists.” 

The conflict is still being contained, and the Troubles have not made a real comeback. Political and paramilitary leaders on both sides of the divide stress there will be no retaliation. The power-sharing executive and the British government have emphasized that no soldiers will be returning to the streets of Northern Ireland, and former paramilitary leaders like McGuinness have voiced support of the police. 

As for the residents of Northern Ireland, the prevailing mood was perhaps best captured in the words of a young woman who attended a silent rally in Belfast to demonstrate her opposition to the attack and found herself before the cameras of the BBC. She gently rocked a baby carriage, lulling her baby daughter, and said: “We have just started to become a normal country. You make friends with your neighbors because they are nice people, you don’t think about which community they belong to. We don’t want to go back.”

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