August 21, 2004

CCBS Director Andy Pollak writes in the Irish Times about Armagh since the 1994 IRA ceasfire



21 August 2004

Imperfect Peace: the first in a six-part series to mark the 10th anniversary of the August 31st IRA ceasefire

There is still conflict in the deeply divided city of Armagh, but there are signs of a thaw in the fields of sport and education, writes Andy Pollak

August 1994 was a pretty typical month in Armagh. Three British soldiers were hurt in a Provisional IRA mortar bomb attack on a military base in south Armagh. In the city itself, two teenage boys were shot in the legs and beaten with baseball bats by paramilitary punishment squads. A local builder was in a critical condition after being shot by loyalists on a Belfast building site. The Armagh newspapers were marking the 25th anniversary of the first local victim of the ‘Troubles’, John Gallagher, shot by the B Specials following a civil rights rally in the city.

It is difficult to overstate how deep the divisions were, and how fear-filled the atmosphere, in Armagh in the 1980s and 1990s. Outside Belfast, the county has seen more deaths through political violence than any other county in Northern Ireland. As late as 1996, while the Drumcree crisis developed 10 miles up the road in Portadown, Armagh was the subject of an illuminating but depressing report to the local inter-church forum by the sociologist Duncan Morrow (now director of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council). He wrote about two “fearful and paranoid communities”: the Catholics feeling persecuted by their “permanent exclusion from power”, the official blind eye turned to security force violence, and sectarian shootings of unarmed Catholics; the Protestants suffering from “a sense of almost apocalyptic vulnerability” caused by the IRA’s killings of security force personnel, a feeling of constant concessions to republican demands, and Protestant migration from the border region.

A decade earlier the outspoken local priest Father Raymond Murray had told me that the policing of a totally alienated Catholic population by the almost 100% Protestant RUC and UDR had given the situation in Armagh “a terrible and emotional civil war tinge.”

In 2004 I find myself living and working for part of the week in Armagh, running the Centre for Cross Border Studies. Setting aside for a moment its handsome Georgian architecture and two all-island cathedrals, its city charter and title of “ecclesiastical capital of Ireland”, Armagh continues to be a deeply divided Northern Irish provincial town. 47% of the inhabitants of its district council area are Protestant and 45% Catholic, and its council is neatly split down the middle, with 11 unionist members of various hues and 11 councillors from the SDLP and Sinn Fein.

The divide may be less obvious than in the sectarian bearpit of neighbouring Portadown. But Armagh still lives by strict if unspoken rules of segregated behaviour. Duncan Morrow concluded that ‘normality’ in Armagh meant that people did not go into each other’s churches and friends across the sectarian divide did not discuss politics or religion; there were “no mechanisms” in the town to allow Protestants and Catholics to talk honestly and safely to each other about their concerns; and human interaction rarely went beyond “well-tried formulae of politeness which at least keep an uneasy tranquillity.”

However changes are in the air. They are not dramatic, and they are not immediately evident at the political or religious levels. They are more apparent in those unthreatening and life-enhancing fields of human endeavour: sport, heritage, education and even the local press.

Let us start with sport. For a considerable number of years one of the two local GAA clubs, Pearse Ogs, have been using Armagh Rugby Club’s splendid facilities for occasional training. This has led to a unique annual match between the two clubs, where they play half a game of rugby and half a game of Gaelic football for charity, the teams switching codes at half time. The Happy Hooker tournament, named after a young Gaelic player who played hooker in the first match and later died in a tragic accident, took another ecumenical turn this year when for the first time the two teams swapped shirts and mixed Gaelic-rugby teams took the field.

Some of the younger Pearse Ogs are now sampling cricket. In June I was watching an under-age match between Armagh and Ballymena on the Mall, the beautiful green sward which runs through the centre of the town, when I noticed a group of small boys and girls in distinctive Armagh county GAA shirts (distinctive because they are bright Orange!) also wielding bat and ball on an adjoining pitch. Here a group of eight year olds were happily trying out the most ‘foreign’ game of them all. It turned out that two sports-mad fathers from either side of the community had been talking and out of their conversation had come an invitation from Armagh Cricket Club to come down and “give it a lash”.

Unusual things have also been happening in the local Orange Hall. In March medieval historian Dr Ailbhe MacShamhráin from NUI Maynooth opened the Brian Ború annual lecture series with an address in the Orange Hall on the High King’s connections with Armagh (he is buried beside the Church of Ireland cathedral). A picture in the traditionally unionist local paper, the Ulster Gazette, featured a strongly ecumenical line-up outside the hall to announce the series, ranging from the curator of the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Library to local Orange luminaries. I noticed at least one Catholic priest in the audience.

The Gazette, owned by former Ulster Unionist deputy leader Lord Kilclooney (aka John Taylor), is doing its bit for community relations. Its traditional pre ‘Twelfth’ issue last month featured the page one headline ‘Sea of Orange’ in what appeared to be a predictable treatment of the annual sectarian jamboree. But on a closer look it was clear that here was a wonderfully balanced front page, with the Orangemen gathering on one side of the page, while on the other County Armagh’s Gaelic football supporters headed off to do battle with Donegal in the Ulster final in Croke Park. The paper’s GAA coverage is, in fact, as good as you will see in any Gaelic stronghold in Kerry or Clare. It is clearly read by at least some Armagh Protestants, a few of whom have even made it to the all-Ireland final in the past two years.

At the back of the old infirmary building, where 32 years ago surgeons saved John Taylor’s life after he was riddled with Official IRA bullets – and where both the North/South Ministerial Council secretariat and the Centre for Cross Border Studies are now situated – is another hopeful development. Northern Ireland’s 19th integrated college will open there next month, bringing local Catholic and Protestant secondary students to learn together for the first time (there has been an integrated primary school in the town for the past 11 years). 46 families are taking the considerable risk of not sending their children to one of the town’s highly regarded grammar schools, with some of the best ‘A’ level results in the UK, to organise this brave, parent-led experiment in education across the divide.

These are small signs of two communities in a traditionally deeply divided town moving – albeit at a sometimes glacial pace – towards each other. The very active local Confederation of Voluntary Groups and Armagh District Partnership can point to others. At local political level the old animosities remain: in the council year which ended in May Ulster Unionist councillors refused to nominate a deputy mayor because the mayor’s post in the power-sharing council had passed to a personable Sinn Fein woman, Pat O’Rawe.

But maybe, just maybe, at the communal level some of the foundations are beginning to be laid for another leap of faith in the higher political dimension. Brian Lennon, the Armagh-based Jesuit priest who is a leading member of the Community Dialogue group, which works to encourage grass-roots discussion about the North’s political future, says the glacial speed of political movement may even be beneficial. This will be one of the theses of a book he has written entitled Peace Comes Dropping Slowly to be published by the group later this autumn.

“The length of time the process has survived, even if it has often seemed to be on a life support machine, has given people time to get used to the highly emotive issues – such as setting up the North/South bodies for unionists or policing reform for nationalists – so that over time they become less emotive”, he says. “Even the endless political talks play a role in allowing fears to decline gradually. The importance of the sheer boredom factor in such a long-drawn-out peace process should never be underestimated.”

Andy Pollak is a former Belfast reporter, religious affairs correspondent and education correspondent with The Irish Times. In 1999 he left to become the founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, with offices in Armagh and Dublin.