Could Northern Ireland Burn Again?
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.