1972. The very mention of the year, in any context, fills me with instinctive horror, despite the fact I was not born for some time after (indeed, my parents did not even meet until the following year).
It fills me with horror because, throughout my adult life, I have had a clear awareness at just how horrendous life in Northern Ireland was that year. With bombings running at five per day and murders running at nine per week, nearly two per cent of Northern Ireland’s entire population left. Even worse, the violence was in fact restricted in the vast majority of cases to a relatively small geographical area – an area which had become so lawless that even some security forces just did whatever the hell they liked.
I did not know that there was such a thing as an “MRF”, essentially a terrorist wing of the State’s supposedly democratically legitimate armed forces. But I was entirely unsurprised by it. Such was the scale of Belfast’s breakdown in law and order, the only surprising (actually slightly sinister) thing is how long it took for someone to research and report it.
Rightly or wrongly (quite possibly wrongly), the thing which instantly alarmed me about the reaction to the report was the lack of awareness among so many people about how truly awful and grotesque things were in 1972.
In the 1972-73 period covered, the IRA was unleashing literally thousands of attacks; thousands of Protestants were displaced from entire areas (such as the Cityside of Derry); thousands of Catholics were also being displaced from entire areas (such as much of East Belfast); hundreds of people were being killed; tens of thousands were leaving Northern Ireland altogether. Into the midst of this chaos came waves of soldiers from Great Britain – too many of whom, far from being peace keepers, were in fact decolonializers, used to doing whatever it took and then leaving the natives to deal with the consequences. You don’t need to have lived through it to have at least some notion of how ghastly that all was.
Have people who lived through this wilfully forgotten it? Have people who did not so little concern for our society and its future that they have no awareness of its (relatively recent) past? Are we pretending or genuinely ignorant? We must understand that it takes generations to recover from such a complete social and legal meltdown.
It was not formally such, but the description “dirty war” is apt. Small wonder it’s a “dirty peace” that follows it.