Israel has taken over from Northern Ireland as a factory of grievances
It is without doubt one of the most beautiful places in Ireland. Situated on the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, County Fermanagh is famous for two things. Its two picturesque lakes, Upper and Lower Lough Erne, abundant with fish and a mecca for anglers from throughout Europe are one. The other is its tough politics. The place is evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics, or Unionists and Nationalists as the Irish prefer to call them. Elections, which are always about whether Northern Ireland should stay in the union with Britain or join the rest of Nationalist Ireland in an independent republic, are bitterly contested affairs and turnouts can sometimes hit the 90 per cent mark.
Fermanagh Nationalists helped vote the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands into the Westminster parliament back in 1981 and its current MP is a member of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing who won the last election by just four votes out of 47,000 cast. The county’s Unionist community is no less uncompromising. It produced Northern Ireland’s most partisan prime minister, Basil Brooke, a member of the local gentry who became infamous for once urging a rally of fellow landowners to ensure local Nationalists stayed on the dole. “Many in this audience employ Catholics but I have not one about my place”, he boasted.
A few years back I had a special reason to travel down to Fermanagh. I was researching a biography of the Northern Ireland Protestant leader, Ian Paisley, and needed to interview a local Unionist politician by the name of Dick Ferguson. Dick’s family, like Basil Brooke’s, had helped run Unionist politics in Fermanagh for as long as people could remember but he had broken with the Ferguson tradition. A barrister by trade, Dick was a civilized and compassionate man with a genuine affection for his fellow man. While many of his political associates hated Catholics with a deep racist passion, there wasn’t a bad bone in his body and, much to his family’s dismay, Dick had come out in support of Catholics who were staging marches and rallies to demand equality – the same voting rights and access to public housing and job opportunities enjoyed by Unionists – in a campaign deliberately modeled on the Black American civil rights movement.
Dick had argued for Nationalist equality from within the Unionist party but his was a lonely voice. He had been hounded by extremists who regarded him as a traitor and when, in 1970, his home was fire-bombed by Protestant paramilitaries he decided to quit politics altogether and went on to become one of Britain’s ablest criminal defence lawyers. Those who had driven him out of public life were inspired by Ian Paisley, whose mix of fundamentalist religion and politics and violent opposition to Catholic civil rights heralded the start of the Troubles and more than thirty years of bloodshed and death.
I had come to ask Dick some simple questions that, from personal experience, he was well qualified to answer: what was Paisley’s appeal to Protestants, what had transformed this loud-mouthed street corner preacher and rabble rouser into the most powerful Unionist politician in Northern Ireland? Why did Paisley’s hostility to Catholic equality strike such an echo with Protestants?
Like the best of Irishmen, Dick answered by telling a story of how he had one night gone to his grandfather’s house armed only with a bottle of Bushmills whiskey and the hope that through reasonable discourse he might win the Ferguson patriarch round to his cause and by so doing heal the breach with his family. They argued by the kitchen fireside the whole night long with Dick putting the rational case for granting Catholic civil rights, that not only was it the right thing to do, morally, but the most sensible as well, that it would bring stability, harmony and peace in the long term and make Northern Ireland a happier place to live.
But Dick’s grandfather was having none of it. Finally, after most of the Bushmills had been drained, Dick exploded: “Just what is it that you’ve got against Catholics?”, he demanded. His grandfather rose from his chair and standing by the kitchen window beckoned Dick over. “What do we call those two fields beyond the farmyard?”, he asked, pointing at the dark countryside. “The Long Field and the Paddock”, Dick replied. “Well let me tell you my boy”, said his grandfather, “round here the Catholics call them Maguire’s field and Magee’s field. We took those fields from them 350 years ago and they’ll never rest till they get them back. That’s why we can’t give them an inch.” And that, Dick explained, was the source of Paisley’s power.
The land-grabbing ancestors of Dick Ferguson and his grandfather were part of what historians call the Plantation of Ulster, a massive population movement and colonization that would scar Anglo-Irish relations and shape European politics for many years to come.
The Plantation was intended to pacify the one part of Ireland which had resisted absorption into the English orbit and it largely worked, but at a terrible price for Ireland. The dispossessed Irish, the Gaels, nursed a terrible hatred and resentment of the Planter while the relocated Protestants lived in dread that one day the natives they had robbed would rise up, exact revenge and take their stolen lands back. To ensure that this never happened they and their English partners created a regime of political and economic repression in Ireland designed to keep the native Gaels in their place.
It was the reason why, when the rest of Ireland finally won independence from the British Crown in 1921, the Northern Protestants threatened a civil war if they weren’t allowed to stay British and it is why when the state of Northern Ireland was created it became a factory of grievances for Catholics. Anti-Catholic discrimination, in jobs, in housing and in the rigging of voting rights and the gerrymandering of constituencies became the norm and all with the purpose of ensuring that the native Irish would remain the underdogs. The steady trickle of forced Catholic emigration that followed meant Protestants retained their demographic advantage while Catholics were kept poorer, had the least skilled jobs, the worst education and housing and were rendered politically powerless.
Just in case the Nationalists did fight back, the new Unionist government in Belfast had put the draconian Special Powers Act on the statute books which gave the government and the police unprecedented powers to impose martial law to suppress Catholic resistance. Its powers included the right to “arrest without charge or warrant, intern without trial, prohibit the holding of coroners’ inquests, flog, execute, use depositions of witnesses as ‘evidence’ without requiring them to be present for cross-examination or rebuttal, destroy buildings, requisition land or property, ban any organization, be it political, social or trade; prohibit meetings, publications or even gramophone records”. Nor for nothing did the South African apartheid prime minister, Hendrik Verwoerd once say that he would gladly swap all his repressive laws for a single clause of the Special Powers Act.
Northern Ireland effectively became a police state but an inherently unstable one. Not a decade passed from its foundation onwards without an eruption of political violence and loss of life, whether in the ugly sectarian riots that would periodically sweep Belfast and other towns or the armed and usually failed uprisings of various IRA’s. Finally, when Catholics took to the streets to peacefully demand civil rights in the late 1960’s, the lid blew off the kettle and Northern Ireland exploded into a three-decade long civil war which if it had happened on an equivalent scale in the United States would have claimed over 600,000 lives, about the same number killed in the war between the States. And that explosion would usher in the end of the Unionist state that Dick Ferguson’s grandfather helped to create.
These days Northern Ireland is at peace and Planter and Gael share power around the cabinet table. It is an uneasy peace to be sure but one that looks likely to hold for some time yet. Belfast is now a city where foreign tourists come to see where the Troubles happened and a small industry has grown up dedicated to showing visitors some of its most notorious hotspots. But alongside the IRA slogans and Protestant wall paintings, a tourist visiting the city will see something that will strike them as curious and even bizarre. Flying from lamp-posts in hardline Protestant areas, alongside the British Union Jack and the flags of Unionist paramilitary groups, the flag of Israel, the Star of David, can be seen fluttering in the wind (picture at top). In IRA districts like West Belfast they are just as likely to see the red, green and black Palestinian flag and on walls there are murals celebrating the Palestinian struggle and drawing parallels with the war fought by the IRA. When passions in the Middle East become inflamed, as during the First and Second Intifadas, the flags and murals multiply, surrogates for the conflict that still simmers below the surface of Northern Ireland.
Outsiders might be puzzled at this but not the locals. The Catholic Nationalists look at the Palestinians and they see mirror images of themselves and their history: dispossessed and angry, driven from ancient lands, kept in place by discrimination, repressive laws and heavily armed militias, and forced to resort to violence because peaceful, democratic methods were beyond their reach. Protestant Unionists look at Israelis and they also recognize themselves: both fearful and contemptuous of those they have mistreated and deprived, determined to use whatever force and laws are necessary to keep them subdued and unwilling to bend or give concessions in case compromise unravels the state they have created or brings the loss of land they have taken from others. Gaza and the West Bank are the Fermanaghs of the Middle East.
I am not the first writer to try to draw a parallel between the situations in Northern Ireland and the Middle East and while the likenesses can often be overworked, I would argue that there are striking similarities.
Like Northern Ireland, Israel has become a factory of grievances, preserving its ascendancy over the Palestinians, as the Unionists did to Catholics, by churning out repression and discrimination whose real effect is to nurture resentment and anger and therefore the need for more repression and discrimination in an endless cycle. And like the Unionists of Northern Ireland, at least until recently, Israel is thus fated to live in perpetual instability and conflict, becoming the object of increasing distaste and censure abroad.
Northern Ireland however is at peace and the Middle East is not. The reason for that is the other significant point of similarity between the two situations: the fact that neither entity could or would exist without the support of a bigger, outside power. That peace reigns in Belfast but not in Tel Aviv roles can, however, be explained by the fact that in one case, the outside power changed its mind and the other has not.
In Northern Ireland the outside power was Britain which initiated the Plantation of Ireland and for centuries gave the Unionists a blank check to rule more or less as they wished. Historically it was in Britain’s interests to do this, not least to protect and preserve an empire whose foundation stone was Ireland. But the passage of time brought change. In the wake of two world wars the empire declined anyway, along with Britain’s economic power and there were new priorities, not least building a relationship with Europe. While once the Unionists and the state they ruled were an asset now they became a liability, a financial drain, an embarrassment abroad, a cause of instability, violence and conflict that could no longer be confined to the island of Ireland and often erupted on the streets of London. The story of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is not just a catalogue of bloodshed and bombings also the story of the British slowly stripping the Unionists of power and forcing them to accommodate the Nationalists they had always suppressed. As Britain’s interests in Northern Ireland had changed then so did their policies.
The peace process was the final act in this story. The centerpiece of the process was a public commitment by Britain that she would no longer take sides in the competing claims of Unionists and Nationalists, that she was now “neutral” in Northern Ireland. It was not an easy task. The Nationalists were skeptical while the Unionists were suspicious and angry – but eventually the commitment was accepted and when that happened the peace deal became possible, along with the political compromises that accompanied it.
America is Israel’s Britain. For most of the decades following the foundation of the state in 1948 it was in America’s cold war interests to subsidize and give unconditional support to Israel but as America faces its own imperial decline, as the cold war becomes a dim memory and as support for Israel feeds jihadist anger is it not arguable that America is at least near the point that Britain found herself in Northern Ireland? And if that question can be answered in the affirmative, what about the next question? Will America ever be able to declare neutrality in the Middle East? Upon the answer to that question rests the chances that peace will ever come to the peoples of the Middle East.
Ed Moloney is an Irish journalist now living & working in NY. He is author of ‘A Secret History of the Ira’ and most recently ‘Voices from the Grave – Two Men’s War in Ireland’.