Language please Arlene…

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Generally speaking Arlene Foster is a sensible woman whom I consider to be well intentioned and secure enough to stand her ground and argue the toss with correspondents.

If she wants to demand an apology from today’s Irish government over the birth of the IRA all those years ago that is her business and judgement.

The Irish government can answer for itself.

The DUP’s Gregory Campbell and Arlene Foster


No one can take away from Minster Foster’s personal experience when the IRA came to kill her father. Fortunately he survived.

That said, she should be careful not to incriminate the whole of the catholic nationalist community in border areas with use of language such as “ethnic cleansing.”

Speaking in the Northern Ireland Assembly ahead of a Dublin government meeting in October Minister Foster said:

“… Part of any such apology must refer to and acknowledge the ethnic cleansing by the Provisional IRA that took place along the border, and particularly along the Fermanagh border. 

Although I do not expect the Irish Prime Minister to apologise for the Provos, we will ask that the Irish Government acknowledge their acts of commission in relation to collusion and their acts of omission in not seeking to secure the border of the Republic of Ireland.”

For the record this is the genesis of the term ‘ethnic cleansing:’ “A euphemism for the ruthless removal or killing of an ethnic or religious group from areas that have been taken over by opposing forces.”

Although this process has been with us since antiquity, the term didn’t enter the English language until the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The earliest citation of a phrase like it appears in the New York Times in July 1982: “The nationalists have a two-point platform, according to Becir Hoti, an executive secretary of the Communist Party of Kosovo, first to establish what they call an ethnically clean Albanian republic and then the merger with Albania to form a greater Albania.”

The precise phrase appears for the first time in the Washington Post, August 1991: “The Croatian political and military leadership issued a statement Wednesday declaring that Serbia’s ‘aim is obviously the ethnic cleansing of the critical areas that are to be annexed to Serbia.”

‘Ethnic cleansing’ ended up part of the Unionist lexicon ever since then. Ulster Unionist Party leader Jim Molyneaux was reported as saying of the IRA ceasefire of August 31 1994: “a prolonged IRA ceasefire could be the most destabilising thing to happen to unionism since partition.”

That sort of careless dangerous unionist logic sits side by side with talk of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in border areas.

‘Ethnic cleansing’ is a sweeping, emotive and reckless expression which condemns and belittles members of both the Protestant and Catholic community who live and lived cheek by jowl along the border.

The Four Courts, Dublin


Let us be honest – if a member of the security services happened to live along the border – yes the IRA killed their fellow Irish/British neighbours regularly.

Who could justify that? The illogicality of that position ultimately determined the fatuousness of that position and lead to closure of the IRA campaign.

Constitutionalists did not and do not accept the taking of human life.

Throughout the bulk of the Troubles era, the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon represented the people of Newry and Armagh. The majority of the boxes opened in Crossmaglen favoured Mallon.

In blanketing those areas as districts of ‘ethnic cleanising’ – Minister Foster, and she should be mindful that she is a minister charged with representing the entire community, is dismissing a century and more of family relationships involving Protestants and Catholics in border areas.

We, in south Armagh, travelled to school on the bus together and played soccer together at the local Tech in Bessbrook.

We worked ‘through each other’ on the farm, exchanged trucks, lorries, employed each other, prayed together in homes, céilíed in each others homes, shared victories and losses, mourned and grieved together.

Some of our fathers even joined the Orangemen for a drink in the pubs in Newtownhamilton on the Twelfth of July.

Is Arlene asking us to believe that our great Protestant neighbours – who were in and out of our homes, for whom the local store stocked the News Letter every day and who worked in our homes – slept nightly with a gun under the pillow?

Not so Arlene.

In light of this narrative is it not reasonable to ask Minister Foster to be careful with her use of language?

Like my parents before me, I will finally sleep among our Protestant neighbours in Creggan graveyard in South Armagh.



You can read the full text of yesterday’s Assembly session entitled: Republic of Ireland Government: Apology by clicking on the following link below (via The Official Report of the Northern Ireland Assembly):

Alternatively you can watch the full session below.

Should you wish to view Minister Foster’s comments re ‘ethnic cleansing’ please fast-forward to 1(hour):16(minutes):



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I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. Eamonn,

    A lovely read so much more relevant because of your personal experience.

    I know and respect Arlene.

    Given Gregory Campbell’s comments today on similar issue, I am assuming the DUP are playing to the base, and given the Party’s own antics with the 3rd Force I do find these party ‘pushes’ a tad hypocritical.

    I was a young soldier with the FRB working out of Lisnaskea and surround on 2 occasions in my time. I have no doubt that PIRA with extreme malice killed border farmers, local businessmen and land owners who where also members of the RUC & UDR – I have no doubt they where a priority target, and how they lived their lives under constant threat is a story worth telling in it’s own right.

    The border killings are a living example to the success of “Ulsterising” the “Irish Dilemma” by HMG – the vindictive, callous tactic of ensuring that Irishmen killed Irishmen – a reality that most, even today, are blind to.

    I am also a veteran of Bosnia (different to the later Balkans issue) attached as an infantry signaller to 1 CHESHIRE (who at the time where undermanned calling on support from fellow Units in the Kings Division). Having seen first hand ‘ethnic cleansing’ I would agree (thankfully) that Northern Ireland did not see such bitter territorial civil savagery which included the shelling of whole villages and towns, mass executions, mass rape and mass migration. However, at times, I do believe individuals or small groups would have led us to such an internecine disaster.

    When the time of prolonged sleeping comes, there’ll be some debate in that grave yard of yours.

    • I agree that the allegation of ethnic cleansing is an extremely serious one – if it was true it would indeed warrant an apology from all those involved and complicit. However the existence of a policy of ethnic cleansing would need to be thoroughly investigated and established before we arrived at the need for acknowledgement and apology. The calls by Arlene Foster and Gregaory Campbell demonstrate the need for an offical truth seeking process or truth commission such as has been debated in this forum already by Brian Rowan and others

  2. Do Arlene and Gregory not think the British government and its agents had any responsibility for securing the border during the troubles. The fact that there was considerable cross-border military/paramilitary activity means that they failed in their objective.
    Will they now call for apologies from the British government, the previous Stormont government, the army, B-Specials, RUC, UDR and loyalist paramilitaries who claimed at the time to be ‘defending the union’?

  3. So grateful to you Eamonn and your other contributers for the common sense articles – easy to read and understand. Thank you so much.

  4. I respect Arlene Foster has a point of view and without question I support her right to have and express it. As Eamonn as rightly pointed out she has first hand experience of our conflict given the attempt on her fathers life. The call for an apology could be justified if members of the Irish government who served during the conflict were still in office. It is ludricous to ask anyone to apologise for the actions of someone else – especially when some of the people you are seeking the apology from were mere children or not even born at the time of the alledged misconduct. This only serves to devalue the currency of all forms of apology – it becomes mere words with no meaning.
    The call for apologies has become popular in recent times. The British goverment apologised for the Irish famine and the slave trade – an apology made by people who were not born at the time, their forefathers had nothing to do with it and they were apologising to groups of people many years later for something they did not do. The Pope recently apologised to the Jews for something that happened to them before he was born, The United States goverment apologised to the Red Indians for something they personally did not do – and on it goes. It is symbolic and therein lies the danger.
    The symbolic nature of recent politically motivated apoligies only serve to make them meaningless. Dragging people to a place were they apologise for something they did not do only makes the apology devoid of remorse. A personal apology by an offender needs to be accompanied by geniune feelings of shame and guilt for your actions. It is very hard to generate such emotions for something that happened when you were not in power, sometimes a child or maybe not even born. And therefore Arlene Foster’s call for an apology ends up having the opposite effect of the one she genuinely intended – it merely makes it a mouthful of meaningless words uttered by a here today and gone tomorrow politician.
    The case put forward by some quarters of Unionism for an apology by the present Irish Goverment for the sins of their forefathers also needs to be investigated. I appreciate the emotions behind the call and would ask them to consider the evidence. The anti terrorism laws used by the Irish Goverment during the troubles were the most draconian in Europe – far exceeding anything used by the British goverment. They locked up the IRA top men including Joe Cahill, Seamus Twoomey and several others – including Martin McGuinness. Sinn Fein voices barred from the airwaves long before the British goverment used the same strategy. There was no political status for prisoners in the Republic of Ireland and when the British goverment released prisoners under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement the Irish goverment kept some of them in because they shot members of the Gardi.
    Therefore it might popular to ask for such apologies and it can be useful to put forward a sequence of events that suit your argument. But I think we would be better served if our politicians – all our politicians – began to explain to their own people that what they have believed for many years is not the whole truth and that selective views of our history maybe a nice comfort blanket – but eventually a comfort blanket no longer keeps you warm or protects from the cold.
    There is a harsh reality contained within this current debate in that our politicians will have to break the habit of putting forward motions that they already know are not going to enjoy cross community support and therefore will not serve any purpose save of inflaming the situation. We were not all saints or sinners in our conflict but if we keep bringing forward debates that devalue the institutions at Stormont then eventually it will devalue the politicians themselves. Thus far it has been politics that has kept the need for guns out of the equation and kept Stormont running as a viable alternative.
    Thus it is that Arlene Foster’s call for an apology from the Irish Goverment – and all the other apologies for misdeeds of past generations serve no real purpose except to undermine politics itself. A possible consequence of that is that some revert to unconstitutional behaviour in order to be heard and politics will be no longer a buffer against it.

  5. Yes, Language please Arlene . . . and Gregory Campbell, Sydney Anderson, Jonathan Bell, Mervyn Storey; not forgetting Danny Kennedy, also a Minister for all the people and a rep for the people of Newry & Armagh, a Minister whose use of language is not subject to a DUP whip but who still saw fit to categorise Kingsmills and the IRA campaign as “amounting to ethnic cleansing”. Give Jim Allister his due, he managed to avoid making the charge – mainly, I suppose, because he was keeping some distance from his old DUP mates while contriving to skewer them and the Deputy First Minister on the same roasting spit.

    Eamonn is right to home in on Arlene. She seems to have made the ethnic cleansing charge her own. She used it three times over in her brief contribution to the debate, combining it with her other emotive phrase: “the targeting of Protestant only sons in ethnic cleansing”.

    Applied to a border farming community, whether in South-East Fermanagh or South Armagh, that phrase is doubly loaded. Arlene stressed again that one of those “Protestant farmer only sons” was her late father, Johnny Kelly. By good luck and the grace of God Johnny Kelly survived his January 1979 shooting, living to a good age until late last year. As a loving daughter, recalling an idyllic childhood in the hayfields of Roslea or Aghdrumsee as well as the attempt on her father’s life as he locked up the cattle one evening when she was eight years old, she has every right to remember him as her only father, but not necessarily to use the ‘Protestant only son’ tag to influence the selective call for a Dublin apology for or acknowledgement of anything.

    Johnny Kelly’s very name hints at the complexity of farming communities either side of the border. Communities where, to borrow Eamonn’s familiar phrase, our people have not only lived and worked ‘through each other’, but sometimes ‘coorted’ and married through each other, for all that church or chapel might say, and in some happy places like ÚirChill a’ Chreagáin lie buried through one another. ‘Johnny Kelly’ is a name that would be at home on a gravestone not only in Creggan, which holds at least nine Kelly burial plots, but in Crossmaglen. In such communities, as no doubt in Fermanagh, “ethnic cleansing” would be an obscene but maybe just now convenient misnomer.

    Arlene’s Johnny Kelly was not only a Protestant farmer’s only son. He was a member of the ‘B-Specials’ in the 1955-’62 period and, in the two decades following, part of the RUC Reserve. No crime in defending one’s home or ‘province’, you might say. Many of us might wonder: defending what for whom against whom?

    My own, yes ‘selective’, memory of that time is of my primary school classmate, Michael Owen K. of Clonalig, having his legs shattered by a trigger-happy Special who defended his province by shooting at Michael’s front wheel. The 14-year old’s crime: cycling home without a light from Cross’ picturehouse, but maybe his brakes weren’t too good either. Or, for those of us who ‘got the 11+’ and went off to boarding school in Armagh, the frequent and deliberate aggravation of being held up in freezing fog on a godforsaken crossroads on the Blackbank or by the Primate’s Wall as we tried to get back in time after the Christmas holidays. The Specials were in no hurry. They had tyres to kick and things to search for. They needed to protect their Province from the friends of Fergal O’Hanlon and Sean South by going through our paltry provisions slowly. Minor irritations, as I look back, but an advancement of learning to the effect that RUC A or B-specials with guns didn’t have to try very hard to keep young croppies from Cross’ or Culloville in their place. Later, our dormitory mates from Irvinestown, Roslea and Aghdrumsee related their similar adventures. I’m sure if Johnny Kelly was on patrol those winter nights he might have proved himself a kindly ‘B-man’. Well, so Arlene would have told us had she been around at the time, though we were pretty sure what the ‘B’ in ‘B-man’ really stood for. Kindly neighbourhood policemen rarely get shot at for just being ‘only sons’.

    Danny Kennedy must know, better than any of us, that ‘Kingsmills’ didn’t happen in a vacuum. The murder of ten Protestant millworkers on 5th January 1976 followed the murder of six Catholics the previous night at the Reavey and O’Dowd homes, and the murder of five other Catholics on 17th December 1975 at Kay’s Tavern in Dundalk and Gerry Donnelly’s Bar at Silverbridge, in the corner of Eamonn’s own townland of Legmoylin. The latter all the more poignant for the murder of Michael Donnelly, the owner’s 14-year old son, and that of his unrelated namesake, Patsy Donnelly, my young neighbour from the far side of the parish.

    All twenty-one who died in that Christmas and New Year fortnight were the victims of selectively sectarian murder. No bomber or gunman needed to ask, ‘Who are the Catholics?’ or ‘Who are the Protestants?’ when a Catholic home or bar had already been pre-selected. Equally four decades later, no Minister or Newry & Armagh MLA should casually drop a weasel phrase such as “amounting to ethnic cleansing” into an assembly debate just to keep pace with those of the dominant DUP. Unless, of course, all twenty-one victims were pawns in a murky British ploy to get the SAS into South Armagh. Danny Kennedy knows that the last word cannot be said on Kingsmills till the full truth is excavated on the ‘Glenanne Gang’.

    Meanwhile, if the DUP and UUP or even the TUV want to screw a very selective ‘apology’ out of Enda Kenny for something Jack Lynch or Charlie Haughey or Neil Blaney did or didn’t do in August ’69, maybe they should first contact some of the thousands of Belfast Catholics who left hurriedly – as many as 6,000 in one week alone – for a luxury holiday in the army camps and schools of the Free State between July 12th and August 20th that summer and never returned. Some of those ‘refugees’ or IDPs might be tempted to whisper “ethnic cleansing”. Strictly speaking, they too would be guilty of a misuse of language as the concept wasn’t really current at the time. And sure, I’m only indulging in a bout of whataboutery.

  6. Eamon, will your “Language Please” criticism extend to Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein and other republicans when they claim there were Protestant, Unionist, and Loyalist pogroms carried out against Roman Catholics, republicans and nationalists. As I remember both sides of the community were affected by the mass movement of people at the start of the troubles not just the RC,R,N community. If you want evidence of the mass movement of people just look at the Protestant depopulation of Londonderry.

    Gerry Adams alleging pogroms is a sweeping, emotive and reckless expression which condemns and belittles members of the Protestant community.

    Fair is Fair Eamon.

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