Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Last week the BBC broadcast a documentary to mark twenty years since the IRA declared a ceasefire which led to the end of the conflict in the north of Ireland. As I watched the BBC images of cheering republicans waving tricolours in west Belfast and celebrating the declaration on 31 August 1994 I sensed an emptiness inside me. In retrospect the hopes and optimism of that day seem somewhat naive and unfounded. We believed we were celebrating a breakthrough but I wondered what we expected it would lead to. Did we expect that two decades later there would still be ongoing political tension in the north of Ireland and that the union with Britain would remain as secure as ever?
The documentary, Who Won the War? put this very question to a number of leading Irish and British politicians and political activists. Film maker and journalist, Peter Taylor, elicited responses from all sides before he concluded by giving his own answer to the question. Taylor has followed developments in the conflict for many years in his documentaries and writings. In this latest production he spoke at times with a depth of feeling and engagement with the topic.
Standing in front of a multi-storey loyalist bonfire “decorated” with Sinn Féin election posters and tricolours, Taylor comments, “In some parts normality seems like a veneer to hide the powerful undercurrents of bitterness and resentment”. Fierce opposition to the removal of the Union flag from Belfast city council and protests by the Orange Order over the so called right to march are expressions of this bitterness and resentment. But perhaps the most visible and enduring sign that real peace has not yet come about are the four or five metre high walls dividing Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast.
Speaking from a loyalist viewpoint, Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party argued that his community feels alienated from the state. He pointed out that working class loyalists feel they haven’t gained anything from the peace process, there is still deprivation, poverty and educational under achievement. Pressed on the issue of what loyalist violence achieved, if anything, Hutchinson replied that it had “prevented a United Ireland”.
If Hutchinson was satisfied with this achievement, he didn’t look it. Preventing a United Ireland has not raised living standards for either community and dissatisfaction with the current political situation is also apparent among working class Catholics. Former IRA prisoner Gerard Hodgins tells Taylor “We set out to be revolutionaries and overthrow the state and ended up being caretakers of the state... 3,000 plus people is a hell of a price to pay to become part of the state you were trying to overthrow.” Hodgin’s reply to the question as to who won the war, is blunt, “the British”.
The deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, is more sanguine as to the outcome of the conflict. The inequalities suffered by nationalists are in the past and “people are no longer being treated as second class citizens.” While it is true that there is equality of political representation in the Stormont government, there are still profound differences with regards to the levels of deprivation. Statistics indicate that poverty tends to be more concentrated in Catholic working class areas than Protestant.* People living in these areas suffer doubly, religious and class discrimination.
Perhaps the most depressing image in the documentary was that of Sean McKinley. McKinley featured in a 1970s documentary as a young boy with the initials “IRA” tattooed on his knuckles. Back then he announced that when he grew up he would fight and die for his country. McKinley spent time in prison for killing a British soldier and now, in his early fifties, looking weary under the weight of his years, he tells Peter Taylor, “I know a lot of people who thought they were fighting and dying for their country but it never worked out that way... We’ll get there ... I have faith in Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.”
Gerry Adams is a now member of Dáil Éireann and president of what is currently the largest party on the island of Ireland, Sinn Féin. The party has come a long way since the early days of the conflict and Adams clearly believes that it can go further still. When asked “Who won the war?” he replies that the struggle isn’t over.
Overall, the portrayal of nationalists in “Who Won the War” is forward looking and optimistic and at one point Peter Taylor remarks, “Coming back to Belfast, I really get the sense that Nationalists and Republicans are comfortable in their own skins” or “confident in their Irishness and republicanism,” as Martin McGuinness puts it.
In answer to his own question, who really won the war, Peter Taylor states that the winners are the British and the Unionists because the union with Britain is still safe. However, he adds a caveat, “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the long years ahead a United Ireland did emerge.” Listening to him, I wondered if at some level on that afternoon of August 1994, this was what we were cheering about, a long term goal of freedom from colonial status or was it something more immediate, like equality. And this, I suppose is what the documentary brings into focus, not who won the war but what the war was about. If it was about equality, then Republicans have triumphed and if it was about ensuring a united Ireland did not come about then Unionists have won. In the end, it appears to depend on which story each side wants to tell themselves.