What is going on in Northern Ireland?

Many of my students and colleagues have been asking me some version of the question, “What the heck is going on in Northern Ireland?” As the only Ireland expert that anyone knows, I find myself giving a mini lecture on Irish history on a semi-regular basis since the murder of Lyra McKee in Derry a few weeks ago. So here now is my answer to that broad question, with necessary context and definitions of key players.

The short answer: The “New Irish Republican Army” accidentally killed a journalist named Lyra McKee in an attempt to kill police officers who they see as agents of the colonial British state in Ireland. The New IRA claims to be engaged in the latest incarnation of the decades (or centuries) old “armed struggle” to force the British off the island of Ireland. In addition, Northern Ireland’s devolved government hasn’t operated in over two years, and so elected officials have no ability to take action and attempt to alleviate the pervasive poverty in (London)Derry that fuels perceptions–real or imagined–of inequality that lead young men to join the paramilitary organization in the first place. All of this has been happening with Brexit looming in the background, and with it, the unresolved question of the place of Northern Ireland within the UK and/or the European Union. The Brexit factor has certainly exacerbated anxieties in Northern Ireland.

The much, much longer answer:

In 1916, seeing an opportunity to strike against the British while they were preoccupied with World War I, a group of Irish nationalists occupied various locations in Dublin and proclaimed the independence of Poblacht na hEireann–the Republic of Ireland. The leaders of the Easter Rising, including the poet Patrick Pearse and the socialist leader James Connolly, imagined that the rest of Ireland would rise along with them, and vanquish the hated colonial power from the island. That did not happen–at least not in 1916. Still, the British government made the ill-advised decision to execute 14 of the Easter rebels over the course of a few days in May 1916. The executions were reviled by the Irish people, particularly the killing of James Connolly, who was already wounded and reportedly had to be strapped to a chair so the firing squad could shoot him. The executions famously altered public opinion in favor of the rebels–who were sometimes referred to as “Sinn Féiners,” associated with the political party of that name that had been founded by Arthur Griffith about a decade earlier.

In 1918, Sinn Féin (“ourselves”) won an overwhelming majority of the Irish seats in the UK parliament. Instead of taking their seats at Westminster, they instead declared themselves to be Dáil Éireann, the rightful government of the Republic of Ireland that had been proclaimed during Easter Week in 1916. The Irish Volunteers–in Irish, Oglaigh na hEireann–then fought a War for Independence against the British, and in a controversial treaty signed by Michael Collins, Ireland was given a good measure of independence as the Irish Free State (Saorstat Eireann). But, because there was a Protestant majority in six counties of Ulster, Britain carved that land out as Northern Ireland, which remains to this day part of the United Kingdom.

The Irish then turned against each other and fought a Civil War over the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Anti-Treaty forces–the Irregulars–didn’t like the idea of partition. But, many people erroneously believe that partition was the sticking point in the Treaty. In reality, the major sticking point for the Irregulars was the requirement that members of Dáil Éireann continue to swear an oath of allegiance to the British government. The oath was the problem, not the partition–at least when the Irish Civil War was fought. Eventually, the Irregulars lost and a few years later, the new political party, Fianna Fáil, led by Eamon de Valera, entered government and in 1932, that party held a majority in the Dáil. The 26 Counties of the Free State more or less operated peacefully after this largely uneventful handing over of power.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland…..

The IRA that rose “out of the ashes” in the 1960s claimed to have allegiance to the Second Dáil that included all 32 counties of Ireland. As the name suggests, the paramilitary claimed to be the army of the real Republic of Ireland as proclaimed by Pearse during Easter Week 1916. This IRA became known as the Provisional IRA or simply the Provos, and they engaged in an “armed struggle” (their parlance) until the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. Approximately 3,500 people were killed, and bombs caused billions of dollars worth of damage.

There were several attempts at peace agreements before 1998, including the Sunningdale Agreement in the early 1970s and the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the mid-1980s. By the time the latter agreement was signed, the IRA had expanded into politics in the form of a rejuvenated Sinn Féin, which has often been labeled the “political wing of the IRA.” What that means in practice: the membership in both organizations, upon the emergence of Sinn Féin as an electoral force in the early 1980s, was nearly identical. It is widely understood that in order to garner the respect of Irish Republicans, candidates for office were also members of the Provos. Indeed, this was the birth of the so-called “armalite and ballot box” strategy for ejecting the British from Northern Ireland and unifying/re-unifying the island.

So how did we arrive at the Good Friday Agreement? Bill Clinton took a keen interest in Northern Ireland, and sent Senator George Mitchell to help broker a peace agreement with the support of all parties to the conflict. The major players from Northern Ireland were John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). These men did not represent the paramilitaries, but they did represent majorities of nationalists and Unionists, respectively. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) did not support the final agreement (still doesn’t), while Sinn Féin ultimately did. Keep in mind that the majority of nationalists in Northern Ireland never supported the armed struggle, although if they were smart, they generally kept their mouths shut.

The major provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are:

  1. Irish (re)unification will happen with the consent of majorities, via referendum, on both sides of the border. The British government and Irish government agreed to honor referendum results.
  2. Established a consociational government with a joint ministry, known as the Northern Ireland Assembly, composed of 90 (originally 108) MLAs.
  3. Elections would use proportional representation with single transferable vote in order to fairly represent both communities in the Assembly.
  4. North-South Ministerial Council was established.
  5. British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Governmental Conference were both established.
  6. Decommissioning of paramilitary weapons was required, to be verified by an independent observer (eventually General John de Chastelain of Canada).
  7. Commission on Policing was created – transformed the Royal Ulster Constabulary into the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Some minor provisions:

  1. “Tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity,” in particular for English, Irish, and Ulster-Scots.
  2. Expedited release of paramilitary prisoners from both sides of the political divide.

Not included in the Agreement: a truth commission on the model of the famous one in South Africa. There is still much we don’t know about crimes committed during the Troubles.

The Northern Ireland Assembly didn’t get up and running immediately after signing the agreement. There was a considerable lack of mutual trust, especially with regard to the decommissioning of weapons, which held up the actual functioning of the government. One of the major obstacles to the functioning of the Assembly was the polarization of politics in the aftermath of the referendum that approved the Agreement. Unionists became increasingly distrustful of any agreement supported by nationalists and Republicans–and in particular, they foresee that Catholics will eventually “out breed” Protestants, and thus, Unionists’ calculated that via the Agreement, they will eventually “lose.” As the DUP gained popularity, so did Sinn Féin, and these two extreme parties eclipsed the power of the SDLP and UUP, the parties responsible for the agreement in the first place. Ian Paisley, founder of the DUP and head of the Free Presbyterian Church, was militantly opposed to going into government with Sinn Féin.

Another agreement, known as the St. Andrew’s Agreement, was signed in 2006 and finally compelled Paisley, First Minister, to jointly govern with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin (also a well-known veteran of the Provisional IRA). Incidentally, despite all of the years of animosity, Paisley and McGuinness turned out to enjoy each other’s company, and they were frequently photographed having a laugh together.

As peace reigned in Northern Ireland, outside investment and tourism increased, yet tensions were always simmering below the surface. It seems today that it was perhaps the personal chemistry between Paisley and McGuinness that helped Stormont function for years. But, Ian Paisley died in 2014, and he was replaced as First Minister by Arlene Foster, also of the DUP. Foster got caught up in a scandal surrounding the mismanagement of a program known as “Cash for Ash,” which cost the government £480 million. As a result of this scandal, and of disagreements related to the place of the Irish language in Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister in January 2017 (and he died in March of that year), and Sinn Féin did not replace him. Because the power-sharing arrangement cannot function with only one side in the premiership, the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed and is still not operating, almost 2.5 years later.

Why the hell not? The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland called a general election for March 2017, and the vote returned the DUP as the largest party with 28 seats, but Sinn Féin had 27–a near tie. The parties had three weeks to reach a power-sharing deal, but they failed to come to an agreement. Since then, talks have occurred sporadically. Attempts to create a functioning Assembly hit a massive roadblock when details of a plan to give the Irish language an official place in Northern Ireland were leaked to the public, and the rank and file supporters of the DUP vocally and fervently opposed any such move. Sinn Féin has also strenuously objected to the DUP’s refusal to allow marriage equality and abortion rights in Northern Ireland–even though the rest of Britain and the Republic of Ireland allow both.

In my view, this is a massively hypocritical stance from the DUP. The party objects to giving the Irish language parity with English because they believe this would erode the Britishness of Northern Ireland. Yet, in the rest of Britain, abortion and same-sex marriage are legal. How can the party really claim to be British when it rejects many of the mainstream freedoms valued by mainland Britain?

In addition, these stances are quite ironic. In decades past, Unionists opposed joining the Republic of Ireland because “Home Rule is Rome Rule.”  In other words, Unionists–Protestants–feared that joining the Republic of Ireland would mean that the Pope was the “real” head of state, and that the Taoiseach and Dáil Éireann would follow Catholic policies. Yet, the Republic of Ireland’s values are more in line with Britain: marriage equality was added to the Irish Constitution via referendum, and in 2018 another referendum legalized abortion. The Catholic church opposes both of these policies. The Republic of Ireland has moved on; it has evolved into a socially liberal, modern state. [Though a prominent Unionist politician said to me on Twitter recently, “No, now ‘home rule’ is Brussels rule’–a supporter of Brexit, obviously.]

Northern Ireland lags behind. Sinn Féin is pushing for liberalizing reforms; the DUP is opposing them. But don’t misunderstand me: I also think that Sinn Féin’s motives are not always transparent, and it would also be a nice gesture if they would apologize on behalf of the Provos for some of the more gruesome atrocities of the Troubles.

So the question then becomes: How much will adding language parity in Northern Ireland–i.e., making Irish a co-official language with English–actually erode British identity for those who claim it? The answer is really “not at all.” No one would be compelled to speak Irish. Unionists can continue to speak English loudly and proudly. Few people, even in the Republic of Ireland, speak Irish as their primary language.

This battle is purely symbolic. Making Irish an official language makes Northern Ireland more Irish in the eyes of Unionists. Is this a zero-sum game? Does “more Irish” equate with “less British”? And, in fact, will legally adding Irish as an official language lead more people to speak it? I doubt this as well. I’m not so naive as to label this a meaningless fight–but such disagreements are preventing the Assembly from bringing infrastructure and prosperity to people who desperately need it, as per the impoverished residents of Creggan in Derry–the same place where joining the New IRA brings meaning to the lives of unemployed young men, and where Lyra McKee was murdered during a riot. And while the DUP opposed powersharing in the past, and might actually prefer direct rule from Westminster in the form of the Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley, the Secretary is incompetent, which adds an extra fun layer of complication to this story.

As I write this, new talks are happening, with Arlene Foster as head of the DUP and Mary Lou McDonald as head of Sinn Féin. They were able to agree that the murder of Lyra McKee was abhorrent and intolerable. But thus far it seems the language problem-or “equality” per Sinn Féin is still a sticking point.

And yet, thousands of people from Northern Ireland are seeking Republic of Ireland passports for the first time as a result of Brexit. Many of these people must be Protestants who identify as Unionists, but want the benefits of EU membership. People in Northern Ireland are anxious and hungry for a resolution to the problems of the Assembly and their fate after the UK Brexits. It seems right now that Éire and the UK are going to make a separate deal to give people essentially borderless travel rights between the two countries.

Anxiety and nationalism–and Unionism/Loyalism is a form of nationalism–are a potent brew. Let us all pray that the peace can hold. We do not want a repeat of the violence that resulted in the murder of Lyra McKee.