Why are we Britons so myopic about Northern Ireland? It really doesn’t belong to us and we’ve got to stop pretending otherwise
Britain did to the province what Israel did to Palestine, imposing apartheid by force of arms. The jingoistic reaction to the collapsed trial of two veteran soldiers who fought there during The Troubles shows our ignorance.
Northern Ireland has just celebrated its 100th anniversary with messages from dignitaries including the Queen. Eerily at the same time, two beacons of the British media sounded a rallying cry following the collapse of a trial against two former paratroopers, aged 70 and 71.
They had been charged with the murder of Irish Republican Army (IRA) senior figure Joe McCann in 1972. The case was dismissed as the judge ruled the new evidence was inadmissible, with The Daily Mail labelling the legal action as an “appalling national scandal”, while The Daily Telegraph referred to it as a “witch hunt”.
Their blinkered point of view is that soldiers should not face charges for criminal actions while serving in Northern Ireland.
Last week, politician Johnny Mercer quit Boris Johnson’s cabinet in protest at the legal cases in relation to Ireland, reacting to the failed prosecution by tweeting: “I’m pleased the appalling experiences of Veterans hounded over decades is front page news again across the UK.”
There’s also a large swathe of British people who agree with that sentiment, but are sadly either unaware or blissfully ignorant of history. This does not rest solely on the case of McCann, who was killed when a soldier sprayed his car with bullets and is believed to have been involved in the killing of 15 British soldiers, bombings and the attempted assassination of politician Lord Kilclooney.
It rests on the British armed forces having no right to be in Ireland.
Britain has encroached on that island at various times in history. It’s why the Irish diaspora is so large, with families fleeing to find a better life as Britain imposed its will.
Its most recent occupation began in 1801 and ended in 1922, when Republican forces fought against the British and London finally felt the situation could no longer continue. The end was sparked by the 1916 Easter Rising made famous by the movie of one of the lead dissidents, Michael Collins, who was played by Liam Neeson.
So did they decide to leave and only keep Northern Ireland? No, they actually planned to keep control of the entire country.
The Government of Ireland Act 1920 partitioned Ireland in two; Southern and Northern, both of which were to remain as part of the United Kingdom.
But the rebels did not recognise this unilateral decision by the British government and continued their struggle. Eventually the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, creating an Irish Free State, which Northern Ireland opted out of.
That resulted in 26 of the 32 counties becoming what is now known as the Irish Republic, while the remaining six became a separate province which stayed ‘loyal’ to London.
All of this was done without what is commonly referred to as the IRA, which is officially the Provisional Irish Republican Army. It didn’t exist until 1969 and was only formed to aid the momentum sparked by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).
They were fighting for equality and began an armed struggle in response to protests, akin to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
One big reason was the non-violent civil rights protestors initially faced harsh treatment from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force, and the British army was also deployed to quell dissent.
Another common misconception was that the protestors were campaigning for the end of British rule.That was part of it for some, but the primary reason was because Irish people were being treated like second class citizens in Northern Ireland.
Irish people, in this context, means indigenous Catholics. The Protestants who controlled the province then were and continue to be overwhelmingly descendants of settlers who arrived from Britain (both Scotland and England) and seized land from the natives.
Once Britain was only left with Northern Ireland, there began an obvious duopoly of rule. There were more Catholics, so the British gerrymandered the electoral voting wards to make sure Unionist politicians would always be elected.
The most notable case was in Derry (or Londonderry, depending on your politics), which was two-thirds Catholic, even though its elected officials were continually from the far smaller Protestant community.
One of NICRA’s slogans was “one man, one vote”, as another British trick was to only let house owners cast a vote. Again this favoured Protestants, as did allowing business owners to have extra votes.
In addition, the same employers commonly refused to employ Catholics. A prime example was the shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, which famously built The Titanic; their staff were virtually all Protestant, and the few Catholics employed there reported being insulted, threatened and even attacked at work.
There was also rampant anti-Catholic discrimination in the allocation of housing. This was mirrored in education where the state schools were Protestant only, forcing the Irish Catholic Church to create schools to cater for its children. That legacy remains, with 93% of children still attending segregated schools in 2019.
Discrimination is never right, but it’s even more galling when those on the end of it are the indigenous people and the invaders are the orchestrators.
The most apt example is Israel and Palestine, which has seen rampant human rights abuses in one direction, against the native Palestinian population who have been forcibly removed and forced to endure bigotry coming from Israelis who have illegally occupied their land.
No one has any desire to see a return to any armed struggle in Northern Ireland. There have been a few sporadic outbreaks of violence recently due to the Brexit agreement leaving the province in limbo compared to the rest of the UK, which is a result of it being located on a separate Ireland.
But Britain – its government, its media and its population – has to accept that there is nothing honourable about what British forces have done in Northern Ireland.
They occupied a foreign land and used military power to maintain apartheid.
I’m not advocating revenge or calling for every British soldier who served in Northern Ireland to be locked up. I have been lucky enough to speak to one military officer at length and he admitted that most of the troops didn’t want to be there.
They were trained for war and were sent to somewhere to wage that war.
On the other side were lots of innocent people and a guerrilla army, the IRA, which carried out numerous killings and bombings, both in Ireland and on mainland Britain.
They even assassinated the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten, by blowing up his boat.
So atrocities were committed on both sides, but spare us the idea of the noble serviceman protecting Britain’s honour.
In many British circles, the WWII effort is reduced to a successful partnership between the UK and US, airbrushing out the contribution of the Soviet Union. It’s the same with Northern Ireland.
There is nothing to be proud of. Every British soldier who set foot there was part of a nauseating invasion. Morally, politically and historically, it was wrong.
The aforementioned “appalling national scandal” is not the legal pursuit of former soldiers, it’s the myopic British depiction of occupation and destruction.
Britain has blood on its hands.
We can’t go back in time and we need to move forward, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be honest about what really happened.
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