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“If You Have Border Installations, People Will Shoot at Them”

Eamonn McCann

Fifty years since British troops were deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland, the peace process is again in danger. The turmoil surrounding Brexit has raised hopes of Irish unity — but also risks a fresh descent into violence.

Bullet holes mark a "Welcome to Northern Ireland" sign post that denotes the Irish border on July 22, 2018 in Derrylin, Northern Ireland. Charles McQuillan / Getty

Interview by
Eoghan Gilmartin
Tommy Greene

The crisis over Brexit has catapulted Northern Ireland into the headlines once more. Home of the United Kingdom’s only land border with the European Union, the need to avoid customs checks on goods entering the rest of Ireland has been a key plank of the EU’s Brexit negotiating agenda — and the biggest single obstacle in the United Kingdom’s efforts to exit the bloc.

This difficulty has also increased the sway of Northern Ireland’s ultraconservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Westminster. Key to propping up Tory governments since 2017, the DUP stands sharply opposed to customs checks on boats crossing the Irish Sea — the obvious alternative to a “hard” inner-Irish border. While recent weeks have seen talk of the DUP moderating its position, it continues to bind the government’s hands.

Yet even as the DUP takes center stage in London, Northern Ireland’s own devolved institutions — and the peace process that began with 1998’s Good Friday Agreement — remain in crisis. Just months after the Brexit vote, the cross-community power-sharing agreement broke down, as the DUP and Sinn Féin proved unable to form a new government. This has sparked a nearly 1,000-day standoff, in which Northern Ireland has been left without an executive.

These power-sharing institutions (known after Belfast’s Stormont Assembly) were created in 1998 as part of the effort to put an end to “the Troubles” — three decades of violence in which over 3,500 people were killed. Some warn that a “hard border” across Ireland after Brexit could give rise to fresh clashes.

The Troubles left a lasting scar on Ireland. But they developed only after an earlier campaign — the fight for civil rights of the late 1960s, inspired by African Americans’ struggle in the United States. The movement demanded a nonsectarian allocation of housing, an end to electoral gerrymandering and fairer access to jobs for Catholics in the Protestant-dominated state.

Eamonn McCann was one of the key civil rights leaders of those years. Along with figures like Bernadette McAliskey Devlin, he led the movement that “created a spark which led on to conflagration.” Since those “heady days,” McCann has remained a key figure in the North’s politics and on the Irish left more broadly. A journalist and activist, McCann was elected to the Stormont Assembly in 2016. In this May’s UK-wide local elections he was elected a councilor in Derry’s Foyle area.

Eoghan Gilmartin and Tommy Greene sat down with McCann to discuss the legacy of the last five decades, the challenges of Brexit, and the renewed prospect of Irish unification.


EG

The United Kingdom looks like it is heading towards a general election in November, with the possibility of a no-deal Brexit hanging in the air. What would a no-deal mean for Northern Ireland?

EM

Well, a possible no-deal means a hard border on the island of Ireland. If you have a divergent regulatory system and the imposition of tariffs on trade between the UK and the EU, you will need some sort of installations to check traffic and the flow of goods at the border.

But if you have border installations, people will shoot at them — that’s a certainty. The people who shoot at them will not represent a majority here in Derry or anywhere else, but how many people does it take to organize and carry out an ambush? Maybe four or five people. And once these installations are shot at, they will have to then be defended by soldiers, etc. The only alternative would be a mass movement that would literally tear down border installations with their bare hands.

The border is not something abstract for us here in Derry. From where we are sitting, it is only three to four miles away. If you travel either to the north or west, you will be in the Republic of Ireland in a matter of minutes. And there has been very little preparation done around this in the case of a no-deal Brexit. It has been reported that they are going to bring in 4,000 police officers from England, Scotland, and Wales to patrol the border. Like fuck they are. How much are they going to pay them to leave their homes and go out there and stand on the border?

There are no technical solutions for this. A stable border cannot be imposed.

EG

Do you see a no-deal Brexit making a United Ireland a more realistic prospect? It has been put back on the political agenda of late thanks to Brexit — with Sinn Féin calling for a referendum on the issue and even members of the conservative Irish government in the South being pushed into discussing the possibility.

EM

I don’t know — if the opportunity arises for a referendum on Irish unity, Sinn Féin will take it. But if they think they are gaming this one, I think they are mistaken. Nobody knows how Brexit is going to play out and given Sinn Féin’s increasing respectability as a “party of government,” it is not clear how much they will risk in pushing in this direction.

Also, while the Good Friday Agreement establishes the principle of [majoritarian] consent over the North’s constitutional position, we could see Unionists demand that in any such referendum you wouldn’t need to win only a simple majority, but a majority of unionist votes as well. This would effectively give a veto on reunification to about 25 percent of the population.

But in any case, I think you would be looking at a ten-year framework for any possible reunification and this would require a “thirty-two county” border poll – a referendum across the island of Ireland. The Left’s role here would be to insist on the social content in this debate — forcing it onto the agenda. Without this, reunification would be a rather empty objective.

If you look around in Derry right now and ask about the biggest problem affecting us, for half the population it would have to be welfare reform — the brutal austerity measures being imposed under the Tory government. Then you also have Northern Ireland’s [strict anti-choice] abortion laws, the level of poverty in this city [Derry has the highest child poverty rates anywhere in the UK jurisdiction] as well as environmental concerns. All these have been forgotten in terms of a political agenda obsessed with Brexit and constitutional issues. I think it should be the other way around — whether we stay in Europe or leave, or have a united Ireland or not, we need to secure a whole series of social and environmental protections.

TG

Northern Ireland’s political crisis didn’t begin with Brexit — although it has escalated it. Can you explain how Northern Ireland has gone from the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 to a point where the dysfunctionality of its institutional arrangements has led to an almost-three-year (world record) period without a government?

EM

On the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed, I appeared on BBC Newsnight and some of the things I said turned out to be very mistaken. However, one thing I and others like [civil rights leader] Bernadette McAliskey Devlin said that I think has been vindicated is that the Agreement was “pre-programmed to deadlock.” We could see that hours after the document was signed. If you read the text, what it does is essentially divides the entire population into the “Orange Camp” and the “Green Camp” [i.e., Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists] and then devises a structure that enables the two camps to live more or less peacefully alongside one another, but never to become as one. The idea of becoming as one is not there in the Belfast Agreement.

If you look at Section Two of the Agreement, it states that any representative registering to vote at the Northern Irish parliament has to define themselves as Nationalist, Unionist, or “Other.” It takes only a majority within either camp to stop any legislative proposal or measure that might be deemed to be prejudicial to either of the two communities.

The text itself was mainly drawn up by civil servants from London and Dublin, with some degree of supervision. It clearly never once occurred to them that there might be a situation in which these “others” could be as big a bloc as any unionist or nationalist one. The whole agreement was predicated on the continuation of this idea of a divided society, divided by history and sectarian ideology.

I remember arguing in the street at the time with the then-leader of the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), Mark Durkan. We argued over these points for quite a while and he finally accepted that the Agreement might produce the effects I was talking about. But his counterargument was that these structures and arrangements were “politically biodegradable.” As people worked together and got to know one another, Durkan held, the structures and arrangements would simply wither away. Well, that’s hardly happened, has it?

There are, if you like, “two souls” to Northern Ireland. A growing number of people now, when you talk to them, say they no longer want to be identified with the whole “orange and green” culture war and want to be over the whole thing. That’s an increasingly popular thing to say — and that’s how I get votes! That’s how I’ve been elected twice over the past few years, by preaching that message.

But we’re not going to preach people into class solidarity, and the largely non-politicized “peace agenda” people are not going to smash sectarianism in Northern Ireland — they’re too moderate and gentle! It has to come from labor and rights-based movements. As I say, there are these two countervailing traditions in Northern Ireland. What I’m talking about has to grow out from this “other” constituency and to welcome defectors from say, Sinn Féin, or young people from a PUL [Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist] background who don’t feel represented by mainstream unionism and are minded to look elsewhere. And it has to come spontaneously.

TG

Under this system of devolved government along sectarian lines, the ultraconservative DUP and Sinn Féin spent ten years in office together, as the dominant electoral forces in each community. This uneasy partnership was marked by repeated standoffs and posturing around symbolic issues but while at the same time implementing Tory-imposed austerity. Yet since January 2017, the Northern Ireland executive has been suspended after Sinn Féin walked out in response to the DUP leader Arlene Foster being implicated in the multibillion dollar “cash for ash” scandal. What does the absence of devolved government for such a period mean to Northern Ireland?

EM

It has meant that with this middle layer of government between the councils and Westminster gone for such an extended length, there has been complete paralysis. Nobody knows what to do, for example, about education or health policy because it is not clear who has the authority to sign off on the money. New projects and policy recommendations are just being shelved. Everything is at a standstill and there seems to be little appetite among the parties to return to a power-sharing arrangement. So it looks like we are now drifting towards the re-imposition of direct rule from Westminster.

EG

August 31 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the IRA’s ceasefire — a pivotal moment in the peace process. How would you explain the trajectory of Sinn Féin since the Good Friday Agreement?

EM

Well, it’s been an adaptation to the changing circumstances of the past couple of decades. People like [Sinn Féin’s ex-president] Gerry Adams and his [deputy] Martin McGuinness had realized the armed campaign was not working by the late 1980s — that it could not achieve a united Ireland. Instead they sought to recast it as a struggle around equality for the Catholic Nationalist community. You see it at graveside orations of IRA members or at commemorations — such and such went out to fight for equality, to fight for our rights. But the party hardly ever lays the focus on the fact that they were fighting for a united Ireland.

This adaptation has been successful in the sense that they’re now one of the two major parties in the North, along with the DUP. They’re by far the largest Catholic nationalist party and in electoral terms almost monopolize this ethno-nationalist bloc in the Northern Irish Assembly, while in the South they positioned themselves as an anti-austerity force after the financial crash. These differing roles either side of the border have produced a disjuncture of sorts but even in the South the trend is towards respectability.

Sinn Féin is able to reinvent itself because it’s also a nationalist party in the ideological sense — i.e., they purport to represent “the nation” rather than a part of it. As long as you do this, you can swing left and right depending on pervading circumstances — you can sit all over the place as long as you can keep the nation, as you understand it, together. The nation doesn’t have class interests, it doesn’t have a gender content or any kind of inhering essence.

Sinn Féin is constantly reinventing itself. They’re very adept at it. During the recent dispute over the introduction of domestic water charges — part of the austerity regime in the South of Ireland — the party was not initially in favor of the nonpayment campaign. They opposed it. The change in their position came about after huge demonstrations across the country, including in Gerry Adams’s Louth constituency. Within hours, Adams said that that he would stop paying his water bill — which he’d already started paying by this point, of course — as an “act of solidarity with the marchers.”

The same thing happened with the abortion referendum in the South. Sinn Féin did not begin by supporting the Repeal campaign but quickly performed a U-turn after sufficient pressure built up around the inconsistencies of their position.

TG

And as for the DUP’s fortunes? Where does a party that, on the surface at least, appears to be so out of step with the prevailing direction of Northern Irish society on a number of key issues, draw its electoral appeal from?

EM

There seems to be no sign of their leadership recognizing it, but I think the DUP are in dire straits. They’ve got no solid base, no network of members — particularly within deprived Protestant communities — no real functioning infrastructure at all, which is why they have to lean so heavily on the national question and flag-waving.

But life changes, Northern Ireland changes. It’s not immune to what’s happening in the world. The now famous “The North is Next” sign in the South’s abortion campaign was brought to Dublin by the daughter of DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. That tells you something. The number of women who identify as Protestant or unionist yet are fully part of the “right to choose” abortion rights campaign is growing. These women are completely at odds with the DUP leadership on this and a number of other key issues like the environment, gay marriage and Brexit. Now the DUP’s electoral dominance in Northern Ireland can’t go on if this trend continues.

So, if I were the DUP, I’d be very worried about [creationist MP] Sammy Wilson and the rest of them, denouncing abortion rights in Westminster, making fools of themselves. I’d also be worried about the report into the massive “cash for ash” scandal, which’ll be out next month. [DUP party leader] Arlene Foster and some of her special advisors are really going to be roasted over their involvement. When you add to all that the unpredictability of Brexit, which will come to a head around the same time as well, the DUP have a lot to worry about — even in the short term.

The Troubles at Fifty

EG

You are a former chairman of the Bloody Sunday Trust and fought for decades for a fresh public inquiry into the 1972 massacre, which saw British paratroopers shoot twenty-eight civilians, killing fourteen, at a civil rights march in Derry. Yet since the publication of this inquiry’s findings in 2010, you have written a lot about its limits. In a recent article you wrote that the Saville Report “cleared the dead of any wrong-doing and this should be welcomed” — the army’s official position had always been they had come under fire first from gunmen in the crowd. Yet, at the same time, you also argue that it “stopped short of admitting the truth about the role of the most senior officers on the spot.” These officers included Mike Jackson who would later become the head of British Armed Forces as well as lead NATO troops in Bosnia. What was the role and culpability of these officers?

EM

For a start, nobody living in Derry had any doubt at all about what had happened on Bloody Sunday. We knew the victims were unarmed. I saw it happening — I saw people being shot dead and so did not need an inquiry to tell me whether they had a gun in their hand or not.

That said I was carried away as much as the next person on the day of the report’s publication when David Cameron stood up in the House of Commons and acknowledged that the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable.” The speech was broadcast on a big screen in Derry’s main square and there was a sense of jubilation amongst the crowd at being vindicated. It took me a couple of days to digest the executive summary and realize something was not right and that I would need to read the full report.

I had attended 398 out of the 404 days that the inquiry sat and there was ample evidence of officers’ direct involvement in both procuring the killings and of covering up afterwards.

In the case of Mike Jackson, he was the main architect of this cover up. One of the things that came to light during the inquiry was the so-called “shot list” document, in his handwriting, which formed the basis for the British Army’s official account of Bloody Sunday. This was a document that Jackson had compiled in the initial aftermath, as soldiers specified on a map where they had been when they opened fire, where their target had been, and what the target had been doing to justify the shooting.

Yet none of the shots described in the document matched those that had actually been fired — indeed, some of the trajectories described by the soldiers would have implied bullets travelling through buildings to find their targets.

In his initial testimony, Jackson did not mention his involvement in compiling the list. But when the original handwritten version then came to light, he claimed he had completely forgotten about compiling it but that “a vague memory” of it had now returned. This is not credible. He had spent at least a couple of hours straight after the slaughter plotting out on the map with the soldiers where the killings had taken place. This was clearly perjury and he should have been charged over it, along with being an accessory after the fact to murder.

Such direct criminal involvement of the likes of Jackson is not a matter of speculation and yet Saville made no findings against the top brass. He just went for the grunts — pinning blame on the lower orders. This is a common outcome in all sorts of inquiries. But in the case of Bloody Sunday, it ensured David Cameron could also claim in the House of Commons that no stain had been left on the honor of the British Army.

EG

There has only been one soldier charged so-far over Bloody Sunday — known for anonymity’s sake as Soldier F — but there are currently about 200 ex-soldiers and police officers under investigation for criminal actions during the Troubles.

EM

Yes, the past is not over here. We cannot simply draw a line under it and move on — that is not going to happen. There are tens of thousands of people in this country living with the horror of the Troubles. This includes those whose family members were murdered in IRA massacres. For example, the ten Protestant workers murdered at Kingsmill. The IRA stopped their bus, lined them up in a row, and shot them. Or the Enniskillen Bombing in 1987.

So many people are living with trauma. The level of consumption of painkillers and antidepressants in the Bogside and Brandywell areas of Derry is huge.

Liam Wray, whose brother was murdered by Soldier F on Bloody Sunday, once asked me: “Do you ever wonder what those who lost a family member in a single victim incident think when they see us marching on television?” Everyone has forgotten what happened to their loved ones and they are forced to sit through all the coverage we have received and all the politician’s platitudes about Bloody Sunday. It must be devastating.

TG

Last month marked the fiftieth anniversary of British troops being deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland, after three days of clashes between protesters and police left ten dead. The event is largely considered to have marked the beginning of the Troubles. You recently said that Sinn Féin is trying to “colonize” this history — so as to vindicate the route subsequently taken by the Provisional IRA — and that in 1969 there were alternatives to armed struggle. Can you explain this?

EM

Yes, there were alternatives in 1969 but we in the Civil Rights Movement would have had to fight much harder against the drift towards nationalism. I argued at the time that we had to look to the labor tradition and not the nationalist one to find a way forward. In the initial years of the Civil Rights Movement many trade unionists were involved and marched with us. But the official labor movement never came on board as the leadership was afraid of this rowdy movement in the streets. It was also worried about alienating its Protestant members [by backing demands for housing and voting rights for Catholics].

This was a lost opportunity. From 1968–72, which were the key years when the pattern for the future was really set, there was an opening to put forward a left-wing response — to frame our struggle in class-based terms as well as being part of the international movement for civil rights that existed then. But by the time of Bloody Sunday, these types of arguments made no sense whatsoever — no sense to young people in Derry who had witnessed the killings by British soldiers.

You also have to remember, though, that at no point did armed Republicanism ever get anything more than minoritarian support amongst Catholics here in the North. There was never a majority of Catholics in favor of the armed campaign. For example, the working-class Catholic stronghold of West Belfast did not elect an Irish Republican until Gerry Adams in 1983. Before that you could only get elected there if you were linked to the labor movement.

For all that has changed since 1968–9, I still believe the only viable alternative to the dead-end of sectarianism is a politics built around working-class solidarity.