Political violence must be unambiguously repudiated
Public discussion in the Republic in recent decades of this period has focused on the alternatives of Home Rule and the independence eventually secured as a result of events set in train by the Easter Rising (with the assumption of the superiority of the second).
What has not been faced is how much the latter trajectory reflected mere imitation of what some Northern Protestants had done – “The North began” was the title of the 1913 article by Eoin MacNeill which led to the formation of the Irish Volunteers and the gun-running to Howth was to follow – in a process of action and reaction of which entrenched partition could be the only outcome.
What has not been faced either is that human carnage on a vast scale was the common thread of these divided political pathways, whether in the executions after the Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War embodying the factionalism that follows all revolutions, or the Protestant pogroms that marked the foundation of the Northern state.
On the contrary, this bloody violence has been airbrushed from history in sepia “heroism”. The democratically elected leader of today’s main Protestant party, despite playing the civic role of First Minister, saw nothing wrong in patronising the sectarian parade celebrating the covenant, and indeed challenging the Parades Commission to remove itself from its democratically mandated role to place conditions on the manifestation.
Worse still, his Catholic counterpart can not yet see anything wrong with the paramilitary campaign in which he played a leading role in recent decades.
Ireland’s 20th-century history took little cognisance of the wider European context. In the first World War “England’s difficulty” was merely seen as “Ireland’s opportunity” for some, and the second World War registered not so much as a continent-wide struggle against fascism but as a domestic “emergency”.
As a result the great lesson of those slaughters, on a scale unprecedented in world history, was tragically never learned. After the last war, western Europe’s leaders said “never again” to the aggressive nationalism, xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism that had been embodied in Nazi Germany, by ensuring that such particularistic identity claims-pitching the Self against the ethnically stigmatised Other would always be trumped by the universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Symbolised by the establishment in 1949 of the Council of Europe to promote those norms, what had been the darkest continent on the globe in the first half of the century was turned for the next half into a haven of peace, besmirched only at its margins, in Northern Ireland, the Basque Country, Corsica and Cyprus.
For Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, the Northern Ireland “peace process” was defined by a realpolitik where moral considerations were entirely absent. But for as long as political leaders in the North and elsewhere continue to legitimise past violence, in defiance of norms now accepted as indeed universal, they will
not only give credence to those who take up the mantle today but ensure that reconciliation remains an ever-receding horizon.
* Dr Robin Wilson is author of The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export? (Manchester University Press)