No continuity in Northern Ireland
Forget the fears of a return to the past. History has moved on, that war is over, and it ain’t coming back.
St Patrick’s Day (17 March) is normally a time for the rehearsing of Irish myths and legends. This year, however, it coincides with a rather more serious discussion of recent Irish history, following the killings of two British soldiers and a Northern Ireland policeman by dissident republicans linked to the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA respectively. These shootings have prompted anguished discussions on both sides of the Irish Sea about whether Northern Ireland’s past is returning to attack the future, and whether we are going back to the bad old days of ‘the Troubles’.
I have long been a keen student of Irish history myself, as one who wrote about the war in Ireland and campaigned for a British withdrawal through the 1980s and into the 1990s. And one thing that seems clear today is that, while the future remains uncertain, there will be no going back to the past. History has moved on, that war really is over and everything has changed, whether some like it or not.
If there were any doubt that things ain’t anything like what they used to be, they should have been laid to rest by those images of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, once accused of being IRA chief of staff, and Peter Robinson, of the Democratic Unionist Party, standing alongside the chief constable of Northern Ireland to condemn the killings before jetting off to the USA together to meet President Barack Obama and raise investment for Northern Ireland.
An iron rule of politics is that you should never judge people by what they say about themselves (see, for instance, all those self-styled ‘democratic republics’ around the world). The fact that the Continuity/Real IRA chose those names, and claim to be pursuing the same struggle as republicans of the past, does not necessarily make it so. Today’s dissident republican groups may come from the same geographical areas, use the same language, and in some cases even involve the same people as the IRA that fought a war against the British state from 1969 to 1994. But they represent something quite different.
Those who talk about restarting the armed struggle against the British occupation have a fossilised sense of politics, so that they seem to imagine it is possible to turn the clock back. In reality, however, there is no war to restart in Ireland, no national struggle to reignite. The old combatants on all sides have withdrawn from the field. Anybody who imagines they are launching an armed struggle today will be fighting against an army of ghosts.
By the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, both the powerful political traditions of Irish republicanism and Ulster Unionism had been defeated. Through a combination of their own political exhaustion and international trends after the end of the Cold War, republicanism and Unionism were each effectively neutered and drawn into the peace process.
As spiked writers have previously analysed at length, over the past 15 years the struggle over the big issues of national self-determination and sovereign rights has been hollowed out and reduced to questions of identity affirmation and upholding ‘cultural difference’ (see Ireland). Sinn Fein and the IRA, which had long claimed to be the living heirs to a united Irish republic, have largely accepted their role as representatives of a section of the Catholic community within the Northern Irish peace process. The Unionist parties that long swore ‘No surrender’ of their political domination of Northern Ireland under the Crown have largely been reduced to protecting their cultural identity and symbols within the unending peace process. This does not mean that a just peace prevails in Northern Ireland – in some ways the sectarian divide between the Catholic and Protestant communities has deepened – but there is no longer any national question or political struggle for sovereignty at stake.
Since the end of the war that nobody won, the British authorities too have fundamentally altered their attitude towards Northern Ireland. From the time that a popular nationalist movement emerged in the nineteenth century, when the whole of Ireland was still under Crown rule, the ‘Irish question’ was often acknowledged as the most explosive in British politics. Partition in 1921 created the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) in the South, while bringing the new statelet of Northern Ireland more closely within the United Kingdom.
Throughout the more recent Troubles, the authorities in Whitehall recognised the Irish republican struggle to unite Ireland and break up the UK as a mortal threat to the stability of the British state. They took whatever steps were deemed necessary to contain that threat, from sending troops on to the streets in 1969 and introducing internment without trial in 1971 to fighting a 25-year counter-insurgency war. By the 1980s there were 30,000 British troops and paramilitary police on active service in Northern Ireland, deploying everything from no-jury courts to SAS assassination squads against the guns and bombs of the IRA, a relatively small guerrilla force sustained by considerable support among the Catholic-nationalist community of Northern Ireland.
Although the British authorities claimed to be conducting ‘normal’ law-and-order operations in Northern Ireland, nobody with eyes could seriously doubt that they were waging a war. Now that war is over and the threat to the UK state has gone, Whitehall and Westminster have a far more ambivalent attitude towards Northern Ireland. Many in high places no doubt dream of being peacefully rid of it. In the meantime the government’s concern is merely to keep the place as quiet and stable as possible – to which end, the British authorities now consider their counterparts in Dublin to be far more important partners than the dinosaurs of Ulster Unionism.
The British state has dismantled the apparatus of military occupation and war in Northern Ireland, taking down the watchtowers and withdrawing most of its armed forces. There are still some troops there, but they sit and train in barracks much as they might do in Aldershot or Catterick. That is no doubt why those sappers felt they could casually wander out to collect their pizza delivery at the Antrim barracks where they were then shot dead by the Real IRA last week. Afterwards it was striking to hear military commanders talk about the attack with a sense of bewilderment, insisting that the soldiers were only there as a staging post en route to today’s ‘humanitarian’ mission in Afghanistan – a far cry from the war years when such an attack would have been met with the high-profile deployment of troops on the street and possibly an undercover operation to shoot some known IRA men.
So if all sides have withdrawn from the field and Northern Ireland has changed, where does that leave the likes of the Real/Continuity IRA? Looking not like symbols of the ongoing republican struggle, but symptoms of its degeneration and defeat – the ‘Zombie IRA’ as Brendan O’Neill described them last week on spiked (see The Zombie IRA, by Brendan O’Neill).
Of course it would be wishful thinking for anybody to imagine that they could turn the clock back and somehow refight the battles of yesterday. But beyond that fantasy, it is very unclear what else the CIRA/RIRA imagine they are fighting for, or why. Their existence today is an expression of the bitterness and marginalisation felt by some in the nationalist community who see few benefits from the peace process (and no doubt there are loyalist counterparts, too). In their frustration, however, they are simply lashing out against a phantom target that no longer exists. That was why it seemed so bizarre to hear them describe those pizza delivery men as legitimate targets who had collaborated with the British forces of occupation. This is far closer to contemporary nihilism than traditional Irish nationalism.
Contrary to what keeps being said, both by the British government and Irish republican leaders, the biggest problem with these groups is not just that they have such little support (or as Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams said yesterday, marking the death of irony, that they are ‘a very, very small group of people’ who should be left to the police). In fact they probably do have some passive support among pissed-off young people, as the rioting that followed the arrest of a well-known republican in Lurgan this week suggested. The bigger problem is that they represent nothing today in political terms, since the national struggle has ended.
At other moments in history, Irish republicans could claim to be on the side of history and democracy even though they did not have the masses on their side. Thus the Easter Rising of 1916, which effectively gave birth to the IRA, may have had relatively little public support at first (that exploded after the British executed the leaders). Yet the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin hailed that small force as Europe’s ‘first Red Army’, because they had struck a blow against the forces of British colonialism oppressing Ireland and of imperialism dominating the world. By contrast, however much support they mustered, there could seem nothing progressive about the Real/Continuity IRA’s actions today, where violence has become not the ‘cutting edge’ of a political struggle but an illusory substitute for it.
Nobody in Northern Ireland should have to settle for the uninspiring future on offer through the stultifying official peace process. But to go forward it is necessary to recognise that republicanism and Unionism are the ghosts of politics past, and that British imperialism is a pathetic shadow of its former self. Then there might be more scope for debating a new progressive politics that could unite the Irish people in the future.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
No paywall. No subscriptions.
spiked is free for all.
Donate today to keep us fighting.Donate online
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.