Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar mourns for Lyra McKee on the steps of Government Buildings in Dublin on Friday
Last October, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar presented European leaders in Brussels with a copy of The Irish Times from 1972 to bolster his claim that a hard Brexit would or could re-ignite the Northern Troubles.
The paper featured a story on an IRA bombing of a customs station in Newry, Co. Down in August of that year which went badly wrong. The device detonated prematurely, killing nine people, three of them the bombers, the other six being civilians or customs officers.
To borrow a phrase, the Taoiseach’s ploy was the opening shot in an Irish government campaign which was intended to persuade – and alarm – European and American allies that a hard Irish Border of the sort envisaged by the British government’s Brexit plans could re-ignite the Troubles.
It was at best a deeply flawed argument. The 1968-1998 Troubles in the North were never about Border customs posts. The 1956-62 IRA campaign maybe, but look what happened to that.
No, the roots of the violence which were to plague Northern Ireland for the final three decades of the last century lay miles away, in the back streets of the Falls Road and Ardoyne or in the Creggan and Bogside, where anger at British Army and RUC violence drove scores of young men and women into the IRA.
They didn’t join the IRA because a customs officer could stop them and ask for identification but because a British squaddie shot their neighbor, or a RUC man called them ‘Fenian bastards’ and batoned them to the ground.
Lyra McKee – killed against a background of Brexit alarmism from Dublin
Nonetheless it is not difficult to see why it has suited the Irish government to pretend otherwise, especially to sympathetic ears in Europe. After all a hard Border would be an economic disaster for the Southern economy but who, outside the island and a few friends in Strasbourg, could really get agitated about that?
On the other hand a collapse of the peace in Northern Ireland, the threat that the island could be plunged once more into bloodshed was a horse of a different color. And both Europe and the United States had heavily invested in the project; they were part owners of the peace.
And so the Taoiseach and his ministers decided to play what was, for want of a better phrase, the Provo card, invoking the spectre of the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement and a slide back into the bad old days of violence.
It was not a hard sell. It had been two decades or more since the Troubles ended and journalists dispatched to cover the story from around the world were hopelessly ignorant of the complex roots of the Troubles; they were ripe for the sort of simple narrative the Irish government had prepared.
It was an undemanding version of history, easy to understand, even easier to write or broadcast: the Troubles would never have happened but for the Border, but the peace and EU membership had made it more or less invisible. Reversing that was bound to be a recipe for disaster. Q.E.D. a hard Border meant bad trouble.
You can bet that foreign politicians and journalists were not the only people listening to this beguiling message. The dissident republican groups also have ears and eyes and could appreciate that what the Taoiseach, his ministers and the media were predicting was good news for them.
Suddenly they were important and relevant again, qualities that had eluded them since Omagh.
In these circumstances you could hardly blame the dissident leaders for thinking that at long last their day might have come. Or even for believing that there might be elements in the Dublin establishment who would not be averse to some pre-Brexit flexing of muscles on their part – like a recent bomb in central Derry followed by last week’s Creggan riots – to reinforce the Taoiseach’s message that it could be much worse once a hard Border was in place.
Doubtless the Dublin political establishment would be scandalised at the suggestion but this, undeniably, was the background to the riots that led to the death of Lyra McKee.
Few would go so far as to suggest that Leo Varadkar and his colleagues have Lyra’s blood on their hands but it would be interesting to know how well they slept when news of her murder came through.
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