The South didn’t sit on its hands


Stephen Colbert

SO, PEOPLE from the South of Ireland are being accused of looking the other way as Catholics in the North were being burned out of their homes in the Loyalist pogroms of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Aoileach! To listen to recent comments by GAA pundit Joe Brolly, ex-MP and civil rights activist Bernadette McAliskey and former Sinn Féin spin doctor Danny Morrison you would think that the Republic fiddled while Belfast burned. Nothing but nothing could be further from the truth.

No-one wanted partition; Unionists wanted Ireland to remain part of the UK while Nationalists wanted the whole island to be free of British rule. Northern Nationalists are not to blame for partition. Nor is the South. Since partition and throughout the conflict, the vast majority of the Republic’s politicians and citizens have stood steadfastly alongside their northern brethren.

Let’s look at the facts and not the jaundiced views of those who seek to make political capital from their victimhood. The findings of Irish Mobility Study of 1973 were emphatic: people in the Republic supported the Nationalist position on the North. They agreed that housing discrimination (94 per cent), the malign influence of the Orange Order (94 per cent), internment (92 per cent), and the terrorism of the Ulster Volunteer Force (87 per cent) were the primary causes of the conflict. The Provisional IRA was seen as a reaction to rather than a cause of the conflict (67 per cent).

Actions speak louder than words
Danny Morrison claims that ‘no one’ came to their aid in 1969. This is not true. Between 1968 and 1972 public sympathy and solidarity for the plight of the North’s Catholics and Nationalists was at its greatest.

Weekly collections were organised throughout the country outside Catholic churches and in pubs that raised thousands of pounds for relief funds. Refugees fleeing the Loyalist version of ethnic cleansing were housed south of the border in places like Gormanstown in Meath which housed up to 3000 refugees. Children of the conflict were brought on holidays by supporters across the political spectrum. Trade unions collected for the families of Catholics who were interned. Thousands of workers went on strike and marched in support of ‘our people’ north of the border.

The Republic was angered by the experience of Catholics. In 1969, Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Jack Lynch sought a United Nations intervention in an attempt to rescue people being routinely attacked by the B Specials, the British Army and Loyalists. After a mass demonstration the British Embassy in Dublin was burnt down in response to the
murderous events of Bloody Sunday.

Successive Irish Governments worked assiduously at European level to further the cause of Irish Nationalism and the promotion of civil liberties for Catholics. Even when times were at their darkest during the Thatcher era, they continued to dedicate enormous resources to fulfilling their responsibility to northern Catholics.

The most talented civil servants were assigned to the Anglo-Irish Division, specifically to deal with issues of the North. These civil servants worked in tandem with the Fine Gael-Labour Government led by Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald and Tánaiste Dick Spring and in 1985 achieved the significant breakthrough that was the Anglo-Irish Agreement. They also used soft diplomacy to engage with Irish America which resulted in Bill Clinton’s influence in the Peace Process. In 1987, Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Charles Haughey began speaking with Sinn Féin, further opening doors to peace.

This momentum was carried on by successive Irish Governments that included centre-right and centre-left parties. In the 1990s the Government declared that ‘the people of Northern Ireland have not determined their own environment,’ and therefore ‘had to be absolved, to a very considerable extent.’ This for the first time at national level partially absolved armed Republicanism of responsibility for the conflict. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was the culmination of persistent efforts over generations of the representatives of the Republic.

The Republic did not experience anything like the suffering of the people north of the border. They did not experience the daily expressions of bigotry and discrimination. They also largely escaped the violence of the Loyalists and the state. The point is however, that throughout this time Irish Governments and civil society consistently worked to alleviate the suffering of the people from the North rather than ignore it.

Two of the best, practical examples of these are the disbanding of the hated RUC and the establishment of the North-South Ministerial Council which gives Dail Êireann a direct role in policy in Northern Ireland.

What did diminish the intensity of public support in the Republic was the violence of the IRA and in particular the killing of Gardai. Republicans might not see the Republic as legitimate and consider it partially to blame for partition, but most Irish people disagree with them. They were outraged at the murder of the Gardai, who were unarmed and
carrying out their duties as servants of the state.

On June 8, 1972, Garda Samuel Donegan was leading a patrol in conjunction with the Irish Defence Force in Drumboghanagh on the border when a booby trapped bomb exploded killing him and badly wounding the leader of the Irish Army patrol, Lieutenant John Gallagher. Donegan was survived by his wife and six adult children.

Worse was to follow, in Garryhinch, on the Laois-Offaly border, there was a lethal and targeted attack on the Garda Síochána by the IRA in 1976. A bomb planted by the IRA in a farmhouse killed Garda Michael Clerkin and seriously wounded four other Gardaí. The outrage that followed both murders was comparable to the outrage felt by the mistreatment of Catholics in the North.

What irritates ‘dark green’ commentators is that people in the Republic empathised with and supported the cause of Catholics and Nationalists in the North, but did not support the IRA. Up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement Sinn Féin never really made advances electorally in the Republic—a clear indication of a lack of support for Republican violence. Irish citizens also marched in their tens of thousands against the violence after the murder of two children by the IRA in Warrington. Those embittered revisionists should look at the many ordinary Dubliners from places like Coolock who used their cars to rescue people from the North and bring them to safety. Ordinary people were chosen because they had cars at a time when car ownership in the Republic was low and drivers easily identifiable. It was a risky exercise so don’t dismiss their efforts or demean by calling them ‘Free Staters’ as many in the North regularly do.

There would have been no peace process without the efforts of the Republic. It is a shame that those who worship the cult of the gunman don’t see that diplomacy and politics won out in the end.

Stephen Colbert is a lecturer at New College Lanarkshire