Beyond the Troubles

In July 2005 the IRA declared that its ‘armed struggle’ was over. It was a pragmatic move, given that it had suffered a widespread loss of public support at home and from the American diaspora—even from its political arm, Sinn Féin.

Outrage over a series of violent acts a few months earlier probably sealed its decision. First, the IRA was exposed as responsible for the £26.5 million robbery of the Northern Bank in Belfast in late 2004, one of the biggest robberies in British history. In January 2005 drunken IRA members murdered Robert McCartney, a known Sinn Féin supporter, in a Belfast pub. It also became public that the IRA and other paramilitary groups were behind most of the organised crime in Northern Ireland.

Worst was the demoralising realisation by Northern Irish nationalists that all the bombs and killings had achieved virtually nothing that could not be won politically. This eroded Sinn Féin’s legitimacy among its own core constituency and forced it, in turn, to divest itself of the IRA, which had become a dead weight on its ambitions.

So where do things stand in the North? On the face of it, the signs are not greatly encouraging. An armistice has been declared but no peace treaty has settled the hostilities and embers of the old conflict still flicker occasionally. In September, the loyalist ‘marching season’ turned nasty with police battling rioters for nearly a week. Ashley Graham, whose father was murdered by the IRA in 1990, told a BBC interviewer at the rally on 29 August: ‘We feel the IRA have gotten away with it. They can get on with their lives but not a day goes by without us having to remember. People in our situation are angry and feel something should be done.’

 ‘Love Ulster’ marchers strode down the highway wearing their Orange sashes and carrying banners announcing ‘No Justice for Protestants’. Although the slogan is, no doubt, a work in progress, you know what they mean. Justice has always been a side issue in the Troubles. The armed struggle may be over, but no reconciliation process is in sight; the two major parties of the North remain as ideologically rigid and fortified in their self-belief as ever.

This would not, perhaps, be so depressing if the ideologies were rational or at least harmless. The Democratic Unionist Party has virtually no policies except opposition to Sinn Féin and the moderate Ulster Unionist Party. Ian Paisley’s rodomontades are echoes of Edward Carson and the anti-Home Rulers of 1914. He has a website, but its message is a century old.

Sinn Féin, seemingly, is no more sophisticated. The ‘policies’ page of its website carries the smiling face of Bairbre de Brún, who confides that Sinn Féin’s policies are based on the thinking of James Connolly, a powerful thinker who was executed after the Easter Uprising in 1916.

Then what of Sinn Féin in the Ireland of the 21st century? Its president, Gerry Adams, has recently published The New Ireland—A Vision for the Future, a manifesto for a mass movement of Sinn Féin across the island, its ‘primary political objectives [being] an end to partition, an end to the union, the construction of a new national democracy, a new republic on the island of Ireland and reconciliation between Orange and Green’.

Sinn Féin attracts just 25 per cent of the vote in Northern Ireland and holds five of the 166 seats in the Irish Dáil, so achieving any of these objectives is unlikely. Adams, however, is too clever and pragmatic to hold such a ‘vision’ seriously. Derry journalist and activist Eamonn McCann has observed of him that:

Contrary to the conventional account of him leading a people half addicted to violence toward peace, [he] has merely contrived a realignment of republican ideology so as to bring it more closely into kilter with the people in whose name it was purporting to act, offering no challenge to their consciousness. The reason the Adams leadership has been able to retain the support of the republican base while ditching core republican ideas is, on this analysis, that the base was never republican in the first place; that they were only fighting for their streets.

So what is Adams really up to? The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 gave Sinn Féin very little more than was on offer by the British government in 1973. Hardline Republicans—and Unionists—ask what it was all for: why did so many have to die? Bernadette Sands, sister of hunger-striker Bobby Sands, says: ‘My brother didn’t die for cross-border bodies.’ Like Michael Collins before him, perhaps, Adams, unsentimentally and pragmatically, has achieved the achievable but is not about to tell the diehards their struggle was in vain. It appears he has decided the best outcomes for his community in terms of policing, employment, education and other services can only be achieved politically. The so-called ‘vision for the future’, and its companion piece, the Sinn Féin Discussion Paper on National Unity, is manifestly intended only for the diehards, to nudge them away from the ‘armed struggle’ without losing them from the Sinn Féin fold.

Until the McCartney murder forced his hand, Adams has always been able to lever Sinn Féin’s position by implying that unless it gets what it wants, the IRA will go its own way. Paradoxically, Sinn Féin may be in a better position now than when it was a mere front for the IRA.

Sinn Féin has had very little credibility in the South. The antagonism it draws from every other political party in the whole island is palpable. Although Adams himself is respected by many in the Republic, Sinn Féin is regarded by most as corrupt, devious and, of course, in its IRA manifestation, violent. Adams’s ‘vision’ is a confession of the futility of the ‘armed struggle’ and a bid for legitimacy. Freed from the burden of the IRA connection, Sinn Féin now has a chance to become a legitimate political party but can only retain its constituency by presenting itself as the heir of the republic tradition.
The move to legitimate politics is but a small advance, however, because, sadly, the legacy of the Troubles is that the two communities are now far more polarised than ever. Too many have died. The conflict went on for too long for an easy peace to emerge. Moreover, there appears to be a powerful backlash among working-class Protestants—the main supporters of Ian Paisley—against the peace process, which they perceive as favouring the Catholic nationalists. Professor Stephen Howe, of Bristol University, author of Ireland and Empire, sees the September riots as a manifestation of distress on the part of the previously ascendant Protestant workers. In a comment piece in the Guardian newspaper he wrote:

The riots are part of what happens when the decay of one modern culture—the Northern Irish variant of urban, working-class Britishness—clashes with the rise of a globalised popular culture … Working-class loyalist communities are in a probably irreversible retreat. Paramilitary warlords and drug barons fight over the ruins. Deindustrialisation, demographic decline, the tendency of the more enterprising or successful to move out, low rates of educational achievement and very high ones of family breakdown, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse—all these are features that the poorer Protestant districts of Belfast, Portadown or Ballymoney share with those of Liverpool and Glasgow.

There are, however, reasons for cautious optimism. The Republic of Ireland, on a per capita basis, is now the richest country in Europe. It has outstripped Britain, Germany and France. Ireland has embraced globalisation and post-industrialism. It is somewhat ironic now to see Dublin, once viewed with contempt by the Ascendancy grandees of Belfast, buzzing with new cars and metrosexuals, while Belfast has progressed little economically from its once proud, but now distant, industrialised past.

The distinguished New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman visited Ireland in 2005 and was impressed by what he saw. The phenomenal growth of the Irish economy, he said, was not merely lucky; it had a recipe: ‘Make high school and college education free; make your corporate taxes low, simple and transparent; actively seek out global companies; open your economy to competition; speak English; keep your fiscal house in order; and build a consensus around the whole package with labour and management. Then hang in there, because there will be bumps in the road and you, too, can become one of the richest countries in Europe.’ Societies with open economies are also open to ideas.

Second, whether or not Sinn Féin will acknowledge it, this extraordinary transformation in Ireland’s economy has been accompanied by a conscious abandonment of its traditional notions of nationalism. It is a paradox that republicans prefer not to discuss that Ireland is now rich because it is no longer the self-contained Catholic Gaelic nation created in 1921 but an integral part of a massive European and world economy. The influence of the Celtic Tiger on the North must be irresistible.

Finally, revisionist historians, notably Roy Foster, professor of Irish history at Oxford University, have since the 1970s argued for the recognition of different kinds of Irishness and the legitimacy of all of them, including the British Irish of the North. Among the educated middle-classes they found a receptive audience. In 1988, concluding his book Modern Ireland 1600–1972, Foster argued:

If the claims of cultural maturity and a new European identity advanced by the 1970s can be substantiated, it may be by the hope of a more relaxed and inclusive definition of Irishness, and a less constricted [read ‘republican’] view of Irish history.

The Northern Irish cannot be quarantined from these tectonic shifts but what of the immediate future? For all the huffing and puffing, partition is not the core problem dividing the Northern people, it is their different notions of Irishness. There may be a subtle answer to this. Irish author Colm Tóibín, writing in 1993 about the question of Irishness, observed:

I know that ambiguity is what is needed in Ireland now. No one wants territory, merely a formula of words ambiguous enough to make them feel at home … We are learning to talk in whispers. It will take time.

Hugh Dillon is a Sydney magistrate with ancestral roots in Ulster.


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