A Month of Murder

The basic problem of Northern Ireland continues to be the existence of the state itself


The intractability of the Northern Ireland problem was as well demonstrated in the first month of 1981 as at any other time in the last 60 years. Blatant bias was displayed in the courts in favour of British soldiers who had brutally murdered two farm workers in October 1972, with the senior soldier involved, Captain Snowball, being freed having pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact - an offence which would merit any republican at least 12 years imprisonment.


Then there was the attempted assassination of Bernadette McAliskey and her husband. The horrific circumstances of the shootings were sufficient cause for revulsion in themselves but added to that were a number of other very significant factors. In the first place there was clear evidence that senior members of the UDA were planning an assassination attempt - a reporter from a Dutch magazine had been so informed a week prior to the shooting and the authorities clearly knew of the possibility at least of such an attack. The presence of British troops in the vicinity of the shooting, in the light of the previously known information, was too coincidental not to deserve explanation but none was forthcoming. The suspicion must remain that the authorities knew of the plans to assassinate her but did nothing to prevent them from the outset.


Then there is the question of the missing hour between the time when the shootings took place and that when the authorities first acknowledged that the incident occurred. Why there should be such a discrepancy is difficult to fathom but the fact that there was such a discrepancy adds further substance to the suspicions which were aroused anyway.


That the UDA should be so clearly involved in such activities raises additional questions. The UDA is not a proscribed organisation in Northern Ireland in spite of the repeated evidence to show that its members have been involved in sectarian assassination campaigns with the obvious sanction of the leadership. We are not advocating the proscribing of the UDA for we believe that the proscribing of any organisation to be improper - (the ordinary laws of the land both here and in Northern Ireland are sufficient to guard against conspiracies against the State or individuals and the right to free association is sacred).


However, we are drawing attention to the fact that there is discriminatory treatment in the official reaction to the UDA and the IRA and that the UDA is treated officially as a half-respectable organisation with the' right to march through the centre of Belfast - a right denied throughout the decade of troubles to any republican/nationalist/civil rights organisation.


The UDA also enjoys sympathetic responses from Southern based political parties. For instance, Liam Cosgrave as Taoiseach entertained senior members of that organisation to tea in Leinster House in 1974. Paddy Harte, the recently removed Fine Gael spokesman on Northern Ireland, cavorted here and abroad with senior members of the organisation well known to have had an active and direct part in sectarian assassinations - this was made respectable under !he guise of reconciliatory overtures. Sinn Fein The Workers' Party are all for promoting joint ventures with these people on class-issue politics - e.g. the burning question of the Belfast ring road, and even some Fianna Fail wets have been to Belfast for "dialogue" with these gentlemen.


Then there was the series of operations conducted by the Provisional IRA. The killing of the UDA man at Warrenpoint on Friday, January 16, the same day as the shooting of the McAliskeys, attracted considerably less publicity than the latter incident. The man was singled out from among several other people at the customs post at Warrenpoint harbour and shot in the head in front of his workmates. The Provisional IRA justified his killing, as they have done those of other UDR members on the grounds that he was a member of a part-time regiment of the army of occupation and repression. While this of course is true, whatever justification attaches to the shooting of regular British soldiers, it does not have the same impact on the community in Northern Ireland as does the killing of UDR members and police reservists. Most people, including us, find the circumstances of these killings repulsive and, of course, sectarian bitterness is fuelled copiously by such actions - a dimension to these operations of which the Provisionals have always been dismissive.


Then on the evening of Wednesday, January 21, the Provisional IRA shot dead Sir Norman Stronge and his son James at their home in Tynanabbey, Co. Armagh. The rationale for this operation was that these were members of the unionist ruling elite, who bore the main part of the responsibility, directly or indirectly, for the activities of the loyalist paramilitaries or members of the UDR and police reserve, which were described in the statement as mere "cannon fodder".


The reference to cannon fodder offered its own commentary on the killing of the UDR man five days previously. But the suggestion that Sir Norman Stronge, a man aged 85, had any responsibility for the activities of the UDA is patently absurd and, incidentally, this line in logic could easily be extended to include the entire unionist population.


Incidentally, it seems that the Tynanabbey operation was undertaken as an alternative to an attack on the UDA headquarters in east Belfast. That the Provisionals saw equal responsibility attaching to the Strong family and the UDA leadership for the assassination campaign against H-Block activists is hardly credible. It is obvious that Sir Norman and James Stronge were killed because of a variety of other factors: (a) their proximity to the border; (2) their vulnerability; (3) their publicity potential and (4) the prospect of their killing offering vaguely plausible grounds as justification.

Two days before the Tynanabbey attack the body of IRA volunteer, Maurice Gilvarry, was found near the border. A Provisional IRA statement explained that he had been executed for passing information to the authorities about the IRA.


In the wake of these incidents a national conference on the H-Block and Armagh prison issue was held in Dublin on Sunday, January 25. Magill has consistently supported the demand for political status for these prisoners. We have done so on the grounds that the British Government policy of "criminalisation" should be opposed and this is one tangible means of doing so. The criminalisation policy is that whereby the British Government seeks to suggest that violence in Northern Ireland is the product of bizarre and criminal tendencies rather than of a deep-rooted political problem of its creation, a problem demanding a political solution.


The suggestion that the H-Block and Armagh prisoners are "ordinary prisoners" or "ordinary criminals" is part of the denial that the basic problem is political. We have also supported the prisoners' five demands on the grounds that (a) any improvement in the dehumanising and degrading prison conditions should be welcomed and (b) as these prisoners have been subjected to special courts, legislation, interrogation procedures etc. they are entitled to special category treatment in prison.


None of the incidents of last month, described above, makes any difference to our support for the H-Block and Armagh prisoners' protest campaign. However, these incidents do have a profound bearing on the attempt now being made to re-mobilise the mass campaign in support of the prisoners' demands. One of the striking achievements of the H-Block campaign prior to Christmas was the political pressure which it exerted on the Provisional IRA, leading to a virtual cessation of operations for a five-week period. For the first time the Provisionals became amenable to popular pressure - became marginally responsive to those people for whom it purports to be fighting. The activities of this month show that the Provisionals have reverted to their former elitist military stance, contemptuous of popular feeling.


There is simply no way that a mass popular campaign can be mobilised while the Provisionals continue the killing of people, perceived, by all but them and a tiny number of their supporters, as innocent. There is no way that popular support for the prisoners' demands can be mobilised with killings such as those of Sir Norman and James Stronge. And there is another point. How can one campaign with credibility on the issue that the normal judicial procedures have been denied the prisoners in H-Block and Armagh and that they are therefore en titled to special treatment in prison when all judicial procedures were denied Maurice Gilvarry? And he wasn't just denied special category status, the death penalty was invoked against him. Execution without trial.


While it is quite proper to make judgements on the individual actions of the Provisional IRA or UDA or the British army, the basic problem of Northern Ireland continues to be the existence of the state itself. So long as it exists then so long will there be violence or incipient violence. It is inherently an unjust, repressive, sectarian state, it is irreformable, as repeated attempts at reform since the days of Captain O'Neill have proved. At last a Taoiseach in the South seems to have got hold of this point and to be doing something about it.


Charlie Haughey is dead right but in the meantime many of the rest of us may be just dead.