Word Count: 4,127

Offering First Serial Rights

Ó 2001 Thomas McKeon






Thomas W. McKeon

“In Ireland, we don’t discuss politics in the pub. Let’s go outside,” said the man. I briefly felt foolish and scared. As we stood outside, talking on the street, a single file line of 15 British soldiers, spaced ten yards apart, trudged by us, automatic weapons in hand. Two officers, one from the British army and one from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the police force in Northern Ireland led the soldier. Only five feet separated us from the soldiers. The officers looked at us, recognizing the well-known Irish republican to whom I was talking. In times gone by – some recent – these men may have shot each other on site. Now, they acknowledged each other uneasily. As each soldier walked by, he turned and walked backwards, watching us, until the next soldier passed us and did the same.

“Is it possible they can hear us talking?” I said, pointing to the police station, about 300 yards away, with its antennae and listening dishes.

“It’s possible,” he said.

It turned out I had nothing to fear in being overheard talking to this ex-POW, since all he talked of was peace.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has been always been blamed for starting and maintaining the violence in Northern Ireland, so it is no great surprise that they are being blamed for not ending it. At a time when political mechanisms have been established in Northern Ireland so that violence is no longer necessary, the Unionist politicians (unionists are interested in keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom) are walking away from the process, claiming that peace is impossible because the IRA will not decommission its weapons.

This claim by Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) members is shameful. It is political on its face – the UUP is in a battle for unionists’ hearts and minds with Ian Paisley’s religious, ultraconservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). However, placing the blame on the IRA is merely a bigoted ploy to delay power sharing with Catholics in Northern Ireland. The evil of this ploy is in the dire consequences that extend far beyond bigotry and political point making: the ploy has returned violence to Northern Ireland this year, the worst in 20 years. This violence comes not from the IRA, but from Protestants.

Many Protestant/Unionist politicians see Catholic rights – for which the IRA has fought since the late 60’s – as a loss of Protestant rights and privilege. For example, historically, the RUC has been a police force of more than 95% Protestants. Shipyards, a key industry in Northern Ireland, were open only to Protestants, as were political and civil service jobs[i]. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was designed to change this. The police force was to be re-structured, and equal rights and access were to be granted to Catholics. Protestants were not expected to lose anything, as foreign investment and decreased security costs were expected to bolster the Northern Ireland economy.

Catholics voted for peace in numbers greater than 95%, but Protestants only at 55%. In the past three years, the slim majority of Protestants in favor of the GFA has disappeared. It is not Protestant economic losses that have caused the loss of support in the peace process. Northern Ireland experienced foreign investment not seen since the violence began in the late 60’s. The Protestant people no longer believe in the process because their leaders have failed to maintain the political institutions that were moving Northern Ireland toward peace.

Reminiscent of the American South in the 60’s, bigoted Protestant leaders – the Reverend Ian Paisley as well as Nobel Prize winner David Trimble – lead Protestants to violence and away from peace, a peace with justice so greatly desired by Catholics – and the IRA.


            The modern conflict begins in 1916. By then, the British had commandeered the entire island of Ireland at the expense of poor Catholics and Irish natives. In years gone by, the British had outlawed the Catholic religion (it came back even stronger) and the Irish/Gaelic language, which remains decimated to this day.

In 1916, Irish men and women (along with a small but critical number of heroic Protestants and Brits) fought the Anglo-Irish war to win Ireland back.

In 1921, the British government decided to partition the 32 counties of Ireland. They took the six counties in the northeast (which was most of the Irish region of Ulster), where they could maintain a Protestant majority that was loyal to Britain. The remaining 26 counties were effectively returned to Ireland. This lowered the intensity of the war with the British, but never ended it. The Irish people were so divided by the decision regarding partition that they engaged in a vicious civil war, in which many Irish men and women fought on against the British to defeat partition. They never did, and partition remains to this day.

In the new Northern Ireland, the Unionist majority was not overwhelming: roughly 65%. However, the British government established political structures that guaranteed that the new Northern Ireland would be a “Protestant state for a Protestant people”.[ii] The minority consisted mostly of Catholics.

 Unionists, with British assistance, oppressed Catholics via typical methods: voting districts were gerrymandered so as to allow Protestant politicians to represent areas where there was a majority of Catholics; jobs, both public and private, were reserved for Protestants only, and; the RUC was staffed almost entirely by Protestants.

The IRA continued fighting the British between 1921 and 1997 (when they went on their current cease-fire). However, the IRA was well contained by the British and Irish governments, and IRA successes were limited. By 1965, the IRA had begun to fade away. The citizens of Northern Ireland, including former IRA men and women, grew active in peaceful movements toward equal rights.

In 1968, large protest marches wound through the streets of Belfast and Derry (renamed “Londonderry” by the English). However, the RUC beat back the marches, claiming that the IRA was operating in the shadows. The Unionist politicians, led by the bigot Paisley, supported the RUC’s heavy handedness. The RUC hardly needed Paisley’s support, since they were highly motivated to defeat civil rights for Catholics and preserve the status quo.[iii]

The RUC, along with a brutal Crown force known as the B-Specials, attacked defenseless Catholic neighborhoods. In some cases, the RUC and B-Specials provided cover for unionist thugs to attack the neighborhoods. In some cases, the thugs were actually members of the RUC and B-Specials.

Catholics were defenseless. They dabbed graffit, “IRA = I Ran Away”[iv] The IRA regrouped quickly, and took up important positions in the defense of some communities. This specific event provides insight into the current critical problem of weapons decommissioning. The IRA and their many supporters want peace, but they do not want to be defenseless against the RUC and British army (no longer seen as friendly), should the peace process collapse, as it is now.

 Ultimately, in 1970, the British army was sent to Northern Ireland to restore order. Remarkably, the RUC was disarmed, a highly insulting blow to any police force.[v]

In the next 25 years, more than 3000 people would die, including 1000 members of the RUC and British army. The British government began a campaign to demonize the IRA, which had conducted a number of attacks and bombings in which innocent people were killed. However, calling them terrorists, without including the RUC and British army in the same category, merely galvanized Catholics (at home and abroad) in their opinion of Northern Ireland being a Protestant state for a Protestant people.

Before any IRA atrocities came the “Rape of the Falls”, and Bloody Sunday - terrorist acts no less than any ever committed by the IRA[vi]. The “Rape of the Falls” saw Crown forces and unionist civilians storm through the defenseless Falls Road area of West Belfast, burning homes. Bloody Sunday saw British soldiers kill 14 civilians at a peaceful protest march for Catholic rights. Additionally, the British government began a program of internment, in which Catholics were arrested and jailed, some for years, on trumped up charges or without charges ever being brought.

After these events, Catholics - most of whom were young, poor, and uneducated – took to the IRA in great numbers. They took to the streets, using guerilla tactics to attack soldiers, police, and unionist paramilitary forces. The IRA, an all-volunteer force, guaranteed its recruits nothing but misery and a clear purpose, which was to defend against unionists and British soldiers. Later, IRA volunteers would fight to free Northern Ireland free of British rule and unionist bigotry, but in 1970, the goal was defense.

After Bloody Sunday in January 1972, Great Britain abolished the bigoted, unionist government of Northern Ireland. Rule was returned to Great Britain. Politicians in Britain, embarrassed by the events, which were seen by the world, quickly attempted to grant the basic human rights that were glaringly absent for Catholics.

 However, in one of the many blunders that merely extended the war, the British government reversed course and yielded to the Protestant majority’s initiative to prevent the human rights changes. Ian Paisley and the unionist leadership encouraged and supported a workers’ strike. Because Protestants held the most important jobs in Northern Ireland, the strike crippled the country. The British government relented, and meaningful reform failed.

 For the next 25 years, Britain broke promises made to Catholic leaders, including unofficial but now well-documented promises to the IRA[vii]. Margaret Thatcher ruled in the late 70’s and early 80’s, criminalizing and demonizing the IRA while continuing to support a failed, apartheid state in Northern Ireland. Her demonization strategy had some successes, and IRA ranks and support shrunk.

However, Thatcher failed to understand that, while most Catholics were horrified with the IRA’s blunders in which innocent people died, they understood why the IRA did what it did. Catholics sympathized with the young, uneducated, poor men and women of the IRA, and understood that IRA mistakes were inevitable, given the environment from which they came and in which they functioned.

In 1981, Bobby Sands, a high-ranking IRA volunteer serving time in the Maze Prison, went on hunger strike to obtain five demands related to political prisoner status. Thatcher refused to grant these demands.

While on hunger strike, Sands was entered into the British Parliamentary elections. In a dramatically close vote, Sands won, demonstrating to a world audience and to Thatcher that the IRA had great support. Thatcher still refused political prisoner status.

Weeks later, Sands died on hunger strike as a member of the British Parliament (MP). 100,000 people attended his funeral. Many other prisoners followed Sands on hunger strike. Ultimately, nine others died (eight IRA men and one INLA man). World leaders expressed outrage at Thatcher’s intransigence. IRA ranks surged, and the war was back on.

The British continued to increase the intensity of the war. The IRA began taking the war to London and other British cities. In 1984, at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, the IRA nearly wiped out the entire British cabinet, including Thatcher. An IRA bomb killed a British MP, and four others, barely missing Thatcher.

The British government began a “shoot-to-kill” policy, in which IRA and Sinn Fein members were assassinated (Sinn Fein is the political party with close IRA ties). Elite British SAS (Special Air Service) troops conducted many of these operations. The IRA increased its intensity, also. On February 7, 1991, from a London street, the IRA fired mortars at 10 Downing Street, missing Prime Minister John Major and his entire cabinet by 30 yards. Here was another incident in which the top level of the British government was nearly eliminated.

British security began providing more opportunities for unionist paramilitaries to attack the IRA.[viii]. The British army and the RUC provided intelligence to the paramilitaries so that the paramilitaries could conduct murders and other “dirty war” actions, such as IRA and Sinn Fein member assassinations[ix] and the killing of attorneys who defended republicans, such as Pat Finnucane and Rosemary Nelson.

After 20 years, the IRA, never a force of more than a few hundred active men and women at any one time, was now fighting the British army, British intelligence, the RUC, and as many as four Loyalist paramilitaries (Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) and Ulster Defense Association (UDA), and the Red Hand Commandos). Additionally, the IRA fought the FBI, Irish Army, and the police forces in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

By now, the British government and the people of the UK (Great Britain, Scotland, and Wales – all with many Irish ex-pats) were weary, outraged, and somewhat embarrassed by atrocities in Northern Ireland. The UN and other organizations criticized the British for their policy toward Catholics. Events such as the summer marching season, in which anti-Catholic marching organizations insisted on marching through Catholic neighborhoods to celebrate their 1690 victory over the Catholics, only served to solidify world opinion against the bigots.


Along two parallel paths, Sinn Fein and the IRA were invited into the political process. On one path, John Hume, a Catholic and Member of Parliament from Londonderry who eschewed violence, brilliantly brought Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein into negotiations.

Along another path, John Major, British Prime Minister, and Albert Reynolds, the Irish Taoiseach (pronounced tee-shook), negotiated the powerful Downing Street Declaration, the foundation for the GFA. US President Bill Clinton later invited Adams, Sinn Fein’s leader, to the White House, showing Great Britain how strongly the US felt about the validity of the IRA’s struggle (Gerry Adams was nothing more than an IRA terrorist to Great Britain).


The GFA was historic, because it required the people of Northern Ireland, for the first time, to decide their own fate. The referendum asked the voters whether or not they would support a new government, independent of Great Britain, in which power would be shared between Protestants and Catholics, including Catholics, like Adams, who had been closely associated with the armed struggle.

Protestants recoiled at the “power sharing” provision, and also the GFA provision that would allow the people of Northern Ireland to vote themselves out of the UK and into a union with the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, should they so choose. While such a provision posed no threat in 1998, it would in the next 10-20 years, when Catholics were expected to gain a majority.

On May 22, 1998, the people voted for the GFA. 81% turned out. 95% of Catholics and 55% of Protestants voted for the GFA - a shaky beginning, but a clear desire for peace nonetheless. [x], [xi]


Three years later, in 2001, amidst the worst violence in 20 years, unionists claim that the GFA must be re-negotiated. They claim, probably correctly, that less than half of the Unionists now support the GFA. To mark the departure from the agreement for peace, the Unionist political leadership continually points to one thing: the absence of IRA weapons decommissioning.

            On July 1, 2001, David Trimble of the UUP resigned his position as leader of the Northern Ireland Assembly in protest over the IRA’s position on decommissioning. Normally, as in most democratically elected governments, another UUP member would step in and assume the leadership. However, all members of the UUP agreed that no one would step in, creating a situation in which the British government would have to choose, within six weeks of Mr. Trimble’s resignation, one of the following two options: 1) new assembly elections, or 2) a suspension of the assembly, sending direct rule of Northern Ireland back to Great Britain, with an accompanying formal review of the GFA by the British and Irish governments.

The British government fears new elections, because polls show that Sinn Fein and Paisley’s DUP would gain at the two extremes, at the expense of the more moderate SDLP and UUP, respectively. They also fear suspension of the assembly, since that indicates even greater instability in the political process, indicating to Catholics and the IRA that the political process is not working. Instability also does damage to worldwide investment in Northern Ireland.

During the six-week prelude that the British government had before deciding on suspension or elections, the worst rioting in Northern Ireland in years broke out in North Belfast. This occurred on the night of July 12, a national holiday in Northern Ireland. July 12 celebrates the 1690 victory of Protestant forces over Catholic forces. Each year, unionists march all over Northern Ireland to celebrate this victory, and each year, there are a number of marches that turn violent because the marchers demand to parade through Catholic neighborhoods.

The rioting on July 12, 2001, was less about the marches and more about the Holy Cross Catholic Girls’ School in North Belfast. In June, during the last week of school at Holy Cross, a confrontation developed outside the school between a Catholic parent and unionists who were hanging banners in front of the school. This confrontation escalated, resulting in a blockade by unionists of the road to the school. The RUC declared that they could not protect the children, and proceeded to block the road, disallowing the children and their parents from using it to go to school. The school year ended.

Weeks later, on July 12, the RUC and British army protected unionist parades marching through Catholic neighborhoods, as they do every year. The hypocrisy of this – protecting grown men and women marching through Catholic neighborhoods celebrating the 300-year-old Protestant victory over Catholics, while prohibiting four- to eight-year-old Catholic schoolgirls from walking 500 feet to their school – caused an eruption of violence.

Other violence erupted throughout the summer, most of it unionist. A Catholic 18-year-old was killed in a drive-by shooting. A unionist group who is supposedly on cease-fire claimed the killing. Despite their claim of the killing, David Trimble, on the very next day, said that the Catholic was drug-involved, and was probably killed by the IRA.

Weeks later, outside a Catholic athletic facility (known as Gaelic Athletic Associations), the same unionist paramilitary group (the Red Hand Defenders) shot and killed another 18-year-old who they thought was Catholic. He turned out to be a Protestant friend of Catholic boys in the area.

On September 28, unionist paramilitaries killed a journalist as he walked near his home with his wife. The Red Hand Defenders, who claimed the killing, stated that the journalist, Martin O’Hagan, had committed crimes against unionists by reporting on paramilitary atrocities.

Despite these killings, and other violence against Catholics – which Protestant paramilitary groups have claimed - the Unionist politicians continued to call for IRA decommissioning before they re-engage politically.


David Trimble and the UUP, upon establishing their leadership right after the 1998 elections, immediately tried to gain concessions from the IRA in regard to weapons decommissioning. The IRA agreed to a cease-fire, and stated that they supported a peaceful, political settlement. However, alluding to the RUC and British army attacks on Catholics in years gone by, they refused to decommission until the RUC was reformed and Sinn Fein was invited to sit for elections. The unionists insisted on IRA decommissioning, and the new agreement was already in crisis.

The Irish and British governments, along with Senator Mitchell from the United States, negotiated and got Trimble and the UUP to begin the process of building political mechanisms for peace without IRA decommissioning. An international decommissioning body, independent of the political process, was established. The IRA and other paramilitary groups were asked to engage with the independent body, so as to remove decommissioning from political wrangling. The IRA engaged, and the general in charge, Gen. John de Chastelain from Canada, reported that the IRA was acting in good faith.[xii]

However, before long, David Trimble, with support from the UUP, decided to prohibit two democratically elected Sinn Fein representatives from serving on one of the ministerial councils established by the GFA. He stated that until the IRA decommissioned, the ministers would not be permitted to serve. A British court ruled that he was doing this illegally, but Mr. Trimble continued to disallow the Sinn Fein ministers from serving.

In July 2001, the British and Irish governments, joined by Sinn Fein, the UUP, the SDLP, and other pro-agreement (pro-GFA) parties, held talks in Great Britain to address the UUP’s concern over decommissioning. However, after days of talks, the resulting document reinforced the concerns not of Unionists but of Catholics. Tony Blair acknowledged that the British government had been remiss in implementing the GFA, including changes to the Protestant RUC.

While it was reaffirmed that decommissioning was required to attain a lasting peace, it was acknowledged that, in accordance with the original GFA, decommissioning was not a precondition to the political process and was not to be managed by the political parties but by the international body charged with the task.

The unionists refused to budge, and then in August, they were bolstered when three Irish men with ties to Sinn Fein and the IRA were arrested in Colombia, allegedly because of their involvement with FARC guerillas. The FARC is a left-wing organization currently in disfavor with the US. The FARC has conducted operations in Colombia that have garnered them a terrorist label. Consequently, the Unionists have attempted to show that the IRA continues to be a terrorist organization and that their cease-fire is over.

After a few days of questionable allegations, the three men were jailed without being charged. Initial reports from the Colombian government (itself a brutal right wing regime) stated that there was video and other hard evidence that the men had been training FARC personnel in terrorist techniques. It turns out that no such evidence exists. However, the incident provided enough circumstantial evidence to allow the Unionists to increase their pressure on the IRA to decommission. Neither the IRA nor Sinn Fein acknowledged that the men in Colombia were on IRA or Sinn Fein missions. The men themselves have denied the allegations against them, but will be held for some months until charged or released.

Then, on September 11, three planes hit targets in the US. Unionists are assuming that the terrorist attacks in NY will remove all US support for Sinn Fein.

Ironically, the events in NY show that Unionists no longer care about peace and decommissioning. They simply want the GFA to be renegotiated, and in the interim, they want Northern Ireland to return to the segregated state that it was. They have stated that before Thanksgiving, they will ask to have Sinn Fein removed from the political process. If that fails (which it will), they will walk away from the GFA.

For unionists, the resistance to the GFA was never about decommissioning, but simply about sharing power. Consider the leaders of unionism: Ian Paisley has led a large group of Protestants from a pulpit of bigotry; David Trimble has found it easy to become an Orangeman once more.

He is a member of the Loyal Orange Order. The Orange Order oath reads as follows: “he should strenuously oppose the fatal errors and doctrines of the Church of Rome, and scrupulously avoid countenancing (by his presence or otherwise) any act of ceremony of Popish worship; he should by all lawful means, resist the ascendancy of that Church, its encroachments, and the extension of its power, ever abstaining from all uncharitable words, actions or sentiments, towards his Roman Catholic brethren. …I was born at ___________ in the county of _____________  Protestant parents, was educated in the Protestant faith, and have never been in any way connected with the Church of Rome. My wife is a Protestant/I am unmarried” [xiii]

The other unionist party is led by the Reverend Ian Paisley, whose Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was polled to have voted 85% “No” to the peace agreement. The Reverend Paisley’s bigotry in Northern Ireland is legendary. His website, www.ianpaisley.org, concisely reveals his hatred of Catholicism.

Most polls now show that his DUP is more popular than the moderate UUP. While the UUP has lost seats in the British Parliament and in local elections, the DUP has gained (as has Sinn Fein). However, Paisley leading a large constituency is the equivalent of Jerry Falwell leading one of America’s largest political parties.

The DUP is forcing the UUP to move closer to an anti-GFA stance. This has not been difficult for David Trimble, the UUP leader, since many in the UUP have wanted to move away from the peace process anyway.

“Have you ever spoken to David Trimble?” I asked the Irish Republican.

“Oh, no. I’ve passed David Trimble in the hall and he would never even look at me.”

So much for politics.

[i] Coogan, Tim Pat, The IRA: A History Roberts Rinehart, 1994 p266

[ii] Quote from Lord Brookeborough, British MP, 1921

[iii] Coogan, op.cit. p251-268

[iv] Coogan, op.cit. p476

[v] Coogan, op.cit. p266

[vi] Coogan, op.cit. p259

[vii] Taylor, Peter Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein  p131-2, 136-144, 322-3,329-34,337-8

[viii] Coogan, op.cit. p456

[ix] Daily Mirror(UK), 6/23/93

[x] Wastell, David, Ciaran Byrne and Catherine Elsworth, “Ireland celebrates a vote for peace” The Electronic Telegraph (UK), May 24, 1998

[xi] “The Referendum 22 May[1998]”, www.thenisite.com/politics/ni_pol.htm

[xii] Report of The International Body on Arms Decommissioning, Jan. 24, 1996, paragraphs 34, 35; also, reports titled, “Report Of The Independent International Commission On Decommission”, reports of Jan. 31, 2000; Feb. 11, 2000; Oct. 26, 2000; Jun 30, 2001;

[xiii] “Constitution, Laws and Ordnances of the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland”, p2