Belfast Burns – Yet Again

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Friday, Jan. 11 marked a bizarre but fitting anniversary in my native Belfast City back in Northern Ireland.

It marked a Biblical 40 consecutive nights of continuing protests and riots, originally in working class Protestant-Unionist East Belfast, at the decision of the Catholic-Republican controlled City Council to limit the number of days that the Union Jack, flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, flies over Belfast City Hall to only 18 days per year.

Union Jack flag flies over Belfast City Council.
Union Jack flag flies over Belfast City Hall.

That’s the same number of days that the flag flies over Buckingham Palace in London. But what is good enough for Queen Elizabeth II and the entire Royal Family is clearly not good enough for the Unionists, or Loyalists of Belfast.

As a friend and correspondent there (who shall understandably remain anonymous) wrote to me, that decision has so far led to, “Numerous petrol bombs, one attempted murder of a policewoman with same, one Polish pensioner beaten to death in Ballymena, one bus burned out, one murder threat against the Alliance Party Member of Parliament for East Belfast, and the storming of the town council offices at Carrickfergus (a seaside town north of Belfast) by a loyalist mob who screamed “Fenian F***** at the one Catholic councilor. So yes, I think you could say that someone cares about the Union flag.”

I will spare dazed American readers the analysis on this one — unless they really want it. Riots break out on the streets of Belfast. This is news? It is January 2013. We are well into the second decade of the 21st century: But back in my native land it could just as easily be 1969; or the 1830s.

George and Churchill in a 1910 photo.
George and Churchill in a 1910 photo.

Winston Churchill knew that well. He visited Belfast in 1912 and was nearly killed by a mob of Protestant Orangemen furious over his determination to support Home Rule for the Catholic majority in the island of Ireland.

A decade later, Churchill, at the right hand of then-British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, was in the middle of another set of negotiations, this time with Irish guerrilla leader Michael Collins, to end Ireland’s bloody and bitter war for independence from Britain. And in a speech to the House of Commons, the British Parliament, on Feb. 16, 1922, he lamented the weird, timeless immunity of the hatreds of Ireland to forgetfulness or forgiveness.

Michael Collins (1890-1922)  rallying his supporters at College Green in 1922.
Michael Collins (1890-1922) rallying his supporters at College Green in 1922. He was assassinated Aug. 22, 1922.

As happened following the collapse of communism 70 years later, “Great empires have been overturned,” Churchill said. “The whole map of Europe has been changed. The position of countries has been violently altered. The mode and thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world.”

“But,” Churchill continued, “as the deluge subsides and the waters fall, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered by the cataclysm that has swept the world.”

That 1920s conflict was successfully ended. Churchill, Lloyd George and Collins eventually reached an agreement that proved to be the basis for the longest era of peace Ireland would know in the 20th century. It was a far from perfect peace, but it was the best that anyone could have come up with at the time.

But half a million Catholics in the North suffered half a century of discrimination at the hands of the 1 million majority Protestants. In both communities in the North, old suspicions and resentments did not wither and die, they smoldered beneath the surface. And in the late 1960s, they erupted, more violently and virulently than ever.

The Troubles that followed over the next three decades cost 3,600 lives. By the horrendous scale of Cambodia, Lebanon, Bosnia and Rwanda, that remains mild, though only because the British Army and the Northern Irish police and security services under British control held the ring and prevented paramilitary groups on both sides from indulging in a full-scale civil war.

In 1998, with the full-hearted support of the British and Irish governments and of U.S. President Bill Clinton, a new era of hope appeared to dawn. Following cease-fires by paramilitary groups on both sides, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, elections were held for a new Assembly at Stormont, and a power-sharing executive was set up from the assembly, with ministers drawn from the main political parties of both communities.

Clinton visited Belfast three times during his presidency, and the city was transformed from the grim urban wasteland of the 1970s into a glowing new center of investment, high-tech development and hope. Concert halls, Internet cafes and Hilton Hotels opened. The Short Strand area, where Catholic youths had once raged at British soldiers, became an elite condominium district for the city’s prospering business class.

agreementBut of course, it didn’t last. Nothing sane and constructive seems to last for long in Northern Ireland. This latest round of renewed rioting carries the threat that the years of peace, prosperity and hope might yet fade into another cruel mirage. The grim, remorseless and relentless dynamic of Irish history — a dark obsession on both sides with tribal identities based on old grudges and prejudices that can never be abandoned — stirs in the shadows, yearning to reassert its true, glowering self.

Long, long ago, as a teenage boy, I drank my pints of Guinness with my friends in the pubs of North Belfast, and we would discuss the adventures and horrors of the 1920s Troubles. They seemed as far away from us as the Ming Dynasty of China or the Stone Age. Little did we realize that we would soon live through more days as bad, some of them far worse.

Now, I am far from young, and I have seen another era of bright and honorable hope. But in Ireland, the routine times of fear and hatred follow the times of prosperity and peace as surely as night follows day. Optimism and peace in Belfast is like summer in Siberia before the days of Global Warming: Enjoy it while you’ve got it, because it never lasts long.

When the 20th century cycle of revolution began in Ireland in 1916, William Butler Yeats, the greatest poet in the island’s history, celebrated it as a “terrible beauty” being born. A few years later, sickened by the rising tides of civil war, terrorism and brutal killings on all sides, he came to a very different conclusion.

Yeats (1865-1939)
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Writing in 1923, Yeats saw “phantoms of hatred” from a tower top:

“Monstrous, familiar images swim to the mind’s eye.

“’Vengeance upon the murderers’, the cry goes up.

“… The rage-driven, rage-tormented and rage-hungry troop

“Trooper belaboring trooper, biting at arm or at face.”

I’ve seen a lot of Yeats’ “phantoms of hatred” around the world over the decades. I’ve seen them flourish in the massacres of Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the Caucasus, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Central Asia, Serbs, Bosnian Moslems and Croats in the Balkans. I’ve seen them in Cambodia, Indonesia and between Israelis and Palestinians. Nothing really changes. It’s really all the same.

If Yeats could watch the television images of the mobs clashing with outnumbered police yet again on the Lower Newtownards Road in the shadow of what was once for a century the greatest shipyard in the world, and in the same streets where I ran and played happily as a boy, he would recognize those “rage-driven, rage-tormented and rage-hungry” troops come once again. And he would not have been at all surprised. Yeats came to know those “phantoms of hatred” at first hand. He understood them all too well.

“The half-read wisdom of daemonic images,

“Suffice the aging man as once the growing boy.”

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