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April 11th, 2003

  The News from Ireland


There were big demonstrations in Northern Ireland on Tuesday. Around two thousand people, from both the South and the North of the divided island, converged on the fine old 18th-century manor house, rather misleadingly called a "castle," at Hillsborough in County Down. Ten miles away in Belfast city center, several hundred more took part in a prayer vigil outside the City Hall.

A casual observer might have thought that the old civil rights movement of the late 1960s had come back to life, an impression that would have been fortified by the presence, at the first of those demonstrations, of an old war-horse from that period: Bernadette McAliskey (formerly Devlin), last in the news a month ago when she was deported from the US as "a threat to national security." But no, civil rights were not the issue here. These were protests respectively against and for the war in Iraq, occasioned by George W. Bush's visit to the province to meet with the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland.

In a way, it is cheering to see people in Northern Ireland demonstrating about something that has nothing to do with their ancient quarrels. It is, in fact, a measure of the success of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which celebrates its fifth birthday today, that they have turned out for these demonstrations. On closer inspection, things are not quite as bright as all that, but in this neck of the woods, you take your grounds for optimism any place you can find them.

The first thing to be said about those demonstrations is that though sectarian passions did not supply the occasion for them, the two events were sectarian none the less. The anti-war crowd at Hillsborough were pretty solidly nationalist (which is to say republican, and largely Catholic). In fact Sinn Féin, the IRA's political operation, was one of the main organizers of the Hillsborough protest. They got little thanks for this from the participants. Sinn Féin's president, Gerry Adams, had agreed to meet with Bush during the Hillsborough visit, and for this the party chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, was booed when he tried to deliver an address.

The pro-war people at City Hall, by contrast, were solidly unionist (which is to say pro-British, largely Protestant). Among them in fact was David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, who passed the following opinion about Sinn Féin's presence at the other event: "These were people who were quite happy to kill for an ignoble cause, who were prepared to pursue a war to undermine democracy, and who now oppose the liberation of people and the freeing of them from what is undoubtedly an evil dictatorship."

This unionist/nationalist pro/anti-war split reverses traditional attitudes. Catholic Irishmen have historically been well-disposed towards the USA, the great haven to which so many millions of them fled from starvation and cruelty. Evelyn Waugh once remarked that: "To the Irishman there are only two ultimate realities: hell and the United States." John F. Kennedy is still a hero to many Irish people, though Ronald Reagan, whose roots were every bit as Irish, is somewhat less so. (Reagan's mother was unfortunately "orange," not "green.") The Protestants of Ulster, on the other hand, have long nursed a deep suspicion of the US — or at any rate of our politicians, whom they believe are in thrall to the Irish-American vote, and are plotting to force them into a united Ireland run by people who hate them. I have heard from more than one sober Ulsterman that the IRA is a CIA "front" operation run from Teddy Kennedy's Senate office; and the fact that IRA terrorist operations were financed largely by fund-raising in the US has always been bitterly resented.

A number of factors explain the reversal of attitudes. For one thing, Ulster Protestants — like the people of the American South, with whom they share a common Scotch-Irish ancestry — are a warrior people, who for centuries have supplied Britain with some of her best fighting men. (As they similarly supplied George Washington.) Their instinct, again like their cousins in our own South, is to support any military action their country is engaged in. George W. Bush is also well liked by the Ulstermen, or at least not seriously disliked, as he seems less inclined to meddle in the affairs of the Province than other recent Presidents — US meddling being generally believed to be, intentionally or not, for the benefit of Irish nationalists.

Nationalist politics in Northern Ireland, on the other hand, has now been pretty much taken over by Sinn Féin, which, its extensive and very successful fund-raising network in the USA notwithstanding, is a left-wing anti-American party. You can get the general idea from their English-language web sites, in articles like this, but for the full flavor you have to read their publications in Gaelic. Gerry Adams' lads, like Yasser Arafat's (with whom they have conducted joint training exercises), speak one way to those they seek to persuade — or relieve of their cash — in the outside world, but quite another way to their own troops. My Irish is not up to this task, so I am going to rely on some of the translations offered up last week by Niall O'Dowd in IrishVoice. Samples (this is O'Dowd writing):

Though Sinn Féin's anti-Americanism is egregious, milder sentiments of the same kind are actually very widespread in the Irish Republic. The old "priest-ridden potato republic" sneered at for decades by northern Protestants is long gone. The Irish Republic is now a prosperous, comfortable little European country. She is, in fact, more European than the UK, an enthusiastic participant in the affairs of the European Union. There lurks in the heart of every Irishman the urge to belong to something big and international, preferably something the British do not like, or at least have mixed feelings about. For several centuries the Catholic Church filled this role; but the Church is in sad decline in modern Ireland. Just barely half of Irish people attend Mass regularly. Religious vocations have fallen so far (from 254 in 1990 to less than 90 at the end of the decade) that recruits to the priesthood are being imported from Nigeria. The religious communities of monks and nuns that made Ireland "the land of saints and scholars" now have only 11 per cent of their inmates under 50 years of age. The fastest-growing religion in Ireland today is … guess what? Dublin has at least three mosques, and mosques are open or building in Cavan, Ballyhaunis, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.

In their devotion to the United Nations, the Irish are even more European than the Europeans. They are thick on the ground at UN headquarters in New York: my own tour, circa 1987, was conducted by a young Irishman. There is invariably an Irish contingent in every UN peace-keeping force, and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, made a point of telling George W. Bush at their Tuesday meeting that the UN should have the primary role in postwar reconstruction of Iraq. The Irish Republic is, in short, an enthusiastic member of the Axis of Weasel.

Not every Irishman is on board with that, though. Six years ago, Dublin-born Ian Malone decided, a little late in life — he was 22 — to pursue a career as a professional soldier. Discovering that he was too old to be accepted by the Irish Army, he briefly considered the French Foreign Legion, then decided to join the 600 men from the Irish Republic currently serving in the British armed forces (who themselves follow the example of the 60,000 Irish citizens who volunteered to fight in the British Army against the Nazis in WW2). After swearing an oath of loyalty to the Queen, Malone became a private in the Irish Guards regiment, and was eventually promoted to Lance Corporal. His battalion was one of the units that went into Basra last week. Getting out of his armored vehicle on Sunday, Lance Corporal Malone was picked off by a Fedayeen sniper, becoming the first Irish citizen in 50 years to die on service with the British army.