Going To Seed

Shots fired on the police in Belfast, themselves armed with the latest weaponry available from the British government; republicans manhandled and dragged from their homes screaming abuse at their captors and about those former prisoners they alleged were responsible for orchestrating the arrests; serious rioting confronted with the politics of condemnation from the mouths of Catholic politicians, many of whom were one time rioters and worse.

The British sociologist Frank Burton back in the 1970s conducted extensive serious academic research in Ardoyne. Later published in book form, Politics of Legitimacy: Struggles in a Belfast Community, ‘Anro’ was the fictitious name he gave to the district as it is endearingly termed by those who live there. Were Burton to arrive in the elongated streets of Ardoyne in the morning he would be tempted to title his next book The Politics of No Change. Apart from a few different faces now on the state side of the barricades everything looks much as it did three decades ago.

Earlier in the week an irate Gerry Kelly, former republican prisoner and currently a prominent Catholic politician – in his day as close to being universally admired within the ranks of the IRA as one gets – could be heard on BBC Radio Ulster spitting nails at the people he claimed were behind the violent disturbances. They belonged to ‘micro groups’ who had specifically bussed troublemakers into the area from beyond for the sole purpose of mischief making.

Memory may be something that escapes politicians, but for those who don’t want aids to prompt us to obliterate recall, there is a recollection of being ‘bussed’ by the IRA and Sinn Fein into areas in which we did not live for the purpose of obstructing Orange marches. I and the many others standing alongside me on South Belfast’s Lower Ormeau Road in the mid 1990s, face to face with armed British police, lived in the west of the city. Bussing in (it is just a term, not exactly being a day out most tend to make their own way to these occurrences) to add volume to the militant roar was a feature of activist life. Bans on secondary picketing, rather like council tax, seemed a quaint British concept that played no part in our decisions.

Gerry Kelly may have sounded genuinely angry at lives being put at risk by snipers opening fire on the PSNI but like others in his party making similar noises he is hoist on the petard of past example. The republicans in Ardoyne are doing nothing other than following in the footsteps of their Provisional forebearers who organised riots and launched armed attacks on police. It is this which takes much of the sting out of the criticisms of Gerry Kelly.

On this matter in the Irish News the North Belfast MLA offered a revealing perspective:

Judge the calibre of these people, after all the lessons of the long conflict, who would fire shots or throw bombs where many children and others had congregated. I don't think it's an understatement to say we are lucky that no-one has been killed.

This comment would appear to constitute a serious indictment of the IRA campaign. It is the closest thing to branding the IRA’s actions, in the built up areas where they were based, wrong, that we have yet heard from any Sinn Fein politician. For long it was the type of criticism hurled the way of the Provisional IRA when they took up arms on the streets of Ardoyne. Unlike today’s armed republicans those in the Provisional movement did kill members of the Ardoyne community during their armed assaults on British security personnel.

Moreover as a junior micro minister in a British micro government his characterisation of republicans as being members of micro groups will hardly rouse swathes of public sentiment against them. Sounding vacuous, the only people likely to listen are those who always joined ranks to condemn republican activity, not those being corralled into backstreets by the Orange Order.

This logic was swiftly identified by one of Gerry Kelly’s republican critics Mairtin Og Meehan:

Whilst I respect Gerry Kelly's electoral mandate, he needs to acknowledge that the majority of people in Ardoyne are angry that he or his party have not condemned the injuring of 10 people by plastic bullets, the hostile use of water cannons and antagonistic actions by the PSNI.

This seems to have stung the Catholic politician into taking up a position his party appeared to have lost sight of earlier in the week. Kelly’s diatribe against the republicans now had to be balanced by a critique of the Orange Order and the PSNI who fired plastic bullets.

This is a significant achievement for republicans who have wrong footed their Catholic adversaries. To have forced Sinn Fein to become critical of the PSNI on terms articulated by republicans can only be viewed within Sinn Fein as a further erosion of its once indisputable hegemony within Ardoyne. Are we witnessing the party as it goes to seed? As so often in these matters the journalist Ed Moloney might well have a point when he claims that, ‘Sinn Fein is a party which is now in decline. It is in a place where it’s possible to say that its best years are behind it.’


  1. "Anró": hardship; wretched condition in Irish.

  2. Fionnchú, never knew that before. Thanks for flagging it up