Thoughts Past and Present

East Belfast, the area in which I grew up, has been and continues to be in the news, in particular the ‘Short strand’, which was during my lifetime an explosive interface where conflicting community politics and traditions could spontaneously erupt into physical confrontation and violence especially during the summer marching season.
It is a Nationalist oriented enclave, bounded by a deeply entrenched Loyalist Unionist population which at times of Orange marches and demonstrations (highlighted by the Jubilee celebrations) created and still creates an oppressive sense of siege and fear among the residents of the tightly knit community therein.
There was, as I recall, in the twenties to the forties, an ever present possibility of riotous behaviour, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings, in the ‘madness’ of July and August when the ‘Lambeg’ drumming parties, of about six Orange stalwarts, preceded by a tin whistle player, sweat-covered from their exertions, knuckles often bleeding from their efforts, walked slowly, frequently stopping, banging away, near and around the Newtownards Road junction with the ‘Short Strand’.
The adjacent Catholic church was often a focal point for such drumming and in the history of the past 30 years was one of the seminal sites of conflict in the late sixties and early seventies and once more in recent weeks when Loyalist Jubilee bunting was provocatively strung across its railings, the perpetrators intruding into the grounds during a funeral ceremony.
The Sirocco Works, in which I served an engineering apprenticeship (1935 - 40), is close by and in my day carried a Union Flag on its notepaper, perhaps still does, and probably still only employs ‘Protestants’ on its payroll, at all levels, many of them were then, and may be even now, Orange L.O.L. members. As an unbeliever with left wing political views (a ’Red Flagger’ they called me), though tolerated to some extent, I was not heartily welcomed when I spoke against discriminatory employment policies.
When Lord Carson, the southern Irish lawyer who (as Sir Edward) led the Unionist cause which finally achieved the formation of the six county Northern Ireland (1920), died whilst I was serving my apprenticeship the ‘Works’ were closed compulsorily without pay, in agreement with the majority of the workforce, so that the workers could attend the funeral ceremony at St. Anne's (Church of Ireland) and line the route of the procession to and from the church. Needless to say, I resented being laid off without pay for something to which I was not sympathetic.
In later years when I, along with my wife, elder brother Tom (of whom I have previously written) and a colleague, David Purdy, contested Pottinger ward (as labour candidates) in Belfast City Council elections (1946) we held public open-air meetings throughout the constituency, irrespective of the religious affiliation of its residents, which included those in the ‘Short Strand’, where we were received and supported enthusiastically.
When the former USA President, Bill Clinton, visited Enniskillen in recent months to open its ‘Peace centre’ he said, referring to the outbreak of rioting in East Belfast and other areas, that it was the last final gasp of the conflict. I wish I could share his view, for there are far too many indications that some individuals and organisations are blowing hard on the glowing embers, hoping to frustrate the ‘Agreement’ by fanning conflict once more into flame.
The disturbances keep rumbling on in North, South and East Belfast, and within the Ulster unionist Party in-fighting continues. Burnside and Donaldson, two of their Westminster MPs and apparently two Assembly members, Empsey and McGimpsey, are pressurising First Minister Trimble into a commitment to force Sinn Féin out of the governing Executive.
The Ulster Unionist leader is still plagued by internal party difficulties. He has met Gerry Adams and Prime Minister Blair who has also discussed the situation with the Sinn Féin leader. Taoiseach Ahern and Blair have also had discussions and have decided to have further meetings including the all the pro Agreement parties.
David Trimble, at meetings of his Ulster Unionist Council, has managed to face down some of the pressure but it is mounting up again so that he has again announced that if a compromise cannot be reached to de-escalate the community tensions and further indications of IRA intentions to end all violence are not forthcoming his view is that the whole Agreement is about to collapse. He has also stated that he may again resign as First Minister.
Amidst all this talk of crisis, real or contrived, the Belfast City Council, with the assistance of the Alliance party and SDLP councillors, has, for the first time in its existence, elected a Sinn Féin Lord Mayor, Alex Maskey. Maskey, in accepting the role, committed himself to attend to the interests of all its citizens, irrespective of their political, religious or ethnic affiliations.
It will be interesting to see how it works out in practice, considering that, like all UK cities, Belfast holds its charter from the Monarch on the basis of a recommendation from the government.
Fortunately, the election took place after Elizabeth II had already completed her Jubilee visit to Northern Ireland or he would have been forced to have his deputy stand in for him to greet her on arrival at Belfast. Perhaps the Palace was astute enough to anticipate his taking office and ensured that the date was well before the election of Lord Mayor.
Incidentally, the same Alex Maskey was one of those, according to the recent BBC Panorama documentary programme, listed as a target for assassination via the list made available, it is alleged, by British Army or RUC intelligence services and mentioned by agent/informer double agent Nelson (at present in prison) to Loyalist hit squads.
The full report by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens (information from which the Panorama programme was based), has not yet been published although it has been rumoured that it is ready. The latest news is that it will not be introduced into the public arena until September safely at the end of the ‘Marching Season’, I would speculate.
One of the issues dealt with in the investigations by Sir John Stevens is the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Patrick Finucane nine years ago. He was the lawyer who had defended Republicans when charged with serious offences of killings and bombings and other events in the last 30 years in Northern Ireland. From Finucane’s record he had not confined the cases he had defended to one side of the divide. There is of course the case of the other lawyer, Rosemary Nelson, who was blown up in her car by Loyalist paramilitaries.
Following the TV programme where the killing was highlighted, linking it to allegations of collusion between Loyalist paramilitaries and the intelligence services, a call has been made by the Finucane family and others for a full public inquiry into the murder.
In my view members of the Westminster Government at the time are not free from blame and either by collusion or inaction facilitated the assassination. I recall that in a previous article I touched on the fact that just before Finucane was killed Tory Home Office Minister Douglas Hogg made a statement that certain Nationalist lawyers were too close to the IRA and Republicanism. When the killing was reported I wrote to the Minister bluntly accusing him of having fingered the lawyer for the gang who shot him or so it seemed to me on the evidence of coincidence (Finucane having a high profile) and called upon him to resign.
I received a reply furiously denying any complicity, that there was no truth in my accusation. I replied that I could not accept the rebuttal, that there was a cover up, and if an inquiry was held it would be exposed. In response I received a simple card from Hogg, saying that he had nothing further to add. My suspicions at the time that there were a lot of murky channels linking the intelligence services and other governmental personnel to paramilitaries who acted as non-attributable state executioners seemed to be vindicated by the Panorama disclosures and also, I expect, when the Stevens report is finally published.
According to the radio and television news today (300602) the Sinn Féin President has publicly committed himself to positive leadership in bringing an end to all Republican violence. This action by Gerry Adams should help to assuage some of the fears of Unionist population if not of the diehards. Similar intentions from leaders of parties associated with Loyalist paramilitaries would also be welcome. But above all leadership from the First Minister Trimble and a firm facing down of his own dissidents even to the point of their withdrawal from the party would ease the friction still more. Finally, in those little quirks which happen from time to time, Sinn Féin councillor Alex Maskey as Lord Mayor will on July 1st lay a wreath in France to pay tribute to thousands of Ulster soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of the Somme during the First World War. Many were from the then Ulster Volunteers, who, before being incorporated into the British Army, were dedicated to fighting against Home Rule.
There were, of course, many serving in the same British Army from Southern Ireland who were in the Home Rule agitation and who, on the basis of promises made by the British Government to Irish Nationalist Party leader, John Redmond, joined the British forces.
Can we take this as an act of reconciliation and as such will it be accepted by both communities?

Postscript.
Dear Editor,
I’ve compiled this over many days - I hope the joins aren’t too obvious. I didn’t after all act as judge in the children’s fancy dress competition in the street’s Jubilee celebrations.
Thanks to heavy downpours that morning (03.06.02) they moved it to an indoor location. They didn’t tell me, so my feelings (about being pressed into participating in such an event) were assuaged.
It surely must have been Republican Rain although I can’t see how it was achieved.
30 June, 2002.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Gwent, Wales, UK.

Samuel H. Boyd

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