his week, my friend the Queen moved amongst us with ease, surrounded as always by the aroma of fresh paint and polish. She could be forgiven for leaving Northern Ireland thinking that our men stand stiffly with their hands clenched tightly behind their backs at all times and that our women have one leg shorter than the other.
Meanwhile, we cheer her and attack her police force.
I wonder what our monarch makes of us? I once had an opportunity to explain Northern Ireland to her but decided not to bother.
I have tried to explain Ulster to people before but always ended up more confused than when I started.
I can best illustrate this by attempting to reconstruct a conversation I once had with two very different individuals somewhere to the south of Stroke City, travelling in a van containing seven very tired musicians on their way home to Dublin from a gig in darkest Donegal.
He was on the run from the police and Army and made no bones about it, skilfully using us as a means of safe passage across the border
I was in the front passenger seat sitting beside a rabid republican who had cadged a lift with us. He was on the run from the police and Army and made no bones about it, skilfully using us as a means of safe passage across the border.
Unfortunately, I had known him since we were schoolboys and he made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. These things used to happen. Let us say that his name was Robert. The driver, Paddy, was a down-to-earth Dubliner, a stranger to the ways of the North.
We had just passed through Dungiven and began the gradual climb up the mountainside towards the high-altitude Glenshane Pass. When we reached the top, the clouds seemed below us.
A rainbow arched over the distant shimmering water. “That’s some sight,” whispered Paddy, in awe. “This could be God’s Seat.”
“Certainly could,” I replied.
Paddy continued: “When I see something like that it makes me wonder what you’re fighting about up here.”
“I’m not fighting about anything,” I replied. “Get your facts straight. I’m not like the others,” I jerked my thumb towards Republican Robert slumped beside me. “People like him are fighting. Not me.”
“A united Ireland isn’t worth the loss of even one life,” said Paddy philosophically.
“It’s not about that,” I replied. “Nobody cares about a united Ireland.”
“I do,” said Robert. “No, you don’t,” I said. “That’s just an excuse.”
Robert grew indignant. “I’m fighting for a united Ireland,” he snarled.
“You’re fighting because you’re angry,” I replied. “Nothing to do with a united Ireland at all.”
“I’ll never understand what’s going on up here,” said Paddy.
“Would you like me to explain it to you?” I asked.
“It’s simple. Robert says that he and people like him are fighting for a united Ireland and the world believes him. In actual fact, he’s fighting because he’s convinced that he’s been treated shabbily all his life by people who believe they’re superior to him in every way.”
“You mean the British,” said Paddy.
“But aren’t they his enemy?”
“But isn’t Robert fighting the British Army?”
“Then why is he fighting the British Army when they’re not the enemy?”
“Because they’re on the streets and he can see them.”
“So, why are the British Army here?”
“To prevent Robert being killed.”
“Killed by who?”
“Killed by the enemy.”
“So, who’s the enemy?”
“The people who think Robert is the enemy.”
Paddy scratches his head. “Does the same apply to loyalists?”
“What are they loyal to, by the way?”
“You mean Great Britain?”
“What kind of people are they?”
“Displaced Protestants,” I replied, “mostly of distant Scottish ancestry. They don’t consider themselves Irish and they’re not Scottish either. English people regard them as Paddies just like us. That really drives the crazy. Nevertheless, they’re loyal to the British Crown and feel duty-bound to obey British laws when it suits them.”
“And what if it doesn’t suit them?”
“Well, they grind the country to a halt and beat British soldiers over the head with flagpoles bearing the Union Jack.”
“What do the squaddies make of that?”
“It confuses them.”
“So, loyalists are prepared to undermine the State and overturn the laws of the land to get what the want?”
“Why would they want to do that if they profess loyalty to the State?”
“To protect the State.”
“You’re saying that loyalists fight the British Army too?”
“Yes, but only when the army won’t do what loyalists want it to do.”
“Which is what?”
“Wipe out people who are disloyal to the State.”
“Let’s get this straight,” said Paddy. “Loyalists are disloyal to the State because the British Army won’t punish people who are disloyal to the State?”
“So, republicans and loyalists are both fighting the British Army?”
“But shouldn’t they be fighting each other?”
“Haven’t I already explained that already?”
As I said at the beginning, it’s not easy to give an explanation.
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