Northern Ireland: guns, words and publics

Robin Wilson
16 March 2009

Northern Ireland has returned to the place its political and paramilitary elites have long believed to be its natural geographical location: the centre of the universe. Once again its bloodletting has been headline news in the global media, whose decades-long encampments in the region had been wound down after the "done deal" which the Belfast agreement of 1998 was assumed to represent. Once again, as in the years before the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994, killings by "dissident" republicans - in the first instance, of two soldiers outside the British army's Massereene barracks on 7 March 2009 - evinced the clichéd lexicon of calumny. Robin Wilson founded  the Belfast-based think-tank Democratic Dialogue. He now works as an independent researcher

Also by Robin Wilson in openDemocracy:

"The end of the IRA" (16 March 2005)

"Northern Ireland's peace by peace" (11 October 2005)

"Ireland's blocked path to reconciliation" (4 April 2006)

True, there was a key difference this time: that the now official - formerly "Provisional" - republican leadership joined in what thus became (as things were viewed from Whitehall) unanimous condemnation of the "Real IRA" action. In the aftermath, the largely absentee Northern Ireland secretary, Shaun Woodward, reassured the House of Commons in Westminster in an unctuous statement on 9 March: the incident, he said, was a "temporary darkness at the end of a tunnel of considerable light" and a sign that "the politics of a shared future is working".  

But when darkness fell that same night, another dissident group, the "Continuity IRA", shot dead Stephen Carroll, an officer in Northern Ireland's reformed police service (PSNI). Woodward's choice of words betrayed unconscious irony.  

The divided peace

A Shared Future was the policy on "community relations" introduced in March 2005, while Northern Ireland was in the middle of four and a half years of renewed "direct rule" from London, following the collapse in 2002 of the power-sharing executive arising from the Belfast agreement. The first official statement by any government since partition acknowledging not only that Northern Ireland was a deeply divided society, but that such deep division was intolerable by democratic standards, it was binned by the fundamentalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and, with particular animosity, Sinn Féin (SF) when they reassumed the reins of devolved power in a political marriage of convenience in March 2007. No such challenge to their clientelistic bases could be tolerated. Among openDemocracy's articles on Ireland, north and south:

Richard English, "Sinn Féin's hundredth birthday" (28 November 2005)

Conn Corrigan, "A long march: Ireland's peace process" (23 February 2006)

Eóin Murray, "Ireland's new shade of green" (2 July 2007)

John Horgan, "Northern Ireland: a view from the south" (7 March 2007)

John Horgan, "Conor Cruise O'Brien: a protean figure" (22 December 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "Conor Cruise O'Brien, the irascible angel" (22 December 2008)

Plus: regular comment and insightful analysis on OurKingdom, such as Tom Griffin's "The struggle for the soul of Irish republicanism" (11 March 2009) 

A successor policy to A Shared Future, which had been due to be launched nearly a year ago at the annual conference of the Community Relations Council (CRC), has yet to appear. Yet the continuing ethnic battle - what the CRC chief executive, Duncan Morrow, describes not as power-sharing but as "sharing power out" - meant that the devolved executive did not meet for five months between June and November 2008, just as the economic crisis was hitting the region's long-suffering citizenry. Even before the hiatus in self-government, nearly three-quarters of respondents to a poll said renewed devolution had made no difference whatever to their lives. And, on the ground, the "peace walls" just keep going up: there are now eighty-eight in Belfast, according to the last independent count. 

The political code 

A closer scrutiny of the carefully parsed words of condemnation following the Massereene and Craigavon attacks shows that the display of political unity against the current paramilitary threat is rather more superficial than has been suggested. Shaun Woodward, in language straight out of the 1970s, described the shooting of the soldiers as "cowardly" - by implication, those by armies in British uniform are "courageous". It was this blinkered acceptance of violence by military, as against paramilitary, men which underpinned the British state's utter failure to understand how such masculinist army actions as the kicking down of doors, street harassment, internment and unaccounted killings (as on "Bloody Sunday" in January 1972) all aided recruitment to the previously discredited IRA when the "Provisional" movement was born. 

The two leading men in the movement ever since, Gerry Adams (in Belfast) and Martin McGuinness (in Derry), chose words that would similarly not throw in question the legitimacy of the violence they had previously espoused. Adams restricted himself to language he had used to distance himself from those IRA "operations" he had found politically inopportune in the 1980s and 1990s: the attacks were "wrong and counterproductive", he lamely averred, in a statement which took fourteen hours to emerge after Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar were murdered. McGuinness, now deputy first minister, spoke more openly than ever about his own IRA career and of how the Sinn Féin leadership was bringing about a "united Ireland", disdaining in that context the "traitorous" dissidents for getting in the political way. 

What was notable by its absence here is the language of universal norms - of democracy, human rights and the rule of law - which has underpinned peace in most of western Europe since the second world war; and in the process confined the "banality of evil" to the peripheries of Northern Ireland, the Basque country, Cyprus and Corsica. Again, there is a political logic at work here: for the much-vaunted Northern Ireland "peace process" has always been driven by the most cynical "New Labour" Realpolitik, which allowed the paramilitary narrative of the "troubles" to be legitimated in the negotiations leading to the Belfast agreement and in the recurrent crises over its implementation. 

The insurgent logic

It is thus unsurprising - though doubtless this will come as a shock to many - to discover that sympathy for the rationales given by paramilitaries for their violence was found by the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey to have nearly doubled between 1998 and 2007. This sentiment was particularly evident among a section of young Catholics, the basis for the re-emergence of a republican challenge. To this new (even if small) cohort, denunciation by the grey-haired Provisionals is water off a duck's back.

For while the 1974 power-sharing experiment was brought down by the "loyalist" strike to which the state of the day showed far too much pusinallimity, the fact that the IRA campaign continued unrelenting helped drive moderate Protestants into the hands of bigoted politicians and the paramilitaries in the van. Indeed, Adams and McGuinness were to come to formal authority in the Provisional movement as critics of the southern republican leadership that had engaged in a fruitless ceasefire in subsequent months. 

Moreover, the terms of the St Andrews negotiations leading to the agreement of October 2006 - which saw the Democratic Unionist Party go into government with Sinn Féin only on condition that it was able to block all republican demands - has (as the historian Henry Patterson has argued) finally restored the pre-1972 "unionist veto" on politics in Northern Ireland. The governmental hiatus of 2008 followed the serial vetoing by the DUP of SF aspirations on ending academic selection, recognising the Irish language, having a "conflict transformation centre" at the Maze prison and bringing about the devolution of policing and justice. The inability of the republican leaders to achieve their political goals has given credence to those at the margin who say they should be advanced - as Adams and McGuinness too once said - by other means. 

The wearing tide

There is, however, good reason not to fear that, in another clichéd comment that has been much heard in recent days, Northern Ireland will return to "the bad old days". The massive violence of the early 1970s stemmed from the "security dilemma" that state collapse engenders, with major paramilitary forces ensuing. The British state, so reluctant then to intervene, fatally put off dismantling the unionist ancien régime until the human damage had been done. No such scenario of utter constitutional uncertainty can now be envisaged. In any event, as Rogers Brubaker has argued, such ethnic conflicts tend over time to burn themselves out, despite the efforts of ethno-political entrepreneurs to stoke the fires, as the quotidian concerns of ordinary citizens' take over. 

And it was these war-weary concerns which (though it has been written out of the official narrative) were critical to bringing paramilitarism to an end in 1994. Huge peace demonstrations, organised by the trade unions in late 1993, brought to a close an awful period marked by an IRA bomb in the Shankill and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) massacre at Greysteel, and violence on such a scale was never to recur.  

Once again in Northern Ireland, history has repeated itself - but not only as human tragedy, and not only in the black farce of paramilitaries-turned-politicians becoming sanctimonious about other paramilitaries who took them at their previous word. For on 11 March, lunchtime rallies, mounted by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, brought the centre of Belfast to a halt and took place in other cities across the region. There the language was the universal language of human solidarity and principled hostility to all violence. And that, in the end, will prevail.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData