The political is the personal: "Milkman" and paramilitarism in Northern Ireland

In 2020 in Northern Ireland, in the eleven months from January to November, 50 people were victims of 11 shooting and 39 assaults by “paramilitaries” and hundreds of young people were made homeless due to intimidation. In early February a former member of dissident group Oglaigh na hEireann, Danny McClean, was shot in Catholic West Belfast. Several dozen men in balaclavas marched around Protestant East Belfast, amid rising tensions between two rival factions of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). And loyalist UVF and UDA gangs in the northern coastal port of Larne are believed to be responsible for threatening staff running EU food and animal health checks on goods arriving from Britain, in a protest against the Northern Ireland protocol introduced as a result of Brexit.

Paramillitarism – or thuggery and gangsterism dressed up as paramilitarism – is alive and well in Northern Ireland. It is one of the persisting legacies of the conflict in Northern Ireland – a conflict that many British people believe came to an end with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

In early February 2021, the new film “Rough” was shown at the 4Corners Festival, an annual Christian peacebuilding event in Belfast. The film tells the story of a kangaroo court, two young men and a dog, neatly and intriguingly demonstrating the dynamic of toxic masculinity that is still endemic in the poorest, still-segregated communities in Northern Ireland – and offering the possibility that love, vulnerability and compassion can triumph over violence. The film was written and made by Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, whose credits include the acclaimed documentary series “The Salisbury Poisonings”, and produced by Louise Gallagher.

Resolution of the enduring residue of conflict in Northern Ireland is a complex challenge – compounded by the self-reinforcing and convenient silence which now deadens any discussion of the legacy of the Troubles in Irish and British society and in the media. Covid and Brexit both amplify the issues and offer convenient fig leaves for the unresolved issues, as I have written in an article in Northern Slant which examines the current context of the UK government refusal in November 2020 to hold an inquiry into the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane.

“Rough” is a powerful vignette casting light on the dark places of paramilitaries’ noxious control of their communities. It builds on the eloquent account in Anna Burns’ 2018 Man-Booker-prize winning novel Milkman, which tells the story of a turbulent couple of months in the life of an eighteen-year-old girl. Although no people or places are named, we know or can guess that Milkman is set in late seventies North Belfast, at the height of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

Ardoyne is a small, roughly triangular Catholic enclave – the 2011 census records a population of just under 6,000 living in two and a half thousand households – which had one of the highest rates of death during the Troubles. It is framed by the Crumlin Road, Alliance Avenue and Old Park Road, all “interface” roads or peacewalls which divide Ardoyne from adjoining Protestant neighbourhoods. These are, says Burns, the “sad and lonely interface roads between the religions”, the “roads of separation”. The streets of Ardoyne form a grid pattern and the houses have a distinctive feature, long front gardens which face onto the roads. At the heart of Ardoyne is a complex of social clubs, small shops and a community centre. Walls and gable ends are decorated with political murals and graffiti.

The dramatic climax to the story of Milkman is given away in the first paragraph. The eponymous middle aged married “paramilitary” who stalks the Narrator will, we learn, be shot dead. The plot of the novel is simple: it tells of the sinister encounters between Milkman and the Narrator, more importantly the process by which he stalks, harasses and grooms her, showing up at unpredictable moments while she is “reading-while-walking”, going to and from work, her French evening class in the city, running in the nearby parks. She is very frightened of him: “the instants and suddens of him had each time caught me unawares.” “He had a plan.” Milkman never touches her, barely makes eye contact, but over the course of several weeks wears her down to a serious level of mental distress.

Milkman knows where she lives, where she works, which busses she takes, knows who maybe-boyfriend is. He knows that she takes an evening class, although he gets the subject wrong. He “infiltrated my psyche”. “I was more and more circumscribed into an incoherent, debilitated place.” “My seemingly flattened approach to life became less a pretence and more and more real as time went on.” Her work and sleep are disrupted, and she begins to suffer physical pain so that even walking becomes painful. In the end she does what she knows she must never do, and at last gets into his car.

This book is all about what and how people see. In one delightful digression, we are told how the French evening class teacher abandons the French study text to persuade the students that skies are not always blue, taking them to the window to show them a sunset. The class protests vigorously both in denial that a sky can be anything but blue but also because the teacher has inexplicably broken off from teaching them French. Clearly she realises that there is not much point in teaching them French if they can’t see a sunset. The Narrator is intrigued, because just that week, her maybe-boyfriend has taken her on a trip out of the city -- to show her a sunset.

The story is an exquisite allegory of existence in these incarcerated areas of Belfast. As I wrote of the interface areas in my 2015 peacewalls book: “Literally and metaphorically, the walls restrict vision…. They are an ‘obstacle to the future’; they ‘repress in advance the novelty of experience’. They prevent people from imagining new possibilities.”

The Narrator lives with her widowed mother and three “wee sisters”, age 9, 7 and 6. She has three older married sisters, the eldest to a bullying brother-in-law who is responsible for starting the rumour about the Narrator and Milkman. Of her three brothers, we learn that one has been killed in the conflict, another is on the run and a third is married. The unnamed characters are defined, therefore, not as individuals but by their relationship to the Narrator and their role within the family and the community.

The Narrator speaks in a unique voice, filled with teenage awkwardness, malapropisms, euphemisms and archaic language inherited from her eccentric choice of reading material: Martin Chuzzlewit, Ivanhoe, Vanity Fair, The Brothers Karamazov. She dislikes the twentieth century—the world, the now in which she lives -- and has devised various ways of escaping it and her local area, including running in the local parks, attending her evening class in the city, and most prominently “reading while walking” which is seen by almost everyone as “unsafe and unnatural”.

She is eighteen and works, although we never learn at what. She is stubborn and independent. Like many teenagers, the Narrator is both naïve and perceptive as she describes the local characters and events of a chronically violent world over which she has no control. She notices but does not always join the dots, and so we as readers are drawn into that world; we can see what she cannot. We are placed in the position of the privileged observer, privileged indeed because not many outsiders penetrate these interfaced neighbourhoods, and in those times it would not have been wise to do so.

Among many brilliant elements of the novel, the one that fascinates me most and concerns me here is the detailed portrait it paints – far more insightful and complete than any sociological or government study – of the highly complex forces that work to maintain the internal structure of an enclosed, traumatised Belfast community riddled with violence and deprivation. The real milkman, her one true ally, puts it well, speaking to her of “tragedy in general” and “all its ramifications stemming from poverty and these stubborn, entrenched political problems.” And while much has changed since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which saw the soldiers leave the streets of Northern Ireland and an end to most inter-community violence, intra-community intimidation, together with all the hallmarks of poverty and deprivation have persisted in the interface areas of Belfast.

This is a community oppressed by the patriarchal power of male thuggery, romanticised by the term “paramilitary”. While the main threats may be assumed to have been from the outside, from the “other” community or the state security forces or soldiers “from across the water”, it is in fact from and within the community itself that most of the intimidation, oppression and truly deadly violence comes. The primary victims of the bullies’ violence are members of their own community, and the community as a whole, which lives under severe constraints. This book explains more completely than any academic social analysis or government report – of which there are many – why and how it is so difficult to bring down the peacewalls, to end segregation and paramilitary domination.

These are “rogue” communities. “In that place, violence was everybody’s main gauge for judging those around them.” The paramilitaries, or “renouncers of the state”, as the Narrator has dubbed them, are the “local demi-monde”. It was a hair trigger society. “In each of those totalitarian run enclaves, it was the male paramilitaries who, more than anyone, ruled over the areas with final say.” There is community support for the renouncers – not talking about them, understanding why they exist, and having a “loop of regard for the old school renouncers”, those with “principled reasons for resistance and fighting”. They include the old-school “iconic, noble fighters”, “the good guys, the heroes, the men of honour” and the newer type, gangsters and criminals. They rule the community with “their law, their punishments, impromptu courts”, myriad methods for demanding “cuts and percentages” and “donations for the defence of the area and the furtherance of the cause”. Most members of the community collude with them. There were “kangaroo courts, collusion, disloyalty and informership.” They have groupies who see them as “specimens of unblemished toughness, sexiness and maleness”. To the Narrator, they have a “toybox” mentality.

There was stratification by religion, of course, from the others, who lived the other side of the interfaces. Everything is divided into us and them. Certain names are identified with the others, and therefore banned. Bus stops were segregated (indeed still are). These were “knife edge times, primal times, with everybody suspicious of everybody”. There is severe stratification by gender. This was an “I’m male and you’re female territory. Girls who do not defer to males are the “female wayward; a species insolent and far too sure of herself”. A group that includes the Narrator herself of course. Young unmarried girls are vulnerable to harassment. It is the women of the community, the Narrator’s mother, the pious gossips, the paramilitaries’ groupies, who reinforce the social pressure on the narrator. Since she is having an affair with the Milkman, says her mother, she may as well marry him.

And there was shame, one of the main mechanisms of community control: “regardless of whether you were the one doing the shaming, or the one having the shame done to you.” People would do anything to avoid it. There was continual surveillance, from state security forces, hiding behind hedges with their cameras, and “helicopters flying over an alienated, cynical, existentially bitter landscape”, and within the community by family and neighbours. There is revenge and counter revenge. “Closedupness was everywhere.”

In between the episodes of the minimal plot of Milkman, there are lengthy diversions, each one almost a self-contained narrative in its own right. Each tells the story of an individual or group that has flouted community norms in some way and each is a microcosm of the wider socio-political situation. There is the man who loved nobody, who is a real milkman; tablets girl, who responds to a toxic situation by poisoning random others including in the end her own sister and the Narrator; the feminists who naively believe they can hold meetings in the community and even invite a facilitator who is from the country over the water. Those defined as outsiders are people who have found a way to ignore or deny the politics, who were “below the benchmark for social regularity” including third brother-in-law who ignores the politics and admires women greatly.” “I too was on that list”, says the Narrator, because of her reading-while-walking and because she has failed so far to get married. Each of these characters and groups has found a way to escape, avoid or confront the toxic and violent culture around them. “Underneath the trauma and the darkness a normality is trying to happen.”

Despite the continuing impact of the trauma of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, normality is still trying to happen. It is now epidemic levels of post traumatic stress, concealed by silence and denial, that lie beneath the surface of an apparent normality for most of Northern Ireland. Mental illness, suicide, addiction and paramilitarism are some of the effects of the residue of trauma in the post-conflict society of Northern Ireland. Just as there is an entanglement of causes and effects at community level, solutions require a systemic, holistic, joined up approach at government level. This is repeatedly acknowledged by the third of the annual Independent Reporting Commission’s annual reports on progress towards ending paramilitarism in Northern Ireland.

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