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A steady stream of British public relations leaves the American public with the impression that there is peace, potential prosperity, and, finally, some sort of grudging agreement between two equally-at-fault and exhausted tribes. Unfortunately, the old issues continue to plague the region.
The British Government, well over a year after its commitment to transform the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) from one of the most efficient military security forces in the world into a modern and creditable police force, continues to chip around the edges of any suggested reform. Ignoring the findings of its own Patten Commission, the government toys with minimal changes designed to maintain the status quo in order not to offend the Loyalists who view the RUC as "their" police force. A further, and equally important commitment to the peace process, to review and dismantle the Diplock Court system, remains an empty gesture.
Prisoners on both sides of the political divide have been paroled, cease-fires emplaced, and democratically elected members sent to a devolved governmental body at Stormont, the site of the local Assembly in Northern Ireland. And yet, "emergency" legislation designed to "streamline" even the most basic concepts of due process remains in place. There is no right to a jury trial in a political case and "police" interrogation remains a dangerous and often violent experience instructing new generations of nationalist youth in the vagaries of sectarian justice.
The north of Ireland remains a police state.
Utilizing an extensive computer system, cameras perched on omnipresent helicopters and watchtowers, and a vast array of technological hardware designed to gather information about the most minute details of the private lives of its citizens in Northern Ireland, the British government spends, according to some accounts, at least $67,000,000 annually in maintenance and upgrade of its physical security plant.. To those nationalists in the area who are skeptical about the British desire for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, the expanding British military presence in their area confirms, in their minds, darker purposes. The seeming lack of willingness of the part of the British government to carry through reforms of the police and justice systems adds further charcoal color to these suspicions.
Others suggest the amount spent on refurbishing and expanding surveillance towers and military/police bunkers, especially in the South Armagh area, is much higher. The security system rivals that of the former Soviet Union and Franco's Spain.
In South Armagh, a region of rolling green hills devoted to cattle farming and euphemistically referred to by British security forces as "bandit country," the British army and police sit perched in heavily armed tower barracks resembling the fire support bases utilized by American forces in Vietnam.
There are no "warring tribes" to keep apart in this area since it is solidly nationalist and without any history of sectarianism. Despite the "peace", the British Government has undertaken significant construction in this area, securing each facility against a republican community that has been on cease-fire for over five years. Military patrols continue to sneak out of the towers into the fields and backyards of the citizens. To the most uneducated militarily, it is clear that the British believe they are at war
This year, well over 100 "international observers" traveled through the looking glass to the town of Portadown during the twelve day "marching" season. While there were many agendas amongst the various groups represented, the singular focus of all was to observe or witness the conduct of the security forces as it went through the annual ritual of controlling the marching antics of the Loyal Orange Order and their more violent Loyalist supporters.
Invited by the nationalist community of the Garvaghy Road neighborhood in Portadown, international observers from numerous countries converged on the Garvaghy Road Community Center in early July.
Portadown is the birthplace of the Orange Order and has become a magnet for extremist elements in the Loyalist population. The Garvaghy Road is a small community at the fringe of Portadown and is populated largely by Catholics driven from their homes in and around others areas of Portadown. Retired teachers from Dublin, the Irish Parades Emergency Committee, evangelical groups from the Republic of Ireland, Students for Justice, Lawyers Alliance for Justice in Ireland, trade unionists from New York (including an 84 year old former merchant seaman who served on Liberty ships bringing supplies to England during World War II) and numerous other groups donned powder blue international observer jackets and braved the cold, often wet, weather of late evenings and early mornings at the barricades surrounding the nationalist community.
In response to threats of violence by Loyalist paramilitary groups to kill a Catholic a day, units of the British army arrived in force on July 6th, and began to set up substantial barricades around the community. Each evening through the 12th of July, bands of violent Loyalists --- irate at the determination of the Parades Commission, a governmental body, that they could not march through the nationalist neighborhood --- made speeches, threw petrol bombs over the walls of the community, and fired shots. On two occasions, RUC officials were forced to disband these groups with water hoses. Observers were advised to remain within the perimeter and stay away from the walls in order to insure their safety.
On any given night, patient observers watched as the ironies of Northern Ireland played out. Observers were present to report on any civil rights violations by the RUC against the nationalist community. The RUC stood at the gates watching for attempted intrusions of violent Loyalists and occasionally walked around the edges of the nationalist neighborhood. The army seemed to have one eye on the Loyalists and one eye on the RUC. The nationalist community watched with considerable patience as foreign soldiers --- troops from Scotland and Wales --- surrounded their community. The history of The Troubles told them to be wary of the RUC as well because of the RUC's suspected collusion with Loyalist death squads.
Stewards from the community --- some with strong republican histories and others just concerned about their children and neighbors --- patrolled the community to insure the youth did not interact with the RUC or react to the violence outside the wire. And, finally, the law and order men --- the Orange Order and its supporters, raged at the gates like mad men loosed from hell.
As the head of the Order in Portadown --- Harold Gracey --- remarked in a public speech,
"This battle is not just about Drumcree, this is about the Orange Order, it's about the Protestant people. They're now on their bellies actually, they used to be on their knees. If they don't get up off their bellies before it's too late, this country will be gone. So let's carry this protest right across this province. Our struggle will go on for as long as it takes".
Nights of hijacking and burning cars and homes followed. Traffic was brought to a standstill in many areas, with Loyalist thugs backing the young people blocking the roads.
At the present, the "protest" continues, although in less violent form since the heads of the Orange Order realized the damage and losses were hurting their own communities as well as the nationalists.
Lives have been lost despite the "peace". Nationalists have been burned out of their homes and very few Loyalist arrests have occurred. The RUC have, simply, chosen to control the situation rather than to enforce the law. Certainly, this is nothing new. Without credibility for institutions and belief by all --inside and outside the gate --- that the British Government is committed to the rule of law, applied consistently and fairly, nothing will change. Violence and reaction. The need for international observers will continue, each looking over the walls and behind their backs no matter how much peace talk exists.
Richard M. O'Meara
July 20, 2000
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