Walls Never Work - in the Middle East or in Ireland
By Robert Fisk
The IndependentUK: Jan 3, 2010
We were walking round Milltown Cemetery last week, me and David McKittrick -
Our Man in Belfast and among my oldest friends - and the wind came biting
down from Cave Hill.
"Cloaked in ice and snow," was how the Belfast Telegraph described Northern
Ireland when I took the train back to Dublin the next day, but I think the
bitterness of the Ardoyne, the Falls, the Shankill, the old Markets, made up
for the exaggeration. "Peace" lines they may be, but just east of
Andersonstown, that frozen, implacable wall of iron, stone and wire reminded
me of an even more permanent "security fence" more than 3,000km away.
In Milltown Cemetery, in the Republican "plot" - yes, Bobby Sands lies
there, also memorialised, of course, in the street next to the British
embassy in Tehran - was the shared grave of Maire and Jimmy Drumm of Sinn
Fein. Her picture showed a younger woman than I used to know, all smiles and
curled hair rather than fury and cynicism (though she'd met me cheerfully
when I went to say farewell more than 34 years ago, a whiskey bottle on the
table and the commanders of the IRA's Andersonstown Brigade on the sofas
around her to say goodbye to the young "fella" setting off for Beirut).
"Murdered by pro-British elements" her gravestone said - that was the
nearest an Irish Catholic Republican movement might come to saying
"Protestants" - and I remembered how they'd shot Maire in her bed at the
Mater Hospital in 1976, how she'd fallen from the bloody sheets and tried to
crawl across the floor; where they shot her again.
They could not have known that Belfast would today be a Catholic majority
city. Nor could the Protestant settlers of the 16th and 17th century - the
Jacobean planters and the Cromwellian veterans - have known that their lands
would almost all be Catholic 400 years later. The story of the Protestant
"settlements" in Ireland provides a ghostly narrative of those modern-day
"settlements" in the West Bank, where the Israelis insist on fighting the
world's last colonial war with the assistance of that great anti-colonial
nation known as the United States.
The differences, of course, are legion. Protestantism, in its various Irish
forms, aimed to convert or ethnically cleanse the Catholic Gaels. Judaism
does not attempt to proselytise - quite the contrary - and Israel's illegal
claim to West Bank Arab land is based on holy texts, not on a king's fiat.
Robert Kee, still one of the finest popular expositors of 16th-17th Irish
history, puts in concisely: "The four counties of Donegal, Tyrone, Derry and
Armagh ... together with the two counties of Cavan and Fermanagh became
subject to the most systematic attempt yet to plant or settle in Ireland
strangers from England and Scotland. This was the so-called Plantation of
Ulster, worked out on a government drawing board between 1608 and 1610."
There had been previous efforts to colonise barbarous Ireland, when Catholic
sovereigns had settled families in Leix and Offaly (whose landowners found
they now lived in King's and Queen's Counties, just as West Bank
Palestinians are supposed to believe that, since 1967, they have lived in
Judea and Samaria). "But all such previous plantations had in the end been
failures," writes Kee. "Collapsing for lack of human support or capital, or
else being physically wiped out by the rebellion of those who had been
dispossesed to make room for them."
This remains Israel's fear: that those Palestinians dispossesed in 1948 will
return to take their former lands in what is now the State of Israel, or at
least those lands stolen from them in the West Bank after 1967. The Catholic
massacres of Protestants in 1641, a period of civil war vividly captured in
the 20,000 pages of witness depositions now held by my own alma mater of
Trinity College, Dublin, [are] a bleak precursor of the Hebron massacre of
Jews during the Arab rebellion of 1929; albeit that up to 1,300 Protestants
were hanged and put to the sword in 1641, 64 Jews in Hebron. William Baxter,
a gentleman from Co. Fermanagh, "swore that Ross McArt McGuire seized his
lands at Rathmoran ... on the grounds that they 'belonged to his father
before the said plantation,' " Trinity's modern history professor Jane
Ohlmeyer recalled in a recent article.
But the Elizabethan settlers came as soldiers who settled. Later Scots
Protestants came, like Israelis to the West Bank, as settlers prepared to be
soldiers. "The idea of the settlement of underpopulated lands caught the
imagination of men in both countries" - I am quoting Perceval-Maxwell's work
on Scottish migration, but "making the desert bloom" and "a land without
people for a people without land" echoes in the future distance.
Cromwell was to inject a new form of violence into Ireland, whose ultimate
victims can still be found in Milltown Cemetery and, just down the Falls
Road, in Belfast's largely Protestant City Cemetery. The slaughter at
Drogheda and Wexford acted as a catalyst of mass fear, much as the killings
at Deir Yassin and many other Arab villages in 1948 led to the abandonment
or capitulation of hundreds of other Arab towns in the land that was to
become Israel. Most of the best land of Ireland, at least three-quarters of
it, was confiscated from its Catholic owners, its original inhabitants
expelled to the cold, wild lands of Connaught. By 1688, Catholics held only
22 per cent of the original Gaelic Ireland, precisely the same percentage of
mandate Palestinian land - 22 per cent - for which Yassir Arafat was
required to negotiate in the hopeless Oslo "agreement". Arab-owned land in
"Palestine" is now smaller still, heading inexorably to the mere 14 per cent
that the Catholics still clung on to in 1703.
Again, these are not parallel narratives; but unborn ghosts are there.
English rulers in the 17th century suspected - quite rightly - that Spain
was lending spiritual and material support to Irish insurgents, just as
Israel today believes, correctly, that Iran is giving spiritual and material
support to Hamas and, outside "Palestine", to Hizballah. For the Pope of
Rome, read Pope Khamenei of Tehran. On many occasions, acts of "terrorism"
against the Protestants emerged from landless Catholic tenants who were
allowed to work for those who had seized their property. So, later
Protestant "settlements" were surrounded by vast defensive walls, angled
with watch-towers and ramparts and gun positions. The city of Derry has
walls above the Catholic Bogside every bit as ferocious as the Israeli wall
that now cuts into yet more Arab land.
And, of course, Irish Catholics fled abroad - just as the Israeli foreign
minister would like to "transfer" Palestinians to the east. And where did
the Irish Catholics go? As many as 100,000 fled to the continent, mostly to
Spanish Hapsburg territories, in many cases to the Spanish lands from which
the Moriscos - the Muslims of Spain and the remainder of the nation's Jews -
had just been "cleansed" by their Catholic Christian overlords. The final
crushing of the Spanish Muslims (who had failed to convert) occurred in
1609, when Philip of Spain forced 300,000 souls to leave the Iberian
peninsula for Ottoman north Africa. And the very Spanish "cleansers" who had
"ethnocided" the Moriscos - Garcia Sarmiento de Sotomayor and Count Caracena
were among them - now advocated resources for the Irish arriving in Galicia.
Irish Catholic publications of the time - according to research undertaken
by Igor Pérez Tostado - compared Irish Catholics with Spanish Muslims; "both
were presented not only as disloyal but as a mortal threat to the very
survival of the political community." Both, in effect, were thrown into the
But the English and Scots "settlements" failed in Ireland. Protestant hopes
of eternal support from London eventually proved false. And so, what of
Israeli hopes of eternal support from Washington? I still don't believe in a
one-state solution - which the Protestant minority will one day have to
accept in Ireland, if they have not, subconsciously, already done so - but
colonisation leads only to the graveyard. Walls don't work. Nor "superior"
religions. Nor ethnic cleansing. History, which should be studied as
eternally as false hopes, is a great punisher.