Could Northern Ireland Burn Again?

The year is 2017.

There has been peace in the North for 20 years — violence on the margins. The IRA has stopped being a murder gang and turned to politics — its members have grown up and given up their fantasies of fighting the North into a United Ireland. The IRA is disarmed. The great killing year of 1972 when 480 died is 45 years behind us.

The year is 1967.

There has been peace in Belfast for 20 years — some violence in the countryside 5 years earlier. The IRA has stopped being a murder gang and is turning to politics — it is launching a new ‘civil rights’ campaign around the local election franchise— its members have grown up and given up their fantasies of flying columns bringing the North into a United Ireland. The IRA is disarmed — its has 6 guns in Belfast. The great killing years of 1920-1922 when 557 died, mostly in Belfast, is 45 years behind us.
Could the North burn again?

Of course it could.

Will the North burn again? I don’t know — and neither do you — but we should take the possibility seriously.

The year is 1919.

Czechs irregulars (with the aid of Italian paramilitaries) are fighting Polish irregulars in Tsechen.

German Freikorps are fighting Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian national irregulars, as well as Soviet Red Army units along the east Baltic coast — as well as against Polish forces in Pomerania.

Slovenian nationalists are fighting Italian regulars in Carinthia. There is peace between the German population and the Italian authorities in Süd Tyrol — this only lasts until 1921.

Both sides are exhausted by the war so there is an uneasy peace in French occupied Saarland — but the administration do not have a light hand for the German population.

British paramilitary units, the Black and Tans, are fighting Irish irregulars in Ireland after the pro-German rising during the war.

The violence in Northern Ireland is not unique, odd or strange, the circumstances of disputed borders are not new, or special.

The United Kingdom is a normal European country — with national disputes with its neighbours.

The year is 2017 again.

The great nationalist irruption of Brexit is now shuddering to a climax — the reality is dawning. The UK is leaving the rich tapestry of international agreements that have shaped the continent since the end of the last great war, and the war before.

The institutions that finally brought peace to Europe for the first time since the Romans made a desert and called it Pax Romana.
All the rest of Europe has thought hard and long about its relations with its neighbours, about is borders, about living with them — but not the UK.

As a result wild conspiracy theories of Fine Gael/Sinn Féin collusion to force a united Ireland are on British TV news — Government ministers punt this nonsense, sensible journalists at the BBC are infected.

One of the great British tropes for most of my life has been the forgetting of the war in Northern Ireland — “nothing to do with us mate” — because it offends against the British national self-image of reasonable, liked, easy-going, fair minded and all the rest.

An example would be the European Court of Human Right’s ruling in 1978 that the ‘Hooded Men’ had been subject to human rights violations using techniques that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn enumerated in The Gulag Archipelago under the title “the 10 tortures of the Gulag”.

It might well be that French people in Kensington can be reassured that British courts will protect them when we leave the European Charter Of Human Rights, but Irish passport holders — and EU citizens — in Armagh won’t.

The UK will have the only significant, collective population of EU citizens outside the EU after Brexit — the north will not be a backwater.

This forgetting is now being applied with a vengeance. The Irish (north and south of the border) are being portrayed as feckless and disingenuous. The British north of the border are simply forgotten.

But British nationalist irregulars (loyalists organisations like the UDA/UFF and UVF) with some informal help from protestant British members of the security forces killed 1,027 people during the troubles.

Their killings spiked during constitutional uncertainty — after the collapse of the Stormont parliament in 1972 and the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985.

In 1985 Loyalists killed an Irish catholic, a British protestant and one of their own members.

By 1992 they were out-killing the republican murder gangs — and in the post peace process world they have continued to be the most active killers.

Rogue republicans have responded to Brexit with a machine gun attack across the border.

The point about rising nationalist tension is that both sides have good reason to be scared.

The protestant British remember the slow wave of ethnic cleansing on the border and the waves of car bombs.

The catholic Irish remember the romper rooms: the poor kidnapped innocents beaten to death in front of a cheering audience of drinkers.

But on the other side of the water nobody remembers anything — everything is a new, hot surprise.
If the Good Friday Agreement is Sunningdale for slow learners, Brexit is the League of Nations for them.

Comments (11)

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  1. Kenny Smith says:

    I would like to think it won’t burn again but I fear the worst. The longer parties at Stormont take the more likely it becomes because direct rule from London under these Tory arses will end in disaster. The care not a jot for Ireland, Scotland or Gibraltar. The worst fear I have as a Scotsman about trouble flaring up again is it’s going to entrench the sectarian views we are trying so hard to extinguish. It says it all when during the indy ref that I was told a vote for yes was a vote for the IRA. How can you respond to such brainless statements

  2. Crubag says:

    9/11 changed everything for the terror groups, and it was then that the IRA started disarming (though Sinn Fein had been pushing them in that direction for a while).

    The leading cause of Catholic deaths was the IRA – in fact the leading cause of IRA volunteer deaths was the IRA…

    The Loyalist gangs have also gone quiet, or at least not creating headlines, though no doubt misery for their neighbours. They weren’t as ambitious as the IRA, with only a few attacks in the Republic. But if you had to point to a trigger for more violence, it could be Northern Ireland coming under a separate regime from the rest of the UK.

    1. Gordon Guthrie says:

      Yes, and everyone in GB thinks it is all about the Republicans.

  3. Gashty McGonnard says:

    It’s easy to forward guess and fear, but let’s not be too negative. Self-fulfilling prophecies and all.

    A lot of the conditions that fuelled conflict in Ireland in the ‘20s or ‘70s no longer exist. The demographics of NI are much different: there’s a just-about-even split between the two main groupings; there’s also now a huge swathe of unaligned humans who are unlikely to jump for either trench, and let civil society collapse. Catholics don’t feel like an oppressed minority any more; the Southern polity is now secular, liberal, affluent, and poses little credible threat to Ulster Protestant or British culture. There will be many British Unionists among the EU citizens by dint of Irish passport in 2019. There will be many Irish Nationalists happy to keep accessing the single market and the NHS, just as before. The Brexit border issue will be resolved with some awkward fudge that everyone will adjust to.

    … unless of course Brexit brings about global economic meltdown, a botched go at actual empire 2.0, and WW3… and then NI would be the least of our worries!

    1. Alasdair Macdonald. says:

      Gashty McGonnard, thank you for putting forward the other side of ‘the peace process balance sheet’ for Ireland. Undoubtedly, things have changed and the situation is much more nuanced than what obtained from the late 1960s onward. Too often, the worst case scenario is presented as what will, in fact, happen.

      However, being more sanguine and more balanced does not mean that there are not problems. One of the most ugly facets of Brexit has been the reemergence of expressions of hatred towards others, sometimes accompanied by acts of violence.

      Recent weeks have seen the emergence of the ‘thick Paddies’ racist categorisation of Irish people, dehumanising them, presenting them as inferior, dependent and not very good at anything. There is also the idea that they are simply pawns in an EU power-play and will be ignored once the EU has got what it hopes. The implication being, ‘you are going to have to skulk back to the skirts of Britannia. The history of Uk/Irish relations for centuries has been characterised by this racist, colonialist mindset.

      One thing that was made clear during ‘The Troubles’ was that ‘never forget, never forgive’ is deeply burned into the psyches of many people in Ireland, both republicans, unionists and people who just want to get on with their lives. I am not saying that people subscribe to those views, but they are very aware of them. This kind of abuse emanating from the London media and from Westminster will simply bring these thoughts to the surface. Some on the extremes might well be tempted to return to their former ways and some degree of violence will resume. We have heard from some quarters the arrogance of how the British armed forces would smash any efforts by the armed forces of Ireland, a country, which like Switzerland, is formally neutral.

      Let us hope that wiser heads on both sides prevails and that those Unionist Leavers who have taken Irish passports exert themselves.

  4. William Davidson says:

    I’m almost starting to think that, in the wake of the Brexit vote, some people would like to see “Northern Ireland burn again,” without actually constructing a coherent argument as to why this should happen. I live in N.I. and lived here for most of “The Troubles” and the vast majority of the population, whatever their background, didn’t participate in the latter events and most of N.I. didn’t burn. So why should it do so now? Many people over here, whether they voted Remain or Leave, are becoming increasingly irritated by the patronizing assumption that we are a bunch of turbulent savages liable to revert to violence, when most of us didn’t engage in violence in the first place.

    1. Gordon Guthrie says:

      That’s the point I make in the article though. In the 1960s there was a feeling that things had moved on. And then it went backwards.

      The peace process was working – there was a continuing improvement in the north, in the economy, in politics. Why tear it up? And why blame the republic once you have done that.

      In GB nobody gives a thought to the north, nobody knows the history – or cares that they don’t know – and it shows in Westminster politics.

      I hope to god Northern Ireland doesn’t go to hell, and I certainly don’t want that.

    2. Willie says:

      Absolutely agree that NI is not a bunch of turbulent savages.

      The “ Troubles “ as they are euphemistically called, were very real. The carnage was immense, the destruction even more immense, and it extended to the “ mainland “ too.

      They were no little matter and NI did burn, and burn badly.

      NI May have moved on, or at least entered into a period remission, but the divided community is still there. Neither does it have its Assembly. Rather it has direct rule from a Tory government propped up by a hardline Democratic Unionist party.

      And so, when the UK wants to set up a hard border and drag NI out of the EU against the expressed democratic wishes of the majority of the electorate, let us not get all misty eyed and think that our troubles are all over

      History repeats, again and again, and NI in particular, still has the ingredients for dissent.

  5. florian albert says:

    Political violence in Northern Ireland, in the past century, has been about ending, or sustaining the partition of Ireland. From 1969 on, there was a sustained campaign by the IRA/Sinn Fein to end partition. Although the IRA may have ‘fought the British Army to a standstill’ as Martin McGuinness put it, the campaign failed.
    By the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Fein accepted that the status of Northern Ireland could only be changed democratically. The IRA was forced, reluctantly, to disband.
    It is the knowledge that a 30 year campaign, with 3,600 deaths, failed to end partition which makes the likelihood of a return to violence very unlikely, though small groups may still engage in violence and do a lot of damage.
    The Irish government plainly hopes that the Brexit negotiations will allow it to advance the end of partition by stealth. This tactic might have some success but
    it could, just as easily, backfire if the Unionists feel they are being betrayed.

    PS The final sentence reads, ‘If the Good Friday Agreement is Sunningdale for slow learners, Brexit is the League of Nations for them’ What does this mean ?

  6. William Davidson says:

    I would never attempt to belittle the impact of the troubles on those murdered, maimed or bereaved. Just over 3,000 people were killed in a period of over 30 years, but these tended to be concentrated in certain areas (West and North Belfast, Derry City), whole swathes of N.I. were barely touched, life went on as normal, with minor inconveniences. As to N.I. being dragged out of the E.U., while it is true that roughly 440,000 voted to remain, with circa 330,000 voting to leave, the largest chunk of our electorate, almost 40%, over 500,000 voters didn’t bother to vote at all.

  7. Alex Thump says:

    I was in Ireland recently and can’t adequately decribe the difference in atmosphere on both sides of the border. In Southern Ireland I was welcome everywhere we went, with warmth and hospitality. A country at peace with itself in stark contrast to the North.
    I found Londonderry quite intimidating with deep divisions and a visceral unionist contempt that extended to my own person simply because of my accent. When is wasn’t that it was simply angry disillusioned people at the endof their patience.
    As long as the door is open for Scottish membership of Europe, I don’t think we see any blodshed in the North. But if London slams the door in Scotland’s face, the situation will rapidly deteriorate in my opinion.

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