“For three and a half decades, the world’s media trained its attention on the terrorist ‘war’ raging in Ireland’s north-east six counties. Behind a screen of gunsmoke and fire, beyond the macho men in the woolen masks toting their rifles and laying their bombs, stands another narrative, a hidden Ireland.”
[Colours: Ireland – From Bombs to Boom – Henry McDonald]
In 1966, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, the Irish State broadcast hagiographic portraits of the Rising’s leaders and held large popular rallies. The atmosphere was one of quasi-religious awe and reverence for the men who initiated a violent, doomed to failure, and at the time unpopular rebellion against British Rule in Ireland. In the forty years that have passed since then the island of Ireland has seen a surge of sectarian and political violence that linked Ulster with the most dangerous places on the planet. In the Republic, poverty and cycles of mass emigration have been replaced by economic boom and unforseen immigration; the one-time Catholic confessional State has collapsed amid child abuse scandals and liberal crusades for divorce and contraception. This month, the Dublin Government’s plans to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising with a military parade have met with controversy – something that would have been unthinkable in 1966. In short, time moves on, and while in the last century Nationalism, Unionism, and Republicanism where the easiest frames within which to discuss Ireland, in this new century they seem increasingly outdated.
Henry McDonald, the Observer‘s Ireland editor and author of books on Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, and also the Ulster Volunteer Force, delves into the alternative narratives of Ireland in Colours: Ireland – from Bombs to Boom, in part a memoir and in part a fascinating sociological study. McDonald grew up in the Catholic, Republican Markets area of Belfast. The backdrop was sectarianism, internment, and republican ‘armed struggle’, but, as the book demonstrates, it was also one of football fans, punk rock, international socialism. The book illustrates how, just as many Irish men and women identified themselves in the traditional moulds of Republicanism/Unionism or Catholic/Protestant, there were plenty of others who sought and found new ways to define themselves.
McDonald, a consistently interesting commentator on all things Irish, kindly agreed to discuss various issues with Three Monkeys Online (via email).
In Colours, you make an interesting comparison between political corruption in Ireland and Italy. In Berlusconi’s Italy (and indeed with governments before him) one of the problems is a media that remains silent – whether it’s for reasons of fear, complacency or collusion. How would you judge the Irish media’s response to political corruption? How do you judge the attacks made on Frank Connolly and the Centre for Public Enquiry?
In the main the Irish media has been quite robust in exposing southern
Irish political corruption including the public broadcaster RTE. What you
say are ‘attacks’ on the Centre for Public Inquiry were in my opinion part
of that drive to expose corruption. Why? Because Frank Connolly has yet to
explain in any way why he was in Colombia on a false passport at the same
time as the IRA were earning millions of dollars from FARC and its drug
dealing. Unless and until Mr Connolly explains all this adequately, he can’t
throw brickbats at politicians over corruption. The words ‘People,
Glasshouses and Stones’ come to mind here.
You’ve written about the influx of foreign workers into Northern Ireland – for example the Portuguese community in Dungannon. What kind of effect is immigration having on Northern society?
The immigration effect will be a slow burner. But already it is
having benign consequences. For instance the area in and around the
Tunnell, a Catholic enclave of Portadown, was in serious decline in terms of
populace and environment. Over the last couple of years however the area
has undergone a rennaisance as dozens of families from Portugal and
Portuguese speaking countries are moving in – principally to work in local
food processsing firms.
There have been problems of course. Just last week
a couple of Polish families were attacked in south Belfast by local Ulster
loyalists who alleged the Poles were engaged in anti social behaviour. But
the numbers of foreign immigrants far outweighs isolated racist and
xenophobic attacks. In general the influx is welcome and progressive, the
positive side of globalisation. For example my local pub, The Pavillion in
South Belfast, holds a Polish night once a month where DJs from Warsaw fly
to Belfast, there are Polish drinks on offer, etc, and it is extremely
successful. Roll on the day that we have our first Polish, African or
Chinese councillor. Bring it on.
Riots erupted around the ‘Love Ulster’ parade, organised by Unionists in Dublin recently. Does the violence, in your opinion, reflect a generally held antagonism to Ulster Unionists in the Republic, or rather an easy chance for extremists on both the republican and loyalist sides to monopolise headlines?
I think in general the people of the Republic are more tolerant
and relaxed than the people of Northern Ireland. I was an eyewitness to the riots
and my conclusions are these. Firstly, the majority of the rioters were
opportunistic hoolies. Secondly, the cult of Glasgow Celtic and the
tribalising influence of it played a part too. Thirdly, I think it was
dissident republicans who exploited the situation, principally elements
aligned to the Real IRA. There was a level of organisation to the rioting,
which was directed not only against the unionist marchers (whom they never
got near), but also the Irish State.