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An Angry Young Man

It could have been any street in any industrial town or city in England that winter evening early in 1970. Almost fifty years later it is impossible to recall with accuracy the nature of the buildings that lined it, illuminated in the orange glow of sodium lighting. I imagine most would have been closed and shuttered except perhaps for a launderette or a tobacconist. A dress shop, hardware store and pharmacy would have ceased trading an hour or two earlier. A fish and chip shop would have announced its presence long before I reached it.

It was around 7pm and the traffic was light. The number of working class families with motor cars then was much fewer than now. But it was an feature of the traffic that served as a reminder that this was not just another English city. In fact, it was not even England.

At just turned 28 I had been working for my then employer for a little over a year and a half. Much of that time had been spent producing drawings for a plant to be installed at the company’s synthetic fibre manufacturing facility at Carrickfergus a few miles north of Belfast. With design work completed I had been assigned to another project. Now construction of the plant was completed too. The task of starting up and handing over of the plant had been allocated to a young management trainee from Northern Ireland. I had been delegated to accompany him to Carrickfergus where my role would be to acquaint him with the various parts of the plant and their intended functions.

It was the availability of accommodation for him in the family home that left me alone in a small hotel for the night. I decided to take a bus into the city and take in a movie. The local paper I found in the small reception area of the hotel told me there was a film that might be worth seeing at a cinema on this street. Not knowing how far along the street the cinema might be, I decided to walk out from the city centre.

troops-enter-belfast-nort-015

August 1969, Belfast. Image (c) Paul Hill, originally commissioned by The Observer

The name of the street was all too familiar. Six months previously it had featured regularly in the evening news as the scene of rioting. I don’t doubt that my decision to walk was influenced by a morbid desire to see first hand the scene of those riots. For me and, I imagined, the majority of young Britons, those riots had revealed a shocking truth: that there was still, in the United Kingdom, a group of people who were denied certain basic human rights. They did not have the vote, they were denied access to certain jobs, and they were, or so it seemed, being treated by the majority of their fellow Northern Irish residents as second class citizens. We felt that, whilst some of their activities could not be condoned, they did have right on their side.

Now the government had acceded to some of their demands. The rioting had ceased and life in the province had returned to normal. Except that some of the army personnel that had been deployed to quell the riots were still present.

The passage along the street of two grey painted Land Rovers, bearing distinctive military registration plates, was my reminder that tonight I was on a street unlike any other in the Kingdom. Their windows were covered with steel plates in which narrow slits provided the only means for the occupants to see where they were going and to observe other road users.

Once arrived at my intended destination I discovered that the programme had changed mid-week and that the film I wanted to see was no longer showing. I didn’t fancy what was on offer and recalled that I had also considered the possibility of going to the “arthouse” cinema at Queen’s University where a film by Jean Luc Godard was promised. There was not sufficient time to walk back to the city centre but it occurred to me that I might get to the university before the film began if I took a bus.

I crossed the street and waited at the bus stop opposite the cinema. Soon I was joined by a couple of young men who stationed themselves behind me at a discrete distance and indulged in some idle chatter. I recall nothing of these exchanges. I took no notice, lost in my own thoughts until the re-appearance of those army Land Rovers on their return journey to the city centre.

One of the men behind me let rip an expletive laden torrent of invective against the “F***ing bastard British army”, shouted at the top of his voice. No sooner were the Land Rovers past than he must have regretted having expressed his anger within earshot of a stranger. He could hardly have failed to note my reaction: the reddening of my neck and ears, the agitated shuffling of feet.

Are you English?” he asked in calmer tones.

Denial was not a viable option. I turned to face the men. I guessed from the way he looked me up and down that it was the younger of the two who had posed the question. I didn’t doubt, either, that it was he who had uttered the tirade.

Yes,” I said, already beginning to doubt the wisdom of venturing this far from the city centre alone.

A soldier?”

No.”

Journalist?”

I’m an Engineer. Doing a job for Courtaulds.”

What part of England are you from?”

Coventry.”

Ah. I’ve been to Coventry. I have relatives there. Look, I’m sorry about earlier. Can you imagine how you’d feel if Coventry was bristling with soldiers the way Belfast is just now?”

I resisted the temptation to point out that Coventry had not been the recent scene of civil disturbances. Grateful for the imminent arrival of the bus I moved closer to the kerb edge. I climbed the spiral stairs to find a seat on the top deck. The two men ascended and sat in the seat immediately in front of mine. Turning to lean on the back of his seat, the young man repeated profuse apologies and went on to regale me with a story about a friend who had, he claimed, been brutally beaten by a soldier using the butt of his rifle to administer the blows. The soldier and his colleagues were just teenagers like the victim and his friend. Their vicious show of power was the cause of his anger.

As the conductor arrived to collect our fares the young man insisted on paying mine for me. When we arrived at the city centre he provided directions to Queen’s University. It was there that I was to receive the second shocking revelation of the night.

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Bernadette Devlin addressing a crowd in Derry City. Image found at http://www.thoughtco.com. Attribution unknown

As the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland had grown during the preceding summer, echoing the similarly named movement demanding equal rights for African Americans in the USA, one of the people who had emerged as a popular leader was a young woman from Derry called Bernadette Devlin. She had grown rapidly in popularity among the population of Derry City, sufficiently so as to be elected to the British parliament, where she had become the youngest member of that body, earning widespread admiration for the way she had articulated the grievances of her fellow citizens.

That admiration plainly did not extend to all parts of the province. As I approached the university campus I passed a series of timber hoardings upon which I was able to read in graphic detail, not so much a critique of her rhetoric, as a libelous account of “Bogside Bernie’s” sexual proclivities and the crudest imaginable descriptions of various parts of her anatomy. Alongside this shockingly pornographic writing were equally lewd, rude and crude illustrations.

I don’t remember much about the movie. It concerned a group of people stuck in a traffic jam as they joined the annual summer exodus from Paris. I vaguely recall that it featured some horrific pile ups involving numerous vehicles and some strange antics, around a camp fire, involving a fish.

The two examples of sheer unforgiving hatred that I experienced on my way there will, however, live with me forever. I recalled them repeatedly over the next two decades of violence that beset Northern Ireland and frequently spilled over to England with bombings of pubs and shopping centres in Birmingham, Guildford and Manchester among others.

In recent years the warring factions within the province have arrived at something of an accommodation and I have the greatest admiration for those like Mo Mowlem and George Mitchell whose patience and persistence made that possible. But it remains difficult for ordinary outsiders like me to understand what drove such bitterness and hatred. My belief is that fear born of ignorance is the root cause of conflict wherever it is found.

I often wonder what became of those two young men that travelled on the bus with me that night forty eight years ago, or the authors of the evil graffiti on the hoardings near Queen’s University. Did they join a paramilitary organisation? Were they driven out of their homes because they were of a different religion to that of their neighbours? Did they serve time in the infamous “H” block high security prison, perhaps participating in the hunger strikes or “dirty” protests? Did they become active participants in one or more bomb plots? Did they achieve positions of power within local or national government or in some covert organisation?

Above all, did they pass on their hate filled beliefs to their children and grandchildren, or did they discover, as some of their leaders seem to have done, an understanding of the importance of tolerance and forgiveness? I hope the latter is true.

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Saturday Sound-off: The Will of the People #2

I am getting more than a little tired of people who want to remain in the EU but say “The people have voted and we must accept that.” Why do such people lack the courage to stand up for what they believe in? Why are they content to stand by and watch the country being destroyed, however reluctantly they do so?

I have explained previously how the vote on 23rd June 2016 did not represent the will of (all of ) the people. But there is something even more significant about the #Brexit referendum and it is most easily explained by comparison with the recent referendum here in Ireland.

Apart from the size of the majority, much more clear cut at almost 2/3rds in favour, the Irish referendum did not impose anything upon the losers. On the contrary, it removed an imposition.

The repeal of the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution does not mean that anybody will, in future, have to have an abortion. Those who object on moral or any other grounds to the ending of a pregnancy can still allow their own pregnancy to go to full term whatever the circumstances of conception or the existence of serious risk to the health of the mother or the foetus. But for those facing such a difficult choice there will now be the opportunity to end the pregnancy under certain fairly narrow circumstances yet to be defined by the Irish Parliament.

#Brexit, on the other hand is being imposed on the rest of the population of Britain by the minority who positively supported it two years ago.

What does that mean? Never mind the claim that “Brexit means Brexit”, the reality is that, for businesses that trade with the European Union and for people who like to travel between Britain and the European Union, those activities will, in future, be less easy than they presently are.

Despite all the talk about “frictionless borders”, one thing that everyone who voted to leave the EU has stated repeatedly is that they believe the current arrangements for controlling the borders between Britain and the EU are inadequate and that tougher controls need to be put in place.

border

Photo credit: Telegraph Newspapers

That must, inevitably, mean more customs officials, more passport checks, more queues at the ports. It’s not just about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or between Gibraltar and Spain, for that matter. It’s about every point of entry into and exit from the UK.

It means more lorry parks at Dover and places like Lowestoft, Immingham and Hull. It means more frequent bag and passport checks for people arriving home to the UK from European holidays or business trips.

And if you wonder why the cabinet is so divided, it is because of the impossibility of squaring the circle between securing greater control of Britain’s borders on the one hand, and maintaining frictionless trade and travel between the UK and the EU on the other. And all this because for 40 years people have been fed myths and half-truths about the EU’s influence in the lives of ordinary Britons.

Make no mistake, it’s those ordinary Britons who will be worse off in so many ways because of Brexit. The rich, tax avoiding, corporations and oligarchs will be the only beneficiaries. Shame on those politicians who purport to defend “the many not the few” for their abject failure to do just that.

Saturday Sound-off: Blather About Borders and #Brexit

Blather is an old Scots word ultimately derived from an earlier Scandinavian word for chatter or prattle. I could have used any one of many words to denote the nonsense that is still being uttered by British politicians who want the UK to leave the EU. I was tempted to use a crude reference to bovine excrement or an equally unsavoury noun usually associated with a certain part of the male anatomy that comes by the pair.

I caught a segment of the ‘Tonight‘ programme on Irish television earlier in the week in which Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was taking part. Asked what was his problem with the Single Market and the Customs Union, he asserted that they prevent the UK negotiating trade deals with non-EU countries, deals which he was sure would benefit Northern Ireland businesses. When it was pointed out that most of those countries, including those who are members of the Commonwealth, prefer to deal with the UK as part of the much larger EU market, he responded by saying he had recently returned from Egypt where he led a trade mission from Northern Ireland, securing lucrative contracts for Northern Ireland businesses.

I felt like shouting at the screen: “membership of the EU didn’t prevent you doing that, then!”

Also this week, Channel 4 News asked a random sample of English people to mark the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic on a map of the island. The results were astonishing, showing that most people have no idea that, for example, the most northern point of the island, Malin Head, is in the Republic. Britons frequently refer to Northerrn Ireland as “Ulster” – I used to do it myself but have carefully avoided doing so in this post. The fact is that the ancient Irish province of Ulster includes Donegal which is in the Republic, to the west of Northern Ireland.

But whilst this week’s controversy has been concentrated on the land border between the UK and the EU, and the implications for the Northern Ireland peace process of any reinstatement of a border between the two parts of the island of Ireland, no-one ought to lose sight of the UK’s east and south coasts with their many ports, from Aberdeen to Southampton, all of which handle traffic between the UK and continental Europe and all of which will need some degree of additional policing if the “best deal for Britain” that David Davis is so eager to achieve falls short of the existing arrangements. And then there are the 16 regional airports*, as well as Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead.

I am only an ordinary citizen, although I did once dabble in local politics and even stood as a candidate for the European parliament, but I cannot comprehend how anyone could imagine that any “deal” could be better than the one we already have. I make no apology for repeating again what I said before the referendum, here, and, afterwards, here, and have continued to say in the period since.

As this comprehensive Facebook post from Jon Danzig at Reasons2Remain makes clear, the months of uncertainty, negotiations, and costly preparations that the UK has been forced to endure, and will continue to endure through the proposed two year “transition period”, are utterly pointless if the deal that is struck at the end of the process looks anything like the one we already have. And, if it doesn’t, then businesses that rely on fast freight transfers between the UK and EU will be hampered and their customers, the citizens of Britain, will pay the price.

*For anyone interested the 16 are, in alphabetical order, Birmingham; Blackpool; Bournemouth; Bristol; Cardiff; East Midlands; Exeter; Humberside; Leeds Bradford; Liverpool; Luton; Manchester; Newcastle; Norwich; and Teesside.

Blame: Job of Historians, or Not?

I am not a historian. I have recently begun studying history in a very informal way. I have not studied under a professional historian as one would if one took a university course. I read the works of others who are professionals. Sometimes reading about the same events as presented by different historians is instructive. One quickly learns that each historian brings his or her own perspective to understanding the event or events. Often that perspective is, consciously or sub-consciously, political. For example, I find that many Irish writers discussing the famine that afflicted Ireland between 1845 and 1852 seem to approach it from a politically left leaning viewpoint. This comes across in their condemnation of landlords and the overt market economics being pursued by the British government at the time.

Finn Dwyer is a frequent podcaster and blogger about Irish history having covered the Black Death in a recent series which became a book. I frequently share his posts via Twitter and my author page on Facebook.  He is, like me, currently working on a book about the famine. In this blog post, published on his site today, he discusses the role of historians in apportioning blame. He does so in the context of the weekend’s revelations about infant deaths in mother and baby homes that were hidden from the public eye by means of burial without ceremony in mass graves.

My own view is that if we confine ourselves merely to establishing the facts, without attempting to understand the reasons why they happened, we have little chance of preventing their repetition at some point in the future. That may mean blaming circumstance and faulty thought processes rather than individuals or institutions. It is, after all, the thought processes that need to be challenged. And alarms can be sounded if we should ever see a similar set of circumstances appear.

Finn’s post is here: http://irishhistorypodcast.ie/tuam-will-historians-help-or-hinder/

Making a Choice: #atozchallenge (X)

This post is for election nerds. If politics or statistics leave you cold, read no further. If, however, you want to try to understand how it is that supposedly democratic elections so often fail to produce a satisfactory outcome, read on.

In May 2015 the voters of the UK made their choice. 37% of them placed their ‘X’ against a candidate of the Conservative Party. Almost 13% placed their ‘X’ against the name of someone representing the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Yet the Conservatives hold 331 of the seats in the new Parliament (51%) whilst UKIP holds just one seat.

The reason? Britain uses a system of voting known as First Past the Post (FPTP). In each electoral area the individual with most votes is the one deemed elected. So if there are a large number of candidates it is quite possible for someone to be declared the winner with fewer than 30% of the total votes cast in that area. A great deal, therefore, depends on the demographics of each electoral area. Across the United Kingdom there are electoral areas (called constituencies) where there is a tradition of voting for one or other of the two main parties which, broadly speaking, represent either working class values (Labour) or middle class aspirations (Conservative). This gives rise to two important effects:

  • In most constituencies the outcome is predictable, therefore a vote for any other candidate can be seen as a ‘wasted vote’, having no impact on the overall result.
  • In the relatively small number (about 15%) of constituencies where the demographic is mixed, the result could go either way. Therefore all parties concentrate their campaigning efforts on these ‘marginal’ areas. Electors in these constituencies are the ones with the power to determine who governs.

These discrepancies, between share of vote and seat share, suggest that UK elections are far from truly democratic, since the result is nearly always a government with minority electoral support. It is this fact that has made me a lifelong advocate of Proportional Representation, a system of elections that ensures the share of seats in the parliament matches the share of votes cast. It is important to understand that there are several such systems in use around the world, none of which is precisely proportional. All do, however, produce a result closer to the expressed wish of the electorate than does FTTP.

The system I have always favoured goes by the cumbersome title of ‘Single Transferable Vote in Multi-member Constituencies’, STV for short. Constituencies are larger than present UK constituencies – that is to say they have a larger population. Each enlarged constituency returns three or more representatives to parliament. Voters place candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper, listing them 1, 2, 3, etc., rather than marking with a ‘X’. In doing so, they are, in effect answering two supplementary questions after ‘which candidate would you like to represent you?’:

  • ‘If he or she gets more votes than he or she needs, who else would you like to represent you’, and
  • ‘If he or she doesn’t get enough votes, which of the remaining candidates would you choose?’

That’s the system in operation in Ireland. On February 26th this year an election was held in Ireland. And it revealed the problem inherent in the system. Fine Gael, the party with most votes, received just 25.5% of the votes cast. In second place, Fianna Fail received 24.3%. In other words, the 2 main parties, bitterly opposed to each other, could not muster 50% of the vote between them. Of the rest, only Sinn Fein received more than 10%. Two months after the election, Ireland still does not have a government. And it remains unclear if the parties will be able to agree on a minority administration any time soon, or if there will need to be another election, the outcome of which could well be no more conclusive.

Do I still favour proportional representation? Yes, because democracy demands it. But it is clear that FTTP is better able to produce stable government. In either case, those granted the honour of representing the people ought to pay attention to the underlying level of support for their particular viewpoint. They should not assume that they can implement every policy contained in their manifesto despite the obvious unpopularity of some of those policies. They must be willing to seek compromises, rather than arrogantly asserting the superiority of their own ideology.

Do you have experience of different electoral systems? I would especially welcome an explanation of the system in use in the USA in the current Presidential election.