Wars never end. Not if you're fighting in them, even reporting them. The Syrian rebellion – or revolution/spring/civil war/awakening – seems unending. "Palestine's" occupation has gone on for 45 years and counting. And when I was sorting my own archives on Northern Ireland the other day, my notebooks, the paramilitary magazines, the pompous announcements from Whitelaw, the Unionists, Paisley, Craig, Hume, the Provos (as Brian Faulkner called them), the Brits – as the Provos first called them, an expression taken up by the ventriloquist Merlyn Rees – it felt like the "Ulster" war should never have ended.
On the Europa Hotel's message pads, my handwriting records "2 sold VSI RVH" (two soldiers very seriously ill Royal Victoria Hospital), "bomb in SR and VS St" (Sandy Row and Great Victoria Street railway station), "son of judge shot dead", "policeman ser ill", "2 Provos arrest, staff officers in 1st Batt, F co", Europa office bill for 22 May/10 June '73, £145, day after day, year after year. "An agreement was reached between the two anonymous and uniformed leaders of the UDA and Maj-Gen Robert Ford, Commander Land Forces Northern Ireland," I had typed, "that the army should man checkpoints at the end of seven mainly Protestant streets in West Belfast and allow the UDA to carry out unarmed patrols through the area."
Difficult to remember how we let the fascists of the UDA run parts of Belfast while objecting when the fascists of the Provos ran parts of the same city. Captain John Brooke, Unionist party chief whip (4 July 1972): "It is utterly tragic that citizens of the United Kingdom have been driven to non-political action but it is inevitable." Whitelaw's Northern Ireland Office ( 28 November 1972): "The Commissioners appointed under the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 today inquired into the cases of seven men held at the Maze Prison." Without trial, of course, though the NIO didn't say that. "...one discharge order has been signed and six detention orders were made..."
Oliver Napier, joint chairman of the non-sectarian Alliance Party (May 22 1972): "After another weekend of violence and murder, Northern Ireland has taken another step towards civil war." When John Graham, of the FT rightly called it a "civil war", Unionist leader Faulkner went into a tizzy. We had Widgery, Scarman, the Special Powers Act, White Papers, Green Papers, the Border Poll Act, Diplock, no manner of lies and truths and ruthlessness from our Westminster masters. Paddy Devlin, of the SDLP (21 December 1972): "Whitelaw is on trial... We are fed up to the teeth with his promises to act on the mounting assassination toll..." Another typewritten screed by Fisk: "Masked men burst into a Roman Catholic public house in Londonderry (sic) tonight and sprayed the customers with sub-machine-gun fire, killing five men..."
My tray at the Europa filled each morning. The Quakers (3 June 1972): "Northern Ireland men and women must be given every encouragement to solve their community problem (sic) for themselves in sanity and peace." The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (23 January 1973): "...unity of action is possible without distinction of creed or political affiliation between workers North and South..." The same phrase repeatedly, "the vast majority of ordinary peace-loving people" – the VMOPP, I cynically called them – were uselessly invoked. "...1972 goes out with sorrow for many and with shame for some," wrote Lord Grey (Governor of the province on New Year's Day), "but 1973 should come in with hope for all men and women of goodwill." Pull the other one.
Belfast Sinn Fein (6 December, 1972) on the death of Patrick Benstead: "His fingers had been cut off; privates cot (sic) off and put in his mouth; hair pulled out, face slashed, body burned and branded. No ordinary person... could surely be guilty of such a sadistic crime." Later Prod paramilitary memoirs would confirm it all. And the endless copy of the soldier shot out of the back of a "pig" armoured vehicle and of an inquest and the last words of a Protestant part-time soldier, murdered in front of his wife. Don't die, his wife pleaded with him. "Darling, I will never leave you," he said to her. And died. "Thought you'd spot that quote," old David Gilliland, of the NIO, muttered to me.
And how many quotes are there from dying Palestinians and dying Syrians and dying Bosnians and, yes, dying Israelis, in wars that have not ended or might end or have ended. They say – correctly – that the Second World War didn't end till the Berlin Wall came down. Long time coming.
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