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  • Writer's picturejoanna braniff

The Writing is on the Wall

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

By Joanna Braniff

On a gable wall in Montrose Street in East Belfast, a stark mural reminds the people of the city 'those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.'

The artwork is a tribute to the working-class progressive unionist politician David Ervine who, after serving time in jail for his part in an attempt to plant a bomb in the mid-1970s, turned his back on violence and played a pivotal role in brokering the loyalist ceasefire of October 1994.

While the sentiment of the artwork is commendable and certainly less antagonistic than many of the city's territory-marking murals, it's a little redundant.

History in Northern Ireland is perpetually kept on the boil and always ready to be served steaming hot for political gain. The same arguments fought over in the 16th century stubbornly remain part of the politics of the 21st century.

So in that spirit, perhaps we should make an urgent cri de coeur that our American friends pause to take stock and re-read the sentiment of this particular example of Belfast's famous 'street art'. What might give it greater resonance is if we added the line 'while it's good to learn from your mistakes, it's better to learn from the mistakes of others.'

As we head towards another contentious American election after a summer of street protests in many major cities sparked by systemic racism and poverty, the US is perched on a narrow precipice terrifyingly similar to that of Northern Ireland in the closing years of the 1960s.

The disenchantment in US society is so widespread today, that ironically the enforced lockdown of the COVID 19 pandemic may just have saved America from itself – for the time being.

While President Trump would love to be able to use water cannon to simply wash away, not just the sins of the past, but the iniquities of the present and the genuine fear for the future, history is there to remind him that mass anger and frustration is pretty indelible.

In the absence of any other good ideas and blinded by arrogance, incumbent president and his administration could reasonably be compared to Northern Ireland's 1960s Ulster Unionist PM Terence O'Neill. Like O'Neill, Trump is now a moribund leader who has lost the respect, moral authority and the trust of large sections of the community. By ordering police to forcefully crush peaceful protest simply demanding equality precisely mirrors what happened in Northern Ireland in 1968. The negative impact of such aggressive policing is only compounded when those security agents of the State are perceived to have a negative bias against a particular marginalised ethnic and/or economic demographic.

Like America today, Northern Ireland's eruption into violence has roots stretching back centuries. Over hundreds of years, sectarian tensions in Ireland have ebbed and flowed, but by the mid 60s the world was changing and revolution was in the air everywhere.

After years of continual gerrymandering and long-standing discrimination in both housing and employment, any political reforms toward equality that were grudgingly granted by the unionist government were frustratingly slow.

Inevitably, there comes the point in every timeline of oppression when significant numbers of people realise the social contract has been broken. They run out of faith in the system when they realise they have no hope of fair representation. Predictably, fear and frustration leads to anger often resulting in street protests and clashes with authority.

These people don't want a revolution, they just want equality. To frame them as enemies of the state or dangerous anarchists is a convenient way to distract analysis away from why their frustrations are manifesting in destruction and violence, onto the immediate drama of the conflict reportage. The visually graphic destruction of property always trumps the systemic destruction of dignity. A burning car makes better television than the complex graphs of economic statistics needed to explain decades of oppression.

The transatlantic parallels of protests against State oppression are longstanding. As early as 1963, civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland had compared themselves to African Americans in Alabama and Little Rock. They sang 'We Shall Overcome' at their marches and in early 1969 deliberately modelled a protest march on the lines of the Selma-Montgomery march. These protestors overtly identified more with black American protests than the myriad of protests in Europe that year. They saw their struggle as closer to that of African Americans in the US. As recent tragic events on the streets of US cities testify, they were right when it came to picking their allies.

The shocking images of George Floyd's horrific killing by police officers in Minneapolis in July 2020 have dark echoes on the streets of Belfast 50 years ago.

In April 1969, following clashes with civil rights protestors on the streets of Derry, RUC officers severely beat Samuel Devenney in front of his three children in what supposed to be the safety of their own home. The innocent Catholic father, having never regained consciousness, died in hospital three months later, two days after another Catholic civilian, Francis McCloskey, was also fatally beaten by the police.

With a combination of aggressive policing by poorly-trained officers carrying out antagonistic operations, increasing mistrust and fear in historically oppositional communities and loudmouth politicians whipping up tensions to push up their personal ratings, within a month of these killings the situation in Northern Ireland had deteriorated to the point where tear gas was used for the first time on civilians on UK streets and the British Army were called in to 'help'. Described at the time as 'temporary measure', Operation Banner officially started on August 14, 1969. This deployment of troops to Northern Ireland became the longest operation in British military history, only really ending in July 1997 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

In the intervening three decades, over 3,500 men, women and children lost their lives.

In a country the size of the United States, that would compare to 500,000 dead.

Today, the battle for equality is not over in Northern Ireland.

While anti-Catholic discrimination has been removed by law, and many of the initial demands of the civil rights movement have been won, inequality along class lines still exists. Poverty and other human rights are now the issues, much as they are for many people in the US.

Northern Ireland remains a divided society today. Not because we don't see the warning on the Montrose Street wall but because those who currently find it politically expedient, choose to ignore it. Now America has the opportunity to learn not just from its past but also from ours. Sadly, given President Trump's love of walls, these obvious warnings from history are likely to fall on deaf ears and he will be condemned to repeat it.

If the current president does not want to see the writing on the wall in Belfast, he should at least take note of his Oval Office predecessor John F Kennedy who once insightfully remarked: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

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