Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Musings on an Under-Reported Story

My father was President of one of the colleges in the State University of New York system for a decade beginning in 1968, so I spent most of my adolescence literally on a college campus: the view out my bedroom window was of a dormitory and a dining hall. Those were, needless to say, tumultuous times. So it was that one night, close to midnight, we heard a crash downstairs. When we investigated, we found that someone had thrown a rock through the dining room window. As it happened, a campus policeman had actually seen the event, and in a matter of minutes, he showed up on the doorstep with the offender in tow.

My father asked the obvious question: why? The vandal turned out to be a student, who took issue with my Dad’s position on the in loco parentis issues then current. “This,” he said, “was to show you we demand 24-hour visitation in the dorms.” “And if you hadn’t been caught, how would we have known that?” This question was met with a classic deer-caught-in-the-headlights stare, and the great message-sender was left to admit he didn’t know.

I’ve been reminded of this moment from long ago by this year’s curious uptick in Marching Season violence in Northern Ireland. I get it—something is bothering someone. But what? And why?

Of course, even knowing what’s going on in Northern Ireland over the past few weeks has been difficult from this side of the pond. I hope that it is reasonably clear that I make a fairly concerted effort to keep up with the news. So when I haven’t heard about something, there’s a pretty good chance the media haven’t seen fit to cover it. Indeed, having heard about the most recent bombing—the one on Saturday in Lurgan that injured three children—not directly from my scrutiny of various news outlets, but from a message from a student, I did a little checking. My first stop for such news is The Irish Times of Dublin: they tend to be both thorough and less given to the partisanship one finds in the Northern Irish press, either Unionist or Nationalist, or in such British media as Reuters, the BBC, or the Times, which seem capable of objective reporting on all topics but this one.

What I found there was a story likening the strategy employed in the Lurgan incident with that of one of the most horrific episodes of the Troubles, the 1998 bombing in Omagh that killed 29 people, including a number of children and a woman pregnant with twins. Specifically, the fact that “police received a warning saying the bomb was placed in one area and that it then detonated in another ‘bore similarities’ to the Omagh bombing.” According to SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) representative Dolores Kelly,
A call came in to the Samaritans saying a device had been placed near the Model School, but there was no mention of what town. So police all over the north were out checking around all Model Schools when the bomb went off without further warning at Kilmaine Street, just where the police would have needed to put a cordon around the school.

This was a despicable attempt to draw police in and then set off a bomb precisely where they would have been trying to keep other people back out of danger, and that is why the children were injured by debris from the explosion.
The PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) believe that the bomb was intended to target the police themselves in “an attempt to kill or injure police officers after the warning… was phoned to the Samaritans.” Under normal circumstances, I’d take this as typical police paranoia—not that they don’t often have a right to be skittish, but police in general and those in Northern Ireland in particular, do tend to see themselves as targets more often than is warranted.

In this time and place, however, police nervousness is fully comprehensible. True, the “just like Omagh” rhetoric is both over-heated and to some degree the product of prophecy-fulfillment—similar to those who would have us believe that the so-called “underwear bomber” is proof of some sort of escalation of global terrorism. That said, it hasn’t been a good few weeks to be a member of security forces in Northern Ireland.

Just looking at stories from July and August, we get this:
Police were attacked in a Belfast riot on July 2. Six officers were hurt the next night, as they “came under attack from stones, fireworks, petrol bombs, paint, masonry and, on one occasion, an axe.”

A week later, a bomb exploded on a bridge in Armagh; “Police Chief Superintendent Alisdair Robinson said the explosion was ‘a totally reckless act that could easily have led to loss of life if anybody had been driving past at the time. However I believe at this stage the real target was my officers. This was an attempt to lure police into the area to injure or kill them.’” PSNI Superintendent Pauline Shields subsequently described the attack as “‘a blatant and callous attempt’ to kill and injure police officers.”

On the 12th of July—the anniversary of Protestant William of Orange’s victory over Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne, and therefore the center-piece of Marching Season—some 82 police officers were reported injured (some, apparently, from a night or two earlier). According to PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott, “police were attacked with blast bombs, petrol bombs, bricks, stones, golf balls and other missiles. A number of people attacked police lines at close quarters with metal bars. There were also occasions when police took urgent cover as if they feared gun attacks.”

The next night, when under normal circumstances tensions would have begun to settle, there were gunshots. The night after that, petrol bombs were thrown at officers.

On July 28, the Irish Times ran a story by Gerry Moriarty which stated that the new leadership of the Continuity IRA, another splinter group founded in the aftermath of the IRA’s first provisional cease-fire in 1994, declared their own recently-deposed “old guard” insufficiently pro-active, and promised to continue to target police: “Police are legitimate targets because they are members of the British security forces.” There is, of course, much of the flavor of sour grapes about the CIRA complaints. Much as those on the left in this country couldn’t fathom how Bush/Cheney could be re-elected, or those on the right rejected the easy victory of Barack Obama, the radical republicans dismiss the Belfast Agreement of 1998, declaring:
People were corralled into voting for something they knew nothing about; there is an agreement but it can be overruled at any time by the Westminster government…. The existence of the Northern Executive is in the gift of the British government; they would take it away if it was in their interests to do so… it is now in the interests of Britain to have that junta at Stormont.
A car bomb exploded outside police headquarters in Derry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city and far-and-away its most significant Catholic-majority municipality, on August 3. In that instance, according to follow-up reporting by George Jackson and Dan Keenan, “The 100kg bomb exploded 22 minutes after a caller using a recognised Real IRA code word said the device would explode in 45 minutes.” The Real IRA is the organization responsible for the Omagh bombing.

The following day, a bomb was found under the car of a British soldier stationed in County Down. A couple days after that, another unexploded bomb was discovered, this one under the car of a PSNI officer.

Yes, we can’t blame the PSNI in particular for being more than a little apprehensive. Two questions present themselves: 1). why haven’t we heard more about this west of the Atlantic? and 2). what is going on in the peace process in Northern Ireland that would precipitate such acts?

As for question 1, I really don’t know. Looking on the MSNBC site on Sunday for more information about the Lurgan incident, I found literally nothing but a day-old, well-buried AP release. There was everything I might want to know about Zsa Zsa Gabor’s medical status, however. (Quick, anyone under 50 [gay men in the arts excepted], who the hell is Zsa Zsa Gabor? And no, she wasn’t on “Green Acres”; that was her sister, Eva.) CNN’s site wasn’t any better.

Plug the words “Northern Ireland” and a “last 30 days” time-frame into a search at the New York Times site and you’ll find this: a single Reuters story about the bomb under the soldier's car; a generic article, well over a year old, about the IRA; a couple other off-hand references to Northern Ireland in stories that don’t actually fall within the time-frame; and a couple of stories that mention Northern Irish golfers. Oh, and on the second page, there’s a story about the death of a former Northern Irish snooker champion. Really. Durgan, which the PSNI would have us believe would have been another Omagh but for the grace of God? Not a word. The car-bomb in Derry? Nope. Worst rioting in Belfast since the Good Friday accord? Well, that’s a little before the 30-day window. Turns out there was a story by John F. Burns about that. One. Follow-up is for sissies.

I despair.

But the unwillingness or inability of professional journalists to do their damned jobs, the emphasis on the transcendently trivial at the expense of what thinking people might actually care about… that’s a rant for another day. What’s more relevant at the moment is that most damning and difficult of queries: why? Why all this violence now?

Obviously, “why now?” in terms of timing within the calendar year doesn’t take a lot of thought. It’s marching season. July 12 and the weeks immediately prior and after are especially likely to lead to problems. The Orange Order’s recent attempt to re-brand their triumphalist marches as “Orangefest” is a particularly curious phenomenon, and one which for all its media-savvy marketing has a huge potential for disaster. That the Orange Order would want to do this makes some sense; that the Tourist Board would go along boggles the mind. After all, nothing says “family fun” like planning a parade route intentionally to pass through Catholic neighborhoods with the sole intention of sparking a response, playing music louder there than elsewhere on the route, and similar manifestations of good cheer.

I don’t care what you call it, I have difficulty imagining a lot of Catholic families in Ardoyne or Armagh, regardless of their position on political issues, packing up the sammies and crisps and taking the kids on a picnic, hoping to catch a glimpse of those laugh-a-minute Orangemen. All the re-branding does is to attempt to legitimize that which has long since outlived whatever usefulness it might once have had. It would make as much sense to parade through downtown Atlanta to celebrate the anniversary of the election of Lester Maddox.

On the other hand, the Catholic community can pretty much always be counted on to rise to the bait. Moreover, while I wouldn’t impose American free speech laws on other countries (at least on those countries where there is a recognized and protected right to dissent), the one political attribution I will freely allow others to impose on me is civil libertarian. I let my membership in the ACLU lapse a few years ago when, to my mind, they went Miranda-rights crazy, but if I can support the right of Nazis to march in Skokie or of Fred Phelps to picket military funerals, then I can support the right of the Orange Order to march through Portadown. N.B. this doesn’t mean I don’t think that all of the above are assholes. In other words, what I think of Orange Order marches is what I would think of the “Ground Zero Mosque” if a). it were at Ground Zero, b). it were a mosque, and c). the Imam at the head of the Cordoba Initiative bore any resemblance to the caricaturized version presented by idiots like Newt Gingrich or Glenn Beck.

But surely this re-branding, which may have been escalated this year but wasn’t in fact a new phenomenon (the roll-out was two years ago), couldn’t account for this year's rise in violence, especially that directed specifically against police. My best guess—and it is a guess—is that the extension of the power-sharing agreement, drafted in February and implemented in April, is at the center of the unrest.

Central to those negotiations were, according to the Telegraph’s website, the demands of republicans, notably but not exclusively Sinn Féin, to devolve policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont (the site of the provincial government in Belfast). Conversely, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), wanted concessions about the overseeing of loyal order parades, including of course the best-known examples, those of the Orange Order.

Remember, when two Northern Irish politicians, David Trimble and John Hume, won the Nobel Peace Prize 1998, they represented the UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) and the SDLP, respectively. These were the moderates. At the extremes, and in the minority, were the DUP, under the leadership of intransigent firebrand Ian Paisley, and Sinn Féin, traditionally if perhaps erroneously described as the “political wing of the IRA.” But by the time the power-sharing agreement took shape in 2007, however, the more radical parties had both increased in power relative to the moderates, and, indeed, had mellowed somewhat. Seeing Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness together, let alone hearing them express what sure sounded like a shared vision three years ago was little short of a miracle.

But now there’s some real stress. The speeches in February were very fine indeed, but from the perspective of a zealot on either side of the political divide—and let there be no doubt, there is a yawning chasm there, whatever the public faces of the principals—those two issues that led to the February compromise are very problematic indeed. We need only look at the interview with the quartet of CIRA leaders linked above to underscore this point: they speak of “betrayal” by McGuinness and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, and they still perceive the police as instruments of British imperialism, irrespective of to whom they may officially answer. And making concessions about Orange Order marches! That was seen, if I might use an expression ironic in its etymology, as simply beyond the Pale. Police and the marches… yes, it’s all there. Throw in McGuinness’s assertion that the Irish and UK governments are in secret negotiations with IRA dissidents, and what’s a self-respecting homicidal revolutionary to do?

Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of the Northern Irish people, regardless of religious denomination or political persuasion, just want to go about their lives. There may be less intermingling between Catholics and Protestants than there might be, but there’s more than there was. And, in general, the animosity is waning. But, alas, there are exceptions.

Still, in a strange way, this might just be good news. The people and the government are moving forward. Bomb-throwers on both sides might just be becoming irrelevant. The violence of the last few weeks could, of course, be the beginning of a new cycle of violence that extends the Troubles into the next generation. Or it might be the death rattle of a puerile and reactionary ideology whose time has long since passed, if indeed it ever existed at all. Everyone worthy of the title of Christian—Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or Coptic—is praying for the latter.

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