No-One In Ireland Will Go Back To War Over Brexit

I see that Peter Hain – remember him? – has joined the growing chorus of doomsayers predicting all sorts of sturm und drang in the North in the event of a hard Brexit. Writing in The Guardian – where else? – Hain opines:

…..for Irish republicans and nationalists, an entirely open border, of the kind which has operated without security or hindrance of any kind for many years, is politically totemic.

He is not alone in peddling this nonsense. Former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern was at it two weeks ago, also in The Guardian, which alone of the British media seems to be taking this issue seriously.

Ahern had this to say:

It (Brexit) psychologically feeds badly into the nationalist communities. People have said that this could have the same impact on the nationalist community as the seismic shock of the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement on unionists, and I agree with that.

And we all know what happened after the A-I-A of 1985: riots, walkouts from parliament, political crises and a surge in Loyalist paramilitary killing.

Both Hain and Ahern are at pains to say that they are not predicting a return to violence by Republicans – heavens forfend! – but of course this is exactly what they are doing. Impose a hard Brexit, they are effectively telling Theresa May, and you risk provoking the IRA into picking up its guns again.

Hain was Northern Ireland Secretary when Tony Blair was in charge of the Northern peace process and Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach when the Good Friday Agreement deal was struck.

Having been intimately involved in the diplomacy which ended the Troubles both men should know better what the root causes of the violence and instability really were – and why and how they were ended.

Above all else they should know that it wasn’t the Border which started the Troubles in 1968 or 1969 at all. Nor was it the Border which ended them.

The Troubles had their roots in something much more commonplace: the Nationalist belief that as long as Unionists ruled the roost they could never get a fair share of jobs, houses and political power and the equally strong conviction on the part of Unionists that if they relaxed their grip on these things they would lose their place in the sun.

The conflict that followed, bloody and awful that it was, resembled a war of liberation and had all the necessary trappings – from guerilla warfare to heady battle hymns – but was really a simple struggle for Catholic civil rights that had  got badly, even inexplicably, out of control.

The way that the conflict ended, as Hain and Ahern should know full well, proves the point. Not only did the Border not figure in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in the way anti-imperialists might expect but the IRA ‘s political wing actually accepted that it could stay as long as the Unionists wanted.

So no problem with the Border there.

What the Sinn Fein party wanted and got from the GFA was a share of power and a guarantee that they and their people would from thereon get a fair swig from the jug. In other words the 1998 peace deal was the culmination of a struggle for civil rights not for Irish unity.

The reality is that most Nationalists in Northern Ireland were not directly affected by the long queues and customs posts that Ahern and Hain now predict will return to fray nerves and tempers post-Brexit. They got on with their lives quite happily and, truth to tell, the customs posts that functioned for many years, even during the worst years of the Troubles, barely figured as an irritant.

What really annoyed people at the various Border crossing points were the permanent checkpoints manned by the British Army, RUC and UDR. Well with the GFA, they and the military have gone and will not be coming back no matter what shape Brexit takes.

Unionist bigotry and a police force that was sometimes nakedly partial always mattered much more to Nationalists than the Border. And they were angry at poor housing, long-term unemployment and the Unionists’ refusal to give them a say in how where they lived was governed much more than the bump in the road outside Newry that served as an international boundary.

The most that the Border figured in all of this was as a symbol of their second class citizenship. Once Nationalist  inequality was substantially addressed in the GFA the Border faded away.

So while Brexit will not bring the bad old days back, the collapse of the power-sharing government at Stormont may, especially if that happens against a background of DUP triumphalism. Even so, I cannot imagine too many dissidents eager to take up cudgels, much less armalites, to bring back Stormont.

Nonetheless, Hain and Ahern, not to mention Theresa May and whoever takes over from Enda Kenny, would do better concentrating their energies in addressing that problem. The Border can wait.

11 responses to “No-One In Ireland Will Go Back To War Over Brexit

  1. Peter Hain! He conveys the impression of a billionaire who’s just staggered out of his country club in a semi-inebriated state to issue a pompous missive. Clearly ‘Brexit’ has disturbed his lordship’s afternoon naps, hence the absurd predictions of Gotterdammerung following the UK’s rejection of the neo-liberal EU.

  2. You say:
    “The Troubles had their roots in something much more commonplace: the Nationalist belief that as long as Unionists ruled the roost they could never get a fair share of jobs, houses and political power and the equally strong conviction on the part of Unionists that if they relaxed their grip on these things they would lose their place in the sun.
    The conflict that followed, bloody and awful that it was, resembled a war of liberation and had all the necessary trappings – from guerilla warfare to heady battle hymns – but was really a simple struggle for Catholic civil rights that had  got badly, even inexplicably, out of control.”

    Yet equality was never an argument used by the OIRA in their previous albeit more limited campaigns, and as Richard English points out, because of that equality alone is not a reasonable explanation for the Troubles. You yourself in your book, and on this website, point out that the NICRA was ‘largely the creation of the IRA’ and come out of the wolf tone society. The thinking (again paraphrasing your words) ‘was to find common cause for the working man in socialist ideology (whether Protestant or Catholic) with a view to overthrowing the state.’

    That view makes sense whereas your recent interpretation does not. For the NICRA started as a campaign for British rights, and then became a movement for Catholic rights. As Gregory Campbell notes at the time, Catholics were marching for ‘rights that I don’t have’.

    You mention jobs and housing, and yet there is no mention of different education choices which clearly affected jobs which therefore affected income ergo affecting housing allocation. An extract from the CAIN archive reads “Subject differences do exist. O and A level subject patterns in 1984 indicate that there are broad differences between Protestants and Catholics, the latter showing a bias towards arts and related subjects, and the former towards the sciences. Data from Queen’s University in the 1950s and 1960s, which reflect, not surprisingly, the same subject choices seen at A level, show that a similar pattern existed then.” Moreover Protestants were more likely to go to University. Why is it that we are happy to acknowledge subject choices affect income later in life now, yet deny it had any impact it on income, on housing and subsequent jobs then? An engineer is more likely to earn a higher wage than an English student – that is true now and it was true then.

    You say:
    “Unionists’ refusal to give them a say in how where they lived was governed much more than the bump in the road outside Newry that served as an international boundary.”

    It is an often repeated argument that unionists blocked nationalists but is that true? For the first 30-40 odd years of the state, with few exceptions, the nationalists were hostile to Northern Ireland (for obvious reasons) and wanted no part in its governance (for understandable reasons). But by refusing to sit in Stormont from day one, nationalist politicians are at least partly to blame for the marginalisation of Catholics by not representing the interests of nationalist’s at Stormont.

    You use the word ‘refuse’ but the demands of the NICRA, were countered by promised reforms from O’Neill backed by the then Home Secretary Callaghan. Though resisted by the likes of Paisley, these reforms were none the less being passed. One man one vote for example was passed before the PIRA even existed, the apparently irreformable state promised reform was reforming prior to the existence of the PIRA and long before its ground war kicked off properly. That’s a fact.

    None of this is to say there was no bigotry or discriminations – there very clearly was. But at each turn you and other have looked at naked differences surrounding education, jobs and housing between the two communities and always assumed that those differences were solely as a result of Unionist discrimination simply because they hated Catholics.

    Examples.
    – Gerrymandering of local authorities was solely as result of Protestant bigotry, apparently nothing to do with the rebel counties.
    – The B special were to keep the Catholics down, and apparently nothing to do with defending the state from the consistent insurgencies into the North by anti-treaty Republicans from the early 1920s.
    – Education, income and housing differences were solely because of Protestant bigotry and apparently nothing to do with different choices made by the Catholic community.

    If I have one criticism of your book, it is that you over do the amount of discrimination that existed, and your use of the word apartheid is wholly inappropriate to the actual conditions on the ground. Even IRA men acknowledge it was nothing like the apartheid.

    That there was discrimination is generally accepted. But let’s be realistic about how it came about, and the extent of if.

    • i don’t understand what you’re trying to say and i wonder if you do. for e.g. you write ‘Yet equality was never an argument used by the OIRA in their previous albeit more limited campaigns, and as Richard English points out, because of that equality alone is not a reasonable explanation for the Troubles.’ yes, the IRA did not employ the equality argument in its 1956-62 campaign because it was a purely military effort, devoid of anything except the politics of the Border. for that reason, i would argue, it was a miserable failure because Northern Nats did not see anything of value to them in that approach. all this actually supports my argument….yet you don’t seem to realise that.

      • Apologies if I wasn’t clear.

        My disagreement is that you have defined as the root cause of the Troubles as one for Catholic civil rights.

        You appear to be implying that the PIRA campaign was a fight for ‘Catholic civil rights’, heeping the entirety of the blame squarely on Unionists.

        My post is making two points. First is that the amount of discrimination is grossly exaggerated. Secondly that the IRA had no prior history or fighting for equality.

      • Yes, i do blame the Unionists. Actually Paisley and his followers. If O’Neill had been let be or given support by his spineless community, especially his middle class, most Catholics would have accepted his mild reformism. As for the Provos, one can only judge their campaign for what they were prepared to settle for, which was a deal arguably less valuable than that which they had excoriated the SDLP, i.e a reformed Northern Ireland with its feet firmly planted in the UK. Verstehen nun?

  3. It’s disappointing to hear you say that.

    In my view no IRA – arguably no troubles. No Paisley – arguably no Troubles either, but still an insurgency albeit on a smaller scale. We know because Joe Cahill tells us they were ‘preparing for a fight’.

    The IRA could have settled at any point in the early 70s for a reformed NI, which makes their 25 years of continued action for what exactly? Either you are missing something or their fight wasn’t about reform. It’s wrong to look at what the IRA settled for and conclude that was what they were fighting for. I don’t know a single war were the losers got what they wanted.

    What’s missing is that IRA in all iterations from the 1920s were fighting for a United Ireland, and the PIRA were no different. It says it in their Green book in black and white:

    -Liberation three mentions
    -United Ireland two mentions
    -Equality zero mentions
    -Discrimination zero mentions
    -Reforms zero mentions

    Are we now to pretend that the seam of extreme nationalism, plotting for 40 odd years to overthrow the state, had no roots in the development of the Troubles at all? That’s revisionism that even Adams would be proud of.

    Fortunately such an argument is easily refuted by any reasonable reading of the history. My own interpretation is the the civil rights campaign was fuel to the IRA’s spark. I can’t tell which was more important though.

    I’m not sure why you find that so hard to admit that the IRA had a role in the beginnings of the Troubles – that’s what puzzles me the most.

    • the key question is not why the IRA existed or what motivated it but why so many people joined it, supported it or in other ways made their violence possible. and in that regard one has to ask why the IRA of 1956 to 1962 had such little support in contrast to the IRA of 1969 to 2006? the answer to that question in my view lies in the simple fact that Unionism could not deal with the demands of the civil rights movement and by so doing posed to Nationalists a simpe question: is Northern Ireland reformable? I think many Nationalists, faced with their own personal experiences as well as larger social experiences concluded ‘No it could not be’ and supported its violent destruction. Many years later when a reformable state became possible, or seemingly was possible via the GFA the IRA and its support just melted away. It was no longer sustainable because what had sustained it no longer existed. as how this all started there is no doubt that it was Unionism’s refusal/inability to accept necessary reform that transformed the IRA from a mouse into a mountain. I just think you have a problem with the logic of all that…..

      • It’s not a problem for me to accept that logic because it is the crux of my argument also. Namely the scale of the recruitment into the IRA in such large numbers was a byproduct of the civil rights campaigns.

        Where we differ is the timing. I’ll quote other people to make my point:

        Eamon McCann: “The reforms which emerged allegedly from the armed struggle were in place in the early 1970s.”

        Henry McDonald: “They try to recast 35-plus years of murder, mayhem and sabotage as somehow a more radical form of civil rights struggle, rather than what it really was – the attempted armed destruction of the Northern Ireland state, which their political representatives now happen to help run.”

        Fintan O’Toole: “Instead of trying to alleviate the suffering of ordinary Catholics, the IRA was intent on destroying rational reform and provoking repression.”

        Newton Emerson: “The rewriting of the Troubles as a fight for equality is most associated with Sinn Fein, which needs to explain why the IRA kept fighting for 20 years after all the demands of the Civil Rights Association had been met, while still not delivering a united Ireland.”

        John Murphy: ”The party’s breathtaking revisionism extends to the causes that it now gives for the conflict. IRA culpability, the sectarian dimension and the statistics of responsibility for deaths are ignored and “the armed struggle” becomes a great campaign for equality and civil rights – which, in fact, were conceded quite early on.

        Gerard Hodgins ”We lost, just didn’t get our United Ireland. And now we are pretending it wasn’t about freedom, it was about equality”

        Like I said in my very first post. Even before the PIRA existed the apparently irreformable Unionist state was reforming despite the likes of Paisley. The chronological list of those reforms are here: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/discrimination/chron.htm

        …and that’s where you arguments falls to bits. The IRA couldn’t be fighting for a reformed state because if that were true the fighting would have stopped when the reforms started or at the very latest when the reforms were in place. History is not with you on this, your timing is off by about 25 years. And let’s not pretend that there anything meaningful on offer in the GFA that was already in places decades beforehand.

      • okay, this is the last exchange in this conversation. i am going to make two observations but I’d also like to ask one question: everyone knows my name but you are hiding behind a ridiculous nom de plume. Why is that?

        I think you have to explain why the IRA between 1956 and 1962 attracted such little support from the Catholic population while the IRA campaign that began in 1970 won so much support that it was able to keep going for over 30 years. What was the difference? I would argue that this was because of Unionist resistance to reform and change in the area of political and economic equality for Nationalists. Just because a law is in place does mean that it is supported by those responsible for the inequality that created the need for those laws. Just as the Black civil rights reforms in the US were imposed against the wishes of White racists, especially in the South, and have been chipped away at ever since by the same racists or their successors, so in NI the civil rights reforms were imposed (mostly by the British) on a recalcitrant Unionist political system which via, for example, the contrived downfall of O’Neill, the 1974 UWC strike, the antics of Paisley and his ilk for decades, resisted and opposed the idea of extending equality to Nationalists throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. All that, along with a one-sided security policy with its roots also in inequality helped to strengthen the view of many Nationalists that NI was not reformable and had to be brought down. That was, I believe, the basic driving force behind the Provos. And it is why their campaign won such widespread support and lasted so long. Until 1994 that is when the GFA was negotiated which set into stronger cement the demand for Nationalist equality. The Border never figured. Just because laws are passed does not mean they work.

      • Ed, I haven’t argued that Unionist resistance WASN’T a factor in PIRA recruitment. I think I have been quite clear in pointing out that it was a factor, my point was it wasn’t the ONLY factor – you made that claim, not me. In arguing on the lines you have chosen you have attempted to bastardise my points. I encourage you to read what I actually said and not what you think I said. I thought if I condensed it into a soundbite of ‘IRA the spark, civil rights issues the fuel’ it would be unmistakable what I meant, clearly not.
        Re above…
        …Again have over played the Unionist resistance hand. Fact, the NICRA called out marches because they felt O’Neill’s promised reforms represented progress. Fact, as shown in the link one man one vote was passed by the Stormont government, despite the kicking and screaming for a large number of loudmouths. The supposedly ‘irreformable’ state was in FACT reforming, and this is before direct rule and before the PIRA even existed.
        …Again you are harshly critical of the UWC against power sharing, despite the fact the PIRA were blowing the country to smithereens, and despite the fact that the PIRA also refused to take part on the power sharing arrangements. WHERE is the balance here?
        …Again you have overplayed the amount of discriminatory laws that actually existed or were resisted. Specifically what laws discriminated against Catholics Ed, name the laws? You say equality was resisted in the 70s, 80s and 90s, WHAT equality provisions were resisted Ed – since you are making that claim.
        …Again you have underplayed the differences in the educational choices between the two groups, the jobs that they qualified each group for, the effect of this on their wages and the effect of wages on economic prosperity and qualification for housing. Care to explain why this WASN’T a factor in the economic outcomes of the two groups?
        …Again you have ignored that the nationalists didn’t bother turning up to Stormont, and left the nationalist community (almost entirely catholic) without a voice which helped with their subsequent marginalisation and alienation. Do you think this DIDN’T contribute?
        You are unable to be fair and it’s a major flaw in your analysis of the Troubles. It is present throughout your book, with the repeated and grossly exaggerated claims of ‘apartheid’ which NI bore very little resemblance to NI.

      • yes, you’re absolutely right. there was never anything wrong with northern ireland except a bunch of ungrateful, violent, irreconcilable catholics whose bloodlust kept an unjustified conflict going.

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