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« IRA ends armed campaigns | Main | State of the blogosphere »

Ireland and Islamic extremism

Brian Cathcart

The events in Northern Ireland which reached a climax with the IRA’s renunciation of violence this week offer many lessons for those with responsibility for confronting Islamic extremism. Barring a calamity, a 35-year conflict in which 3,700 members of a small community lost their lives has come to an end, and if there can be a winner in such a sorry story, it is democracy.

Religion, ethnicity, nationalism and imperialism played their parts in the long argument, and history, geography, economics and demography were invoked many times. All have a familiar ring in today’s debates about Islamic extremism. Northern Ireland, located unequivocally in the developed world, served for decades as a case study, almost a laboratory experiment, in politics without consensus and in the handling of political violence.

What brought the “Troubles”, as they used to be known, to an end? Not military action, not the persistent violation of human rights by the state and not the mass marginalization or persecution of one community. It was dialogue, open-mindedness, flexibility and, where appropriate, firm principle. At times in the past dozen years it has seemed as though everyone was talking to everyone: the British government, Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Irish Republican Army), the Irish and US governments, the churches, the local political parties, the “loyalist” paramilitaries, Irish-Americans . . . the list was long.

And although the romantic appeal of a “united Ireland” could be strong, particularly outside the island itself, one vital principle was never abandoned: that the people of Northern Ireland retained the right to decide their own future. When asked, they always voted to remain part of the United Kingdom and today that is what they remain, all those bombs and bullets and broken bodies notwithstanding. Even those British governments which adopted the most wrong-headed approach to the region’s difficulties managed to respect that one principle, and for that they deserve some credit.

There were certainly mistakes along the way, and no one can claim an unblemished record. Imprisonment without trial, torture and clandestine killing probably added years to the conflict. Supposedly woolly-minded ideas like forgiveness, respect and “parity of esteem” shortened it.

The day I realised things were changing came in the early 1990s, when I heard the far-sighted John Hume, then leader of the moderate, mainly Catholic, nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, respond in a new way to what was by then an old question. There had been another horror, and he was asked if he would condemn it. He shook his head and remarked that there was no merit in “the politics of the latest atrocity”.

It was when people on all sides learned that lesson, learned to keep their heads and to avoid engagement with the self-fuelling cycle of grievance, that a political solution became possible.

It was a cliché of living in Northern Ireland, and of writing about it, that despite all the headlines and the bloodshed, for most people life just went on. Indeed many parts of society thrived. This was not heroism or stoicism but reality: they went on working, shopping, playing, educating their children and mowing their lawns. At any given time, most people came to see, their chance of being a victim of violence was smaller than their chance of being knocked down in the road by a car.

There is a lesson there too. Democratic societies are far stronger than we give them credit for – did even 9/11 stop the United States functioning as a society? – and they need not, should not flee from their values when challenged by bombers. Indeed, even as we in the west confront a weapon the IRA never employed, the suicide bomber, we should remember that in its time democracy has survived far, far worse.

July 29, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

This is very helpful. As a complete outsider who on very few occasions visited Norther Ireland I was struck by what seemed to me a paradox that might also have lessons for today (and, alas, tomorrow)in the new 'war on terrorism'.

The Good Friday Agreement struck me as an admirable document, multinational, principled and democractic. It also seemed to me a significant success for the Protestant majority in the North of Ireland and a defeat for the hard men of the IRA. After all, it secured the future of Northern Ireland as being in the hands of its majority and drew IRA supporters into the government of part of the United Kingdom, which they abhorred.

Why then did it seem to be a victory of the IRA and a defeat for the Protestants - in the way they talked about it and then acted?

The important thing was that after various appalling errors that Brian mentions, the British did set about dismantling the justifed grievances of the Catholic community, the discrimination that existed and the undemocratic subordination to which they were subjected. Without this the 'armed struggle' would never have stopped. It took much of the wind out of the Catholic grievances. It showed them that there was an open political process available to them fairly, or at least as fairly as anyone could expect.

The lesson here is that is it essential to remove the injustices suffered by the Palestinians and outrages like Guantanemo Bay in any fight against modern Islamic-inspired terrorism. It is NOT that they are its cause or its justification. But real grievances act as recruiting sergants.

But why did the Protestants feel they lost even when the armed Catholics accepted the parliamentary road? Could it be because, psychologically, they really did want to dominate the Catholics: that their varient of British nationalism was deeply bound up with their supremacy and its demonstration?

If so a question follows about the United States. It says it wants democracy all around the world. Inevitably, this will reduce it to one nation among others. What if its vision of itself is as the giver and arbiter of democracy? What if, for Washington, 'democracy' is an expression of its supremacy not an acceptance of the need for equality and rights?

If so, then even when the cause is won, it will lose.

Posted by: Anthony Barnett | 31 Jul 2005 22:41:08

It's been the case throughout modern Irish history that the majority leadership of nationalism has been prepared to settle for equality within a British framework.
Time and again, it has been unionism that has scuppered that prospect.
It was the UVF revolt against Home Rule in 1912 that prepared the way for the 1916 Rising.
In the 1960s, it was the repression of the civil rights movement, with its demand for 'British rights for British citizens' that paved the way for the rise of the Provisional IRA.
In 1974, it was the opposition of unionists rather than that of the IRA that brought down the Sunningdale Agreement.
Likewise, the main opposition to the Good Friday Agreement has been from within unionism.
The pattern is well established. the real question is why. I'm not sure psychology alone is really a satisfactory explanation, although it's what many nationalists would subscribe to.
I think in spite of political guarantees and apparently favourable demographics, it is down to the insecurity of their position within the UK.
They are caught in a catch-22. If they refuse to offer nationalists equality, they destabilise and delegitimise the British state in Ireland.
However, they fear that if they do offer equality, nationalists will use every opportunity to hollow out the British state.
The dilemma was well illustrated by what is probaly the most notworthy unionist response to the IRA statement, that of Frank Millar of the Irish Times:
http://www.nuzhound.com/articles/irish_times/arts2005/jul30_great_result_or_deception__FMillar.php

Posted by: Tom Griffin | 4 Aug 2005 14:16:08

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