No conflict in the modern world, not even the Arab-Israeli dispute or the status of Catalonia, has generated as much controversy, disputation, posturing, hot air and misconception as has the "Irish question". The term itself has been taken in recent times to refer to the armed conflict that broke out in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s; but more generally, it connotes the political and military conflicts that have pitted Irish people against each other, and Irish nationalism against British rule, for centuries.
The reality is known to anyone who was, like myself, born and brought up in Ireland, in my case in the town near the border with the north where the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has had its base area for the previous few decades - and it is a reality that come to diverge in rather spectacular ways both from the rhetoric and from the image which nearly everyone else in the world has about Ireland.
The Irish may indeed be, as a random survey of the bars and pubs of the world would surely indicate, the most popular nation on earth, rivalled only by the Cubans, but this affection and apparent familiarity with Ireland nearly always belies any informed, let alone critical, understanding of what has happened, and is happening, in the island. The content of the myth may have changed, heroic guerrillas and leprechauns having been replaced by the prowess of the "Celtic tiger", but the level of accuracy remains pretty low.
Thinking straight about Ireland is indeed a rather rare commodity, in the country itself and internationally, yet it is a prerequisite for understanding the present political settlement in Belfast. It is, in fact, a very good lesson in both political realism and political principle in general, hence the dictum I have on occasion advanced: "Those who cannot think straight about Ireland cannot think straight about anything".
Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East ( Saqi, 2005).
Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The articles include:
"America and Arabia after Saddam"
"Iran's revolutionary spasm"
"Political killing in the cold war"
"A transnational umma: myth or reality?"
"Iran vs the United States again" (February 2006)
"A Lebanese fragment: two days with Hizbollah"
"A 2007 warning: the twelve worst ideas in the world"
(8 January 2007)
"Sunni, Shi'a and the 'Trotskyists of Islam'"
(9 February 2007)
"Al-Jazeera: the matchbox that roared" (25 March 2007)
A page turned
The historic agreement on 26 March between Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley on the formation of a Northern Ireland government illuminates the point. It is, in two clear respects, good news. First, it is for real: the agreement represents a major shift in the historic positions of both Adams's Sinn Féin and Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party towards formal cooperation, and it should work for some time at least. Both sides have abandoned the maximalist goals that they espoused for many years: a forced unification of Ireland on the Republican side, the maintenance of Protestant domination on the Unionist. A measure of mutual recognition, of the legitimacy and rights of the other community, has been attained.
Moreover, the solution of the specific main issue on which dispute remained, that of support by Sinn Féin for the new police force, marks the resolution of the last and most difficult of the four big issues that underlay the original civil-rights (and, in the event, mostly Catholic) protests in the 1960s (the three others being discrimination in housing, in work and in electoral arrangements). The fact that it took almost forty years of violence, demagogy, missed opportunities and vast amounts of money and diplomatic effort to get to this common-sense conclusion - and in the context of the relatively modern, democratic and prosperous United Kingdom - may be a cause for dismay. But the movement is real.
Second, this deal - even if it enters troubled waters, by accident or design - is most unlikely to herald any return to the kind of systematic violence, killing, and bombing of the 1970s and 1980s. Intimidation, semi-criminal activity, and protection rackets do continue in the north, but this is not part of some continued armed conflict. To make an obvious contemporary comparison: the Lebanese should be worried about a return of their civil war, the people of Northern Ireland need not be.
In all of this external forces and changes have played a role. The British long ago lost interest in Northern Ireland as an economic, strategic or ideological asset, and would be happy to see it disappear tomorrow. The area has none of the affective associations in Britain that, say, the core provinces claimed by ETA for their Basque homeland have in Spain, or Kosovo has for the Serbs.
In addition, today's European climate does not favour political or religious extremism. It is perhaps symbolic that the Belfast peace agreement should have come a day after the twenty-seven member European Union celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, and the day before the main secessionist party in Quebec was subjected to the greatest defeat in its history. Many states, notably Britain and the United States, played a role in bringing the leaders to this conclusion; and, of as great importance, in enabling these leaders, who probably realised what they had to do years ago, to bring most of their own followers with them.
A door closed
Against these positive points, however, two limits of the Adams-Paisley entente need to be noted. First, while the politicians at the top may work together, the peace that may now prevail in Northern Ireland involves the almost complete separation of the two communities, in education, social life and political affiliation. Uncannily, a new European model of inter-ethnic conflict resolution has emerged based not on enlightenment and shared citizenship but on separation into distinct communities: in Belgium, Bosnia, Cyprus this has become the norm, and Northern Ireland is no exception. They may have common sports teams, and a rather similar sense of humour and affection, but there the intermingling stops. It was bad in the 1960s, before the fighting began and, by all accounts, it is as bad or even worse now, especially amongst the young.
Second, this deal, like many others in the modern world, is being carried out by leaders who, by dint of their compromise and the international support attached to it, will enjoy complete immunity, if not absolution, from the errors and crimes of their own past. Ian Paisley was never directly associated with the armed Protestant killer-squads that stalked Belfast in the 1970s; but by his alarmist and sectarian rhetoric, and his rantings about the papal Antichrist and Dublin, he certainly played a major destructive role, in two ways - by fomenting the kind of Protestant intransigence whose result was the forcible movements of population within mixed districts of Belfast, and by sabotaging earlier peace agreements that, had they been implemented, would have saved many lives.
The IRA - when it was organised, led and directed by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and their associates - was for years the perpetrator of terrible crimes, among them the shooting, bombing, kidnapping and torturing of both Protestant and Catholic inhabitants of Northern Ireland. Now Gerry is all smiles, the promoter of peace and author of saccharine autobiographies in which not a fly is hurt, but this belies his sinister, and wholly unaccounted for, past.
A question open
This raises a much larger question left open by the Belfast agreement: that of the political future not merely of Northern Ireland, but of Ireland as a whole. Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party confines itself to Northern Ireland. Its goal is to preserve the separate status of that entity, and defend the rights of its Protestant inhabitants. It has no broader, British, aspirations: Northern Irish Unionism has long lost any links to the Conservative Party in Britain. To a considerable degree Paisley has achieved his goal. The same cannot, however, be said of Sinn Féin, the party that created and directed the IRA. Even if its century-long pedigree is contested, Sinn Féin is in its broad manifestation at least one of the longest-lasting parties in Europe; and throughout its history its overall aspiration has not changed - that of ruling over a united Ireland.
In this, the Belfast agreement, while surrendering an immediate claim on the north, is of great assistance, as it enables Sinn Féin to enter the elections in the Republic of Ireland, scheduled for May 2007, in a much stronger position. Already, with the new nationalism prevalent in the south as a result of economic prosperity, and with a younger generation of voters apparently unconcerned about Adams's past, Sinn Féin is in a strong position to emerge as a coalition partner in any new government and reclaim the historic leadership it won in the last all-Ireland elections in 1918.
Both the other main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are in fact historic splits from the "old" Sinn Féin itself. The result of the Belfast agreement may, therefore, be to strengthen Sinn Féin in pursuit of its long-term nationalist goal, and allow this sinister, corrupt, and devious organisation - whose very name in Irish ("ourselves alone") is a nonsense in the age of globalisation - to assume the power to which it always aspired. That would be a high price, if arguably a necessary one, for the conclusion of the past forty years of violence in Northern Ireland. In this sense, the "Irish question" is far from being resolved.