The events in Northern Ireland which reached a climax with the IRA’s renunciation of violence this week offer many lessons for those with responsibility for confronting Islamic extremism. Barring a calamity, a 35-year conflict in which 3,700 members of a small community lost their lives has come to an end, and if there can be a winner in such a sorry story, it is democracy.
Religion, ethnicity, nationalism and imperialism played their parts in the long argument, and history, geography, economics and demography were invoked many times. All have a familiar ring in today’s debates about Islamic extremism. Northern Ireland, located unequivocally in the developed world, served for decades as a case study, almost a laboratory experiment, in politics without consensus and in the handling of political violence.
What brought the “Troubles”, as they used to be known, to an end? Not military action, not the persistent violation of human rights by the state and not the mass marginalization or persecution of one community. It was dialogue, open-mindedness, flexibility and, where appropriate, firm principle. At times in the past dozen years it has seemed as though everyone was talking to everyone: the British government, Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Irish Republican Army), the Irish and US governments, the churches, the local political parties, the “loyalist” paramilitaries, Irish-Americans . . . the list was long.
And although the romantic appeal of a “united Ireland” could be strong, particularly outside the island itself, one vital principle was never abandoned: that the people of Northern Ireland retained the right to decide their own future. When asked, they always voted to remain part of the United Kingdom and today that is what they remain, all those bombs and bullets and broken bodies notwithstanding. Even those British governments which adopted the most wrong-headed approach to the region’s difficulties managed to respect that one principle, and for that they deserve some credit.
There were certainly mistakes along the way, and no one can claim an unblemished record. Imprisonment without trial, torture and clandestine killing probably added years to the conflict. Supposedly woolly-minded ideas like forgiveness, respect and “parity of esteem” shortened it.
The day I realised things were changing came in the early 1990s, when I heard the far-sighted John Hume, then leader of the moderate, mainly Catholic, nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, respond in a new way to what was by then an old question. There had been another horror, and he was asked if he would condemn it. He shook his head and remarked that there was no merit in “the politics of the latest atrocity”.
It was when people on all sides learned that lesson, learned to keep their heads and to avoid engagement with the self-fuelling cycle of grievance, that a political solution became possible.
It was a cliché of living in Northern Ireland, and of writing about it, that despite all the headlines and the bloodshed, for most people life just went on. Indeed many parts of society thrived. This was not heroism or stoicism but reality: they went on working, shopping, playing, educating their children and mowing their lawns. At any given time, most people came to see, their chance of being a victim of violence was smaller than their chance of being knocked down in the road by a car.
There is a lesson there too. Democratic societies are far stronger than we give them credit for – did even 9/11 stop the United States functioning as a society? – and they need not, should not flee from their values when challenged by bombers. Indeed, even as we in the west confront a weapon the IRA never employed, the suicide bomber, we should remember that in its time democracy has survived far, far worse.