A few weeks after I got my driving licence, and a few weeks before the IRA ceasefire of 1994, I was driving along a country road in mid-Armagh, with no particular place to go. I came to a British Army checkpoint. Such checkpoints were routine; in fact, during my driving test, the Army stopped and searched the boot of the car on the way back to the test centre (the test centre was right beside an army base). Here, again, they asked to search the boot. No problem. The soldier -carrying a rifle, of course- called in the registration number on his radio. He then asked me to pull over. So I did. Then he asked me to get out of the car.
He walked back a few yards up the road to the rest of the patrol, who were waving other cars on. I stood waiting. To begin with, it was no big deal to me. Five minutes passed. Then ten. It felt like longer. At first I put the delay down to my new driver’s licence and cross-checks or something. It was not as if I had ever been involved in anything. Then I started to wonder if they were taking the piss. Then, wondering whether they were waiting to see if I would react in some way. I remembered what had happened to Karen Reilly, shot dead at a checkpoint in West Belfast, and what had happened, maybe back in the 80s, when my father had his boot searched by the soldiers one night. “How do you explain this, sir?”, asked the soldier, returning from the boot to the driver’s window, holding a rifle he had supposedly found in the boot. “How many people have you tried that on tonight?”, my father asked, not before it crossing his mind that maybe he had been driving a car with a gun in the boot. The soldier laughed, and let him pass.
All this went on in my head, but I was trying to make sure I was showing no outward signs of unease, anything that might mean having to stand there even longer. I figured that if I asked what was keeping them, it would only make them more inclined to make me stay put for longer. And they were the ones holding the guns.
After about 25 minutes, I was told I could go. There was no “thank you”, no “sorry for the delay”, nothing.
On a scale of individual acts of military repression conducted by British armed forces in Northern Ireland, this delay must rank down somewhere between the infinitesimally trivial and the non-existent. But it lies nonetheless on a continuum: I had no intention of doing harm to anyone, but I was made to do what I was told for no apparent reason other than the presence of a group of armed men with guns. In my head there was resentment beginning to simmer, a feeling, in addition, of weakness at having to submit.
It isn’t hard for me -now- to understand how others, on witnessing or experiencing things that were immeasurably worse, or on joining all the little things and all the big things together and seeing them as part of an overall picture of repression and domination, might have opted to join the IRA.
At that point, the airwaves in Northern Ireland had been saturated for as long as I can remember with ways of speaking about the conflict that divided the place into a peaceful majority and a violent minority. A majority, you were told, wanted peace, but the violent extremists ‘on both sides’ were engaged in a ‘tit-for-tat’ ‘cycle of violence’. In the midst of this was the British Army and RUC, who were apparently defending society againg ‘the terrorists’. ‘BLAME THE TERRORISTS’ is what a sign read at a checkpoint in the middle of Cookstown. Absent from this, of course, was the violent role of the British State, whether in the form of internment, torture, operating death squads, or just a generalised presence of armed groups of men patrolling the streets with guns.
This morning, the airwaves and newspapers have been full of analysis of Martin McGuinness, following the announcement of his death. Many commentators are, in a a regurgitation of cliché, classifying him as someone who began as a ‘man of war’ who then became a ‘man of peace’.
And now I’m wondering: what makes you a person ‘of peace’? From what I can recall, being in favour of ‘peace’, back in the 80s and 90s, simply meant that you abided by the rule of law. You would frequently hear statements from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or Conservative Party and Unionist MPs to the effect that the majority of Catholics were ‘law-abiding’. All this meant is that as far as they were concerned, they did not mount any challenge to the rule of law, and the rule of law, day-to-day, meant things like that whenever a soldier with a rifle told you to get out of the car, you got out of the car, and you kept quiet. To be ‘peaceful’ in this regard does not mean that you have rejected violence: on the contrary, it just means you have accepted its imposition as a self-evident necessity.
I wonder about other things too. I have yet to hear any analysis, nearly 23 years on from the IRA ceasefire, about how the Britain has moved from being a ‘State of violence’ to a ‘State of peace’. For many opinion-formers, the guiding assumption, still, is that it has only ever been the latter, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Is the re-imposition of a hard border in Ireland, brought about as part of a drive to ‘take back control’ in Britain, likely to test that assumption? Somehow I doubt it.