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Making a killing from the peace

The silver anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is being celebrated in Belfast this week, but a booming arms industry shows the habit of political violence is hard for some to kick, writes Pádraig Ó Meiscill

6 to 7 minute read

Former Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster at the Thales plant in Belfast

A musical about the late John Hume has been playing in Derry’s Guildhall – Beyond Belief, it’s called. Hume may have won a Nobel peace prize in 1998 and the Martin Luther King award in 1999, but you know someone has really arrived, historically speaking, when they’ve gone and made a musical about them. They also unveiled a stately bust of the Derry man in the Leinster House home of the Oireachtas the other week. In London, an exhibition celebrating his life is running in Europe House on Smith Square.

The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is being celebrated this Easter, and the organisers aren’t letting the absence of a power-sharing administration get in the way of a good get together. To that end, deploying Hume to embody the moment has been helpful. He’s become the patron saint of peace agreements. No better man, you may say. Hume, however, is a saint who comes complete with his own particular strain of sin.

In the late 1990s, shortly after the signing of the North’s peace agreement, Hume invited Raytheon weapons to set up shop in his Derry constituency. As the company routinely undertook work for the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Hume advised that this be referred to in public as ‘government contracts.’ Rolling out the red carpet at the Guildhall in August 1999, Hume proclaimed that the multinational arms merchant would ‘be warmly welcomed by all of our citizens’.

In March 2003, during the British-US invasion of Iraq, a Raytheon manufactured HARM missile smashed into a Baghdad market, killing 62 civilians. While Hume was subdued about the violence, his fellow citizens decided that complicity in war crimes was too high a price for a smattering of jobs. A monthly vigil was held outside the Raytheon plant, a die-in was staged at the Guildhall, Free Derry wall was shrouded in black.

After Israel’s use of Raytheon-manufactured weapons in the 2006 bombardment of Lebanon, a group of locals occupied the plant, throwing computers out windows. The anti-war activists were arrested, condemned by Hume’s Social Democratic & Labour Party then later acquitted in court. The campaigners won in the end, Raytheon withdrew from Derry in ignominy but at Easter 2023 our social condition is still a rotten one, defined by the politics of the trade-off.

Business is booming

Chris Heaton-Harris, the MP for Daventry, the man whose chief qualification for being handed the job of Britain’s direct ruler in the North of Ireland may have been that his kids got him a Van Morrison album one Christmas, unveiled a history textbook in Belfast recently as part of the celebrations. ‘Thanks to the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland’s young people have grown up in peace and safety, looking forward to a future of hope and opportunity,’ Heaton-Harris recently intoned.

‘Boke’ is what we call vomit in Belfast, boke is what I can taste at the back of my mouth when I read the above words. But it’s not Chris’ fault; this is what politicians do, they lie to kids before being whisked off to do business with decrepit adults. Sometimes this business is done in arms factories.

The preeminent weapons manufacturer in Belfast is the French company Thales. When Thales gets a new order, they usually include a happy-clappy quote from our direct ruler in a press release. Rishi Sunak was in the Thales’ plant last year playing with rocket launchers – next-generation light anti-tank weapons to get down with the lingo – many of them destined to kill Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Boris Johnson had been in Thales a few months before that. ‘Things are going gangbusters,’ Boris declared in a promotional video from the plant. Whatever the fuck that means.

Our statesmen are hucksters willing to bargain our souls against the profit margins on missiles

For their part, the company is dead proud of our city and what we’ve managed to become together: ‘Through the design and production of high precision, high volume effectors and fire control systems, as well as the integration of weapons onto tactical platforms, Belfast has developed into a centre of excellence for Thales’ air defence and surface attack solutions.’

In June 2022, three NGOs – the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), Mwatana for Human Rights and Sherpa International – filed a lawsuit in a Paris court charging Thales, among others, with complicity in war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen.

‘The complaint documents numerous Coalition airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, including 26 airstrikes that unlawfully killed or injured civilians, and destroyed or damaged schools, hospitals, and other protected property, which may constitute potential war crimes and crimes against humanity,’ the NGOs stated.

Since the British-backed war on Yemen began in late 2014, there have been at least 7,055 air strikes on civilian targets, according to the Yemen Date Project, although it is possible that the actual number is closer to 15,000. None of this would have been possible without Thales supplying the navigation and targeting systems used to guide planes and drop bombs.

In the period from 2012 to 2022, the public body Invest Northern Ireland provided a total of £9.1 million to Thales, including £3.5 million for ‘research into high precision technologies’. Globally, the company has a record backlog of orders and its report for last year crows that the ‘geopolitical situation is driving sustained budget growth in main Thales geographies.’

A murder machine

Joe Biden, meanwhile, is on his way over to see us. The US president wants to celebrate the peace with us. He announced his travel plans while standing in a San Diego naval base, his mate Rishi beside him, fresh from promising the construction of nuclear submarines for Australia. He’s bound to visit a school or two when he’s here, shoot the shit about peace, then take himself down to the docks, visit the Titanic Museum, call in to Harland & Wolff to hear about the new age warships they’re building for the Royal Navy.

Now part of Team Resolute, the famous Belfast yard is a ‘a UK strategic defence asset, as one of only three UK naval shipbuilders suitable for major MoD contract work and boasting two of the largest dry docks in Europe’. When the new warships are built, they’ll probably sail south to protect the South China Sea from the Chinese.

Not far from the docks, out towards the George Best Airport, Spirit AeroSystems have been working on killer drones for the Royal Air Force. In Bangor by the sea, Denroy is busy making the trigger mechanisms for mortar bombs. In banquet halls and debating chambers they’re quoting Hume and Luther King. They’re reading from Séamus Heaney’s Cure at Troy, summoning the longed-for tidal wave of justice, demanding that hope and history rhyme on their wine-wet eloquent lips. We do love to wax lyrical on the subject of ourselves.

Meanwhile, in a Paris courthouse, a file on European profit and foreign loss lies heavy on a judge’s desk. In Yemen, they’re teaching their kids in backrooms, hoping that since the schools have been flattened the bombers won’t come back. In Belfast labs, that are hermetically sealed against the lies told to children, technicians are perfecting the firing mechanisms for an imminent run on the production line.

Let’s at least be honest with ourselves this Good Friday, our statesmen are hucksters willing to bargain our souls against the profit margins on missiles. Our poets’ words have been recommissioned as toxic lightning rods for cheap sentiment. Peace is neither here nor there, Northern Ireland is a node in the murder machine.

Pádraig Ó Meiscill is a writer from Belfast. You can read more of his work on his Substack

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