The guineapigs

Watching RTÉ’s investigation on internment the other evening, I was reminded of a gable wall on a building on the outskirts of Derry. I occasionally inched by it amid the Friday evening gridlock on my way through the border to my folks’ to load up their washing machine with my clothes, and my fridge with their groceries. Respected student traditions.

The tradition of murals had long been synonymous with the North; thermometers for reading the fever on the streets and reactions to a concoction of political drugs prescribed to the public.

On this particular wall, in unequivocal black and white (Calibri, I think), roared the following:

If those who make the law

Break the law

In the name of the law

There is no law

Stark. Quotable, even. But it’s signed by the Provisional IRA, which brings another quote to mind: “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors”, which liberates many of us from entertaining their a la carte philosophising incompatible with our own.

Amazingly, to me, it would seem that many people on this island had not heard of Jean McConville until recently. With that in mind, the programme was a timely return to the exposure of state-sponsored human rights abuses; the horrific treatment of the ‘hooded men’ by British interrogation teams. Practices that would ordinarily draw gasps reserved for the victims of torture in orange overalls, or in countries with a culture of barbarism in languages we don’t understand.

The programme drew the axis of torture from London to Belfast to the European Court of Human Rights back to London over to Iraq, and crossing the Atlantic to Washington and back to the Middle East again. Oppression does not exist in a vacuum, the oppressed do not retaliate in a vacuum. Substitute either term with whatever group or rationale you’re comfortable supporting. That’s how the law tended to work. As Behan wryly observed, the terrorist is usually the man holding the smaller bomb. Internment turned out to be one of the more lethal ones dropped. Along with Bloody Sunday, it was the biggest recruitment event for the Provos.

Little has been made in the North of this latest effort at lateral truth-finding. Its First Minister is busy extinguishing the flames from another fire that threatens to burn his credibility. Peter Robinson finally caved in to pressure to publicly apologise to the Muslim community he had casually denigrated with his flat-earth ‘joke’ about trusting them to go the local shop, but not into local politics. It followed his defence of another bigot-at-large, Pastor James McConnell.

In addition to revealing his own bigotry, Robinson exposed the fallacy of certain Protestant religious fundamentalists. There’s a potential axis of bigotry that joins a strain of Ulster Protestantism with Tea-party politicians who rely on a defined enemy (immigrants, Muslims, poor people, the odd Catholic etc.) to enable the best of their Christian values to flourish. With God’s will, they shall be born again. Into material riches and a skewed idea of empowerment. All the stuff their man Jesus was vigorously campaigning about.

Much has been written over the past week on the rise of racist abuse and attacks towards the immigrant communities in Northern Ireland. The incident inadvertently lifted the lid on an ugly side of life that generally goes unpicked by the “two traditions”, presented by the media as a recent phenomenon.

Meanwhile, on the day Robinson issued his apology, a worker with a Traveller support group spoke plainly on the challenges facing the community to the few gathered in a draughty hall thirty miles away. She didn’t shy away from the need for Travellers to square up to themselves and take responsibilities. And sobered all up with stark facts on their comparatively shorter life expectancy and higher rates of suicide.

Strides made in education were also highlighted. One local school-leaver showing academic promise declined the chance to go university. He opted for the trades route at the further education college. University would have been perceived as a step too far within his family. Accompanying him to the interview, his mother proudly announced her son would be the first local Traveller to go further. The interviewer, a respected teacher, creased his face and warned there was a lot of equipment and tools in the building. He would be out on his ear if any of it were to go missing. A thing of the past, right? This happened last month.

I’d bet a bottle of the finest wine available to the pillars of the community, the very same man drew breath at Robinson’s anti-Muslim slur. We have a long tradition of shared traditions.

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