Northern Ireland is at war, said a Belfast Presbyterian minister recently in the Times of London. Nonsense, replied an Ulster colonel later that week: the province “is in fairly normal state but at the peak of one of its frequent periods of open inter-sectarian hostility.”

As I was marveling at the military mind, my eye serendipitously caught a different item on the same page. A correspondent quoted an IBM programmers’ reference manual, which, he pointed out, contained the entry: “Normal: see Abnormal.” That might sum up the Northern Ireland tragedy. Try to come to grips with it, or even to describe the dramatis personae, and you feel like Hercules confronting the monstrous Hydra with all its daunting, inexhaustible complexity. And not least of the baffling features is official reiteration that the vast majority of the population, while acutely conscious of the violence, are not “involved” in it.

Since my 1969 essays in this journal (“John Bull’s Other Island,” September 12, and “Not Defending the Indefensible,” October 24) there have been significant developments in the situation, and some account of them might help in understanding the background. Most notable of these was the report of the Cameron Commission, which under a Scottish judge investigated the disturbances in the province. The document’s apportionment of blame was comprehensive: just grievances long officially ignored, left-wing infiltration of the civil-rights movement, police misbehavior, Roman Catholic immovability on certain issues, the unhelpful stance of the Dublin government, and the rabble-rousing proclivities of Ian Paisley, whose attitude toward the Armagh police was described as “aggressive and threatening.”

Regarding this Armagh incident, when the Paisleyites set out to disrupt a civil-rights march, the report’s deadpan prose has an engaging quality: “In reply to a police query, Dr. Paisley said he proposed to hold a religious meeting and did not intend to interfere with anyone. The police very reasonably disbelieved this statement.…”

The commission was impressed by the number of well educated and responsible people participating in the civil-rights demonstrations, and says: “We disagree profoundly … with the view which professes to see agitation for civil rights as a mere pretext for other and more subversive activities.”

The report attributes some responsibility for the trouble to Catholic insistence on segregated education, but it confirms that there had been discrimination involving housing, municipal appointments, limitations on local electoral franchise, and deliberate manipulation of ward boundaries.

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On the other hand, there was a “solid and substantial” basis for Unionist fears. The commission pointed out that the constitution of Northern Ireland had never been fully recognized by the Republic (i.e., independent Eire to the south), and that the attitude of the Catholic hierarchy in the north had been “ambiguous.”

Exacerbating the situation also is the sectarian scoring of points, seen in Cardinal Conway’s and Ian Paisley’s extraordinary attendance at funerals after, respectively, a Catholic and a Protestant had been killed in riots.

A separately published commentary by the Ulster government appeared to accept the Cameron report with good grace, then went on to list a series of reforms previously announced, dealing with such matters as housing, investigation of complaints, and reform of local government (including the acceptance of the one-man-one-vote principle). An advisory board was set up to examine the whole police machinery.

Since then the wheels of reform have been grinding along, while attempts have variously been made to give them a push, stay them with sabotaging spanners, or (for different reasons) infiltrate the corridors of power in order to cut off the supply at source. The 11,000 Protestant B-Specials (police auxiliary) have been disbanded; the overwhelmingly Protestant regular police have been disarmed; both Bernadette Devlin and her adversary Ian Paisley have served prison terms for illegal activities; the British army is trying to (ironic phrase) “keep the peace”; Prime Minister Chichester-Clark, associated with many unpopular measures, was forced to resign after right-wing pressure.

But there has been a more sinister development: the recurrence of that frightful brand of terrorism known all too well in Ireland’s past. In addition to riot casualties involving police, military, and civilians, there has been indiscriminate killing, as in the case of the landmine that took the lives of five innocent people driving along a beautiful country road tourists might have used. Three young Scots soldiers, off duty and in civilian clothes, were lured from a Belfast tavern and cold-bloodedly shot dead; their bodies were found later in a ditch. The murderers have not been found but are widely believed to belong to an extremist section of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which, outlawed in both parts of the island, still hankers after the old dream of an undivided Ireland.

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In recent months Ian Paisley has made in the Westminster parliament an impassioned, if somewhat belated, plea for an end to violence and the rule of the gun in Northern Ireland. There are areas of the province, he declared, that are terrorized by the IRA. In the (Catholic) Ardoyne ghetto, into which police dare not go, there is ample evidence that oppression has predictably made wild men wilder and innocent children wild. There are also, however, a self-imposed discipline, a touching spirit of community, and a system of mutual help that stems not least from the awareness of the great gulf fixed between “them” and “us.”

Neutrality is not an acceptable option in Belfast’s beleaguered areas. In the Catholic districts even the restraining hold of the priests has been loosened. The British troops are accused by activists on both sides of being sympathetic to the enemy. Brainwashed into hating, children are growing up for whom the abnormal is indeed the normal; their drab existence is lightened by the new exhilarating pastime of stoning the soldiers. In the (Protestant) Shankill district, mothers are reported to be alarmed at the increased incidence of nervous disease among their children. The cumulative influence on the minds of the young has ensured a deadly legacy from which Ulster probably will not recover this century.

Once more we are nearing the Twelfth of July, when amid scenes of frightful provocation the Orange Order parades in celebration of a battle won nearly three centuries ago, and the Scarlet Woman is left in no doubt who is the boss in Belfast. If the Order’s religious trappings really mean anything, it would surely not be incongruous for warlike demonstration to be replaced just once by a day of prayer for peace, penitence, and purged memories. One is tempted to add that a less religious country than Ulster would have tumbled to the possibilities long ago.

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