Wednesday 16th August 2017. Cloudy.
Lisburn (population 72,000) is a city 15 kilometres (9 miles) south west of Belfast. The River Lagan which flows thru the city divides County Antrim from County Down but Lisburn is classed as being in Antrim.
I travelled by train. I arrived about 3.40pm.
The streets are still decorated with red, white and blue bunting to commemorate the Twelfth (12th July) and to underscore that Lisburn is a Protestant, unionist and British area. Most of the Catholic owned business were burned around 1920 and this produced an exodus of Catholics from Lisburn. The demographics have never fully recovered.
Lisburn retains a “bogey man” status in Catholic eyes.
Certainly around 1962, my aunt and uncle lived nearby and their son, a priest in England was on vacation. My mother brought me (and little sister) to Lisburn because I was going to serve as an altar boy. My first impression of Lisburn is my mother sheepishly asking a police officer for directions to “the RC (sic) church”. I recall this specifically because only Protestants referred to Catholics as “RCs” and it always seemed dismissive. In fairness the police officer was very professional and pointed up the hill. It is my mother’s passivity that made an impression on me.
The church was attacked many times during the Troubles.
Lisburn was a “plantation town”, settled by people from Wales in the early 17th century. And later became a centre for the Linen industry. The Museum in the square commemorates the Linen connexion.
Yesterday I was in Dundalk and this week I am focussing on statues and memorials, in part because of the controversy around the General Robert E Lee statue at Charlottesville and other “confederate” statues in the United States.
There is a statue on either side of the Linen Museum.
As a child, I was always impressed by the statue of Brigadier General John Nicholson, who was brought up in Lisburn. He was fatally wounded at the siege of Delhi in 1857 (the Indian Mutiny) and therefore a hero to the British. But closer examination and Nicholson was a particularly nasty piece of work.
He was an officer in the Indian Raj and had very unpleasant attitudes towards native Indians particularly at the time of the Indian Mutiny. He once arrived late for dinner at the officers mess, apologised for his lateness and said he had just hanged the cooks. Seemingly the cooks had intended poisoning the officers so he ordered them to taste the soup. The cooks refused so he fed the soup to a monkey who died. So the cooks were lynched.
Of course the citation on the monument makes no reference to this. I daresay the unionists in Lisburn would react badly if it was suggested the statue be taken down. But I wonder if the students at Dungannon Royal School in County Tyrone know this story. Nicholson was a schoolboy there and one of the “houses” in the school is named for him.
I note that another name has (recently?) been added to the monument, a corporal who won the Victoria Cross in the Crimean War.
The second statue is much more modern. It commemorates the Ulster Defence Regiment, a legal militia which operated as part of the British Army during the Troubles. It was formed around 1970 as a replacement for the paramilitary police, the B Specials which was totally loyalist and sectarian.
It was hoped that the UDR would have cross-community support but as the Troubles escalated in the 1970s, Catholic members resigned, partly because of its unionist nature and partly because of intimidation from the IRA.
The consequence was that the UDR became a de-facto unionist force and most unionists would claim that the regiment was their own militia. There was an unhealthy relationship between the legal UDR and illegal loyalist paramilitaries which led to the UDR being absorbed into the British Army in 1992. This was one of the first steps in the Peace Process.
So the statue in Lisburn is really unionists commemorating their “own regiment”. There was a two hundred year old history of the British and unionist government acting thru local militia. And it made perfect sense. Frankly, in the small towns and villages of “Northern Ireland”, the UDR had first rate intelligence on their Catholic/nationalist neighbours. They knew the families who were politically nationalist and those who were more militant. But the IRA also had pretty good intelligence on their Protestant/unionist neighbours.
To some extent, the Nicholson monument has outlived its usefulness. Tales of heroism on the North West Frontier of the British Raj might have inspired a sense of pride in the British Empire for a century. But the UDR monument is more significant…a sense of pride in something specifically unionist. Indeed most unionists feel that disbanding the UDR was an act of betrayal by the British.
The Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 provides for parity of esteem and recognises that there is “shared space” but unionists and indeed nationalist dominate areas so they do push that concept to the limit.