Political violence must be unambiguously repudiated
OPINION:In 1974, the Achilles Heel of the power-sharing executive in the North was the North-South arrangements, against which an unconstitutional Protestant strike was to bring the executive down. While the institutions arising from the Belfast Agreement eventually collapsed in 2002, they were restored under new conditions after the St Andrews agreement of 2006, entrenching mutual sectarian vetoes. And, since 2007, they have appeared stable and secure.
But they, too, have a point of vulnerability. North-South collaboration today shows how ideological were the stances taken in 1974 against the removal of the Republic’s territorial claim over the North and in support of a baroque Council of Ireland as a putative half-way house to a unitary state. The trouble today, however, is the past.
Orwell famously said he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future. That’s why there is so much at stake in the struggle to control the meaning of the third Home Rule crisis, a century on.
This month’s centenary is of the establishment by the Ulster Unionist Council – forerunner of the Ulster Unionist Party which governed the breakaway Northern Ireland as a one-party monopoly – of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, following a year of public drilling.
With members of the imitation UVF, reformed as a precipitating agent to the “Troubles” in the mid-1960s, involved in the recent violent protests against the regulated flying of the union flag, the organisation will over the weeks ahead be keen to burnish its historical credentials.
The formalisation of the UVF was the sequel to the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant against Home Rule four months earlier. The covenant had spoken the language of citizenship and resonated with the broad mass of Ulster Protestants – nearly half a million signed it – fearful that Home Rule would undermine their socio-economic standing as well as subjecting them to a Catholic political majority in Ireland.
It is now clear that they had a case: living standards in the South after partition never did catch up with those in the UK until the Celtic Tiger, and the role of the church in institutional abuse of children and single parents has now been fully brought to light. But in eliding Protestantism with the citizens of “Ulster”, the covenant foreshadowed the “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people” which institutionalised discrimination and oppression of the Catholic community in the Northern state.
Worse even than that, the covenant wilfully misrepresented the democratic decision by the UK parliament – to which all Irish men (but not women) qualifying for the pre-1918 franchise could send representatives – to introduce a Home Rule Bill for the third time in 1912. It darkly threatened resort to “all means which may be found necessary” to defeat what it labelled this “conspiracy”.
The covenant was thus to give credence to the launch of the UVF in a poisonous political atmosphere in which elected Protestant leaders such as Edward Carson and James Craig – and their British Tory allies including the party leader, Bonar Law – were unabashed about patronising anti-democratic revolt against the Liberal government at Westminster.
Gun-running to Larne and the Curragh mutiny of British army officers in 1914 elaborated this constitutional subversion.
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)