Irish Issues

A commentary regarding the IRA, Ulster, the Catholic / Protestant divide, the Republic of Ireland, and more

by Cheryl Sneeringer, an American abroad

It is clear to me that there is a persuasive faction among the Hollywood culture that is pro-IRA and pro-united Ireland. We have had several movies recently that demonize the British and glorify the Irish. It seems to me that these pro-united-Ireland movies are intended to engender sympathy for the IRA, and they seem to me to be blatant propaganda. It’s not surprising really, because I have not found Hollywood to be at all trustworthy in portraying history with accuracy. And so, I very much appreciated [the] inclusion of Mr. Renton’s comments. I found Mr. Renton’s comments to correspond exactly to my understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland when I lived there. [I then noticed] additional comments from a different perspective by Patrick O'Grady… Mr. O'Grady’s comments were very much at odds with what I experienced when I lived in Belfast.

In the mid-1970s, after my husband and I finished our Ph.D.’s in computer science at the University of North Carolina, we took post-doc positions on the faculty of the Queen’s University in Belfast in order to work with one of the top computer scientists in the world, Prof. Tony Hoare. As we immersed ourselves in the culture of Northern Ireland and began building relationships, the first topic of conversation with any new acquaintance was, “Tell us about ‘the Troubles’. What is this war all about?”

The story we got from everyone we spoke with was that the citizens of the six counties of Ulster had chosen to remain a part of Great Britain and not to join the south of Ireland in establishing independence. They would say passionately and emphatically (with that beautiful Irish lilt), “We are Irish, but we are British citizens; we don’t want to be a part of the Republic of Ireland!!!” They enjoyed tremendous advantages in being a part of Great Britain. Their standard of living was higher than Ireland's.

Their National Health Service (socialized medicine) was superior to Ireland's. As British citizens, they had access to fine British universities (all available at minimal cost to students who qualify). They considered the government of Ireland to be oppressive, and they wanted no part of that. At the time I lived in Belfast, possessing birth control was illegal in the Republic of Ireland. Divorce was illegal. As a Christian, I might be sympathetic to a strict law against divorce, but the people of Northern Ireland were not typically Christians, and saw that as a major imposition of Catholic doctrine on their lives. (The term “Protestant” means you are of British or Scottish descent; it doesn’t mean you go to church. “Catholics” are those of Irish descent.). In all my time there, I never met a person who wanted to be a part of the Republic of Ireland.

The IRA and the UVF are opposing terrorist organizations. IRA members were not typically oppressed and persecuted residents of Northern Ireland. Rather, most were residents of the Republic of Ireland who wanted the remaining counties to be under Irish, not British, rule. At the time we lived there, the strategy of the IRA was to do so much economic damage in Northern Ireland that Great Britain would withdraw and abandon the territory to Ireland. Northern Ireland is a very poor country, and it was (at the time) an economic drain on Great Britain.

So in order to wreak economic havoc in Northern Ireland, the IRA bombed buildings, mostly after dark when there would be little or no loss of life. It was a frequent occurrence-several bombings a week. When we lived in Belfast (a city of 500,000), there were no supermarkets left in the city—they had all been bombed. Automobiles were not allowed in the city, because the IRA’s weapon of choice was the car bomb. Another favorite pastime of the IRA was kneecapping-blowing the kneecaps off of British sympathizers. When they got really angry they were happy to kill innocent citizens, just to make a statement. Belfast is served by red double-decker buses, and I remember one afternoon, when a bus had made its last stop in a Catholic section of town (and therefore only Protestants remained on board), IRA terrorists shot everyone on board and set fire to the bus. I never rode a bus after that.

As a result of the ongoing violence, something like martial law had prevailed for years in Belfast. The Catholic sections of town were enclosed in barbed wire barriers, and entrance gates were guarded by British soldiers. It had nothing to do with religion; these people were guarded because they were more likely to harbor IRA terrorists. Nevertheless, everyone was under suspicion. Anytime you entered a store or place of business, you would be searched—including having your purse emptied and the contents examined. The people we knew were more than happy to submit to this, because we all feared the IRA far more than we minded this infringement of our privacy. When we walked down the street at night and saw a shadowy figure coming toward us, we would breathe a sigh of relief if we saw a British soldier patrolling nearby. The British were seen as protectors and peacekeepers by the citizens of Northern Ireland.

It seems to me to be a gross misrepresentation that Mr. O'Grady classifies the IRA along with the French Resistance in World War II. I agree with Mr. Renton’s comments; the IRA are not freedom fighters. They are thugs and murderers who want to impose their desires on a people who have chosen to remain a part of Great Britain.

Perhaps the difference in perspective comes from the fact that Mr. O'Grady lives in the Republic of Ireland, and would be perfectly happy to annex Ulster. He can sympathize with the goals (if not the methods) of the IRA. But in our experience, the people of Ulster strongly opposed that annexation. They welcome Irish takeover about as much as the Poles welcomed the Germans prior to World War II.

An analogous situation would be if a group of terrorist Mexicans began murdering and bombing buildings in southern Texas hoping that the U.S. would surrender San Antonio and points south to Mexico. Although San Antonio may have a majority of citizens of Mexican descent, they still would strongly oppose being annexed to Mexico. They may be Hispanic, but they are American citizens. Hollywood might then criticize the U.S.A. for holding on to southern Texas, but Texans in San Antonio would be mighty glad they did! In the same way, the citizens of Northern Ireland remain loyal British subjects. Great Britain has governed this land for four hundred years, and in 1921, when the Irish Free State was formed, the six counties of Ulster chose not to be a part of that state. This remains true today. Ireland wants to have Ulster, but at least two-thirds of the people in Ulster do not want to be in the Republic of Ireland.

It bothers me a lot to see Hollywood portray the British as evil and oppressive, and the IRA as valiant, idealistic underdogs. It is just not true.