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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 13, 2009 @ 11:09 pm

    Henry Kelly looks back on the Troubles

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Before it fades into the farther recesses of public memory, here’s a thought-provoking piece from our Op-Ed pages by a former Northern Editor of The Irish Times, who went on to become a prominent broadcaster in Britain, Henry Kelly.

    Mourning the dead in Omagh, 22 August 1998 (Photograph by Alan Betson) 

    His basic point is that the inequalities and discrimination imposed by the majority on the minority in Northern Ireland did not justify the armed campaign of the Provisional IRA who, as he puts it, “hijacked” the civil rights movement.
    Some 23 years after Kelly moved on from being Northern Editor, yours truly stepped into the role. He was there at the start of the Troubles, I came along at the end. As it happens he was just finishing up in UCD as an arts student when I was starting and I remember him well as a witty and urbane auditor of the famous Literary & Historical debating society.
     As Bertie Ahern said, with unconscious humour, “hindsight is 50/50 vision”. Just as Kelly was swept along by the wave of communal emotion as a young reporter, so was nearly everyone else in Nationalist Ireland.
    But could it have turned out differently? It was fashionable to sneer at the likes of Betty St Clair, a Communist from a Protestant background, who urged an easing-off of militant action to give NI Prime Minister Captain Terence O’Neill a chance to demonstrate his good faith in implementing reforms.
    At the time, like most of my age-group, I greatly admired the young Belfast-Derry marchers and was appalled and outraged when they were attacked by loyalists at Burntollet.
    Had those marchers foreseen the way things would turn out in the North, with La Mon, Enniskillen, Omagh and so on, I am convinced 99% of them would have stayed at home. As a leading unionist said to me, at the end of the Troubles, “We deserved a lot but we didn’t deserve what we got.” He was right – and neither did the Nationalists.
    Had the Catholics tried to “work the system” in the way the civil rights activists did in the US and had proponents of guerrilla violence from the Fifties Campaign not moved in on the scene, it might have turned out differently Those are the “ifs” of history. I’m not excusing the British, the Unionists or the Loyalists for their over-reaction but it was the Nationalists that held the initiative.
    At least now, we have a second chance, although the reports I am getting lately suggest that the Troubles could well be starting a whole new phase  .  .  .

    Mon, Nov 09, 2009
    OPINION: With the benefit of clear perspective, we must reflect on what started the terrible tragedy of Northern Ireland, writes HENRY KELLY
    ‘UNIONIST politicians clashed over the causes of the Troubles during a debate on a proposed Bill of rights for Northern Ireland yesterday.” This was how Gerry Moriarty, Northern Editor, began a recent report in this newspaper. He quoted Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis as asking: “What came first: stinking, polluted politics or bloody awful violence?” He went on to note that Purvis said what she called mainstream unionism has a blinkered view of the causes of the conflict.
    Did I ever, when beginning to report Northern Ireland in 1969, think I would live to read that a Protestant unionist would say the following: “They (mainstream unionists) deny discrimination existed. They deny that all working-class people but mostly Catholics endured in slums, squalor, poverty and unemployment in order to preserve the power of the political elite . . . You continue to deny working-class children, Protestants, the right to a decent education by holding on and wanting to hold on to academic selection . . . I have to say to you, you are living in denial and have to start looking at what caused the conflict here…”
    I was impressed and it made me think and remember how young reporters like myself who started their careers in Northern Ireland reacted in our first few months. Many of us from Dublin-based newspapers, and from RTÉ, went to Belfast, Derry and, for obvious reasons, to other centres of conflict with a sort of in-built notion that the guilt was on one side, the innocence on the other.
    The basic shorthand was that Ulster Protestant unionism had suppressed the Catholic minority wherever they could, particularly in Catholic Derry and other Catholic areas west of the river Bann where gerrymandering in local elections was almost laughably corrupt. Housing allocation was another contentious issue.
    By then John Hume, Austin Currie, the late Paddy Devlin, the late Paddy O’Hanlon and others were elected members of parliament at Stormont. The Social Democratic and Labour Party, the SDLP, had taken over from the old days of Eddie McAteer’s nationalists and we reporters had our work laid out quite simply: the unionist voice was that of the press offices at Stormont, the Catholic/nationalist voice came from Hume, Currie, Gerry Fitt et al.
    Looking back now, does anyone remember the beginnings of the so-called Troubles?
    The early civil rights movement in Northern Ireland was formed by Dr Con McCluskey and his wife with a pamphlet setting out what was wrong in the system. There was no hint in his words of taking to the streets, never mind violence.
    I well remember the night in the Literary and Historical (LH) Society at University College Dublin when Dermot Gleeson, later to marry Darina McCluskey, the civil rights pioneers’ daughter, made an impassioned speech based on his future parents-in-laws’ pamphlet. To our shame, the LH gave Dermot but respectful silence. Maybe we middle-class semi-privileged students should have listened more intently. Then Austin Currie squatted in a house in Caledon in Tyrone which had been given to a single Protestant girl while Catholic families were waiting to be housed.
    Now let us take Dawn Purvis’s words to Stormont. Consider them in the context of something I wrote in this newspaper which brought streams of abuse towards me. I asked whether there had “ever been anything in Northern Ireland so bad it was worth smacking a child for?”
    A clumsy phrase I admit but what I was trying to ask was what now seems to be a valid question to be confronted more than 30 years on: was it all worth it?
    I remember one evening sitting in the press gallery at Stormont when the unionist MP Desmond Boal, Ian Paisley’s political right-hand man, asked a question about the civil rights marches which Michael Farrell from People’s Democracy and John Hume among others led onto the streets. Was it responsible, Boal asked, to lead thousands of people, vulnerable people, onto the streets in such a volatile situation?
    As young reporters, we thought this a rather provocative question and, apart from the report in this newspaper, Boal’s speech was largely ignored.
    Remember too that the young men and women who were the leaders were all products of the British education reforms which had come in following the Butler Education Act in the late 1940s.
    They were heady days in and around Queen’s University Belfast in the 1960s. There it was that the civil rights movement took off, but there too was the start of another great Irish literary spurt which gave us Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and many others.
    As time passed in Northern Ireland, we reporters began to realise, as Purvis underlined in her Stormont speech, that the two working classes were indeed either side of a sad coin. As we walked the Falls Road or the Shankill, we didn’t need two sets of eyes to see that the houses were the same, the shops the same, the children the same, the working men the same, the corner boys the same, the wrinkly-faced women the same. It made us stop and think until some new atrocity would swing us back into one camp or another.
    The viciousness of the emerging IRA would make me wonder what they actually were trying to achieve. The next day, one of the Protestant paramilitaries would offer their reply and we were back to square one. Or even off the board altogether.
    These thoughts have come to me reading Purvis’s speech. I do not know her, and for all I know she may have an agenda. I have read she is the leader of the party which has links to the UVF. We need to avoid the danger of political elitism whose cradle was violence, the idea very popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s that if the two main terrorist organisations could be brought together and parley for peace all would be well. This at a time when not a single one of their various organisations was even remotely democratically accountable to anyone.
    Finally, let me pose a question: was the situation in Northern Ireland before 1968 so oppressive for the Catholic minority that they had no choice but to follow the road embarked upon by the civil rights movement later hijacked by the IRA?
    And was the Protestant working class all that much better-off, with their mothers polishing their doorsteps in case the Queen Mother would pass down their street while their children were going to school in “mutton dummies” – Belfast home-made paper shoes?
    Talk now is that some dissident republicans are chipping away at the peace process. There is even a suggestion that disaffected mainstream Sinn Féin/IRA people are “advising” them. Only time will tell and, personally, I doubt we could ever return to the bad old days.
    Unless, however, we ask ourselves some serious questions about why what happened actually happened and whether we might not have been better led by our politicians, we might – just might – make the same mistakes again.
    Dawn Purvis has started a debate. It is to be hoped, though I won’t hold my breath, that others might join that discussion. Is there, for example, a Catholic politician who might hold their hand up and suggest that mea culpa might be a couple of words that could wipe a slate clean?

    Henry Kelly is a London-based broadcaster. He was an Irish Times journalist from 1968 to 1976. He reported from Northern Ireland in 1969 and 1970, and was Northern Editor from 1971 to 1974

    • Taigirl says:

      Perhaps we need to turn to the great political thinkers and Civil Rights leaders who sacrificed somewhat more than column inches and printer’s ink for their beliefs for enlightenment on this subject. Nelson Mandela perhaps or the immortal words of Dr Martin Luther King who said ‘Power was never given up voluntarily…Justice has to be demanded’ as we now know absolute power corrupts absolutely or should we meekly sit at the back of the bus…?

    • Deaglán says:

      Thanks for your response, but I don’t recall MLK advocating violence. The ANC’s military struggle contributed little to its victory compared with international pressure, boycotts and campaigning. Probably most people don’t even know about the ANC’s military wing. Anyway, it is a bit grotesque to compare the North, even in the worst days of unionist domination, with Apartheid South Africa.

    • Taigirl says:

      How refreshingly naive.The leaders of the Civil Rights in Derry weren’t advocating violence either but they got it BIG time…a little skirmish forever known to history as Bloody Sunday as I recall. Read the report of the Savile enquiry it might focus your mind. The Catholics in the North were treated like ‘white niggers’ as Elvis Costello so aptly put it. If you don’t want the answer Deccy Dec, don’t put the question; or are you denying those who are not reconstructed apologistas the ‘oxygen of publicity’ the same as Republican politicians unlike the Anti-Apartheid movement were denied media coverage at the height of what is euphemistically described as ‘The Troubles’. Free speech one each… and all that! TaL!

    • Pablo says:

      Here is where, I believe, things went very wrong. The IRA was only the messenger. I was a part of a small group (consisting of lawyers and others) in the United States that worked as the American arm of the Campaign for Social Justice in the North. In early 1968, the Campaign for Social Justice and six residents of Northern Ireland filed a suit before the European Commission on Human Rights in Strasbourg against the British government for the violation of human rights of the residents.

      After reviewing the cases, the Court accepted their legitimacy and requested that Britain answer the charges. (The ruling gave considerable impetus to the civil rights movement in Ireland, and also, in effect, confirmed that Britain and the Unionist majority were depriving the minority of basic human rights.)

      Unfortunately, the C.S.J., the residents, and our branch here did not have the resources to pursue this further; it was impossible to go up against a well-financed government team of lawyers.

      An appeal was made to the Irish government for financial help, but help was refused. The Irish government could have done something that would probably have mitigated any need to “uprise” against the status quo, thus creating a peaceful North, or at least a “just” environment. The matter quite possibly could have been settled in the European Court.

      The British Labor government was very embarrassed over the ruling, and immediately set out to crush the judgment, using all the means at its disposal. Basically, the Irish government at the time was following the same policy it always pursued: ignore the North, don’t oppose the British government, and blame nationalists for their own misfortune.

    • Taigirl says:

      Sharpeville/Derry (Bloody Sunday) massacre of peaceful protestors …difference?

    • Deaglán says:

      Apologies for delay in publishing comments: I was travelling yesterday and didn’t get much chance to check the Blog. That’s an interesting angle, Pablo. The twists and turns of government policy in the South were a key factor in the whole situation of course: it’s a complex issue.

      And Taigirl, thanks for your honesty. I was wondering when someone would mention Bloody Sunday. I haven’t read the Savile report yet – do you have special access? Let’s not engage in “what-aboutery” as in, “What about Omagh? What about Bloody Sunday? What about La Mon? What about the Abercorn? What about the Dublin-Monaghan bombings? What about Enniskillen?” The list goes on and on and on and degenerates into sectarian war-cries by the end.

      The oppression of Northern Catholics was not remotely as bad as South African apartheid and it’s a bit insulting to the victims of apartheid to draw comparisons. The Civil Rights movement in the North made very significant progress in achieving its demands but was, as Henry Kelly says, “hijacked” by proponents of armed activity who had no notion of how to accommodate the Protestant Unionist community in the North. Remember Wolfe Tone’s “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter”?

    • Pablo says:

      It seems to me, though, Kelly wants to put some of the blame on the IRA. The IRA was pretty much dead in 1969. But it was somewhat “reborn” during the attack and burning of Bombay Street by unionists/loyalists, the police, and the B-Specials. Bloody Sunday in Derry was a political provocation (to turn the situation from a peaceful one to a violent one that would make the Brits seem justified in the eyes of the world and particularly in the United States) for their repressive actions, Bombay Street was just plain bigoty and hate run amock.

    • Taigirl says:

      Phew! for a minute there I thought I was the only one interested in this subject. Guess it took a man to step in before my comments were legitimised. Girls huh! As for ‘let’s not get in to what if’s'…? Don’t these atrocities count? I ask rhetorically… Re Savile read the trial transcript…state-orchestrated murder…And Pablo Go raibh mile maith agat!

    • Deaglán says:

      Taigirl: Bloody Sunday was deplorable and appalling. So too were the other atrocities committed by the different sides, British, republicans or loyalists. They were all terrible … and might very well have been avoided. (By the way I have already said I was travelling on Saturday – in a rocky propeller-aircraft from Jersey to London flying into a 70mph wind as it happens – hence the delay in moderating your comments. I was also travelling today from Canterbury to Dublin via train and plane. So your comment re “Girls huh!” is both unjustified and ungenerous. Try and have the argument without imputing false motives and nonexistent prejudices to people who happen to disagree with you, please.)

      Pablo: Your analysis of Bloody Sunday is a bit odd. It’s a very strange interpretation of British/Unionist “strategy” at the time. The IRA was reborn in 1969 in the role of defender of the nationalist areas in Belfast but neve had any mandate across the island for an offensive against the British. That’s why there had to be a peace process eventually.

    • Taigirl says:

      Too much testosterone! But I thought you didn’t disagree with me at least after Pablo entered the fray when you suddenly came over all reasonable. If you’re still not getting the point I’m making about Bloody Sunday then further repetition is probably not going to shed any more light on the subject. It has been very enlightening and valuable to read the contribution of someone who instead of demonising Catholics/Nationalists actually contributed something tangible to improve their situation. ‘For evil to prevail all that is required is for good men to do nothing’. Pablo you did not stand by and do nothing. You truly are one of the few Good Men and I thank you…Slan

    • Deaglán says:

      Give over the gender-profiling, willya? I wasn’t aware I was being unreasonable and that I changed my tune after Pablo intervened: it ain’t true! My point is reasonable enough, I think: namely that the second-class position of the Catholics/Nationalists could have been (and was being) remedied by non-violent action and that we might be a lot closer to a united Ireland if the guys who lost out in the Fifties campaign had not hijacked the civil rights movement to start a shooting war against the British Army that had no popular mandate across the island. Of course, counterproductive policies by the British and the Unionists were also a factor but not the main one. Anyway, we’ll agree to disagree.

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