- 19 Nov 19
A number of recent incidents around the country have had uncomfortable echoes of the darker parts of Irish history…
We can no longer delude ourselves. Back in 1991, my brother Dermot Stokes got the mainframe of a song down, titled ‘Still The Houses Burn’. It was included on the album Torch, which we released that year under the moniker of The Brothers (with Garry O’Brian as our third co-conspirator). The song dealt – unflinchingly I think – with the grand sweep of Irish history, from the War of Independence through to the present day. It is a theme that deserves our attention now, perhaps more than ever.
In part at least ‘Still The Houses Burn’ was an attempt to come to terms with the grotesque brutalities perpetrated by both sides – Loyalist and Nationalist – and by the British too, during what have euphemistically been called The Troubles in Ireland between 1969 and 1998. But it was also about something deeper, highlighting the continuity between the innumerable monstrous deeds that littered that grim 30 year period, and what had happened 50 years previously during the civil war in the South.
Cold-hearted viciousness, violence, sectarianism and blood-lust don’t conjure themselves out of thin air.
“People talk about the truth,” the final verse of ‘Still The Houses Burn’ runs, “they talk about creed or race / Some of us wouldn’t know the truth / If it walked right up to us and slapped us in the face / There’s a savage deep within our hearts / Comes out when we hear that tribal drum / When it ain’t no sin to get out of your skin / And dance on the ashes of someone else’s home…”.
The cult of Irish exceptionalism has a long and toxic history. The myth of the Land of Saints and Scholars was handed down to us as an article of faith. The idea that there might have been violence, bloodshed or conflict across the four green fields was conveniently ignored. But we were never saints. Like the rest of humanity, we had it within us to be brutishly nasty, clannish, aggressive and murderous. The challenge, for any civilised society, is to manage and check those primitive impulses. To bring them under control. To free people from them, so that they can live peaceful and harmonious lives to the greatest extent possible.
The Good Friday Agreement was an attempt to do just that. When it was signed in 1998, it brought to an end a period of Irish history that had been dominated by the most appalling hatred, by pernicious sectarianism and too often by a stinking, and utterly callous, disregard for any shred of human decency. While the bulk of the horror show took place north of the border, the shameful ideologies that spawned the utterly indefensible killings, shootings and bombings were not limited to the six counties.
There’s a savage deep within our hearts...
Those words might have been written about any Irish man or woman. They might have been written too about the warring tribes that turned the Balkans into a modern-day Dante’s Inferno during the 1990s. We watched what unfolded there with a feeling of utter horror, as naked butchery stalked the blood-stained soil. But how different were we really from the hyed-up, jingoistic, warring factions that ran amok across Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia Herzegovina? Could any attempted claim to moral superiority on our part ring true in the light of what had been done here in the name of either nationalism or unionism or both over the previous 20 years and more? Not even for a second.
We would do well to remember just how recent our own descent into flagrant barbarism was. The Balkan wars were more explosive and deadly. But the tinder box elements were not dissimilar to those that plunged us into the pit. Sectarianism was at the heart of it in the former Yugoslavia, most notably the ancient hatred of Muslims, that had festered among so-called Christians – including members of the sub-sect that is Roman Catholicism. In Ireland, the hatred was – and is – simpler: between Catholics and Protestants, though of course that is an absurd distinction when no present-day Catholic with a brain really believes that the Pope is infallible or that they are chewing the actual body and blood of Christ when they take ‘holy communion’ at Mass on a Sunday. They are all Protestants now.
Comes out when we hear the tribal drum...
There were other gnarled stirrings in the Balkans that may have been part ideological – but which were also wholly prejudiced and irretrievably rotten. It was about fear, and the resulting choreographed hatred of the other. It was also about venality, greed and the desire to take the spoils and to crush those of a different background or caste. It was about how much land you could grab. About how fully you might exert your dominance over your neighbours. It was about money. And it was about the lust for power.
These things we are also far too familiar with.
When it ain’t no sin to get out of your skin...
I was reminded of all of this as I read about the extraordinary events that have taken place in the northwest and in border areas here in Ireland recently.
We all now know at least some of the details of the relentless orchestrated campaign of intimidation, and the violent threats that have been made against the directors of Quinn Industrial Holdings over the past few years, between the village of Ballyconnell, in Co. Cavan and Derrylin, across the border in Northern Ireland. This campaign, supported by proto-nationalist reactionary worthies – some of them ‘pro-life’ – culminated in the abduction, on Tuesday September 17, of the Chief Operating Officer of the company, Kevin Lunney – who was then brutally assaulted, tortured and left for near-dead.
There are very serious questions for the Gardaí to answer in relation to their failure to take appropriate action much earlier about the outrageous, ongoing harassment of individuals over a period of years. As a citizen of Ireland, Kevin Lunney, and others involved in the running of Quinn Industrial Holdings were, and are, entitled to the protection of the law. For reasons that only members of the Garda Síochána in the local area, and the PSNI across the border, are privy to, they did not receive this – and as a result Kevin Lunney became the victim of a horrific assault from which he may never fully recover.
You might say that only a psychopath could inflict the kind of injuries that Kevin Lunney suffered in the course of the abduction – and that is true. But that can only ever be a part of the explanation for what has been happening in the area. The truth is that many of those other factors which were key to the civil war, and were essential also to the violence of The Troubles, can be seen here too. A tribal ganging up. Hostility to the other. A powerful chieftain who seems to command totally unwarranted levels of loyalty from locals. Unspeakable cruelty. A desire to claim back something which has has been – in the eyes of the self-styled victims – taken away. Reading the details, it feels like being tossed back into the Wild West. The objective was to run a number of law-abiding citizens out of town. It almost worked.
There were mob gatherings. Signs posted around the area that were reminiscent of the work of the Ku Klux Klan. Direct, personal intimidation of individuals working for QIH. The treacherous complications of policing a border area. Collusion or fear – or a mix of both – on the part of the Gardaí. A drunken row in a local pub. An apparent humiliation of a hired thug that triggered an assault of sickening, carefully planned brutality on Kevin Lunney – almost as if the objective of the exercise was to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.
This, it has done. The State finally, far too late, began to react with urgency. There were raids on houses. And then, a man dead, apparently as a result of a heart attack, during a bust at a hideaway in Derbyshire, England.
The world will not mourn the dead man, Cyril McGuinness. He had been identified as the chief suspect by those investigating the kidnapping of Kevin Lunney. He was the one, police believed, who orchestrated the nauseating point-by-point savagery of the attack on Lunney. With 50 convictions already under his belt for a wide variety of criminal activities, you might wonder how McGuinness – aka ‘Dublin Jimmy’ – was able to operate with such apparent impunity.
That remains to be seen. But what’s clear is that anyone who was in contact with him over the past two years will now have very difficult questions to answer. We don’t know the whole story yet, not by a long shot. But it is unlikely that anyone who was heavily involved in the campaign to win back control of Quinn Industrial Holdings for Sean Quinn and his family will be sleeping soundly at night for many months to come.
And dance on the ashes of someone else’s home…
This entire campaign cannot, however, be dismissed as a unique, isolated incident. Perhaps there are others who have worked with Cyril McGuinness in the recent past who will also be finding it hard to sleep. Across the northwest, the west and in border regions, we have seen the emergence of a new strand of twisted Irish tribalism. Who was behind the arson attack on the hotel in Rooskey, on the Leitrim/Roscommon border, that had been earmarked as a location for a direct provision centre? Who burned down the hotel in Moville in Donegal that was also planned as a place of refuge for asylum seekers? Who torched the Garda Station in Emyvale, Co. Monaghan?
Who has been fomenting racist opposition to the housing of refugees in Oughterard and Achill, among other places?
And why have Fine Gael suddenly started to position themselves as the party that wants to send refugees back to where they came from? Why did their four MEPs vote with the far-right in the European Parliament against a motion that would have made it more difficult for governments to refuse to let NGO rescue boats bring asylum seekers into European ports? Why is the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suddenly making sweeping generalisations about people from Albania and Georgia, as if they might never have any reason to be accepted as refugees?
Many Irish people had assumed that this country was immune to the drift to the far-right that has polluted politics across the world in recent times. The victories in successive referenda on Same Sex Marriage and Repealing the Eighth Amendment suggested that a more open-minded, liberal culture had taken firm root here. But the rise of racism, and the suggestion that the main party of Government seems to be prepared to play along with it, paints a different and sinister picture.
Anyone who knows Irish history will remember that the homes of Anglo-Irish families – mainly Protestant – were burned to the ground by local nationalists between 1919 and 1923. An estimated 275 houses were destroyed by the IRA in that period, including almost 200 during the Civil War, which followed the signing of the Treaty which turned the 26 specified counties into the Irish Free State. Many of these houses were owned by Irish men and women, who were distinguished only by the fact that they were supporters of the Treaty.
That was Ireland’s original Balkans war. After it, the 26 counties became a horribly sectarian, Roman Catholic dominated State. Up North, they established what was unblushingly described as a Protestant State for a Protestant people, one in which Catholics were discriminated against at every conceivable level. The entire island of Ireland was a horrible, sectarian hell-hole. Meanwhile, back in the South...
“Brother fought brother / Father fought son / We butchered with a will / Shot each other so full of holes / We talk about it still.”
Given our recent history, we might have imagined that we had successfully consigned the old and outmoded nastiness of civil war politics to the dustbin of history. But the events of the past few months tell a different story. There are those who would still have us floundering around in the primordial soup of narrow, bigoted, sectarian nationalism. Of burning out the foreigners. Of refusing entry to Muslims or people of colour. Of attacking and brutalising individuals who don’t play ball.
For anyone in government to give oxygen to this drift into potentially bloody self-interest would be grievously wrong. But that is what we are beginning to see.
Dermot sang ’Still The Houses Burn’. The recording ends with a guttural wail of despair, in acknowledgement of how quickly and irredeemably people can descend into barbarism. The music builds into an inferno. Disembodied voices hum a mournful song like a bloodied platoon in retreat.
In a way, I had hoped that the song’s moment had passed.
I know differently now. Everyone who believes in the values of equality, mutual tolerance and openness must stand up and be counted. We must not allow ourselves to be dragged back into the quagmire of poisonous hatred from which it seemed we might have escaped. The time for self-delusion is over. We have a battle on our hands. But it is one that must be fought with words and with words alone. Anything else is unthinkable.