Fergal Keane: Bigotry, fear and the failure of Ulster's political leaders

'The four-year-old girls being walked to school are seen as the Trojan horses of a papist plot'

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All week I have been listening to English people express their shock at the terror in Ardoyne. This after nearly 3,500 deaths and countless acts of terror that will never make it into any record book. Perhaps I should be comforted that, after everything we have seen in three decades, people are still capable of being shocked. But I've wanted to ask: where have you been all these years, why the surprise?

All week I have been listening to English people express their shock at the terror in Ardoyne. This after nearly 3,500 deaths and countless acts of terror that will never make it into any record book. Perhaps I should be comforted that, after everything we have seen in three decades, people are still capable of being shocked. But I've wanted to ask: where have you been all these years, why the surprise?

Don't believe anybody who tells you we have passed a crucial point in Ulster. Ignore all solemn statements to this intent. Especially disregard the excitable headlines that might leave you to believe we have reached a new low, the eternal new low of Ulster. The sight of terrified children being escorted to school by the RUC and the Army was appalling, nauseating, a tragedy by even the most exacting of definitions. But a turning point? Not even remotely.

We have seen it all before and much worse. Children have been shot, blown to pieces, mown down by stolen cars, seen their parents shot in front of them and followed coffin after coffin. Who remembers the small children following the coffin of their murdered policemen father – murdered by the Provos as the ceasefire approached. In all my life I never saw tears fall so large and sad. Those policemen were Roland John Graham and David Andrew Johnston.

Rebecca Graham, a 10-year-old, wrote in a card to her dead father: "Dear Dad, I want to let you know that we love you and miss you." Take a look at the death lists for the last 30 years and in almost every murder is the story of children maimed. I suggest the following extract from the book Lost Lives, on the murder of William J Staunton, a Catholic magistrate shot by the IRA as he dropped two daughters and their friends at school on the Falls Road.

"Most of the children had left the car, but one of the Magistrate's daughters was still in the back seat when the pillion passenger opened fire several times through the driver's window, wounding William Staunton." Mr Staunton's daughter later wrote a poem.

"Forgive them and forget," Mummy said
But can Daddy know I do?
"Smile for Daddy, kiss him well,"
Mummy said.
But can I ever?

There were the children of Patrick Donegan murdered by the Shankill butchers, and there was nine-year-old Patrick Rooney, killed by a police bullet way back in August 1969. And if you asked any of the frontmen for the killers – republican and loyalist – they would tell you that in war there are always innocent casualties, leaving you struggling for an apt response while they headed home to tea with their families. Whining, self-justifying and nauseating. For we are dealing with "good family men" who see no contradictions at all. We have been listening to their weasel words all week.

The bigotry in Ardoyne, like bigotry everywhere, is about fear. In Ardoyne, Yeats's line (which I know I use often) about "little room/great hatred" is specially pertinent. The ongoing narrative of the past 30 years has been about fear. Fear is the bastard son of hate and there is a part of Ulster's soul where it coils like a serpent, waiting its moment to strike. Yet I spent several months filming in Ardoyne at the outset of the peace process and came away believing something had profoundly changed. There was hope in the air. I met a young Sinn Fein activist who was spending his nights going out on the streets to stop Catholic youths from throwing stones at Protestant houses. That was in the days before the peace process went up the Khyber.

But the madness at Holy Cross is not a consequence of the peace process faltering, it is a shocking exposition of the attitudes that make achieving a sustainable peace such a challenge. The sense that the other side are on the way up is not confined to the Protestants of Ardoyne. The idea that the nationalists are the sole winners in the peace process has resonance among many Protestants across the province. The loyalists of Ardoyne feel directly threatened and that is what makes them so very dangerous. Thus four-year-old girls being walked to school are seen as the Trojan horses of a papist plot.

But for fear to erupt into violence you need manipulation. It was true of poor whites in Alabama and equally true of the extreme right-wingers in South Africa. The manipulators are rarely seen in front of the cameras. They have public relations apologists, but the boys who can switch violence on and off stay well away from the public gaze. So let us nail one big canard. The protests at Holy Cross are not a spontaneous eruption of public anger. This anger was stoked and massaged all summer long. The loyalist paramilitary leadership knew well what was coming and it suited some of them very well.

Some of the more politically aware loyalist political figures, like Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionists, realised by mid-week that loyalism was damaging itself hugely in the eyes of the world. But Mr Hutchinson is one of the few paramilitaries with such insight these days. And he has no influence over the activities of the UDA, an organisation that has been engaged in a bitter feud with Hutchinson's old comrades in the UVF.

The UDA' s political leaders failed to win any seats in the elections for the devolved assembly. The result was that politics was not seen to deliver and the gunmen got itchy fingers. Many of them, it has to be said, never had a liking for the ballot in the first place, not when guns could get you drugs which could get you money. Men who ignore the democratic will of the people – remember we voted for peace – are what you could quite accurately call fascists. They've been up to sectarian villainy for months now and for them the tragedy of Holy Cross is the best of opportunities. Where someone of Billy Hutchinson's ilk sees a political disaster, the hardliners in the UDA and their hangers on see a chance to assert yet more control in a fearful community.

The bigotry of Ardoyne is shocking. But don't for a moment sink into that old English trap of thinking the Irish are all mad and destined to be at each other's throats for ever. Do not automatically equate Protestant with bigot. Remember that Protestant Ulster is also the country of some of the finest poets in the English language – Louis McNiece, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley. It is a place of decent people. Try to think of that other Ulster when you hear the roar of "Fenian bastards" from the mob outside Holy Cross.

The greatest failure this past week has been one of leadership. While Ulster's image was being shredded by the mob, the best the big political leaders could manage were cautious statements. Doesn't Ulster still have a government? The only appropriate response of politicians from the mainstream democratic parties is to be seen to act together.

The seasoned observer might well say that the political leaders would be run out of Ardoyne if they showed up, or that they would spend so long arguing over any joint statement the children would be at university in the meantime. But it sure would help to see them stand together somewhere, anywhere, to tell the world exactly what their country really stands for.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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