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Under the Gun in Ireland 1983
national | anti-war / imperialism | news report Friday April 06, 2018 22:32 by Michael Donahue Steinberg - Black Rain Press
An Irish American's Visit To the North of Ireland in 1983
UNDER THE GUN IN IRELAND
What we found there was a vicious colonialism that rules through murder, lies and a concerted attempt at total social control. And a native people who exist under this everyday terror and resist it with extraordinary courage and grace.
I arrive a few days before the tour begins to explore the southern Republic a bit. I first visit the city of Limerick at the mouth of the River Shannon on the west coast. It was from here that my great-grandfather Cornelius Donahue emigrated sometime in the mid 19th century.
From there I travel to the spectacular lakes and mountains of Killarney, the soft ocean beauty of southernmost Baltimore, and the historic sites of rebellion in the Republic's 2 major cities, Cork and Dublin.
The fabled Emerald Isle is indeed a visual delight. But as clear to the eye as the lovely green abounding is the economic domination of US and British interests. Return of the Jedi and Octopussy are the 2 big summer movies.
And, sadly, most of the people of the South seem to accept both this and the partition of their country. People I tell I'm going up North universally advise me to stay away.
Nevertheless, I meet up with the rest of the tour group in Dublin on Tuesday, August 2. We discover 15 states are represented. The largest contingents are from New York and New Jersey, but there are a respectable number of Californians, a state representative from Massachusetts, and others from Washington and Florida, New Mexico and North Dakota, Maryland and Arizona and Indiana. The group ranges in age from under 15 to over 70.
The tour has been organized in the US byNorthern Irish Aid (Noraid), which provides financial support to the families of Irish political prisoners. The FBI has accused Noraid of also providing arms to the IRA, but these charges have never been proved. Noraid's most well known member is 81 year old Michael Flannery, who beat federal gun running charges last winter and went on to become Grand Marshall of this year's St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City.
We hop off at Sinn Fein headquarters on the Falls. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Republican movement, is our host for the tour. The party, which showed surprising strength in last year's parliamentary election, actually functions as the political government of the Catholic nationalist minority of the North. Nationalists favor the reunification of Ireland, but not necessarily the creation of an Irish socialist republic that Sinn Fein promotes.
The streets are filled with graffitti and eager greeters. Children with familiar looking faces flock around us, full of giggles and questions. An 8 year ld redhead persuades me to trade my last US dollar for 50 pence.
A derelict building a few doors down has smoke pouring from it. We wonder where the fire department is. Oh they'll get around to it, the neighborhood people tell us.
They show up in about 15 minutes, Not long after a jeep pulls up in front of the burning structure. Pale men with pinched faces jump out and train there Uzi machine guns on folks around. We Americans look at one another nervously. But the people of the Falls seem to pay it no mind.
In a while we are escorted to the homes we will be staying with while in Belfast. Three of us are put up in a typical small rowhouse not far away. It's just off Beechmount Avenue, also known as RPG (rocket propelled grenade) Ave because of IRA rocket grenade attacks on a British barracks nearby.
That evening we reassemble at the Martin Forsyth club, named for an IRA volunteer killed in 1972. The next day we're told the club has been bombed 3 times.
Transportation to the club is provided by black taxis. The Republican movement started this alternative transit system after city buses were withdrawn from the Falls in the late 60s. For 45 cents the taxis will take you anywhere between downtown and the Upper Falls. Helicopter searchlights sweep over West Belfast during our ride. Some believe the greatest danger of surveillance is when the lights are off.
We are greeted at Marty Forsyth by Gerry Adams. Adams was elected as West Belfast's representative to the British Parliament in the last election. In keeping with Sinn Fein tradition protesting British occupation, he refuses to take his seat or salary. And Britain until just recently refused to allow him across its borders. But he is clearly the people's representative, and also clearly a little uncomfortable with the role of hero some would thrust upon him.
Adams addresses us briefly, impressing on us the importance of support of Irish Americans to the Republican struggle. We are, after all, descendants of those who were “forced to go because of famine or following resistance.” He closes by urging us to “spend time talking not to the Gerry Adamses, but to the ordinary people who live under the shadow of plastic bullets and concentration camps.”
The next day we are taken on a walking tour of West Belfast. Our guide Tom Hartley describes life here as “communal imprisonment.” We soon see why. British installations are strategically placed in the midst of community centers.The heliport is on top of the hospital. A command and observation post is atop a senior citizen highrise slum. Other barracks are near or in schools and churches. From here the military looks and listens and loads up.
British troops are kept isolated in these barracks during 4 month tours. Most are 20 or younger, and their anxious arrogance barely conceals a communal hallucination of an IRA volunteer behind every baby buggy. The army is supplemented by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), whose vast majority are Protestant supremacists. In most of Northern Ireland the army supplies tactical support to the RUC, but in Belfast the latter calls the shots.
They all seem to be keeping a low profile while we're in town. Only a few land rovers (armored cars with slits to look out or of shoot through) rumble by, a jeep with rifle or machine gun pointing soldiers sandwiched in between.
We stumble amongst the rubble of Christian Place and St. Peter's Court, blinking at the boarded up windows and crumbled concrete. At night Brit patrols with blackened faces haunt the darkened halls and skirmish with hardened youths.
We proceed away from Downtown back to the Falls. Along the way we're shown a Sinn Fein advice center. People can come here with problems about housing, jobs, wife abuse, police harassment. A steady stream of both Catholics and Protestants come in from opening to closing. Advice centers have been set up throughout the North.
We next head down to Bombay Street,which borders on the loyalist stronghold of Shankill. This street was also torched in 1969. Upon approaching we spot 4 British soldiers lurking at the next intersection. Our guide directs our attention to one corner building. A half visible Brit is hugging it, looking straight down his sights at us. He quickly disappears along with his comrades, hotly pursued by shutterbugs from our contingent.
On another nearby corner is an RUC barracks attacked the previous week by the IRA. British forces found an unarmed 1000 pound bomb here, but detonated it in an attempt to turn people against the 'RA.
The wall paintings are done by unemployed youth.Their previously untapped talents have time to develop thanks to a local unemployment rate exceeding 50%.
Not that they're totally neglected by the government. Every Catholic youth over 14 is in the computer in Downtown Belfast, which in turn is connected to the US/NATO computer in Germany. Nor is idle conversation ignored. Phone chit-chat is constantly monitored by a system that can randomly tap thousands of calls at a time.
We break for lunch at the Felon's Club. In order to qualify as a member, one must have been convicted of a felony and served time in one of “her majesty's hotels.”
After lunch we saunter by the Andersontown barracks, command center of the Brtitish war machine. They're doing a bit of patch work as a result of a 700 lb. IRA bomb put off here in late May. In order to pass by we have to walk in front of a line of armed and dangerous men.These soldiers seem a bit disarmed, however, by the incessant camera clicking of us Yanks.
Next we visit Milltown Cemetery. Our somber procession is led to the graves of Bobby Sands and fellow hunger striker Kiernan Doherty, of other IRA volunteers recently killed in action, to one monument honoring all those who died doe Irish freedom in the past 2 centuries, to another standing for all those killed in British imperialist forays.
Scattered about are the grave sites of political prisoners whose lives were cut short because of harsh conditions in her majesty's hotels, and also those of hundreds of innocent Catholics assassinated by loyalists in the last decade.
There is a radical shift in mood that night at a rousing social evening put on by the Royal Victoria Hospital workers. You wold be hard pressed to imagine that these merrymakers are experts in saving casualties from early interment with their brothers and sisters in Milltown.
Our buses climb above the Bogside into the post WWII Creggan housing estate. After hearty greetings and lunch at the Creggan community center, it's back on the buses for a tour of the town. Our guide today is Marsha McClennan, a San Jose Berkeley grad who came for a visit and stayed on to become a Sin Fein activist.
As we descend Marsha gives is a quic k history lesson. Derry had firm ties to County Donegal to the west. But when Ireland was partitioned in the1920s, loyalists insisted on keeping the city in the the new entity, Northern Ireland. In spite of a 2/3 nationalist majority, loyalists have achieved a 2/3 majority on the city council by confining Catholics on one side of the River Lee and ruthlessly gerrymandering voting districts.
Derry has also been kept isolated from the rest of the North. Almost all industrial development has gone to the capital, Belfast. Dupont is the major employer here, but unemployment has always been rampant. As in West Belfast, it's above 50% in the Bogside and Creggan.
We're back in West Belfast by Saturday evening, still buzzing with all we've seen and heard, exhausted by the grueling pace of the tour. Most of us take Sinn Fein's advice and rest up. For a few hours anyway. Though tomorrow's the big march celebrating the 12th anniversary of internment without trial, there's yet another social gathering tonight. People from Scotland, Wales and England have arrived as the Troops Out Movement, and there's more merriment in store.
Meanwhile, a firestorm of controversy has developed around our visit. We're front page news in the Belfast papers everyday. Some loyalist politicians are smearing us with names they usually reserve for the IRA, saying we never should have been let in the country. Since out little escapade with the guerrillas in South Armagh the rhetoric has turned even more ridiculous. How creaky is this ship of state?
The sky is clear, the air warm for the march on Sunday, the 7th of August. Noraid gathers at Sinn Fein's Falls Road office. My young redhaired friend is there too. She spots some American flags one of our delegation is passing around.
“Well, uh, yeah,” I answer, deciding to tell her what we used to do with them during Vietnam War days.
Internment (imprisonment without trial) began at 4:30 one morning in August 1971. Doors were kicked in and hundreds dragged out of bed to Long Kesh prison, with reports of beatings and torture soon filtering out. Though the British said they were looking for IRA, few were found, and as indiscriminate terror directed at the nationalist population still continues, it's still marked by this anniversary.
People line the streets all along the way. The biggest cheers come at the beginning in Beechmount and the end in Andersontown. Along the route British solders are spotted spying on us from the cemetery. A chant of “Brits Out!” routs them.
At a rally in Andersontown after the march, as the world's noisiest helicopter hovers overhead, the crowd is set to cheering when Noraid spokesperson Martin Galvin says that “hysterical reaction” by the media to our visit is “because the British cannot stand up to scrutiny from impartial eyes.” His 6 time mention of “British terrorism” is also well received. Roars greet Danny Morrison when he proclaims that the Brits can “leave by boat or in a box.”
One Monday morning we meet at Marty Forsyth for a series of lectures. This is the one major exception to Sinn Fein's policy of letting us see for ourselves. What we receive is a crash course in Irish history, with special emphasis on the struggle in the North from the late 60s on.The roles of women, culture and prisoners are explained in great depth.
One woman tells of how her brother and his wife were walking down the street one night when a British soldier shot the man in the chest. His 4 month pregnant wife threw herself on top of him. The soldier proceeded to shoot him through the head. When their parents were informed of this her father had a heart attack and also died. The woman's last words turn to sobs and there is a chilling silence.
Noraid also accepted a challenge to meet with “Widow's Mite” whose husbands were killed by the IRA. But the offer was withdrawn and it was discovered loyalist politicians , representing the widows without their knowledge, were behind the whole thing.
The afternoon daily Belfast Telegraph blares headline relaying another loyalist demand for Noraid's immediate deportation because of Martin Galvin's remarks on Sunday. There is also a demand for Danny Morrison's arrest for treason because of his exercise of free speech at the rally.
Returning to the Falls we notice a number of huge stacks which will become tonight's bonfires, also in memory of internment. One of the small mountains sports a Union Jack at its crest. The land rovers and foot patrols, no longer trying to impress us, are cruising in force, well prepared for the evening's festivities.
A half hour after midnight 5 of us exit to survey the fires. The blaze down the street must be 4 stories high. But we're anxious to check out the scene on our turf in Beechmount.
A short walk and we're there, in the middle of a crowd preparing for battle on the Falls. Evidently they got off to an early start here. The bonfire is just about over. Young people are scurrying about, setting empty beer kegs across the road to block land rovers. Most hold rocks or empty bottles. There are no petrol bombs or other weapons in sight in the crowd.
Suddenly several land rovers appear at the bottom of the sloping road. Whistles and jeers arise from the crowd, but no one throws anything. Neither do they give ground. The “security forces” are surveying the crowd with their infrared “night sights.”
Now the land rovers are roaring up the road. I think of James English and scatter down a side street with some others. Many stand their ground until the last second like Cuchullain, then hurl their projectiles and sprint out of sight. The pop of plastic bullet fire rends the night.
I'm separated from my 4 friends, but then spot one of us other Yanks. He looks shaken and doesn't know the neighborhood, so I go to his side. We run up and down the side street, on and off the Falls, as the and rovers repeatedly parry and thrust. Finally we take refuge in the doorway of a household that has opened to give us and about a dozen others refuge.
As we peek out the doorway we see one man peering out from the corner of an alleyway off the side street. A land rover spots him and attacks. The man throws an empty pint bottle and runs out of our view. The land rover screeches to a halt just in time to collide with the bottle. Five soldiers jump out of the back of the vehicle. One squeezes off a plastic bullet and shouts, “Bastard!” In a flash they're back inside and gone.
In a panic we pile into the house. One woman has fainted dead away and another is screaming. The rest of us try to calm her and ourselves. We know they know we're here.
On Tuesday morning ashes and rubble cover Falls Road. A 17 year old from another section of West Belfast is in serious condition from catching a plastic bullet in the head. In Derry flames engulfed businesses on the border of the Bogside and bombs destroyed 2 land rovers during the night. At 4 a.m. here women clanged garbage can lids, the traditional signal to come out in the streets and fight. It goes on till the dawn's early light.
I go to the Sinn Fein office the next morning at about 10 to see off the load of Noraiders leaving today. About 20 of us are staying on until tomorrow. As a bus pulls in they'e still sweeping up the remains of a city bus highjacked and transformed into a burning brigade last night.
Danny Morrison walks onto the scene. ”Where have you been man,?” Tom Hartley asks anxiously.
A few wire mesh covered turnstiles and body searches later I'm entering good ol' Woolworths (called Wellworths here), only to be checked again by an ever smiling gent with a metal detector. At the end of the street a huge Queen Victoria smiles smugly in front of City Hall. It doesn't take long for the well dressed figures with fine manners to give me enough of the picture of the other Belfast.
On the way back a soldier keeps clicking his trigger as I pass through their line on the way back to the Falls. I steal a look across the street and see a Brit taking dead aim at the back of the gray haired woman escorting 3 kids Downtown.
A few hours laterI'm in a store on the Falls purchasing my last domestic Guinness for a while. A news flash on the radio breaks through. A young man has been shot dead by a British soldier in the Turf Lodge section of West Belfast. Details to follow.
The bloody details , according to numerous eyewitnesses: Private Ian Thain, after stopping Thomas Reilly, 22, kneeled as Reilly proceeded on, and fired fatal plastic bullets into the man's body. Thane reportedly shouted,”Kill the bastard!” just before opening fire. The RUC subsequently shot plastic bullets at women who tried to cover Reilly's body.
As dusk gathers that evening the people of West Belfast are at their doorways, waiting for darkness and retribution. The columns of black smoke mark 2 more hijacked bus bonfires.
Lich is refused bail by a judge fearful he will skip the country. An appeal to a higher court granted Steve bail of $300. The British minister of law and order, Nicholas Scott, who had agreed to meet with Noraid, withdraws his offer after receiving a personal tongue lashing from Maggie Thatcher, using Lich's arrest as an excuse.
On Wednesday morning I go out the door to get a newspaper. Six Brits are out on the street, and one is waving his rifle around a few feet from my head.
[[bold]]Update: Since I wrote this, many changes have happened. Sinn Fein began participating in a peace process, the IRA disarmed and the Brits have withdrawn much of their military forces. Yet nationalists in the North are still second class citizens and subject to repression by loyalists and police. Britain still refuses to provide justice to families subjected to terror, torture and murder. Reforms are still subject to reversal by British rule. And the UK is still defined as “England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.” Michael Steinberg.