Thursday 22 August 2019

Malachi O'Doherty: 'Framing Brexit debate as a row between London and Dublin is a dangerous game'

Tensions: Police wearing gas masks fire cartridges of tear gas in front of a bookmakers during the Ulster riots in Derry. Photo: Getty
Tensions: Police wearing gas masks fire cartridges of tear gas in front of a bookmakers during the Ulster riots in Derry. Photo: Getty

Malachi O'Doherty

On the 25th anniversary of the gun battles in Divis Street that started the Troubles, I presented a documentary for Channel 4 looking back at that period and ahead to the prospect of change.

I was criticised for the closing line, in which I said that demographic shift might make all the difference and, ultimately, bring about a united Ireland.

I was perpetuating the sectarian stereotype that all Catholics are nationalists and all Protestants unionists. I should know better. In truth, the line was a sign-off thought up at the last minute, in the recording of the voiceover, and I wasn't entirely happy with it.

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I thought there was a discussion to be had about demography, but we had not set it up during the programme itself, so as a concluding remark it just came out of very little and led nowhere.

I am marking the 50th anniversary of the same occasion with a book and I have been doing the round of media interviews to promote it. I was present in Divis Street on the night that the RUC opened fire with Browning machine guns during a riot. I had been watching the riot for about an hour. Young men with petrol bombs were attacking a police line near Hastings Street police station, which was where the Westlink now crosses Divis Street.

And I have written about that several times, because that night, and the subsequent burning of Bombay Street by loyalists the next day, produced a trauma in this society which led to the formation of the breakaway Provisional IRA and to thousands joining paramilitary organisations. Republicans came away from that riot with an argument that the Catholic community needed defence; this despite the fact that they had started the riot.

That battle is remembered with nostalgic sentiment still, but plainly it was also started by an attack on the police to draw them in. Eamonn McCann says in one of his books that the Derry Citizens Defence Committee had been formed by republicans with other groups being given lowlier positions within it.

But republicans played down their role. People don't take credit for strategies designed to wrong-foot another. The wrong-footing wouldn't work if they did.

And a state which can't cope with protest without Browning machine guns deserves to be exposed for... what? I would say for ineptitude. Others would say for barbarity. But the blame the police must take for inflaming tensions must include the facts that they were stupidly led and ill-equipped. These were not fascist thugs, as we portrayed them at the time on posters and placards. I had joined protests myself, chanting "SS RUC". This was before it was widely accepted that referencing the Nazis was in bad taste. The police who went into the Bogside wore motorbike helmets because they didn't have any proper riot gear.

Paddy Bogside, who helped lead the resistance against them, acknowledged that they had held out against stoning by the Bogside youth for two hours and that people cheered when they eventually walked into the trap set for them.

The lesson I take from that period is not that I need a gun, but that Northern Ireland needs to avoid communal trauma.

We live in a divided society and there will always be occasions when that division will deepen. Indeed, nearly every political dispute seems ultimately to frame itself around that division.

So, we now have nationalists supporting the Palestinians against loyalists supporting Israel. What would have been truly unthinkable is that the campaign for abortion law reform is mainly pushed forward by republicans, with the DUP standing against it, this despite the obvious fact that there is division of opinion on both sides. But that is the way we are.

And Brexit is now shaping into a dispute between Britain and Ireland, which has the horrible potential to become sectarian and rancorous in the North.

But there is a big difference between now and 25 years ago and that is demography. In the past, before direct rule, a unionist majority, grounded on a Protestant majority, was in charge.

The British introduced direct rule to manage the place in ways which could be more inclusive of the minority nationalist community. Now, the nationalist community is still a minority, though a much larger one. And the unionist community is a minority, too. Neither currently commands 50pc of the vote. The Democratic Unionist Party is cheering on Boris Johnson's charge of the EU lines with the confidence that only a majority party can afford to have. It could learn something from the old strategy of wrong-footing, but it would take too long to explain that to it and it wouldn't understand anyway.

Twenty-five years ago, I did genuinely blush to see my observation about the likelihood of demographic shift making a difference. That was in a context in which it was plain that, even after Protestants became a minority, there would still be huge numbers of Catholics who would not want a united Ireland. And these terms, "Protestant" and "Catholic", become so meaningless, anyway, when religion is in decline and religious beliefs don't map flatly onto constitutional positions. But that old context, in which there is a dependable body of nationalists content inside the Union, only works if the Union stays as it was. Change the character of the Union and you change everything and then you have to recalculate. And the daftest thing a unionist minority would ever do would be to pick a fight with Ireland and jeopardise the contentedness of the easy-going "Catholics" for whom a status quo is sufficient.

Framing the Brexit effort as a dispute between Britain and Ireland is so irresponsible that it can only be accounted for by ignorance, or malice.

Belfast Telegraph

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