A TALE OF TWO ISLANDS

chuckle-brosTwo divided islands have been back in the headlines this week, and we – that is, us Brits – have something of a history with both of them; in fact, we maintain an interest that means neither has never really fallen off our national radar. I’m talking about Ireland and Cyprus. One has been a crucial, not to say a controversial, element of this little land mass’s story for centuries, whereas the other is a military legacy of our imperial adventures when we began punching above our weight on a staggering scale. One appears poised to descend into depressingly familiar factions as another shaky coalition collapses, whereas the other finally seems to have reached a point whereby some form of reunification is being cautiously discussed.

In the case of Northern Ireland, the structure of the power-sharing Executive at Stormont means the resignation of decade-long Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will have to be followed by the resignation of First Minister Arlene Foster, thus triggering an election. Sinn Fein have seven days to nominate a replacement for McGuinness, but they’ve dug their heels in and refuse to do so. One of the ironic consequences of the veteran republican’s decision is that, as of Monday, direct rule from Westminster will return to Ulster as the Northern Ireland Secretary takes charge; James Brokenshire then has six weeks in which to call an election.

Since the Northern Ireland Assembly was established in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, every election has seen the DUP win the majority vote, relegating Sinn Fein to second place on each occasion. But the fact that running Stormont is a joint office means they can still bring the Executive to a standstill if they so wish; and they have.

This latest disagreement between the two parties has been brewing for quite some time. It stems from the Renewable Heat Incentive, a 2012 policy instigated by Arlene Foster when she held the post of Enterprise Minister; she introduced the ‘green energy’ scheme that became something of a black hole for the Executive’s limited funds and could eventually cost taxpayers an estimated £490m; Sinn Fein understandably reckoned she should take some responsibility for the disaster, while the DUP have responded by accusing Sinn Fein of deliberately sabotaging the continuation of the Executive with McGuinness’ resignation.

Despite the unexpected cordiality of relations between McGuinness and then-First Deputy Ian Paisley when they first worked together in 2007 (AKA ‘The Chuckle Brothers’), tensions are never far from the surface at Stormont; indeed, it’s been something of a minor miracle that the Executive has survived this long considering the intractable differences between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Having said that, the traditional enmities dividing Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland have at least been put aside for the sake of the country over the last decade-and-a half; the same can’t really be said when it comes to an island in the Mediterranean with an equally troubled history.

In the aftermath of the 1877/78 Russo-Turkish War, Britain’s mistrust of Russia led to a clandestine deal between the UK and the Ottoman Empire in which the running of Cyprus was ceded to Britain; the Ottomans needed an ally in the region to provide military support in the face of repeated Russian aggression, and Cyprus was a handy stop-off point on the route to India. Both parties were apparently happy until the outbreak of the Great War, when the Ottoman Empire threw in its lot with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria), prompting Britain to annex Cyprus and make it a Crown Colony. Its significance as a military base proved vital over the following forty years. As the majority of the island’s population was Greek, long-held grievances over Turkish domination meant that British rule was deemed the lesser of two evils.

However, it didn’t take long before the Greek Cypriots began demanding the island be unified with Greece, leading to several violent protests in the 1930s not eased by the repressive regime instigated by the colony’s governor of the time. The Second World War suppressed such protests, with 30,000 Cypriots joining the British war effort; but the post-war era saw Greece drumming up international support for unification with Cyprus, something Britain resisted as the island’s Turks feared the worst.

The formation of the Greek Cypriot guerrilla organisation EOKA in the mid-50s unleashed a bloody campaign that became Britain’s key colonial battle in the Mediterranean following the withdrawal from Egypt. After Suez, Britain decided it would be preferable to grant Cyprus independence if it could maintain its military bases and this eventually came to pass in 1960. Britain’s military presence was called upon during a fresh outbreak of Greek-Cypriot violence in 1964, but the situation deteriorated further a decade later when Greeks overthrew the Cypriot President in a coup, prompting Turkey to invade Cyprus. The ultimate outcome of 1974 was the effective division of the island into Northern Cyprus (Turkish) and Southern Cyprus (Greek); and this state of affairs has been upheld ever since.

As Britain maintains Sovereign Base Areas in both Northern and Southern Cyprus, our commitment to the island lingers and, along with Greek and Turkey, we remain guarantor powers of Cyprus’ independence. Talks in Geneva at the moment are intended to review the situation and discuss possible reunification of the island, but the legacy of past clashes between Greek and Turkish Cypriots is a grim one that will take a considerable effort to resolve.

Over 2,000 members of both communities have been officially listed as missing persons for almost half-a-century; in recent years, the remains of more than 700 bodies have been exhumed, all victims of the atrocities that events in both 1964 and 1974 led to. If there is to be a resolution to Cyprus’ troubled history, there is still a hell of a lot to resolve.

On one hand, it could be said Northern Ireland is further along the road to recovery than Cyprus; and then we have to remember that we’re talking about just one half of a country that has been officially divided for ninety-five years, and the picture suddenly doesn’t seem much better at all. There’s a long way to go yet.

© The Editor

BIRMINGHAM 6 WEST MIDLANDS POLICE 0

74Barely have the South Yorkshire Police finished their failed attempt to wriggle out of responsibility for one disaster than a fellow Force with a past record of equal ineptitude are faced with answering questions surrounding another. In 1974, the West Midlands Police received two warnings that the IRA mainland bombing campaign – one that had claimed 5 lives in Guildford on October 5 – was poised to strike in Birmingham; they didn’t heed the warnings and two horrific explosions at two separate city centre locations killed 21 on November 21. Their response, admittedly under tremendous pressure from both government and public, was to round-up six available Irishmen and ensure they were sent down for the massacre, a notorious wrongful conviction that led to half-a-dozen men serving 16 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit whilst the guilty parties remained unpunished.

In the aftermath of the Birmingham Six’s release in 1991, a fresh investigation was opened into the pub bombings, led not by an independent body, but by the Chief Constable of the West Midlands at the time, Ron Hadfield – aided and abetted by the ever-dependable DPP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, officers investigating a Force headed by a man in charge of the investigation came to the conclusion that there was no case to be heard after all. However, the news that a fresh inquest into the deaths of the 21 in the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 has been given the green light by coroner Louise Hunt has raised the kind of concerns that will be all-too familiar to any copper on duty at Hillsborough in 1989. Even before any such inquest has begun, the coroner’s decision has been disputed by the West Midlands Police, claiming her to be without jurisdiction to oversee an inquest. One would almost think they had something to hide.

The original 1974 inquest was abandoned before reaching its conclusions after the wrongful arrests of Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker, something that handily prevented any unwanted information leaking into the public domain. Repeated doubts over the convictions of the Six were aired by investigative journalists for years, but politicians prevented any possibility of a fair hearing until the Court of Appeal finally quashed those convictions in 1991. Although three officers involved in the case were later charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, none were prosecuted.

The public outrage over the bombings in Guildford and Birmingham led to emergency legislation being rushed through Parliament, resulting in the Prevention of Terrorism Act, something that gave police the right to hold those suspected of terrorist activities for seven days – effective Internment, as utilised so disastrously in Ulster since 1971. This created the ideal climate for West Midlands Police to beat confessions out of arrested suspects, something that enabled the actual perpetrators of the bombings to get away with them as well as preventing the families of those who died from receiving a full inquest into their deaths.

The prospect of another drawn-out hearing into an event that took place decades ago may not be to everyone’s taste; but there’s no denying that the families of the 21 have earned the right to hear what really happened. Alas, the passage of time and subsequent deaths of many who could have provided them with answers may well leave them no more knowledgeable than they are right now; but the possibility of potentially-damaging information as to the nature of collusion between the British Government, Special Branch, MI5 and the IRA itself being uncovered, not to mention exposing the dubious tactics of the West Midlands Police, is enough to vindicate the course of action announced by Louise Hunt.

Birmingham Six member Patrick Hill has publicly given his support to Justice for the 21, the campaign group formed five years ago to demand a fresh inquest; he claims the identities of those who carried out the Birmingham pub bombings have long been known to highly-placed British politicians as well as senior members of the IRA. The latter have always publicly denied responsibility for the atrocity, though Hill states they have privately admitted it and that the bombers have evaded prosecution as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Two of the alleged five are now dead, whereas two more have been promised immunity. Justice for the 21 even claims one of them was a British double-agent. Whether any of these claims will be confirmed in the legal proceedings to come remains to be seen.

What is evident, however, is that we are in for one more exposé of the endemic corruption running through the British Police Force at all levels; and how long before the whole rotten edifice is dismantled from the top on down? We can but hope.

© The Editor

PAST AND PRESENT ARMS

WallWhen the general consensus declares a decade to be hip again, the difficult truth that a ten-year period is not a self-contained entity in which everything and everyone adhered to a specific train of thought forces the fashionista to cherry-pick the highlights. Therefore, whenever the 1960s are in vogue, we get mini-skirts, Beatle hair and hippie threads; we don’t get 60s-themed fancy dress parties with guests turning up dressed as Vietnamese peasants with their napalm-fried flesh hanging off. The 1970s have been periodically dipped in and out of for the last twenty-five years, but again it’s a very narrow vision of afro wigs and platform soles. At one time, this could be attributed to the fact that those quick to embrace the image weren’t actually there; post-Yewtree, it could be down to a need to pluck the positive from a barrage of retrospective negativity perpetrated by hypocrites who actually were there.

One aspect of the 1970s from a British viewpoint that could do without being revived is one that spanned the whole decade and beyond, only officially ending a couple of years away from the dawn of the twenty-first century. Whilst the dress sense of its practitioners during their 70s peak seems unlikely to be seen on the catwalk this summer (unless a top designer decides tank-tops are chic), the activities of Irish Republican dissidents have slowly edged back onto the periphery of the headlines.

With Sinn Fein politicians having held prominent posts in the Northern Ireland Assembly since its inception and former IRA bigwig Martin McGuinness having gone so far as to play host to the Queen, any resurgence of old-school Republicanism does seem reminiscent of Japanese soldiers still hiding out on remote Pacific islands because nobody told them the Second World War was over. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of non-sectarian political systems that followed in its wake has served to transform Northern Ireland for the better in the space of a generation, and the PR that has promoted Ulster in the last fifteen years has been almost wholly positive. Anyone old enough to recall even the 80s will remember how no national news bulletin was complete without the announcement of another callous assassination on the streets of Belfast or Londonderry or in those rural outposts the British Army referred to as ‘bandit country’. Thankfully, casual murder in Ulster no longer forms part of the daily headlines.

However, this is a corner of the United Kingdom where some communities remain physically divided by huge Berlin Wall-like edifices given a collective name that Donald Trump’s team might consider when it comes to their plans for Mexico – Peace Lines. Erected to replace the makeshift barriers of burnt-out cars and old furniture hastily shoved together at the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, the Peace Lines separate Catholics and Protestants in the notorious interface neighbourhoods of Derry and Belfast. Some are as high as 25 feet, some are as long as three miles, and – rather remarkably – more have been built since the Good Friday Agreement than before it. They both represent and perpetuate an Us and Them mindset that continues to fester in the poorer quarters of Ulster despite the progress of the past couple of decades, building on the bigotry passed down the generations to communities on both sides of the divide.

It’s no real surprise that the worst excesses of Nationalism live on in such neighbourhoods; I doubt there’s much else that can provoke passion when former Republican heroes like McGuinness are seen lording it up at Stormont. Most would be of the opinion that McGuinness has done his bit for the Cause, but if your daily existence revolves around the limited opportunities on offer in a sink estate as bad as any in mainland Britain – with the additional grim feature of a 25-foot wall greeting you first thing on a morning – the sight of Martin McGuinness being driven in a Ministerial limousine en route for tea and scones with Her Majesty probably feels less relevant to Republicanism than a mural marking an incident that occurred in the seventeenth century.

The various IRA splinter groups that have continued to operate on a small scale since the Provos decommissioned their arsenal have often filled their time either controlling the illegal drug supplies in and out of Northern Irish cities, indulging in bank robberies and petty crime, or simply ‘policing’ their areas with the same ruthless notions of law enforcement that are characteristic of the dark days of the 70s. Recent attacks on individuals in Northern Ireland have sounded distinctly paramilitary in nature; when someone is shot in the legs, one cannot help but remember the horrible punishment known as ‘knee-capping’.

The language used by the group calling itself ‘The New IRA’ – a method of distinction presumably along the lines of what distinguishes The Seekers from The New Seekers – has a ring of the bad old days about it and yet also possesses an inherent and curious quaintness that renders it almost comical, declaring its members are ‘determined to take the war to the age-old enemy of our nation’. One could positively wince at the clichés. Just as some political parties seem happier in permanent opposition than in government, there are clearly many disgruntled diehards in Ulster who will never accept what is good for the province as a whole and can only relate to what makes their lives feel fulfilled, thriving on chaos rather than submitting to order.

That their activities have apparently caused the threat of mainland Republican attacks to rise up the charts for the first time since the 90s must have made their day and vindicated their futile attempts to drag the British Isles back forty years. Expecting this deluded little outfit to compete with the blood-chilling professionalism of the new kids on the terrorist block, however, is a bit like watching the corner shop take on Waitrose. The majority of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland have moved on. As have the British troops that provided the paramilitaries with their violent raison d’être. Wake up and smell the century, chaps.

© The Editor

THE GREEN GODDESS

001Amidst the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, one name hasn’t been mentioned as much as one might expect, though her absence from the siege at the Dublin Post Office and the fact she evaded execution perhaps excludes her from the roll-call of Republican martyrs. Countess Constance Markievicz was a remarkable woman in more than one respect, however. The fact that she was the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons should be enough to ensure her place in history, even though she didn’t take her seat on account of refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the King, representing Sinn Fein in the 1918 Parliament when it was the third largest party with a tally of 73 seats.

She was an unlikely rebel, emanating from Anglo-Irish aristocracy and yet bearing the distinction of being the only uniformed woman officer of the Irish Citizen Army in 1916 and being posthumously honoured with a statue in Dublin, the sole female participant in the Easter Rising to receive such recognition. When Sinn Fein MPs formed the first Dali Eireann rather than head for Westminster, she was awarded the post of Minister for Labour, one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position.

Although I had delved into Irish history for many years, perhaps inspired by lingering childhood confusion at the reasons behind the Troubles and IRA mainland activity, the name of Constance Markievicz was totally unknown to me until I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a 1934 biography of her in a second-hand book shop around a decade ago. The book, written by an acquaintance of hers, Sean O’Faolain, opened a window onto a world when born beneficiaries of the British Empire questioned the right of Britain to rule over its nearest neighbour and were sufficiently enamoured with the rise of anti-imperialist socialist nationalism as a political force to sacrifice their social standing for the romanticism of rebellion. Markievicz could count the likes of poet WB Yeats and playwright Sean O’Casey amongst her closest friends and was prepared to take up arms when many of her class and upbringing would have run a mile.

Eventually labelled ‘The Red Countess’, Constance Markievicz entered the world as Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in the capital city of the Empire, London, in 1868. Her father, though an Anglo-Irish Baronet, had an independent streak that manifested itself as adventures exploring the Arctic; though a prominent landowner in Ireland, he had an unusual (for the time) sympathy with the workers on his County Sligo estate and distributed free food to them during one of Ireland’s periodical famines in 1879-80. His altruism made a deep impression on his two daughters Constance and Eva, both of whom developed an affinity with the perennial struggle of the poor and oppressed that was unconventional for their privileged status.

Whilst studying painting at London’s Slade School of Art, Constance joined the nascent battle for women’s suffrage; she was clearly a woman in need of a cause and the women’s movement seemed tailor-made for her. However, relocating to Paris removed her from the Suffragette frontline and it was in the French capital where she met her future husband, artist and Polish exile Casimir Markievicz, who styled himself ‘Count’ even though there was no concrete evidence he possessed such a title. Nevertheless, Constance Gore-Booth was known as Countess Markievicz from the moment of their London wedding in 1900.

The newlyweds set up home in Dublin and ingratiated themselves with the Irish artistic intelligentsia, picking up on the then current fad for reviving traditional Gaelic culture, which quickly morphed into nationalistic passion opposed to British rule; Constance found the circles she was mixing in revitalised her rebellious streak and she returned to the Suffragette cause. Her most notable contribution to the cause during this period was publicly opposing the re-election of Winston Churchill to Parliament during a Manchester by-election in 1908; that Churchill failed to be re-elected was attributed to the Suffragettes hounding his hustings campaign. By now a member of Sinn Fein, Constance’s political activities were growing increasingly radical and she suffered imprisonment for the first time in 1911 after speaking at a meeting of the Irish Republican Brotherhood opposing the Royal visit of George V.

Seeing the native poor as the most evident casualties of British imperialism on home soil, Constance joined the Irish Citizen Army, which was initially set up to aid striking workers combat the actions of police brutality in 1913. Her involvement with the paramilitary elements of the Nationalist movement meant that when the Easter Rising erupted she was at the forefront of the action. She held the rank of lieutenant during the six-day siege at St Stephen’s Green, which ended when news of the surrender of the Post Office reached the 200-plus insurgents holding out in the Dublin park. Evading execution purely on account of her sex, a sentence of life imprisonment ended at Aylesbury Prison in Buckinghamshire the following year when the British Government granted an amnesty for survivors of the Rising.

Her historic election to Parliament in 1918 tends to be overshadowed by Nancy Astor, the second woman MP (elected in 1919), largely because Astor took her seat at Westminster; ironically, Constance was more eligible to be there in that Astor had been born in the US and she had been born in London, but the new Irish Republican Government was her political destination. She was a member of that Government until 1922, when she left as a protest over the Anglo-Irish treaty that created the Irish Free State, and also left Sinn Fein for the newly-formed Fianna Fail party in 1926. Despite further spells behind bars during this period, she also played a part in the Irish Civil War and seemed set to remain a distinctive fixture on the Irish political scene until her untimely death as a result of complications arising from appendicitis at the age of 59 in 1927.

Constance Markievicz may well be revered by Irish historians, but she really deserves wider recognition as a key figure belonging to a generation of brave and groundbreaking women who broke down barriers that presented a far more imposing obstacle to female emancipation than the trivial concerns that so preoccupy certain sections of feminist thinking today.

© The Editor

BAD MOON RISING

1916After more than fifty years of technological advancements and increasing industrialisation, Britain experienced a series of defiantly backward-looking backlashes at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, though these new Luddites were a good deal more creative than their machine-smashing, albeit pioneering, technophobe ancestors. Most devoted their energies to recreating an ideal of Britain that had supposedly been lost in the white heat of industrial revolution. The Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts movement had already delved into medieval mysticism, but they were followed by the likes of musicologist Cecil Sharp roaming the countryside collecting folk songs and the formation of various pseudo-Masonic societies harking back to an imagined idyll of Albion in which druids held the key to the ancient spiritual soul of the nation.

Parallel events across the Irish Sea celebrated a romantic notion of a pure Gaelic Ireland unsullied by its absorption into the British Empire, though the perpetrators of this thinking were viewed by many as a fringe element on the periphery of the long-running saga of Home Rule. However, with a Liberal Government at Westminster, the concept of an Ireland running itself within the secure Imperial embrace was revived, something that struck fear in the heart of Ulstermen who valued their place at the table of the planet’s greatest superpower. At Belfast City Hall in 1912, the opening salvo of something that would eventually climax with the partition of the nation was fired by leading Northern Irish politician and barrister Sir Edward Carson signing the Ulster Covenant. This call-to-arms document sent a message to Downing Street that handing control of the country to the Catholic stronghold of Dublin would threaten not only Protestant dominance in the North, but Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom.

With clandestine Conservative support on the mainland, the signing of the Covenant by 237,368 Ulstermen was followed by the establishment of a Unionist militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force, who armed themselves courtesy of 25,000 smuggled rifles. Catholic Nationalists who feared Home Rule would be defeated by paramilitary means responded in kind as the various disparate Rebel factions such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood came together as the Irish Volunteers, an organisation that morphed into the Irish Republican Army. Although the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 focused attention elsewhere, those who didn’t sign-up to the British war effort remained determined to declare an Irish Republic rather than merely oppose the aims of the UVF; and in April 1916, this small group severed their links with Home Rule moderates and went for it.

Led by Patrick Pearse, a scholastic Anglo-Irish member of the IRB Military Council, a coordinated attack on various strategic positions in Dublin by over a thousand volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army began on Easter Monday 1916 while most of Britain was distracted by events on the Western Front. As news of the insurrection spread, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland declared martial law and regiments of the British Army that weren’t already engaged on the continent were deployed to end the rebellion, many of them being Irish regiments, including the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. One-by-one, the locations seized by the Rebels were recaptured over several days and the last stand took place at the General Post Office on Sackville Street. A fierce siege developed that saw the prominent Dublin civic landmark bombarded by shells as Irishman killed Irishman.

Most of the lives lost during the Easter Rising were civilian, and when the Rebels finally surrendered on Saturday 29 April the prisoners led from the GPO were jeered by bystanders, particularly the wives of men who were away fighting the Great War. Outside of the more fanatical elements of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Rebels were not regarded as heroes by the vast majority of the Catholic community, and the ruin of Sackville Street was something for which they, and not the British Army, were held responsible. Had the Rebels simply been handed long prison sentences by the authorities, chances are Irish history could have taken a radically different turn. Would Church and State have been so fatally incestuous in the South? Would the Troubles have even broken out in the North, let alone spanned thirty bloody years? But, at a moment when Britain was involved in a serious military conflict, clemency was in short supply and the guilty men were all sentenced to death.

Considering the bigger picture, the decision to execute the ringleaders of the Easter Rising was an unsurprising response to an act of treason at a time of war; but what happened next was predicted by the poet WB Yeats when he wrote ‘a terrible beauty is born’. Public opinion was not on the side of the Rebels as they surrendered, but when fourteen men faced a firing squad in the grounds of Kilmainham Gaol, opinion turned in their favour and all Irish Nationalists suddenly saw them as that most potent symbol of Nationalism, the martyr, something they have remained in romantic Republican mythology ever since.

Oral history is always tailored to suit the agenda of the storyteller, and the Easter Rising of 1916 is no different. The compromise of the Irish Free State, the assassination of Michael Collins, the War of Independence and Partition are all viewed as direct consequences of the crushing of the Easter Rising. In retrospect, the executions of the ringleaders and subsequent round-up and imprisonment of other suspects can be regarded as a cataclysmic blunder by the British, even if it all happened a hundred years ago now. Lest we forget, the fact that events that took place as far back as 1690 are still celebrated by Protestant Northern Ireland serves as a reminder of how the Irish have extremely long memories indeed. The passing of a mere century between 1916 and 2016 is therefore no time at all, as resurgent dissidents eager to mark the occasion with renewed bloodshed will testify. The Celtic Tiger has not lost all its teeth yet.

© The Editor