26 NOVEMBER 1983, Page 13

Guerrilla days

Andrew Brown

Belfast The day after the Armagh murders I stopped to buy some cigarettes in a peaceful bohemian part of town. The shopkeeper, a healthy-looking bespectacled man in his fifties, was listening to Parlia- ment on the radio. James Prior was being mauled by Ian Paisley, and in the middle of one of Prior's replies the shopkeeper twisted the volume knob violently down. 'Did you ever here such a load of balls in your life? He's talking like that, and all over the Province there's men getting their guns out now. "Don't hit back, calm down," they say. I tell you there's going to be a civil war like you've never seen. The gutter out there,' he gestured behind him, 'will be running and foaming with blood. We had 50 years of no trouble at all. Sure the IRA would shoot a few people now and again but they'd be caught within a couple of hours, and when they were locked up they stayed locked up. Now the English take over and they can walk straight out of Jail. Thirty-eight of them walk straight out of jail and do a thing like this. They should send the SAS in there and kill them all. They know who they are ... What do you do with a mad dog?' I answered as I had to, but without enthusiasm. His parting words Were: 'They'll' be killing people tonight.' And when I said I hoped that he was wrong, he said with great civility, 'Enjoy your pint.'

You hear a lot of illuminating things in Belfast — 'Don't speak with the forked tongue of rationality' was one rebuke I heard in a bar — but the shopkeeper's diatribe tells you as much as anything about Ulster.

For one thing Prior's performance did sound appalling. The pauses, the plummy vowels, the complete predictability of what he had to say — it all sounded so insultingly English. What he said was sensible enough and needed saying. The Unionists had no responsibility for, security policy; the Westminster Government would do as it thought fit; and no one was to retaliate on any account.

Prior talked about people 'shot down at an act of worship'. Who drafted that

phrase? It sounds like a man who feels, as many do, that it is no more reprehensible to murder people in a church than it has been to murder them in pubs. But Pastor Bain of the church where the murders were done talked about people who had gathered to sing hymns and pray. This is concrete. He knew what they were doing and what it meant to them. Vague ecumenical mum- blings about an act of worship merely sug- gest that Prior has not grasped why these murders appear an act of exceptional enor- mity. 'I owe it ... to my country to con- tinue,' said Prior when he was asked to resign; but the automatic unspoken Loyalist retort would be, 'Whose country?'

The English are foreigners here, and the people who convinced the Englishmen of this are not the Provos but the Unionists. Even among decent people — Alliance voters living in a very peaceful part of town — there is a great deal of resentment against the Northern Ireland Office for being rich, powerful and clumsy. This is the angry am- bivalent resentment of the powerless. On the one hand the English may sell us out, may leave us (whatever they now say), and what will become of our houses, our lives or even our pensions? On the other hand there is a constant irritation: what do they know of Ulster? What are they doing here, runn- ing our country, ruining our schools and buying up our houses? The answer to all these questions is well known but overlong. The British are here because they pay for the place — to the tune of £2,000 million a year — and because the Unionists cannot run it on their own and would not run it in partnership with the law-abiding Catholics when they were asked to do so. Their chance to do this has now gone. The Unionists cannot run the country on their own for one simple and wholly sufficient reason. They cannot on their own keep down the IRA. The idea that they once could and did is now the central Unionist myth and it is as dangerous as any other Irish myth.

It is true that Stormont worked quite well and peacefully for 50 years, so that it now in retrospect appears a golden age. What came after was worse. But all the arguments for Stormont are Tory ones, and they had in the end to yield to superior force, the final Tory argument. When a British government could not allow the Catholic ghettoes to be sacked by Protestant mobs, that moment marked the bankruptcy of Unionist security policy. The Protestant idea of dealing with such outrages is to go out and shoot — if necessary even to arrest — the man responsible. The problem with this policy is that it doesn't work and didn't. What works against the IRA and all its splinter groups are informers. This is a point quite separate from the false assertion that terrorism can only be conquered by political means, which boils down in the end to the assertion that the only way to get rid of terrorists is to give in to them. But you cannot defeat terrorists without intel- ligence, and you cannot gather intelligence if you believe that you already know everything you need to.

The Protestants would, I suppose, argue that they know who is responsible and that all you have to do is to send the SAS across the border and kill him. But do they really think they could get away with that? The Protestant `go out and bash them' argu- ment leads inexorably to Israeli methods. These do work, provided that you are prepared to do to the terrorist hinterland what the Israelis have done to Lebanon. But since this is impossible, the only alter- native is to cooperate with the South and to hope for cooperation back.

Tn this perspective the rise of Sinn Fein is actually a hopeful sign. It seems to be generally accepted that the rise of Sinn Fein, which means the successful introduc- tion of armed force into community politics, threatens the government in the South in the long run as much as it does the North. If this is true, then pure self-interest will force the Southern government to fight Sinn Fein as hard as they possibly can — as they have done successfully before. Some people think they ebuld win this fight. A Catholic journalist remarked to me that half the population of the Republic is now under 26, and that Sinn Fein is the only par- ty that appeals to the young. But if the bat- tle is uncertain, then it is all the more reason for the South to fight it vigorously.

In an effort to find out why Sinn Fein is popular, 1 walked to the party's advice cen- tre on the Falls Road. The Falls Road is like a cancer; after the well-kept, prosperous Protestant streets, with shining doors and window frames, the streets are suddenly half-emptied and run-down. It's much less full of overt menace than slums in Edin- burgh or Glasgow, and the housing is much better here. But the only colours and the only life come from punks' hair-dos or wall-paintings glorifying the IRA. Every- thing else is grey, closed, full of hatreds: an SDLP office covered in graffiti with barbed wire round the back; the hospital sign defaced to read 'The Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Provos' instead of 'Children', and in the distance the tall council flats where snipers used to kill the British troops. The debris of demoliton, of urban renewal, is indistinguishable from that of war, so that the vague unease of any modern town here takes a concrete form.

People vote for fun, for profit, and perhaps most of all to keep the other side out. But this last motive does not and can- not apply to Ulster. The whole point of Ulster politics since 1969 has been that neither side can any longer keep the other out — and neither can keep the British out. So there remains voting for fun and profit. Sinn Fein offers the voters both. The fun is obvious. A vote for Sinn Fein is the only possible and satisfying aesthetic response to the Falls. It is the only thing twisted and vicious enough to meet the case. This has nothing to do with why the Falls Road looks as it does, which is largely the result of the actions of Sinn Fein itself.

The profit in Sinn Fein is that it frightens people. Two stories illustrate this: the first is from Londonderry where a paraplegic had been trying for two years to change his council house. In the end he went to Sinn Fein and Martin Maginnis. Within an hour and a half Maginnis had collected 450 signatures on a petition to the housing executive; within three days the paraplegic had his new house. 'But of course it wasn't Sinn Fein,' said my informant, 'it was Mar- tin Maginnis with that great halo of a gun behind him and 450 signatures.' The second story comes instructively from Dublin, which is at present swamped with heroin. A group of desperate parents in a council block had tried in every legal way they knew to get the local pushing family arrested. Nothing happened, so in the end they com- plained to Sinn Fein. 'And they shot the fuckers,' said the woman who told me. 'I know it's terrible but a few kneecaps and the problem was over. We're all getting so dulled by the violence.' Quite. I should say that a moderate in Ulster now is someone who thinks that only Ian Paisley should be shot. A non-violent moderate is someone who only thinks that Paisley should have been shot 15 years ago.

But Sinn Fein still have a lot to learn about aping democratic politicians. The ad- vice centre has mesh cages round the doors and concrete boulders all along the pave- ment outside. No one seems to know quite what it is it does. I talked in a back room to two young men who claimed that they had between 50 and 60 clients every day; even that some of these were Protestants, 'though of course we have to help them more discreetly'. Behind their heads was a black and orange mural, perhaps four feet by ten, labelled in Celtic tourist-brochure script 'Guerrilla days in Ireland'. A man with a beret lay down behind a machine gun, staring keen-eyed across the coun- tryside for someone to shoot in the back. A woman with jutting breasts and a Bren gun leant against a tree. A child — un- mistakably a child — held a rifle. The young men talked of the iniquities of the housing executive. 'Three days to mend a burst pipe.' Their eyes glinted like fishes' scales when they turned to watch other peo- ple enter the room. 'Loose talk costs lives,' said a poster upstairs, beneath a photograph of a hooded gunman. 'In taxis, buses and in offices whatever you say, say nothing.' I asked the young men about social security. They help people to fill out their claim forms. 'They don't tell you what you're entitled to. They don't tell you how to get an overcoat or new shoes for the baby; stuff like that. The benefits may be more generous here than in the South but it's getting them that makes the difference.' The young men seemed quite satisfied with this explanation.