Ex­am­in­ing the south­ern Trou­bles

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - NI­AMH PUIRSÉIL


The Repub­lic of Ire­land largely ig­nored North­ern Ire­land dur­ing the 1960s, not­with­stand­ing the Le­mass-O’Neill talks mid-decade. That was un­til Oc­to­ber 1968, when scenes of RUC men break­ing the heads of civil rights demon­stra­tors in Derry brought the North rudely to the Repub­lic’s at­ten­tion. Sym­pa­thy for north­ern Catholics was broad but also lim­ited, how­ever. The North was not a fac­tor in the 1969 gen­eral elec­tion in June but, within two months, loy­al­ist pogroms saw thou­sands of Catholic fam­i­lies flee their homes, many be­ing given refuge in the South. Bri­tish troops ar­rived in the North, os­ten­si­bly to pro­tect Catholics.

From that point, the Trou­bles not only be­came an is­sue in the Repub­lic, but came to dom­i­nate it, at times at least, and in­flu­enced ev­ery facet of life. The South was spared the worst of the vi­o­lence that con­sumed the North dur­ing these years, but it was not un­touched and many still bear the scars.

Brian Hanley has writ­ten a valu­able study of how the first 10 years of the Trou­bles af­fected the Repub­lic. Us­ing pri­vate and of­fi­cial pa­pers from a broad spec­trum of sources along with lo­cal and lesser used na­tional news­pa­pers and pe­ri­od­i­cals, from the Church of Ire­land Gazette to the Sun­day World, he has com­piled a wide-rang­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of many ar­eas in­clud­ing the Fianna Fáil and coali­tion gov­ern­ments, smaller rad­i­cal groups and mi­cro-par­ties, some with in­flu­ence that ex­ceeded their mem­ber­ship, as well as trade unions, sport, the me­dia and pop­u­lar cul­ture. In it we hear voices from across Ir­ish so­ci­ety, from all shades of class, re­li­gion and po­lit­i­cal opin­ion.

Catholic refugees

The book is di­vided into the­matic chap­ters which ex­am­ine is­sues such as vi­o­lence in the South, State se­cu­rity, at­ti­tudes to­wards north­ern na­tion­al­ists, in­clud­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of Catholic refugees in the South, his­tor­i­cal re­vi­sion­ism and the im­pact of the con­flict on south­ern Protes­tants. Hanley also charts the ebb and flow of gov­ern­ment and pop­u­lar opin­ion through opin­ion polls, colum­nists and the in­sights of politi­cians and diplo­mats. The Brits, if noth­ing else, knew how to write lu­cid dis­patches. In par­tic­u­lar, am­bas­sador John Peck’s re­ports show his keen judg­ment as well as the propen­sity of cer­tain gov­ern­ment min­is­ters to speak can­didly to him.

More than once, the Bri­tish em­bassy at Mer­rion Square be­came a tar­get af­ter vi­o­lence in the North, and was de­stroyed af­ter Bloody Sun­day as crowds vented their anger at the killing of 13 un­armed pro­test­ers in Derry in Jan­uary 1972. How­ever, Hanley notes, shock­ing as Bloody Sun­day un­de­ni­ably was, sub­se­quent in­ci­dents with greater loss of life elicited noth­ing like the re­ac­tion. In 1974, more than twice as many peo­ple, 33 in­clud­ing one preg­nant woman, died in one day in the Dublin and Mon­aghan bomb­ings, for in­stance. Though it was the con­flict’s dead­li­est at­tack, there was no day of mourn­ing for them and on its an­niver­sary, The Ir­ish Times could re­flect that “many peo­ple seem to have for­got­ten the bomb­ings even took place”.

This am­ne­sia seems to have been largely a re­ac­tion to the es­ca­la­tion in repub­li­can vi­o­lence since Bloody Sun­day, in­clud­ing the Of­fi­cial IRA bomb­ing in Alder­shot which killed seven and in­jured 19, and Bloody Fri­day in which Pro­vi­sional IRA bombs killed nine and in­jured 130. At­tacks such as these caused many to re­coil, but Hanley notes that the Fine Gael-Labour na­tional coali­tion gov­ern­ment, which came to of­fice in March 1973, set the tone by blam­ing the two IRAs for pro­vok­ing the loy­al­ists, with the Bri­tish am­bas­sador ob­serv­ing how “in­dig­na­tion is di­rected more against the IRA than the Protes­tant ex­trem­ists”.


De­spite killing nearly 50 peo­ple in the South and in­jur­ing hun­dreds dur­ing the 1970s, loy­al­ist paramil­i­taries were “never re­garded as an ex­is­ten­tial threat to the State in the way repub­li­cans were”. While the per­cep­tion of the greater dan­ger to the State changed from the Of­fi­cial IRA to the Pro­vi­sion­als dur­ing the mid-1970s, as a con­se­quence, se­cu­rity mea­sures and leg­is­la­tion, in­clud­ing cen­sor­ship, the Spe­cial Crim­i­nal Courts and heavy-handed polic­ing, were geared to­wards repub­li­cans.

Among some Fine Gael can­di­dates, there was a per­cep­tion that the party’s stance on se­cu­rity had dam­aged them dur­ing the 1977 elec­tion, which the coali­tion lost. But if pop­u­lar opin­ion felt the gov­ern­ment’s at­ti­tude was “in­hu­man”, that did not ex­tend to sup­port for the cam­paign by ei­ther IRA. Fur­ther­more, while many re­coiled from the bomb­ing cam­paign in Bri­tain in its own right, they also feared its im­pact on the Ir­ish in Bri­tain, where al­most 710,000 Ir­ish-born lived. By early 1975, the Bri­tish am­bas­sador could re­port a de­cline in sym­pa­thy for re­pub­li­can­ism in the South, point­ing to the Birm­ing­ham bomb­ings, and the fear of a back­lash, as the sin­gle great­est fac­tor.

Pop­u­lar re­pub­li­can­ism re­mained a force to be reck­oned with, how­ever, even if it was more along the lines of barstool na­tion­al­ists or “sneak­ing re­garders” who helped The Wolfe Tones be­come the Repub­lic’s sec­ondbest-sell­ing record­ing artist, a feat it achieved with no na­tional ra­dio play, RTÉ ra­dio hav­ing placed an un­of­fi­cial ban on “rebel” songs in 1971. The best­selling act was Abba. Around the same time, an Eco­nomic and So­cial Re­search In­sti­tute study found that “op­po­si­tion to IRA ac­tiv­i­ties is not over­whelm­ing and cer­tainly does not match the op­po­si­tion so of­ten ar­tic­u­lated by pub­lic fig­ures”. The re­port was widely con­demned as highly ir­re­spon­si­ble, but what is most sur­pris­ing is that it was ever pub­lished at all.

Hanley is a schol­arly author­ity on re­pub­li­can­ism whose work in­cludes an ac­claimed his­tory of the of­fi­cial repub­li­can move­ment, Lost Revo­lu­tion, co-writ­ten by Scott Mil­lar. The book is not a primer and as­sumes a very good fa­mil­iar­ity with the Ir­ish pol­i­tics of the pe­riod. Rather, it is a study of a com­plex is­sue that de­fies trite anal­y­sis or di­vi­sions made all the more so by virtue of the fact that, as Hanley notes, “peo­ple could and did hold very con­trast­ing views about the North”.

‘‘ Fur­ther­more, while many re­coiled from the bomb­ing cam­paign in Bri­tain in its own right, they also feared its im­pact on the Ir­ish in Bri­tain, where al­most 710,000 Ir­ish-born lived


Above: the body of one of the 26 peo­ple killed by the Dublin bomb­ings in May 1974 lies cov­ered on the path on Nassau Street, while the bombed car smoul­ders in the back­ground. Left: Bloody Sun­day pro­test­ers out­side the Bri­tish em­bassy in Dublin in Fe­bru­ary 1972, while the em­bassy burns fol­low­ing a fire bomb at­tack.

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