Thinking straight about Ireland

Fred Halliday
26 May 2005

The British general election may have confirmed Tony Blair and his Labour Party in their continued, mildly reformist, hold on power in the United Kingdom, but in Ireland it has marked a watershed – welcome for some, ominous for many others. The result delivered on 5 May by Northern Ireland’s voters confirmed the dominance of intransigent parties within both major communities in the UK province: Sinn Fein (political wing of the Irish Republican Army) on the Catholic/nationalist side, the Democratic Unionist Party on the Protestant/loyalist side.

The veteran DUP leader Ian Paisley has called for the 1998 Belfast peace agreement, which promised to bring a definitive end to the thirty-year “troubles” – the benign term for the armed struggle between the IRA and the British army – to be “buried”. Some would suggest that, with the IRA refusing for seven years to disarm and the persistence of violence and intimidation within the Catholic community, the funeral has long taken place (if, as has happened before in these parts, in secret).

Much of the real Irish story of recent decades remains to be discovered. But if one holds to the dictum that those who cannot think straight about Ireland cannot think straight about anything, there is no better place to take up the challenge than Dundalk. This border town of 40,000 people, on the east coast of Ireland, halfway between the two Irish capitals of Belfast and Dublin has a vaguely menacing reputation and in any case it is easy enough to bypass by car or speed through by train. In my case this is somewhat harder to do, as Dundalk is my hometown, the place where I grew up and which has been, for some five decades or more, the source of many political emotions and insights.

A frontier town

Dundalk offers a reference-point against which to match tensions in Ireland that are often viewed through a nationwide lens: over nation and religion, state and society, politics and economics, peace and violence – and change and stasis. (When I recently asked a wise, long-term resident of the town if, over the past thirty years, anyone there had changed their mind about anything, he looked at me slightly askance and replied curtly: “Of course not!”)

This is quintessentially a frontier town, diverse in composition (including a district named after its Huguenot settlers) and present in many chapters of the Irish dimension of European history. Ireland’s mythic hero Cuchullain fought in the neighbouring mountains, the Vikings tried to settle here, in the 17th century Oliver Cromwell made it the outer limit of his stockaded colonial zone (“the Pale”), and in the 19th and early 20th centuries it became integrated into the industrialising economies of northern Ireland and north-west England.

Modern Irish politics, in the form of the island’s partition in 1922, severed Dundalk from its economic links to the industrial north. People here have long memories, encompassing the war for independence and civil war of the early 1920s, the brief IRA campaign after 1956, and of the long war from 1969. For decades Dundalk has been notorious as the political centre of activities of the Irish republican movement, and as the rear base of the IRA (and, more recently, the breakway “Real IRA”). Ian Paisley denounces it as “Gundalk” or “El Paso”, and Margaret Thatcher famously told Ronald Reagan in 1982 that if the Israelis were justified in invading southern Lebanon, she too would be in sending her airforce to bomb the town.

There is a far more progressive side to Dundalk: in European Union and some United States, investment, in improved transport links, and in a successful technical college (effectively a university) whose 7,000 students have just celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. In 2000, Bill Clinton addressed a huge crowd in the main square and proclaimed his friendship with local pop group The Corrs.

The local museum and the college, attempting to break the image of sectarian hostility associated with the town, recently held a festival of Protestant culture, replete with a pipe band, drums and a visit from senior members of the Orange Order (one of whom was photographed shaking hands with the Sinn Fein chair of the local council).

Sinn Fein’s ambitions

It will take more than such initiatives, welcome as they are, to dissolve the sectarian certainties and polarised politics that still affect this part of Ireland. As ever, the conflict in northern Ireland has implications for the future of Ireland as a whole. In particular, for Sinn Fein, which is developing a pan-Ireland strategy designed to secure its place in a future ruling coalition in the south.

This strategy has been accompanied by a largely successful publicity campaign carried out by Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and their associates over a decade and more. Adams presents himself as a man of peace, even a statesman, offering advice to the Basques about peace in Spain and producing mawkish autobiographies. His policy of weakening and overtaking the more moderate, anti-violence, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) has been greatly helped by the political amnesia that forgets the years of IRA killings, disappearances and tortures.

Adams trades on the pretence of a difference between the IRA and Sinn Fein, but as the gangsterish murder of the Belfast man Robert McCartney in January 2005 showed, the “republican movement” operates on the ground as a criminal organisation, contemptuous of democracy and determined to keep its weapons and powers of intimidation. In the south there is growing awareness of the IRA’s sustained, clandestine, campaign to infiltrate the middle ranks of the Irish Republic’s administrative and security services.

This is not purely an Irish affair. The polarisation in the north is one manifestation of the persistence of particularist, identity-based, nationalist politics elsewhere in Europe, and indeed across the world. Like all nationalisms, Irish republicanism celebrates its “uniqueness” (except when it suits some of its leaders to parade themselves as Mandela or Martin Luther King), but beneath the posturing is a tale of broader significance. One of its neglected aspects lies in the dark side of Ireland’s much-vaunted economic boom: the critical study by Dublin social scientist Peadar Kirby (The Celtic Tiger in Distress) documents the increased social polarisation and widespread poverty for which nationalist braggardry offers no solution.

Yet the combination of northern polarisation and southern economic and social tensions provide a fertile recruiting-ground for the republican movement. Sinn Fein is aiming for a long-term partnership with the governing party in the south, Fianna Fail. The Fianna Fail leadership under Bertie Ahern is critical of the IRA, but a resurgent nationalist mood in Ireland and the apparent “domestication” of Sinn Fein has made such a historic compromise no longer unthinkable. Mid-ranking Fianna Fail officials now talk quite openly of entering into a strategic alliance with Sinn Fein.

Civil war legacies

A lesson from these Irish convolutions is that the consequences of European civil wars take many years to overcome. In a marked reversal of the normal (and deeply ideological) allocations of “civilisation” and “barbarism”, it is noteworthy that countries in the global south are often better able to overcome civil wars, and integrate the supporters of victor and defeated alike, than the supposedly more sophisticated states of Europe.

The civil war in Nigeria in the 1960s, in Yemen and Oman then and in later decades, the wars in Vietnam, and the wars in central America in the 1980s all produced “winners” and “losers”, but in large part these countries have moved on. Yet in the European countries that had civil wars in the last century – Ireland, Spain, Finland, Greece (not to mention the United States after 1865) endemic political differences have endured. Irish politics is still split between the factions that contested the conflicts of the 1920s. If many in Ireland seem to have forgotten this, it is certain that the leadership of Sinn Fein, their eyes set on power in a reunited Ireland, have not.

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