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By Mark Noll

Belfast: Tense with Peace, Part 2

4. The major problems of the past summer, however, went well beyond ideological theater and persistent long-term difficulties in promoting equality between the two religious communities. On Monday, July 3, the British government announced the release from prison of Pvt. Lee Clegg, who had finished serving nearly four years of a sentence for murder. That night in Catholic areas of Belfast, Londonderry, and a few other towns, all hell broke loose. On the night of the third, 160 vehicles (cars, buses, trucks) were commandeered--usually by roving posses of masked men--and then torched. The same night, police stations reported being assaulted by 236 petrol bombs (milk bottles filled with gasoline, lit, then tossed). The next night, 12 more vehicles went up in flames, and 469 more petrol bombs were thrown at RUC fortifications. Numerous private properties were torched, including that of a major automobile dealer in Catholic West Belfast.

In a brief but telling commentary on the event, Belfast's Green Gate Dairy announced that it was expecting only a 60 percent return of its glass milk bottles (the rate is usually well above 90 percent). From previous experience, the dairy knew that some would be stolen for use as gasoline bombs and some pitched to keep them from being stolen for that purpose. With the flames by night came also a blitz of sloganeering by day. Clegg Out, All Out was the graffito that appeared like a weed in many Catholic communities.

Miraculously, this spasm of violence resulted in no fatalities and only minor injuries to police, bystanders, and perpetrators. Why did it occur?

Lee Clegg was a private in the British army serving time for the murder in 1991 of a Catholic teenager, Karen Reilly. No one disputed the facts of his case, only what they meant. Clegg had been on patrol at night when a speeding car approached his position and failed to heed warnings to stop. Following stipulated procedure, Clegg opened fire on the approaching vehicle. When it had passed his position, Clegg, now violating his orders, fired once more at the retreating car. This last shot killed Karen Reilly, a back-seat passenger in what turned out to be a stolen car being taken for a joy ride. Although Clegg's murder conviction had been upheld by several review panels, intense pressure for his release had come from Northern Ireland's unionists as well as from right-wing members of John Major's Conservative party.

In Clegg's defense, it has been calculated that he had, at most, two seconds to decide whether to fire the last, fatal shot. To understand the outrage at his release, however, it is also necessary to recall that, at present, over 900 veterans of Northern Irish terrorism (including both Protestants and Catholics) are currently serving time for crimes that extremists in the sectarian communities consider political acts. No terrorist convicted of a capital offense has ever been paroled before serving at least ten years in prison. One of the items that has stalled peace negotiations is the insistence, by both extremes, that the men they term "political prisoners" be released as a precondition for serious talks.

The timing of Clegg's release struck many observers as, at best, curious. The announcement came on the eve of the vote by Conservative party members of Parliament as to whether Major should continue to serve as their head. The dozen or so Ulster Unionist and Democratic Unionist MPS in the British Parliament constitute a minuscule bloc by themselves, but, as allies of the Conservatives, they provide John Major with a small cushion over and above the razor-thin majority sustained by the Conservatives. Though Tories denied absolutely the assertion, many observers saw Clegg's release as a sop from Major to the right wing of his party.

For Ireland, the timing of Clegg's release was potentially disastrous. July in Northern Ireland is the marching season. Annually on July 12, the Loyal Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal society pledged to perpetuate the Bible, Reformation Christianity, and allegiance to Great Britain, stages elaborate parades throughout the North. Less elaborate celebrations also take place in regions of the Ulster diaspora, including Scotland, Canada, adjacent counties in the Irish Republic, and improbable Commonwealth countries such as Ghana. The Twelfth and the Thirteenth (the latter as a day to recuperate from Orange parades and for smaller Protestant fraternal organizations to march) are full holidays in Northern Ireland. The Twelfth is particularly Protestant because it commemorates the victory on July 12, 1690, of William of Orange over James II, the Catholic claimant to the throne, at the Battle of the Boyne, near Drogheda in the present Irish Republic. This was the battle that decisively sealed the political triumph of Protestantism in Great Britain.

During the province's marching season, there are each year about 2,500 local parades, the vast majority of them Protestant and unionist. While July 12 is the main day for parades, Orange Order celebrations, as well as parades by groups similar in purpose to the Orange Order, also occur in considerable numbers on the days before and after the Twelfth. The parading ritual is a manifestly public affair, with huge drums, well-schooled corps of fifers, and marchers dressed in black formal attire with colorful orange sashes and furled umbrellas to lend a little class to the array.

The marching season has always magnified Catholic-Protestant differences, but the July 1995 parades in Northern Ireland were especially fraught with potential for sectarian conflict. The 1995 parades marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Orange Order, which came into existence in 1795 after a decade of Protestant-Catholic tension climaxed in a bloody battle in County Armagh, leaving some 30 Catholics dead--a fact remembered by both sides to this day.

5. The way that Northern Ireland's unionists responded to nationalist rioting at the freeing of Private Clegg was as predictable as it was pure Irish. As had happened often before--and not only in Northern Ireland--parading was transformed into an overtly political statement. The only thing different about this summer's provocations was the fear that, in conjunction with nationalist rioting, they might scuttle the hard-won prospects of peace.

Even before the fires set by the nationalist rioters had died down, the Orangemen were at work. In Belfast, leaders of the city's ten Orange Order districts proposed almost immediately that parade routes for the Twelfth be altered so that the city's various marches could flow together into the Lower Ormeau Road. The Lower Ormeau Road is a Catholic district whose community leaders had earlier asked city officials and Orange leaders to have parades bypass their area as a way of keeping the peace. The Orange determination to show that unionism could not be cowed, however, was a much stronger force than clear-headed prudence. Catholics in the Lower Ormeau region were especially appalled by the parades this year, since all possible routes took Orangemen past the bookmaking shop of Sean Graham, where loyalist terrorists had once shot five Catholics dead.

Orange-inspired tension came to a head on Monday, July 10. Before the violence inspired by Clegg's release, the various Orange lodges in Portadown had arranged a pre-Twelfth rally and parade for the nearby village of Drumcree, about 30 miles southwest of Belfast, a site significant in this anniversary year because of its proximity to where the Orange Order had been founded.

The spark that flared into confrontation was the decision by the Orangeman to route their pre-Twelfth parade through the Garvaghy Road, a heavily Catholic residential area in Drumcree. The plan was to carry out a proper parade on the weekend before the Twelfth--banners floating, bass drums booming, fifes piping, bands playing, the works.

But the Catholic residents resisted. Aroused by the banging of lids from garbage cans, they assembled in the middle of their road and sat down. As at all major parades, a few members of the RUC were present. As soon as they saw what was happening, they called for reinforcements. The fat was in the fire. The hair trigger with which Northern Ireland lives was no better illustrated than by the rapid escalation of events in Drumcree. The minor struggle of the weekend immediately flared into a major confrontation. On Sunday, July 9, and Monday, July 10, Orangemen and a motley crowd of unionist toughs streamed into Drumcree. RUC reinforcements also poured in to bulk up the human shield that had been hastily built to separate the rallying unionists from the Catholic residents of the Garvaghy Road.

The crisis climaxed on the night of Monday, July 10. At 8:00 p.m., a gigantic rally convened in a vacant field adjacent to the Church of Ireland in Drumcree. Among others exhorting the crowd was the Reverend Ian Paisley, a member of both the British and European Parliaments, as well as minister of the Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast and head of his own Free Presbyterian denomination. According to several published reports, Paisley told the crowd, "If we don't win this battle, all is lost. It is a matter of life or death. It is a matter of Ulster or the Republic of Ireland." No full text of Paisley's speech was available, but reports suggested that he was using this apocalyptic language to demand the right of Orange unionists to march along the Garvaghy Road.

Within the hour, unruly elements from the unionist crowd started to pelt the RUC with rocks and bottles. At 9:00 p.m., the RUC began to fire plastic bullets at those who were hurling the missiles. When the official rally ended at 9:30, fife and drum bands led squads of Orangemen in marching up and down the police lines, while less disciplined parts of the crowd spread out in an effort to flank the RUC. Clashes escalated up, down, and beyond the police lines until about 10:30, when negotiations involving the RUC, heads of the local lodges, Ian Paisley, and Ian Paisley, Jr., were announced to the crowds, which then quieted.

Negotiations continued through the night, during which time Garvaghy Road residents again sat down in the middle of their road, and free-floating contingents from the unionist side probed the RUC lines. By 9:30 on the morning of July 11, a compromise had been reached: the Orangemen would be allowed to march along the Garvaghy Road, but only without music, only if they left their bands behind.

The protest at Drumcree was not the only Orange show of strength. Orangemen from lodges throughout Northern Ireland also assembled in and around the coastal town of Larne where they proceeded to disrupt highway traffic as well as access to the ferry that links Northern Ireland to the port of Stranraer in Scotland. Logic was askew here, for many of those stranded high and dry after disembarking from the ferry at Larne were members of Scottish Orange orders on their way to take part in the festivities of the Twelfth in Northern Ireland.

But logic was not the point. Power was. And the ability to disrupt traffic throughout a wide circle around Larne seemed to show at least some Orangemen who had the power.

For those, on the other hand, who were holding their breath over the fate of the cease-fire, it was a great relief that the parades of the Twelfth passed with only a few minor incidents. Tensions remained high along the Ormeau Road in Belfast, but a full contingent of the RUC--reassembling with the assistance of British army units the show of massive force that had been standard before the cease-fire--succeeded, despite a few tense moments, in maintaining order.

6. To an outsider, the period from Clegg's release through the marches of the Twelfth shed a surreal glow over this potentially lovely corner of the world.

By July 7, three days after the rioting over Private Clegg's release had ceased, most of the detritus from the riots had been cleared away. But not all of it. To visitors, the really odd thing about response to that violence was how swiftly "normal life" seemed to reassert itself, even in the hardest-hit areas. Along the Andersontown Road in West Belfast, for example, two burnt-out buses remained on the streets. To American visitors, these were sobering relics--the windows were all blown out, the interiors were filled with charred debris (including remnants of parcels that had been left on board), and the frames squatted on metal rims over asphalt recongealed where it had been melted down. Yet even more striking was the way that children scampered, shoppers milled, cars negotiated, and the elderly loitered in thick profusion around the bus shells as if they were no more unusual than a long unnoticed urban monument of innocuous origin.

Oddly, the most enduring images of Northern Ireland in July 1995 were the pictures of RUC personnel and armed vehicles supplied by press and television. There they were in reports of the fourth and fifth, often photographed against blazing skylines, putting their lives on the line to restore a semblance of order in Catholic areas of Belfast and Londonderry. There they were in reports of the tenth and eleventh, often photographed as a backdrop to mobs of unionist thugs hurling rocks and bricks with all possible malevolence, putting their lives on the line to restore a semblance of order on the outskirts of Protestant Drumcree. Go figure.

In 1983, David Hempton, a Christian historian who lives in Belfast, wrote poignantly about possible responses to the situation in his own province:

Any rational evaluation of Ulster's problems is bound to be pessimistic, due to the irreconcilable objectives of its citizens, the historical weight of generations of conflict, the polarization that violence always brings, a crumbling economy, and the apparent inability of churches to offer any real hope. … To be thought of as realistic in Ulster political life it is apparently necessary to manifest hopelessness and despair, yet the Christian ought to be familiar with another kind of vocabulary, with words like hope, salvation, redemption, love and grace. This tension between external pessimism and internal hope is the most profound difficulty facing Christians in Northern Ireland and relates closely to the sufferings of Christ, particularly on the cross, where a similar tension between love and despair resulted in the one truly hopeful event in the world's history.

A dozen years later, the situation is somewhat more hopeful than when Hempton described it. Yet the events of July also suggest how thin is the crust of healing that covers Northern Ireland's poisoned past.

What can be made of extremists claiming to speak for Catholics who say they want to be part of a democratic peace process, but who hold the threat of wanton violence in full display as a potential response to public decisions that do not go their way?

What can be made of extremists claiming to speak for Protestants who flaunt age-old antagonisms like the words of petulant children on a playground, but who do not seem to mind if these words take those who hear them to the brink of conflagration?

What, in particular, can be said of the ones who do these things, at least partly in the name of their religions, while priests and bishops take to the airwaves and the streets appealing for people to return to their homes, and when the moderator of Ireland's Presbyterian Church calls on those assembled at Drumcree to disperse?

Thankfully, the most important thing to say about the unrest in early July is that it did not permanently derail the peace process. Vividly and dramatically, however, it illustrated the depth of Northern Ireland's difficulty. In the second part of this report, we will examine a few of the many good books published in recent years that help explain how things have come to be as they are. That examination will show how deeply the actions of Christians, sometimes acting out of profound religious concern, have contributed their full and bloody share to the past that so many throughout the world now pray can be overcome.

This is the first of two articles.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review


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