We must face up to the fact that people in the North were let down as the media and political establishment closed ranks
At 2am on April 19, 1977, there was a knock on the door of Strathearn’s pharmacy in Ahoghill. The family lived upstairs and often opened up at all hours of the night for a sick neighbour or a child that wasn’t well. William Strath-earn (in North Derry we pronounce it Strayhorn) got out of his bed and shouted down from the upstairs window: “What’s wrong?”
The two men at the door told him they had a sick child at home and needed something to calm him. William told his wife he would go down. When he opened the front door of the shop, they shot him dead. Two serving members of the RUC, John Weir and Billy McCaughey, were later convicted of the murder and maintained it had been sanctioned by their superiors.
Strathearn had played football for Bellaghy and most of the extended family still live there. In 1984, his old neighbour Seamus Heaney wrote a celebrated poem about the murder. Heaney had long since moved to Dublin and was plagued by his failure to provide a voice for Northern nationalists. In the poem, he asks for forgiveness, writing: “Forgive the way I have lived indifferent, forgive my timid circumspect involvement.”
The overwhelming feeling in the North is that the South turned a blind eye. As writer and historian Paul Larkin argues, the only explanation for the Southern response to anyone talking honestly about the North “is self shame — a phenomenon well attested in post-colonial societies”.
Or, as I put it in an interview with Virgin’s Tommy Martin last week, a sense of guilt that comes from their having sat on their hands as the horrors unfolded in the North. Much easier to blame us than to call out the root causes. The truth is, of course, more complex.
When the People’s Democracy marchers were batoned off the road at Burntollet Bridge outside Derry city in 1969, the pictures were broadcast around the world by the BBC and a primal roar of “Who will help us?” went up from our community.
Later that year, when loyalists, with RUC members observing, burned out all 60 terraced houses in Bombay Street off the Falls Road and many of the Catholic homes in nearby Kashmir Road and Cupar Street, the South opened its doors to the thousands of refugees, housing them in barracks, schools and private homes.
When John Hume said on Bloody Sunday that the Parachute Regiment “have carried out cold-blooded mass murder, another Sharpeville”, revulsion in the South was universal. The Irish ambassador was withdrawn from London, all schools and workplaces were closed and a national day of mourning was declared.
Quickly, however, the Republic changed course, as charted in historian Brian Hanley’s fascinating study, The Impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968-1979. By the end of 1972, Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act was being ruthlessly used by the Fianna Fáil government to silence nationalist viewpoints or any news item that might tend to glamorise “the struggle”.
In November 1972, after RTÉ reporter Kevin O’Kelly repeated statements on air from an interview he had conducted with the IRA’s chief of staff Seán Mac Stíofáin, the government promptly sacked the entire RTÉ Authority. Taoiseach Jack Lynch (a Corkman) replaced them with what one journalist described as “a collection of civil servants, party hacks and Corkmen”.
Meanwhile, O’Kelly was arrested, charged with contempt of court (he refused to hand over the interview tape) and sent to jail. Minister Gerry Collins told the Dáil “an undue amount of time had been given to these people who represent nobody but themselves, giving viewpoints which are clearly unacceptable to the vast majority of Irish people”.
Fianna Fáil’s George Colley, expressing the general feeling of the house, dismissed “all this claptrap about the freedom of the press”. That same month, the government proposed an extraordinary amendment to the Offences Against the State Act, which shifted the burden of proof on to the defendant in terrorist cases and allowed a suspect to be convicted by a judge on the word of a senior garda.
A youthful Mary Robinson, among others, denounced the proposal, but it was carried with an enormous majority. Fine Gael abstained (which continues to be its policy on the North to this day), and the journalist Mary Holland described the atmosphere in the Dáil bar as Fianna Fáil celebrated victory as “being like a Kilburn pub on a Friday night”.
Through the 1970s, repression became entrenched. Gardaí had a free hand, official Easter commemorations were banned and a culture of fear gripped RTÉ. In October 1974, current affairs programme 7 Days broadcast a special on internment featuring interviews with former internees and their families, interspersed with footage of British troops attacking anti-internment marches. The Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the Labour-Fine Gael coalition, Conor Cruise O’Brien, suspended the head of RTÉ current affairs Des Fisher and members of the 7 Days team, declaring the IRA was “in spiritual occupation of RTÉ”.
As the legendary civil rights leader Fr Denis Faul put it: “Due to government control of RTÉ, people in the South seem to care little about the plight of the minority, but loyalists can pour out their hate for Catholics on the station.”
The result of this was the extraordinary situation that momentous events in the North affecting the nationalist community could only be watched on the BBC or UTV. As the film director Neil Jordan wrote in Hot Press in June 1977: “Is it not amazing to have to turn to ITV News at Ten to find out what is happening in Ireland?”
No wonder it was noted that British diplomats regarded Irish government policy toward the North in “a very positive light”, a quote attributed to the British ambassador of the day, Walter Robert Haydon.
In 1976, when the government proposed the draconian Criminal Law Jurisdiction Bill and O’Brien suggested newspapers could be prosecuted for publishing material “deemed subversive”, it was described as a “charter for torturers”. When President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh (so concerned was he at the content) referred the bill to the Supreme Court before signing it, he felt he had no option but to resign after being viciously attacked by Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan.
The people of the Republic had and have an emotional connection to us. However, the establishment closed ranks against us. Hanley gives a good example of this. When The Wolfe Tones released The Men Behind the Wire in support of the internees, like any other song supporting the Northern nationalists it was banned by RTÉ in accordance with the censorship laws (Section 31). But it sold more than 100,000 copies in the Republic and was No 1 for five weeks.
The early years of the Troubles were easy for Southerners because we were the good guys. However, once the Provos were up and running and the bombings and atrocities were in full swing on all sides, it was more difficult. Massacres of Protestant workmen. Indiscriminate pub bombings. How are people removed from these events meant to figure out what the truth is? How can they be expected to take sides?
When I arrived in Trinity in 1987, I was amazed by the general apathy. But, to be honest, once I was in Dublin a few months I almost forgot about the North myself. It was no longer my daily routine.
These events have to be experienced viscerally in order to feel the rage and powerlessness that we felt. My view is that we were let down, not by the people but by the establishment.
This is clear from the extraordinarily repressive regime that was put in place. Instead of being honest about the North, being firm but fair with British and unionist leaders and maintaining a humane stance, successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments not only abandoned but vilified us, stigmatising all of us with the taint of Provoism.
It is, of course, time to move on. However, as Nelson Mandela often pointed out, moving on is only possible when we teach the past honestly.