Another last chance?
Whatever your feelings of disgust, fury, or boredom (or even simple interest) about Northern Ireland, you must have noticed that the same place-names from that vespertine province, sunk low in the western sky, keep echoing. They may be from South Armagh, for instance, where the Catholics are trying to shoot the Protestants out of their homes, or from South Antrim, where the Protestants are bashing and burning the Catholics out of theirs. Always the sounds are from areas where one community is in a strong position to bully the other. Recently you will have heard almost nothing from west of the river Bann, which geographically divides the six counties, where the two religions live in almost equal numbers, with Catholics very slightly predominating. All this means that over the greater part of Ulster people are pursuing their lives with the kindly diligence that is so natural to them; and that those who need to be clobbered into peace — for that indeed is what they do need — remain comparatively few. The difficulty is to get them standing still long enough, mentally as well as physically, to smite them effectively.
Few now bother to count how many times Northern Ireland has been given its last chance. The rival thugs on Belfast's embattled streets are always about to engage in Armageddon (for them the death of Ireland is the end of the world), and yet the final chapter in current mortal history is still to be written. If not once again postponed, Ulster's Constitutional Convention should currently be meeting, while ignorant armies clash around it in every direction. There is another last chance for the politicians to agree on how to run a small province that seems determined to prove itself ungovernable. Last Friday, in an earnest announcement, Merlyn Rees threw back on Ulstermen themselves the responsibility for the current sickening spate of violence. He sounded like a government warning on prevention of domestic accidents but, even if he were capable of the Churchillian, he would not have satisfield
Stormont politicians who were unanimous in disapproval. ("He aimed at nothing, and he hit it.") There was nothing wrong in what Rees said. He is not careering the streets in a stolen Ford Cortina (no self-respecting gangster lifts anything less) gunning down innocents; even the British army is minimally involved. Issuing statements to that effect, however, is as useless as spitting into the Boyne. Englishmen, even Welshmen, should understand by now that no Irishman slays another unless he is intolerably provoked. It is a matter of record that the Irish level of tolc.,.rance is not high, and nothing lowers it more quickly than having a Brit around to lay the blame upon. That said, one cannot but sympathise with the Irish for having to listen to Merlyn Rees making statements when they would welcome a straight act of government, even British government.
Sure, Ulster is still arguing about what kind of orders it wants, whether they come from Westminster or it devises some way of issuing its own. There are those who would have all the politicians locked up and all the gunmen let out — on the grounds that the gunmen would then have to talk politics and they could hardly conjure up more nonsense than the present practitioners. (After all Robert Bradford, one of the reverend politicos, has seriously proposed putting the security forces under the command of politicians, meaning Unionists, and you could hardly get dafter than that.) But since the Paisleys and the Fitts, the Wests and the Humes, are still very much at large, and must be given credit for still trying to reach some agreement as cannon thunders about them, perhaps Harold Wilson, now back from the Scillies refreshed, should lean on them a little. I know that the whole point of the present exercise is to urge Ulstermen to find a form of government they want for themselves. That sounds nobly reasonable if you don't happen to listen to Ulster politicians, night after night on the telly, rasping out all the same arguments, punctuated by all the same reminiscent jeers, as they have done all their public lifetime. Then the British government looks as Pontius as Pilate.
Yet, even as you try to close your ears to the cacophony of Ulster political sound, you realise there is a strain worth hearing. The Social Democratic Labour Party, almost entirely Catholic, the entrenched opposition, has risked more than anyone might have thought possible. It has repeatedly condemned the violence of the IRA, traditional defenders of the Catholic areas; it has actually cooperated in government with moderate Protestant Unionism far more intransigent. The IRA argues hysterically that your Fitts and your Humes act so because they are obsessed by hope of power. The SDLP has nevertheless at every poll won the support of the great majority of the Catholic community; and, in Ulster one must add, the majority (though not all) of the Catholic priests. You have to hear some of those sermons castigating the gunmen, challenging members of the congregation who disagree to get out of the church immediately, to appreciate this. By contrast Church of Ireland and Presbyterian ministers are hardly in the action for peace, despite all their appeals and condemnations.
Within their churches they tend to appeal for forgiveness of those "who know not what they do." No parishioner goes away with the idea that I was brought up an Anglican, and that "they" are very close to home. (I should perhaps say that I was brought up an Anglican, and that when asked my religion by inquisitive foreign consuls I still write "C of E".) Like the churches to which they belong, the United Unionists skate over home truths. They are not prepared to lead their voters while they can retain popularity by being pushed. They do not have to make concessions to their oppon ents they say, because they are the democratic majority; in fact, because they don't dare to, since they owe their position to the granite backing of the Ulster Workers' Council and the Protestant "para-military" groups. I do understand their passionate desire to retain a homeland for a Protestant way of life that has passed England by, and may now only be found
elsewhere in corners of Scotland and Wales. I do not think they will achieve it by huddling in a corner and shouting curses at the Pope.
The Ulster Workers' Council is a sort of Lough Neagh monster, stirring uneasily again in the muddy political waters it so dislikes. It is a monster, however, that you have to believe in. It represents straightforward Protestant workers who are surer of what they don't want than of what they do, and who have behind them the total success of their strike in May last year. At the moment they don't want Merlyn Rees's security — or lack of security — arrangements. They have also not yet been brought to understand that they are more likely to get the kind of Ulster they want by coming to terms with Catholic workers, as represented by the SDLP, than by using their undoubtedly strong arm against the British Government.
The British Labour Party doesn't seem to believe that the UWC is composed of real live working men. Perhaps it's because Ulstermen go to church. Tom Dalyell's talk last week of the Belfast workers having "some brass neck" was reminiscent of Harold Wilson's "Who do they think they are?" That didn't help much either. No one in Ireland, save the fringe groups, wants the British army to leave at the moment, but everyone — even Dublin — wants to define its role. Only Westminster has that
right, and for the army's sake Harold Wilson should make that as plain as the head of a Guinness. We are very near, and that means the British army is very near, -Co a confrontation with the Ulster Protestants, and the IRA could hardly be expected not to take advantage of that.