National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 19, 2004

-- Photos by Ashley Merryman

At a small housing estate an IRA muralist and his son complete a series of murals showing an episode from Irish history. About 10 years ago, the nationalists decided that they wanted their murals to focus on historical and cultural themes, rather than masked gunmen, to give their communities a better image. Loyalists in Protestant areas have recently adopted a similar approach.
Is Baghdad another Belfast?

Canceled elections in Northern Ireland raise questions about democracy-building in Iraq


It’s been several months since I returned from a summerlong stay in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but I’m still having a bad case of culture shock. It comes every time I hear any news about Iraq.

Because there’s something different about watching news of the latest shooting of a soldier in an Iraqi terrorist attack after you’ve spent days hanging out with Irish Republican Army -- IRA -- or Ulster Volunteer Force -- UVF -- paramilitaries who have spent the last 30 years taking potshots at British soldiers. It’s different to hear about armed patrols on the streets of Baghdad when it wasn’t too long ago there was an armed soldier standing not too far from the restaurant where I was having dinner. It’s different to read reports of a bombing in Iraq after a summer when I had to take the long way home because of seven bomb threats in a single day, when I couldn’t reach anyone in an government building because of yet another bomb threat, when I interviewed police about what it was like to be stoned by people while they were on patrol, when I interviewed the people who throw the stones.

And most of all, what is really different was that I was living in a society that sees itself in the position of the Iraqis.

Members of a Protestant organization dedicated to continuing a British Protestant rule over Northern Ireland, Orangeman, hire "blood and thunder" or "kick the pope" bands, shown here, to march with them in annual parades. Alleged to have loyalist paramilitary ties, the bands are known for playing songs with lyrics that adovocate violence against Catholics and war against the IRA.

There are the occasional reports that keep coming out saying Americans are increasingly hated abroad, but the reports don’t usually say why. I did, however, hear it in Belfast. With the intelligence’s claims of weapons of mass destruction unproved at best, what remains for the justification for taking over Iraq is of course that we freed Iraqis from a tyrannical dictatorship with the promise of democracy. In Belfast, all summer long, every time President Bush or Prime Minister Blair made such a statement, people on both sides of the peace walls started to laugh. It mattered not if they were unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic. The reaction was the same. They put their hands up in the air and cried, “Excuse me, Mr. Blair! When’s our turn for democracy? How are you going to bring democracy to the Middle East when you have ended it in the U.K.?” Many months ago, Blair suspended the elected assembly of Northern Ireland, reestablishing the British Parliament’s direct rule over the region. He canceled elections for a new assembly, without any indication of when or if elections would be held. Elected legislators were summarily stripped of their posts; they uncomfortably spent the remainder of their terms giving out business cards that stated that they were members of a legislature that no longer exists. Those who were the duly appointed ministers were reduced to mere lobbyists for the duration of their terms while absentee members of the British Parliament act as figureheads for the government ministries and civil servants that run the show.

Now, Blair’s actions were not per se unreasonable. With unionist politicians at each other’s throats over the continued viability of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement wrought between the unionists and nationalists, there’s an ongoing concern that the Ulster Unionist Party will splinter, or at least that David Trimble, Nobel Peace Prize winner, will be ousted as party leader. Therefore, in a strategy commonly referred to as “Save David,” elections were canceled and weren’t rescheduled for months, until an agreement was reached with the IRA that it would decommission more arms (in hopes of resuscitating Trimble’s flagging support).

While the IRA recognizes the current cease-fire, fringe organizations such as the Continuity IRA continue violent opposition to the British government. Perpetrators of these post-cease-fire acts who have been arrested are considered to be street criminals. Supporters at this Continuity IRA rally demand that these prisoners be classified as political prisoners.

But the election and the IRA’s actions were too late. And what was feared has come to pass. Extremists on both sides of the peace walls were elected, including those who have vowed to end the Good Friday Agreement and those who have declared that it’s the Good Friday Agreement or nothing (meaning, a return to war). So the answer by the British government is that elections may be meaningless: Since the parties won’t be able to form a government, they may simply wait and hold another election, hoping for a better result next time.

The powers that be threw out a standing government once a powerful opposition began to arise. They canceled elections. When elections were finally scheduled, it was because a small group of armed resisters said they would lay down weapons; it had little to do with restoring democracy to those from whom it was taken. Once the people elected the “wrong” candidates, the British decided that they probably shouldn’t seat that government and may try again to get people they can work with.

The decision is understandable, and politically shrewd. But how is this “democracy” in Northern Ireland different from “democracy” in Iraq under Saddam Hussein? Wasn’t Hussein “elected”? Didn’t Iraqi citizens vote for him in order to maintain a peaceful existence? If there had been a viable candidate running against him, wouldn’t he have simply canceled the election?

We have to admit that such governance is a rejection of democracy. When our only ally in the war on Iraq is acting as a dictator in his own land, we must be careful when we use claims of “freedom” and “democracy” as the sole justification for our actions. And we must be mindful that, similarly, we cannot exhort others to follow our democratic lead as long as we don’t follow it ourselves. That’s what people of Belfast said as they protested against President Bush’s visit to the region last summer. They refused to listen to a president lecture them about the need for peace when he was ordering the bombing of nations.

In the heart of the Protestant community, a building is covered in paramilitary murals to show which loyalist paramilitary runs this area. The red fist shown on the building represents the paramilitary's commitment to violence for its cause. The Union Jack appears in the center of the building.

But there is another aspect to the way people of Northern Ireland relate to the Iraqis which causes me greater concern, which trigger the constant flashbacks to Belfast whenever I turn on the evening news.

Early on in the Troubles, the IRA was on the verge of disintegrating; people joked that “IRA” stood for “I Ran Away.” Then the British government instituted policing and security policies that were considered so outrageous that they galvanized the Catholic residents of Northern Ireland into action. The first of these policies related to the imprisonment of political prisoners, their arrest and subsequent treatment. Under a policy known as “internment,” suspected terrorists were imprisoned without trial and for undetermined periods of time. They were held in poor prison conditions. Allegations of constant interrogations, beatings and other forms of maltreatment swirled around the prison walls.

The other key British policy was the introduction of the British army as a security force that occupied Northern Ireland as if it were a conquered foreign land. At the same time, the local police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), abandoned policing to become an army-led antiterrorist force that later gained international infamy for brutalizing the populace in the name of antiterrorist efforts.

Unionists and nationalists both agree these policies were the best recruitment tools that the IRA had ever had. Those who had previously derided the IRA took up arms. Foreign nations that had condemned the IRA as terrorists began to see the British as the oppressors.

In 1972, the British government had interned more than 500 prisoners.

On July 11, bonfires are set all over Belfast to celebrate the British victory in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Teenagers will spend three to six months every year collecting wooden pallets for the fire, and some even sleep in the hollow center of the structure to guard it from theft. On the top of the bonfire is the Tricolor, the flag of the Republic of Ireland.

The United States has thousands of “detainees.” Some in Iraq. Some in Guantanamo. And some are without counsel, without charge, without sentence.

Of course, the American and British armed forces don’t patrol their own people as though they’ve been conquered. They are patrolling people they have actually conquered. However, that distinction isn’t necessarily reassuring, particularly when the attacks against U.S. troops and other officials have confounded the experts as to how to secure the area. The British have solicited retired members of the RUC to go police Iraq. The rationale is that they have a “unique” expertise in antiterrorism and cooperation with the British military. That’s undoubtedly true. I’ll even add that they have admitted expertise in riot control as well. But that ignores the fact that the RUC had such a bad international reputation that its total reconfiguration was essential to the peace process. Perhaps that won’t be a problem because the bad press for the RUC was always that it beat Catholics when it did not touch the Protestants. In Iraq, nearly the whole population is Muslim, so everyone’s going to be fair game.

The most famous civil rights law firm in Northern Ireland has filed wrongful death lawsuits against the United States on behalf of Iraqi families with members killed by U.S. soldiers. The law firm was chosen because of its unique expertise battling governments that abuse individuals’ human rights.

And I’m wondering for how long will we use the existence of a small group of armed resisters as the litmus test for whether or not an entire people will be able to take part in the establishment of a democratic government.

My friends in the paramilitaries nod knowingly when bombs in Iraq go off, saying that the Iraqis are taking pages out of their old playbooks. They tell me that America will be in Iraq for 30 years.

No, Iraq isn’t a new Vietnam. But Baghdad could be our Belfast.

Ashley Merryman is a lawyer and writer in Los Angeles, working on a book about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 2004

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