IRA splinter groups: ghosts from history?

It is not the Real or Continuity IRA that is plunging Northern Ireland back into the past. It is the ‘peace process’.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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IRA splinter groups have been accused of trying to ‘resurrect the past’ in Northern Ireland. The Real IRA, which killed two soldiers on Saturday night, and the Continuity IRA, which killed a policeman on Monday, are apparently keen to ‘stoke old grievances’. Their secret plot, experts tell us, is to force the British Army to return to Northern Ireland because they believe this will ‘refuel the sense of grievance that has fed Irish republicanism for centuries’. The splinter groups are denounced for trying to ‘plunge’ Northern Ireland into a bloody past that most of its inhabitants would rather forget (1).

There’s something strange in these accusations of past-mongering. Firstly, none of us can be certain what the RIRA or the CIRA hope to achieve, since they have issued precious few statements of political or strategic intent. Secondly, the accusations seem to get things the wrong way around. Far from single-handedly infusing the peaceful present with the bloody past, the Real and Continuity IRAs have emerged at a time when Northern Ireland is already unhealthily obsessed with its past. The New Northern Ireland is built, not on normal politics or visions of the future, but on a ceaseless, therapeutic memorialising of past events. Indeed, might it be better to understand the splinter groups as a warped product of the new politics of grievance, rather than as ghosts from the past coming to destroy an otherwise normal present?

It is darkly ironic to hear officials and commentators accuse IRA splinter groups of trying to ‘recapture history’ just as people had started forgetting it (2). Because the truth is that no one in Northern Ireland is allowed to forget history. Northern Ireland is myopically obsessed with what happened during the conflict between the Provisional IRA and the British state from 1969 to 1994. This obsession does not spring from people’s allegedly febrile minds, where, in the words of the government-funded Consultative Group on the Past, ‘buried memories fester in the unconscious minds of communities in conflict, only to emerge later in even more distorted and virulent forms to poison minds and relationships’ (3). Rather it is a product of new forms of government in Northern Ireland, which, utterly devoid of vision, can only institute collective therapy for past events rather than lead people towards a new society.

The peace process, instituted by the British and Irish governments in the early 1990s, has transformed Northern Ireland into possibly the only state on Earth which is built around managing attitudes to the past rather than engaging people in debates about the future. Consider the aforementioned Consultative Group on the Past, which made its recommendations to the UK government in January this year. Arguing that ordinary people carry around the past ‘in their minds’, and ‘it is this that divides them’, the Consultative Group actually captures how obsessed the great and good are with the events of yesteryear. In its recommendations on how the ‘victims and survivors’ of the past should be respected or compensated, the Group even gives advice on how to talk about ‘the past’. It advises against using the terms ‘The Troubles’ or ‘the war’ (too politically loaded, apparently) and suggests instead ‘the conflict in and about Northern Ireland’ (4).

The Group recommends that the UK government institute a Day of Reflection in Northern Ireland, to take place on 21 June each year, in which people and organisations would engage in ‘storytelling’ about the past and make ‘public commitments to peace’. The Healing Through Remembering project, a government-funded initiative to encourage cross-community truth-and-reconciliation gatherings, has been holding an annual Day of Private Reflection since 2007 (5). The Consultative Group proposes setting up a Reconciliation Forum, in which divided communities would come together to share their grief, and an enormous Legacy Commission, a £100million body which would take responsibility for ‘recovering information’ on historic events and encouraging ‘public reconciliation’ in relation to the past 40 years (6). It is striking that the elite wants to reorient life in Northern Ireland around ‘legacy’ – ‘anything handed down by an ancestor or predecessor’, according to my OED – rather than around aspiration.

Any new Legacy Commission would join the existing Commission for Victims and Survivors of Northern Ireland (CVSNI), a government body that focuses public policy on managing people’s memories rather than satisfying their needs and desires. Because ‘for many people fear and trauma remain a present-day reality’, argues the CVSNI, it is important that officials ‘recognise the importance of victims and survivors feeling that they are safe in a changing environment’ (7). Northern Ireland even has a Minister for Victims. Springing from a government-commissioned report of 1998 titled We Will Remember Them – which called for official mechanisms for ‘recognising the pain and suffering felt by victims [of the Troubles]’ – this vast layer of victim-focused governance has made the past a central feature of everyday community life and mainstream political debate.

Numerous public inquiries into past events are taking place. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, into the massacre of 14 Catholics by British paratroopers in 1972, has been running since 1998. The Rosemary Nelson Inquiry, into the murder of the nationalist solicitor by a loyalist gang in 1999, opened in 2004. There are also inquiries or proposed inquiries into the killing of loyalist militant Billy Wright by Irish republicans in 1997, the murder of Catholic civilian Robert Hamill by a loyalist mob in 1997, and the shooting dead of nationalist lawyer Pat Finucane by loyalist gunmen (guided by the British authorities) in 1989. These inquiries – investigating incidents that occurred 15, 20 or 37 years ago – are not merely about discovering the facts of terrible incidents and ensuring justice for victims. They have become bound up with the past-focused therapeutic ethos, where it is argued that inquiries can help soothe the two communities’ historic grievances (8).

Perhaps the most glaring, and dangerous, institutionalisation of the past can be seen in the elite’s transformation of old sectarian divisions between Catholics and Protestants into something positive: ‘cultural diversity’, ‘pluralism’, ‘two traditions’. The Northern Ireland Assembly institutionalises sectarianism at the political heart of the New Northern Ireland, requiring that elected members declare themselves as ‘nationalist, Unionist or other’ so that the assembly can ensure ‘sufficiency of consensus’ in the decision-making process. Not surprisingly, the renaming and celebration of sectarianism as ‘diversity’ has further entrenched divisions in Northern Ireland, giving rise to more ‘peace walls’ and less engagement between the communities than existed even during The Conflict In And About Northern Ireland (9). Nothing better captures the degenerate, vision-free, past-obsessed nature of the new institutions than their excusing and even elevation of historic sectarianism.

In many ways, the widespread focus on memory and difference in the New Northern Ireland springs from the political defeat that has been disguised as a ‘peace process’. The elevation of sectarianism speaks to the defeat of the Irish republican movement, to the obliteration of its historic political goal of ending the British policy of divide-and-rule, reuniting Ireland, and cherishing ‘all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government’ (10). Meanwhile, the politics of legacy and victimhood speak to the expulsion of ordinary people from the political stage. Where both Catholics and Protestants were, in very different ways, politically engaged during ‘the Troubles’, seeking either to transform society or to ensure that it stayed the same, today they are assigned the role of ‘victims of the past’. Officialdom’s focus on making ‘victims and survivors’ feel ‘safe in a changing environment’ is the logical conclusion to the peace process’s defusing of political debate and its sidelining of mass desires. The politics of difference and memory are the institutional expression of the defeat of Irish republicanism (and indeed of Ulster Unionism), and the replacement of active political subjects with the elite managers of the paternalistic peace process.

The Real IRA and the Continuity IRA may well want to ‘resurrect the past’, as observers claim. But if so, they are not the only ones. These splinter groups have re-emerged – perhaps fleetingly, perhaps not – at a time when ‘the past’, victimology, grievances, difference and historic hurt have become the stuff of the New Northern Ireland. Indeed, might the splinter groups be a product of the victim-oriented politics of the past-obsessed present? In 2005, when there was widespread loyalist rioting, I argued that these were ‘riots for recognition’, springing from a degraded new political process which ‘nurtures a sense of grievance amongst disaffected communities, and which can easily give rise to violent outbursts if one community feels it is being disrespected in favour of another’ (11). Maybe the RIRA and CIRA’s recent actions were ‘shootings for recognition’, an effort to force their grievances, their view of history, their victim status on to the backward-looking agenda.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill argued the recent attacks were the work of the Zombie IRA and described Northern Ireland’s politics of self-esteem. Kevin Rooney described the IRA’s shift from insurgency to identity and railed against the way politics is being written out of the history of the conflict. Chris Gilligan revealed the impact of therapy culture on Northern Ireland’s police. Or read more at spiked issue Violence in Ireland.

(1) Behind Northern Ireland’s latest killings, Boston Globe, 11 March 2009

(2) Two IRA splinter groups return to violence, New York Times, 10 March 2009

(3) Dealing with the wounds of the past, BBC News, 28 January 2009

(4) Dealing with the wounds of the past, BBC News, 28 January 2009

(5) Healing Through Remembering

(6) Dealing with the wounds of the past, BBC News, 28 January 2009

(7) Consultation: strategic approach for victims and survivors, UK government, August 2008

(8) See Bloody Sunday: why now?, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) Dealing with the wounds of the past, BBC News, 28 January 2009

(10) Proclamation of the Irish Republic, 1916

(11) See Riots for recognition, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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