Water Man Spouts

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Luck of the Irish

{1} On March 17, we celebrate the life of a man born 1619 years ago in Britain, who was kidnapped and brought to Ireland. The feast day for this giant among men will be held in the USA, Canada, parts of Africa, Europe, India, Australia, the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, and China.

The New York Times carried an article on March 18, 1981, that told of "Mayor Koch, swaddled in a huge green, white, and gold scarf on top of a bulky Irish sweater, arrived as members of the St. Gerard Majella drum corps of Hollis, Queens, warmed up, giving it everything they had, which was considerable.

"The Mayor held forth on his theory that the lost tribes of Israel settled long ago in Ireland and that therefore he was Irish. The crowd loved this ….." (100,000 Step Up Fifth in Salute to St. Patrick; William Farrell)

The role of the Irish in history is fascinating. Many American citizens know, both from written and oral histories, the story of how their ancestors migrated to this country in the 1800s. And most know about "the Troubles" that have caused so much suffering among those still in Ireland in the decades since. Today, I thought it would be interesting to examine some connections between "the Troubles" in Ireland, and the destruction of some of the ideals expressed in the Constitution of the United States.

When we think of the role of the Irish in human history, we often think of the individual and group events of centuries past. There was Brendan’s sailing; the adopted Patrick’s adaptation of Christianity; the victims of the Great Starvation; the immigrants who won the US Civil War for the north; and, as Thomas Cahill noted in his 1996 "How the Irish Saved Civilization," a largely untold history of the heroic Irish effort to save higher learning during the era known as the Dark Ages.

In 1997, Michael Coffey and Terry Golway published "The Irish in America," a tribute to the 40 million US citizens who then claimed Irish roots. The book had six chapters: (1) The Great Famine: Between Hunger and the White House; (2) The Parish: The Building of a Community; (3) The Precinct: Working from the Inside; (4) The Work: Where the Irish Did Apply; (5) The Players: Irish on Stage; and (6) The New Irish: Keeping a Culture Alive.

And the Irish are poets by nature and nurture: let me quote a verse from a schoolgirl from Belfast named Natalie Hardwick:

"Bomb City, Bomb City, Bomb City drummed into us,
Night and Day minute by minute.
Strangers pity and question: How can we poor,
terrorized people live surrounded
by bigotry, bombs, and bullets?"
(Ireland in Poetry; Charles Sullivan; Abrams Publishing, NY; 1990; page 6)

When I read those lines, I can’t help but think that they are the same thoughts and emotions that schoolgirls in Iraq have been thinking in the years since George Bush and Dick Cheney began the US war of occupation in their lands. I note that England "created" the nations of "Northern Ireland" and "Iraq" at about the same time. In both cases, it was an attempt to secure access to the natural resources of foreign lands to prop up the decaying "British Empire."

{2} Roibeard Geroid Seachnasaigh was born in Northern Ireland in 1954. His Catholic family was forced to move about during his childhood, in part because of the limited economic opportunities available to the Irish in their own land, and partly because of the constant threats of violence they faced. Better known as Bobby Sands, he too was a poet; in his haunting verse "The Rhythm of Time," he spoke of the universal drive in human beings to be free from foreign oppression:

"There's an inner thing in every man,Do you know this thing my friend?It has withstood the blows of a million years,And will do so to the end. ….

"It is found in every light of hope,It knows no bounds nor spaceIt has risen in red and black and white,It is there in every race. …."

In the 1960s and early ‘70s, there was a civil rights movement in Northern Ireland that was heavily influenced by the light of hope shining in the United States. The Catholics in the occupied counties recognized the connection between their circumstances, and that of the black and Native American peoples in the United States. Not surprisingly, the response of the "powers that be" in both Northern Ireland and England to the Catholics’ civil rights movement was similar to Uncle Sam’s tactics with the black and Indian movements. The English’s reactions were in some important ways more extreme, and when we examine them closer, they shed some light upon the Bush-Cheney administration’s policies in the "war on terror."

The following information comes from two books by the Irish author Tim Pat Coogan; the books are "The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace," and "The IRA." I recommend these books to anyone interested in the politics of Ireland.

As the civil rights movement began to gain strength in the Catholic neighborhoods in Northern Ireland, the Protestants began to engage in systematic intimidation. Many of the Catholics subscribed to the beliefs of Gandhi and King, and were willing to turn the other cheek. But others responded to the threats of violence by forming local units that they identified with the groups that their ancestors had belonged to over the centuries. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was the best known of the groups, and it had roots in Irish history.

As the violence between the Catholic and Protestant groups escalated, the British government introduced more English troops as "peace-keepers" in Northern Ireland. The English military’s leadership became convinced that most of the IRA’s support was being "imported" from the Irish Free State. The began a coordinated crackdown on the borders and in the Catholic neighborhoods of communities experiencing unrest. Coogan noted that "the British Army was the IRA’s best recruiting agent. The saturation was such that at one stage there were 2,000 soldiers billeted in Paddy Devlin’s Belfast constituency alone, one in every ten voters. On a specimen Saturday night Devlin counted thirty army vehicles in the district. Soldiers moved along in groups of twenty or more, dispersed on both sides of the street, guns at the ready." (The Troubles; page 137)

Paddy Devlin himself described the British military’s tactics: "I was downright angry at the mindless harassment, degrading obstruction, and casual brutality the soldiers meted out to all who came in their path. I spent hours boiling over in anger and frustration, incoherent with rage, complaining to arrogant, overbearing British officers who failed to see the damage they were doing, the way they were walking into the trap the ruthless Provos had laid for them and how they were only acting as recruiting sergeants for the Provos." (ibid)

Devlin then identifies the single factor – the poor quality of military intelligence, which resulted in the misguided British "surge" – which plunged Northern Ireland into an anarchy that resembles the Iraq that Bush has created. "They failed to understand that many families shared common surnames, but were not related ….they arrested fathers when they wanted the sons and the sons when they were after the fathers. Innocent teenage boys and old men thus found themselves held at the point of a British rifle, and many of the people I dealt with then were so alienated by the experience that they joined the Provos and later became notorious terrorists." (ibid)

As the conflict intensified, it became obvious to the British military intelligence that the IRA was growing in strength in Northern Ireland. It had become impossible to pretend that infiltrators from the Irish Free State were causing all of the Troubles. The sealing of the borders, curfews, and raids had failed to make the Catholic population docile. Hence, a committee known as "GEN 42" began to meet at Downing Street in England to consider new tactics to combat the rise in Catholic nationalism.

{3} GEN 42 created what they called the "toothpaste policy": the British military would squeeze the Catholic community in Northern Ireland until it vomited out the IRA. They would focus less on attempting to identify those who committed acts of violence from the shadows, and instead concentrate on applying pressure on those who openly advocated "revolutionary ideas" – with those ideas similar to the ones expressed in the US Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights being identified as dangerous.

The "toothpaste policy" was defined as a necessary part of a "sustained opposition to terrorism." This was code for a combination of internment without trial, and torture to coerce "confessions." The British had "plans for the systematic employment of torture against detainees. This policy had its origins in earlier British experience, in theaters such as Aden, Cyprus, Kenya, and in the brainwashing techniques employed against American and British servicemen in Korea. These were subsequently adopted by the British Army against EOKA during the Cyprus campaign. This type of expertise was unknown in the RUC and the British had set up a special team of instructors to train the RUC Special Branch. The nature and extent of these preparations were both fully understood and sanctioned by the proper authorities within the Ministry of Defense, British intelligence, and the upper echelons" of the British government, Coogan writes. (The Troubles; page 149)

The "toothpaste policy" was not new. The British already had lists of specific individuals to be detained without any court hearings, but more, they had four secret locations to where the suspects would be interned and tortured. Known as "Operation Demetrius," this series of actions was never as successful as it was brutal. It started it a "trial run" that netted 48 suspects; this allowed those who were actually engaged in terrorist activities a two week warning to go underground.

Next, the British intelligence attempted to round up 450 "targets." Because the actual terrorists had gone underground, the British were only able to find 350 suspects. Those gathered included some men who had been active with the IRA in the 1940s, but who had been long retired; people who were picked up as a result of mistaken identity; and many who were guilty of nothing more than writing about freedom.

Of the 350 suspects, 104 were released within 48 hours. The secret police had picked up the wrong person in 104 of 350 cases, indicating that the military intelligence had a rate of absolute error in approximately 30% of the cases. And although the 104 men were released within 48 hours, each one had been subjected to torture by the British intelligence. The remaining 246 suspects were subjected to the same tortures for extended periods of time.

The tortures endured by the Catholics held prisoner without being charged or having any court hearing may sound familiar to US citizens who oppose the tactics of the Bush-Cheney administration. These techniques included hooding; sleep deprivation; white noise; starvation; forced standing for extended periods while spread-eagled and leaning against a wall on finger-tips; and forms of sexual humiliation. Some men were forced to run bare-footed on broken glass. Many were kicked in the testicles, and raped with batons.

Coogan writes: "These techniques were accompanied by continual harassment, blows, insults, questioning. This treatment usually went on for six or seven days. It produced acute anxiety states, personality changes, depression and, sometimes, early death. I spoke to a psychiatrist who had the thankless task of trying to rehabilitate some of the interrogation victims, at the behest of the British government, and he told me that they were ‘broken men,’ most of whom did not survive into their fifties." (The Troubles; page 150)

Global community outrage forced the British to set up a committee to investigate the abuses. Known as the Compton Inquiry, it gave new meaning to the term "white-wash" when it determined the men had been subjected to "ill treatment" but not "brutality." After an independent human rights commission concluded the Irish Catholics had indeed been tortured, the case was sent to the European Court of Human Rights. After being dragged out for over two years, the ECHR ruled that there was no "systematic torture." Instead, the ECHR concluded that there were a few low-ranking officials who had gone beyond the use of "inhumane and degrading treatment" and engaged in actual torture.

It is interesting to note that it was during this period that the IRA enjoyed the most wide-spread support that it ever had in Northern Ireland. As a result, there was a terrible increase in the explosive violence that maimed and killed far too many people. Young and old, male and female, Catholic and Protestant, Irish and English, hundreds of people – the vast majority innocent bystanders to the horrors of war – died in the reign of terror that resembles the Bush-Cheney occupied Iraq.

{4} Enemy Encounter

Dumping (left over from the autumn)
Dead leaves, near a culvert
I come on
a British Army Soldier
With a rifle and a radio
Perched hiding. He has red hair.

He is young enough to be my weenie
-bopper daughter’s boy-friend.
He is like a lonely winter robin.

We are that close to each other, I
Can nearly hear his heart beating.

I say something bland to make him grin,
But his glass eyes look past my side
-whiskers down
the Shore Road street.
I am an Irish man
and he is afraid
That I have come to kill him.
--Padraic Fiacc (Patrick Joseph O’Connor)


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