Tuesday, 18 June 2013

In the Catholic Herald, June 14, 2013

It's going to take 30 years to heal Northern Ireland

That's the claim of an optimistic new book about life after the Troubles, says Patrick West

Northern Ireland, The Reluctant Peace
By Feargal Cochrane
Yale, £25

"At least the IRA gave warnings!" So yelled a Dubliner at anti-American demonstrators who were marching against the invasion of Iraq. This was on Grafton Street ten years ago, but I still remember the outburst for two reasons. First of all, the man used the past tense when referring to the IRA. Secondly, he echoed a sentiment - not uncommon in Britain - that at least the IRA had a coherent aim and could be reasoned with, and that they sought primarily the destruction of property, not people. Suicidal nihilists they were not.

I got a similar, perverse sense of nostalgia upon seeing a new book about "The Troubles". Publications such as this were a constant feature of the 1980s and 1990s. This was the age when people looked out for suspicious-looking packages, not suspicious-looking people, when we were alert to evacuation procedures, not maniacs with machetes. This was an era when the British government was secretly negotiating with the terrorists - an unthinkable act today.

Northern Ireland, The Reluctant Peace is, however, a stark reminder that there was little, if anything, noble about the "war" waged by republican and loyalist terrorists over a forty year period, or the sometimes appalling behaviour of the Crown forces. 

We are reminded of this in often harrowing detail. Consider the firebombing of the La Mon Hotel in 1978, in which sugar was deliberately added to the device so that the ensuing fireball would stick to anything with which it came into contact. The victims were literally burned alive, and the heat was so intense that it caused some bodies to shrivel to the degree that adults were initially mistaken for children. Before this was "Bloody Friday" on July 21, 1972, when the Provisional IRA exploded nineteen bombs throughout Belfast. Seldom-aired television footage shows firemen literally shovelling charred body parts into plastic bags. 

That atrocity was revenge for Bloody Sunday, when thirteen demonstrators were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment on January 30, 1972. Long before Guantanamo Bay, it's worth recalling British torture techniques: hooding, sleep and food deprivation, repetitive questioning, subjugation to white noise. These incidents were symptomatic of British indifference, even callousness, towards a nominal part of the UK. This attitude was encapsulated by Reginald Maudling, who visited the province for the first time in 1970 as Home Secretary. His parting words were: "what a bloody awful country."

Re-reading these events can be distressing (there are many passages too shocking for a family newspaper), but that's the strength of Northern Ireland, A Reluctant Peace. It makes you feel the anguish and anger of those involved. And sometimes there's a role for empathy in history. Consider the episode of a British soldier maliciously smashing a statuette of the Virgin Mary in someone's West Belfast home. Who's to say that in that position, or witnessing your elderly father beaten up and humiliated by a British soldier, you wouldn't have joined the IRA?

So how come, after all this, we can now talk of the Troubles in the past tense? There are several factors. First of all, we can thank two somewhat forgotten figures: John Major and David Trimble. The former was unusual in that British Prime Ministers aren't normally interested in Ireland, and the latter helped to make moderate Unionism acceptable. Both devoted much energy and took great risks to bring about the Good Friday Agreement. Secondly the emergence of Islamism caused many Irish-Americans to re-assess terrorism, a set of people who now have "intellectual difficulty in supporting the 'good terrorism' of the IRA, yet condemning the 'bad terrorism' of Al Qaeda." For the IRA, American cash and political good-will both evaporated after 9/11.

Most of all, however, the IRA was defeated. It was defeated by British infiltration and Loyalist terrorism. It's a hideous truth to acknowledge, but Loyalist campaigns of random sectarian murder in the late-1980s and early-1990s proved too much for Catholics to bear, which is why the IRA ceasefire of 1994 was welcomed with such joyous relief in the Falls Road, Ardoyne and Anderstown. This is why Loyalist organisations have since descended into gangsterism rather than resumed murdering Catholics. They feel they have won. This is also why it's business as usual for Republican dissidents: they feel that Sinn Fein has become a Partitionist organisation. Which it has.

Despite the fifteen years of relative peace, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. The 2001 census showed that two-thirds of Catholics and three-quarters of Protestants live in areas 90 per cent of the same religion. Cochrane recognises the persistence of sectarianism, but he contends that the healing process just needs more time. "The violent conflict raged for at least thirty years, and it is going to take that long (as a minimum) for a post-conflict society to emerge". He's optimistic, citing a 2007 survey which asked people whether the Northern Ireland assembly should focus on "constitutional" or "policy" issues. Only 12 per cent opted for the former, while 65 per cent of people said that the latter should have a priority. More interestingly, when people were asked whether they regarded themselves as "unionist", "nationalist" or "neither" the responses were 26 per cent, 24 per cent and 40 per cent, with the "neither" option being chosen by nearly half of those under the age of 45.

Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace is an accomplished work, although I don't share its optimism. People fib on surveys, and the book doesn't mention the greatest, unintended threat to Northern Ireland: Scottish nationalism. It's often remarked that Loyalists have an identity crisis, but only with Scotland's secession from the UK will Ulster Unionism face its final downfall. With no Britain, what then for the only people in these islands who use "British" as a label of ethnicity? A new and strange sort of "troubles" await.