The Ghosts of Northern Ireland’s Violent Past Haunt Brexit

Watching the Brexit vaudeville show from far away, I can’t but remember my days as Belfast correspondent of The Times. The early 1970s were among the nastiest, violent and most dangerous of years in Northern Ireland. But what struck me most was not so much the battles between the British army and the IRA, and all the innocents that both killed, but the dark, brown-shirted presence of the Protestant paramilitaries.

It wasn’t the uniforms of the so-called Ulster Defence Association that worried me so much – not even the sadistic massacres of Catholics, with or without the assistance of the so-called British “security” forces. No, it was the creepy, outrageous way in which the educated, constitutional unionist politicians of Northern Ireland co-existed with these thugs, supporting them with talk of sectarian warfare, disowning their violence with pious horror yet all the while relying upon the fear they created to maintain their own support among the Protestant community.

I’m not making immediate parallels with the present-day Democratic Unionist Party, although their current sectarianism and greed might make comparisons all too relevant. It is, rather, to point up the way in which elected Northern Ireland politicians were prepared, almost half a century ago, to piggyback on racist bigotry; and of how today, at Westminster, our legally elected – and often profoundly well-educated – pro-Brexit MPs ride the waves of the racist, anti-immigrant elements of the hard right.

The Protestants of the north of Ireland perfected their stagecraft rather well in the 1970s. Some demanded an “independent Ulster” (a kind of Ulsterexit even more preposterous than the UK version we are now supposed to endure) and they flaunted the union flag, demanded to be called “loyalists” and threatened the British government with violence if it did not sever all links with the Irish republic. I recall sometimes admiring this very tiny minority of UK citizens who were prepared to hoot their derision at the almighty and largely English-public-school Westminster government which imposed a colonial direct rule upon them in 1972.

But such admiration was a luxury. What actually happened was extremely frightening. There were, in effect, three levels of political life within Ulster Protestantism in the early 1970s. First, there were the official unionist politicians and MPs of the Northern Ireland parliament – later the assembly – who declared their loyalty to the Crown, adored the motherland which had supported their Protestant and anti-Catholic statelet, and who would condemn IRA “terrorist violence” while “deploring” Protestant paramilitary murders. Folk such as Brian Faulkner, a unionist prime minister who kept reminding us that Belfast was as British as Manchester or Bristol – this is actually untrue, since Northern Ireland is a province of the UK and has constitutionally never been part of Britain (Theresa, please note) – and that his people (mostly Protestant, of course) had the right to remain British citizens.

These politicians formed what we might call the “moderate” leadership. Crippled they may have been by third-rate and sectarian ministers, the Faulknerites could pass as tough, right-wing but comparatively sensible politicians when they visited London. Some, after all, held seats in Westminster. Their fears of forcible union with the Irish republic were irrational, but were constantly reinforced by talk of Catholic (or Papal) hegemony and rumours of secret British talks with the IRA to railroad Protestants out of the UK. Their privileges and wealth would be taken from them once they lived under the “grey skies” of the government in Dublin.

Again comparisons should not be taken too literally, but if they were alive today the Faulknerites might faintly parallel the Jacob Rees-Moggs or the Boris Johnsons or the Michael Goves – perhaps even the Theresa Mays. The official unionists relied on the old Protestant maxim of “No Surrender” — just as the Brexiteer Tories will repeat “Brexit means Brexit” or “Leave Means Leave”. The Protestant politicians of the 1970s and the Tory Brexiteers of today had another common denominator: their fear of “betrayal” and their constant assurance that they were speaking on behalf of “the people of Northern Ireland” or “the people of Britain”.

In fact, an extremely noisy unionist member of the later Northern Ireland assembly, a woman called Jean Coulter, confronted by some legislative sop to the Catholics, was moved to shout out in the chamber one day: “Mr Speaker, Mr Speaker, there’s more of the majority than there is of the minority”. The cry of any future Brexiteer on the referendum result.

Below the Faulknerites, unionism – or Protestantism – had some darker supporters: Ian Paisley was one; William Craig, a former minister of home affairs in Belfast, another. Craig raised the Vanguard party in opposition to Faulkner, whom he regarded as a traitor for “selling up” to British direct rule and for accepting the dissolution of the local Protestant-dominated Stormont parliament in Belfast. He was a rabble-rouser. He cursed his opponents; he abused the more constitutional politicians; he wanted to be seen as a friend of the ordinary Protestant, although he himself came from a middle-class background. He warned what might happen if “the people” were pushed too far. He talked obliquely of civil war.

He was not unlike the equally middle-class Nigel Farage, whose former leadership of Ukip had almost as fearful an effect on the Tories as Craig’s Vanguard and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party had on Faulkner’s official unionists in the 1970s.

Now, however, any parallels fall apart. At least for the time being. Because Paisley was an anti-Catholic sectarian bully who encouraged Protestant militants, while Craig turned into the sinister political leader of those tens of thousands of brown-uniformed UDA men – some of whose members later proved to be responsible for the most horrific sectarian murders in Northern Ireland. Farage has no militia, and nor do the less restrained Brexit men such as Tommy Robinson.

I did, however, watch the footage of the Brexit supporters screaming abuse at MPs outside parliament and the union-flag-waving toughs pushing and shoving journalists in Whitehall last week. No, they were not fascist thugs – but they were very unhappy. Northern Ireland ghosts abound; the description of the Brexiteers’ protest march as “like Cromwell’s army”, for example, and the very name English Defence League, which is not that different from Ulster Defence Association. The anonymous death-threat letters which the UDA would send to politicians in Belfast have a lot in common with the modern social-media death threats now targeted at non-Brexit MPs at Westminster. Northern Ireland’s roughnecks even had their dodgy financial sponsors, the provenance of whose money we could never quite establish.

But it’s not the nature of the violence I am remembering. The IRA as well as the UDA killed political leaders; indeed it was the IRA who killed MP Ian Gow in 1990. They murdered Airey Neave. Jo Cox – though I tend to see her own assassination as a deliberate right-wing political killing rather than the work merely of a mentally deranged man – has so far been the only prominent assassination victim of the (pre-referendum) Brexit campaign. Historical repetition does not fit neatly together.

But what I notice is the way in which the layers of Brexit Toryism are beginning to take on the patina of Northern Ireland’s old Protestant ascendancy: the well-heeled little Englanders at the top, the dodgy and inflammatory Brexit middle-men down the pecking order whom they fear and prefer not to upset, and the anti-immigrant toughs whom we saw in London last week – who are condemned by not a single one of their political masters. After all, none of the Brexiteers in the first two layers want the hardline Brexiteers to become angry.

Just warning of how very, very upset and betrayed these people – aka “the British people” – will feel in the event of a soft Brexit or a Final Say referendum should keep MPs worried enough in the next few days. And then there are all the newspaper stories about how the security services are ready for the outbreak of post-Brexit violence. Or post-non-Brexit violence. They are almost exactly the same as the Belfast reports we read in 1974. Heaven spare me, back then I may have written some of them myself.

We used to live like this in Belfast 45 years ago, even when we could forget the IRA. The constitutional politicians rode the back of the tiger – until it ate them. For the heart of unionist Protestant Ulster was more important than Britain, just as the heart of the Tory Party is – and has been for decades – more important than Britain.

And now the descendants of those Protestant Ulster men and women – those Ulster super-loyalists whom Theresa May has tried to bribe, as unrepresentative of Northern Ireland’s people in the 1970s as they are today – are biting our poor prime minister, along with their dubious Brexiteer friends.

What irony! What lessons from the past!

More articles by:

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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