Fiftieth Anniversary of the Provisional IRA

If you look around, you might notice that the Irish seem to be everywhere today. As someone who has spent her entire adult life studying the history and politics of this small island in the north Atlantic, I can’t help noticing the ads on Netflix for the popular series Derry Girls about five teenagers living in the midst of political violence in Northern Ireland. In 2018, an Irish author, Anna Burns, won the prestigious Booker Prize. U2 is on tour again almost 40 years after the release of their first album. 

As a historian, I ask you to pay attention to the date. December marks the 50th anniversary of the advent of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). It comes as the drama of Brexit has stoked tension in Northern Ireland, which may result in renewed political violence. As a result, this occasion is an apt time at which to look back on the legacy of the IRA’s nearly 30-year “armed struggle” to force the British government off the island of Ireland. During this period, euphemistically known as the Troubles, over 3,500 people lost their lives to violence. 

Today, as our thoughts turn toward this anniversary, we should also take note of a troubling trend: the rewriting of history for personal and political ends. I have spent a great deal of time considering the question: what, if anything, did the IRA accomplish? An honest appraisal of the IRA must conclude that the paramilitary failed to achieve its goal, and Sinn Féin’s leaders have rewritten history in an effort to bolster the political fortunes of its leaders. 

The Provisional IRA emerged in December 1969 in order to defend the Catholic/nationalist community against repeated assaults by the forces of the British government and by loyalist citizens. Catholics were an oppressed class in Northern Ireland, a state that had been carved out of the island in 1920 in order to institutionalize a Protestant majority that would have been a small minority in a 32-county Irish republic. But the defensive modus operandi soon changed to an offensive strategy.

IRA leaders believed that a blitz of violence and destruction would break the resolve of the British government and it would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What was supposed to be a short “war,” however, turned into a decades-long “armed struggle” of attacks and reprisals. Britain accidentally stoked IRA membership by committing a series of inexcusable assaults on the nationalist community including “Operation Demitrius” in 1971, in which 342 Catholics were arrested and interned without trial, and “Bloody Sunday, 30 Jan. 1972, when paratroopers killed 14 unarmed protesters in Derry. On the IRA’s part, on Bloody Friday, 21 July 1972, the paramilitary set off 22 bombs in Belfast, killing nine people and injuring 130. On 23 Oct. 1993, an IRA bomb in the heart of Protestant West Belfast killed 10 people and injured dozens more. These atrocities are only a small sampling of the brutality of the Troubles.

The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 ended the Troubles and came as a relief to a country that was weary of funerals and fear. With the tireless help of US Senator George Mitchell, the leaders of the two largest political parties in Northern Ireland, David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), forged an agreement to share power, foster equality, and establish consent as the only means through which the British would withdraw from Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin, then the political wing of the IRA, signed on to the Agreement, including the requirement that the IRA decommission its weapons. The “war” was over, and the IRA had not achieved its stated goal.

Then the rewriting of history began.

Gerry Adams and his supporters have promoted a story in which he is the hero of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Adams became president of Sinn Féin in 1983, at which time he is widely believed to have also been a leading member of the IRA’s ruling Army Council, although he denies all accusations of IRA membership. Adams argues that the IRA’s campaign made the GFA possible, and so, paradoxically, the relative peace in Northern Ireland exists because of IRA violence. From this perspective, the story goes, Adams persuaded the IRA–of which he was not a member–to end its war and support constitutional politics. This storyline was so successful that Sinn Féin quickly eclipsed the SDLP as the most powerful political voice of Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland. Martin McGuinness, a former IRA leader, became Deputy First Minister in a power-sharing government. Irish-American publisher Niall O’Dowd has compared Gerry Adams with Nelson Mandela.

This interpretation of the history of Northern Ireland is a deliberate distortion. In December 1973, the Sunningdale Agreement offered terms that were similar to the GFA–prompting SDLP leader Seamus Mallon to remark that the Agreement was “Sunningdale for slow learners.” A comparison of Sunningdale and the GFA shows that the IRA’s campaign did not make substantive gains for the cause after December 1973, contradicting justifications for violence after this date. In addition, Trimble and Hume were the architects of the peace process, not Adams, yet their names have nearly vanished from the contemporary narrative, demonstrating Sinn Féin’s successful rewriting of history. 

Plus, empirical evidence corroborates the claim that Adams was an IRA member. In 1972 he and three other IRA members flew to Britain to hold talks with William Whitelaw, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Why would Whitelaw engage with three bona fide IRA members plus one noncombatant? Also, writing as “Brownie” in Republican News, Adams stated in May 1976, “Rightly or wrongly, I’m an IRA volunteer.” Adams acted on behalf of the IRA in a time in which he did not foresee the political power that he would later attain–power that demands that he deny his role in paramilitary violence in order to support his image as a statesman.

Despite Sinn Féin’s claims to the contrary, if Irish unity is a tangible possibility today, that has little–if anything–to do with IRA violence. Demographic changes and economic aftershocks of Brexit might shift the scales. Importantly, too, Sinn Féin has changed its policies to embrace abortion rights, marriage equality, and the European Union: these issues cut across lines of national identity and align with policies in the Republic of Ireland. So, Sinn Féin also has the potential to convince socially liberal unionists that they will be more free and more equal in a united Ireland. None of these changes was incumbent upon 30 years of anti-state and sectarian violence. 

Sinn Féin’s evidence-free “revision” of the history of the IRA exemplifies how political actors can  exploit the past for their own ends. Manipulating history in this way, especially when the people doing so are famous and powerful, will distort the record for future generations of scholars and obscure the truth about pivotal events. More immediately, though, the manipulation of history is a form of lying; and support garnered through falsehoods is unearned. 

This problem highlights the importance of the professional practice of history. We live in an age in which powerful people deride verifiable facts as “fake news” and technology renders the filtering of truth from fiction difficult even for savvy consumers of media. By documenting the past and emphasizing the role of historical methods, historians can begin to blunt the use of history in the service of nakedly political goals, and promote the notion that a fact is not “fake” simply because it disproves a more appealing story. Historians often disagree about interpretations of facts, but we do not debate the facts themselves. If facts become legitimate topics for disagreement, then knowledge itself will become a quaint notion of a bygone Age of Enlightenment and powerful people will freely manipulate reality in pursuit of selfish ends. By telling people that they are repeating baseless lies, we can stop the illusion of truth that seems to lie in repetition.  Instead, I urge you to embrace facts as weapons in defense of a common reality.

The New York Times Spends “36 Hours in Dublin”

In this Sunday’s “Travel” section of the New York Times, the writers detail what to do with 36 hours in Ireland’s capital city.

The author really looked for things to do in Dublin, although I wouldn’t make the same choices if you only have 36 hours to spend. Some of the itinerary deserves praise: devoting time to learning real history of the country in places like Kilmainham Gaol and Glasnevin Cemetery are great ways to spend part of your day. Both of those historical locations offer tours with knowledgeable guides who can answer questions. This summer, when I took my husband to Glasnevin, our guide, Bridget, answered my question, “Where is Kitty O’Shea buried?” Her answer was more than the location of Charles Stewart Parnell’s mistress, and later his wife and widow. While she is frequently referred to as Kitty in historical literature, the tour guide told me that the famous woman preferred to be called Katherine. A good piece of information indeed!

Inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. I took this photo about 10 years ago. It’s really beautiful, isn’t it?

If you enjoy literature and beautiful cathedrals, go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Jonathan Swift was once the dean, and where he is buried with his beloved Stella. Also, remember to read “A Modest Proposal” and “Gulliver’s Travels.” And if you like theatre, the Abbey Theatre is the national theatre of Ireland, and they do wonderful productions. Get ticket in advance.

I would have made different food choices. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I love the Rolling Donut stand on O’Connell Street (at the corner of Abbey Street), despite fancier donut options only a few streets away. Murphy’s Ice Cream is wonderful: brown bread ice cream with raspberry sorbet tastes like brown bread with jam and is divine and not too heavy. And, of course, there is a wonderful Italian restaurant in Dublin right off of Dawson Street called Carluccio’s – still the best focaccia bread I’ve ever had! (Around the corner is Ulysses Rare Books, a shop that specializes in first editions of Irish books. Bring a credit card if you want to buy anything…not cheap.) To be fair, I’m a vegetarian so a lot of traditional Irish pub fare isn’t my thing. You might take the recommendations of the New York Times if you want to eat fish and chips or any manner of dead animal.

Fashion. Here’s where I really disagree with the New York Times. If you want some hip fashion that you can’t get anywhere else, go to Om Diva, for the love of everything holy. This store has several floors of clothing by independent Irish designers. The offerings change constantly, but they do offer clothing by one of my favorite young designers, Orla Langan. And if you want more upscale clothing designed and made in Ireland, obviously you must go to the studio of Jennifer Rothwell. She’s my favorite designer, of any country, as I love her vibrant prints with colors that make you strut like a peacock (paycock?).


A photo from Jennifer Rothwell’s “Magical Forest” collection. Photo from

If you have time, stop in to see what’s on at the Irish Film Institute, which has a decent restaurant and bar. The IFI runs a lot of independent Irish films, as well as classics and indie films from all over the world. I fondly remember seeing “Sing Street” at the IFI when I was living in Dublin a few years ago.

Still, I’m grateful that the paper of record didn’t recommend the Guinness Store House (terrible waste of time and money) or the Jameson Distillery (likewise). I don’t drink much whiskey, or much alcohol in general, but Teeling’s Whiskey is a better stop than either of these. Though personally, if you want some really good Irish whiskey at a reasonable price, pop your head into the Irish Whiskey Shop on Dawson Street and pick up a bottle of Writer’s Tears. This smooth, tasty “strong water” is produced by Walsh Whiskey down in Carlow, so strictly speaking you can’t to go the distillery if you’re spending 36 house in Dublin, but you can definitely buy it. It’s better than Teeling’s.

I think it’s worth getting outside of Dublin if you visit Ireland, and seeing the beautiful country. Maybe take a walk in mountains at Glendalough (Wicklow Mountains National Park), or see some of the scenery in Gougane Barra, Co. Cork, including the tiny stone houses carved into the hills in which monks once lived. Hike the Ring of Kerry, go up to Dingle, and of course the Cliffs of Moher are stunning. And don’t neglect the North: few sites in your life will be more impressive than the Giant’s Causeway–and you can even stop at Bushmill’s Distillery on your way there (or your way back), which is the best whiskey tour in Ireland. And have a pint at Kelly’s Cellars in Belfast city centre, which does a great pint of Guinness and a fantastic pickled egg.

Book Review: “A Short History of Ireland” by John Gibney

On my recent trip to Dublin, I loaded up on Irish history books that one generally can’t find in the United States outside the realm of Amazon, which I’m trying to use less often. The pile of books significantly increased the poundage of our luggage, but I always find it worth the effort. Also, the Butler’s chocolates contributed to the heft.

One of the books I picked up was John Gibney’s recent survey A Short History of Ireland 1500-2000.

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This book is a solid introduction to the politics and economics of Ireland, particularly as they relate to religion and Ireland’s relationship with England/Britain. Gibney begins with the Tudor era and control that powerful Gaelic-Irish men had over large areas of the island. He covers the impact of the English Reformation, especially how religion divided the Gaelic Irish from the English who settled there. He goes on to explain the Plantation of Ulster, the so-called Glorious Revolution, the emergence of an Irish identity in the 1700s, the Famine and the fight for Home Rule, and of course the major events of the Twentieth Century, especially the Easter Rising and War for Independence. Gibney definitely hits the highlights of the past 500 years of Irish history.

He doesn’t go into depth on any of these issues, so this book isn’t for seasoned scholars of Ireland. But, if you have an emerging interest in Irish history, you can definitely get a feel for the path that Ireland has taken in modern history (if we consider modern from about the year 1500, or at the earliest the beginning of the Renaissance about 100 years earlier). Gibney addresses a lot of issues that will have curious readers thinking, “I want to know more about that!” I really think he gave short shrift to Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, who towered over the first half of the 1800s in Ireland. O’Connell was a remarkable figure in Irish history, and he had an impact on people around the world, too–a fact that is not at all clear in this volume.

Still, the book left me with some questions that I now want to explore further. For example, Gibney writes, “…the period of economic growth in the later 1960s became a time of considerable educational reform, with a great emphasis on modernising an outdated system and making it as widely accessible as possible” (223). But, he doesn’t tell us what it meant to “modernize” the Irish educational system, and he does note that it was still dominated by the Catholic church. I’m eager to know how the system changed.

The author makes a claim that in 1966, “the [fiftieth] anniversary of the rising was also an opportunity to articulate a critique of a state that, for many, was an abject failure when judged by the benchmark of the principles of the rising (at least as contained in the famous proclamation)” (224). While it is true that Pearse’s proclamation of Poblacht na hÉireann offered “equal rights and equal opportunities to all [Ireland’s] citizens,” the Proclamation said little about the vision for a sovereign Irish republic. I think this is an important point that Gibney leaves out of his analysis–there was no clearly articulated vision for an Ireland free of British rule.

As a former history teacher, I appreciate that this book includes short sections titled “Where Historians Disagree” at the end of each chapter. These short sections give a lay audience a basic understanding of what historians do, and the concept of historiography. I wish more history books that are written for a lay audience would in some fashion teach the reader that history is not merely “what happened in the past.” A popular falsehood propagated in some circles (notably by is that the Famine was a genocide, and I’m glad that Gibney asserts that no serious scholar of Ireland would make that claim. He also notes differences in opinions among historians about the extent and nature of sectarian violence and discrimination in both Éire and Northern Ireland.

Gibney’s book fails in one key respect: its treatment of women in Irish history. Indeed, at the end of his book, Gibney refers to women’s history as “niche.” And my blood pressure spiked 20 points.  Niche? Really? I suppose if one is still inclined to follow the archaic “add women and stir” approach to women’s history, then it makes some more sense to omit women from this text. But that approach has been vanquished for a good reason–women are not somehow separate from history; they are an integral part of every era. In particular, Gibney should have discussed the role of women in the Protestant Reformation in Ireland (or their role in resisting it). Women have historically been guardians of the faith in many religions, and surely their part was relevant here. Thus, a better understanding of this book is “A Short Political History of Ireland,” as politics and the relationship between Ireland and Britain are the main focuses–and women were left out of formal politics until the mid-1900s.

So, if you have a burgeoning interest in Irish history, this book is a solid place to start. Just be sure to make notes along the way of topics you want to learn more about.

Reflections on my recent trip to Éire

Returning to the United States from Ireland is always difficult, because I immediately miss the beautiful scenery, mellifluous speech, and friendly people of Dublin. This time, returning was particularly painful because the first news we heard about upon disembarking from our flight to Newark was that two mass shootings had occurred in under twenty-four hours. And we wanted to turn around and hop on the next flight back to Dublin. This trip that began in Norway and ended in Dublin was our honeymoon, and we have babies on our brains. We can’ t help thinking about where we want our children to grow up: in Donald Trump’s violent and hateful America, or in a more civilized country such as Ireland or Norway?

My husband, Chris, remarked after watching 12 days of European news coverage, “Wow, no one here challenges the fact of climate change that is caused by humans.” He is, of course, correct. Norway is particularly concerned with global warming and pollution–and rightly so. Norway’s natural beauty is unmatched by anything I’ve ever seen. The stunning clear water of the fjords that reflects the mountains that grow out of the earth; the delicious cheese that derives from the humanely-treated goats and sheep that roam the mountains, freely grazing on grasses and plants that grow in the wild. And on these issues, Ireland is much the same. On our drive up to Belfast, we heard the faint mooing of happy cows, and indeed we saw a few goats as well.

In Norway and in Ireland, we realized, capitalism and freedom aren’t viewed as synonyms. People don’t want to abuse nature in order to maximize their profits–or if they do, there are widespread and powerful forces to restrain these perverse desires. Does the goat cheese in Norway and Ireland taste better because it’s made from the milk of happy goats who are free to be goats and enjoy nature? I think it does.

I hadn’t been to Ireland since the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising in March of 2016, but I hadn’t been to Belfast since May 2011. Dublin remains largely the same in character, with maybe a few more trendy shops. But despite the proliferation of high-end donut joints, my favorites still remain the Rolling Donut stand on O’Connell Street. Om Diva still showcases young Irish designers; as much as I wanted to, I didn’t have the opportunity to venture out to Jennifer Rothwell’s shop, now that it’s no longer at Powerscourt. (You should go, though, if you’re in Dublin!)

This time, I had the opportunity to see some of Ireland through my husband’s eyes. I dragged him to a tour of Glasnevin Cemetery, where many of Ireland’s great leaders and rebels are buried. Our tour guide, Bridget, seems to have fallen in love with Daniel O’Connell, and through her eyes Chris was utterly impressed with the brilliance of the Liberator. Bridget clearly cared less for Charles Stewart Parnell, almost taking on the view of the anti-Parnellites who were so offended by his affair with Kitty O’Shea that they repudiated his leadership because of his “immorality.”

She also had undue reverence for Éamon de Valera. Dev had some great moments in Irish history, and he was surely a great leader of the independence movement. I think he was something of a coward in his refusal to negotiate with Lloyd George, and instead notoriously sending Michael Collins to do so. But more than this, de Valera personally crafted Bunreacht na hÉireann in 1937, a document that gave women second-class status in Ireland–an albatross that Irish women are still working to throw off of their backs. To enshrine within the Constitution a woman’s place “within the home” remains utterly repugnant. Women have made great progress, but still we have a long way to go. Electing a female taoiseach would be a nice move (sorry, Leo).

And on to Belfast….

Image result for belfast city hall pride

While I found Dublin to have been very much the same–same joys; same problems (Ireland and Brexit deserves a separate blog, given the insanity of Boris Johnson)–I found Belfast to be nigh on unrecognizable. The photo above depicts Belfast City Hall lit up in celebration of LGBTQ+ pride. We were in Maggie May’s for an Ulster fry and some fifteens (yum), and my old favorite spot also celebrates pride. These photos are my own:

Fifteens! A tasty treat unique to Northern Ireland.

Maggie May’s celebrates Pride 2019.

So of course I give high marks to my former home city for its embrace of pride–although I’m also aware that this embrace isn’t shared by everyone (hey, fuck you, DUP). More than gay pride, though, Belfast has been utterly transformed.

If someone had dropped me into the city centre without telling me where I was, I wouldn’t have recognized Belfast. There are so many posh shops and cafes and restaurants all over! When did all of this happen? Some of the old favorites remain: Maggie Mays, the Crown, Kelly’s, and Archana (best Indian food ever)….but where did all of these swanky places come from?

I’m glad to see all of the prosperity-truly. But I also know that this is an uneasy coexistence with ongoing poverty in West Belfast and much of Derry (among other places). Belfast has a serious drug problem, and sectarianism continues to permeate much of the city. The poverty is difficult to stomach in the face of such blossoming culture–and my distaste for this dissonance is enhanced by the enduring lack of government in the North that has been the status quo for over 2.5 years now.

Stormont was never a terribly effective government–let’s be honest. But at least the MLAs had a realistic picture of the problems facing their constituents on a daily basis. I’m glad Westminster is stepping in to introduce same-sex marriage and abortion, but MPs don’t really give much of a shit about Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson clearly couldn’t give less of a fuck, and his no-deal crash out of the EU is going to be a massive cock up for the North. Shame on the DUP for letting this happen; they are the reason Boris is holding onto power right now, and they are sacrificing the economy of their own country in exchange for what they hope will be greater integration with mainland Britain. Shame.

And while I’m on the subject of shame….Sinn Féin could also put a stop to this. I understand the lengthy history of abstentionism and the reasons for it. Yet, if they really are a pro-EU party, as they currently claim to be (though historically they oppose Ireland’s membership in the EU), they could send a couple of MPs to Westminster to kick out the Tories. So Sinn Féin, too, is willing to sacrifice the economy and the people of the North in pursuit of their ultimate goal of Irish unity. Will Brexit be a big enough disaster to push people into a united Ireland? I surely hope so, because otherwise this Machiavellian strategy will hurt a lot of people for nothing.

But to return to my point about civility…..despite the sectarianism in Belfast, and the housing crisis in Éire, and the new attempt to collect the TV license fees (joke)…..still, it is all far more civilized than Donald Trump’s America. Climate change is real. Vaccines save lives. Strict gun laws prevent mass shootings.

Yes. We would go back tomorrow if there were a job for Chris teaching science. A better place to raise children, without question.


Image result for july 12th bonfires

As July 12th approaches, Northern Ireland is going through its annual tradition of arguing about sectarianism. Sometimes, people have fought over the question, “Should the Orangemen be allowed to march through Catholic neighborhoods?” An important question to be sure, but this problem has been mostly resolved. Questions of sectarianism have evolved into more subtle manifestations of cross-community sniping. People on both sides of the divide like to claim that their commemorations are cultural, while celebrations by the opposing side are, in contrast, sectarian displays. Can a celebration of the Battle of the Boyne occur in any fashion without being anti-Catholic? As per an argument I saw on Twitter yesterday, can Irish people sing songs that celebrate that Irish Revolution without being anti-Protestant? I believe that the answer to both of these questions, as well as the larger issue is “yes,” but perhaps not in their current manifestations.

An interesting piece appeared in the July 5th edition of the Irish Times titled, “Marching in Donegal: ‘We can be Irish and we can be Orange.'” Unbeknownst to most people, there are a few Orange lodges in the part of Ulster that is within the Republic of Ireland. The lodge at Newtowncunningham, Co. Donegal commemorates the ending of the Siege of Derry and also the 1913 Ulster Volunteers who engaged in military-style training in order to combat Home Rule for Ireland. An Orange Lodge in Éire is indeed an oddity, and in the eyes of many Irish people, a deeply offensive site–so much so that this one was the victim of an arson attack in 2014.

Image result for map of province of ulster

The main figure in the article identifies himself as Irish but also as an “Ulsterman,” and identifies with Northern Ireland as his natural home–yet he does live in the Republic. His self-perception would suggest that his version of commemorating 1690 is not sectarian–and is certainly not anti-Irish. He is pro-Protestant-Irish identity, but not anti-Catholic-Irish identity. His celebration of the Battle of the Boyne shouldn’t be viewed as secular blasphemy.

The question of whether you can be “Irish” and “Orange” ultimately depends on what you believe “Orange” represents.

Some brief historical background: “Orange” derives from William of Orange, the Dutch prince who was married to his first cousin, Mary, the Protestant daughter of King James II. When James II took the throne, he had no male children, and so in general the people of England (not Britain until 1707) worried little, because they didn’t fear a Catholic successor upon the death of James. But to everyone’s surprise, James’s wife gave birth to a son, the future James III, who was to be raised Catholic. Now that was terrifying to the Protestant people of the realm. So, in essence, Parliament invited William and Mary to come over and take the throne from James, which they did in an event known to history as the Glorious Revolution. Supporters of William III and Mary II in Ireland, who celebrated the victory of Protestantism at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, formed the “Orange Order.”

So, Orange-ism can be seen as a celebration of Protestantism and the Plantation of Ulster, in which Irish Catholics were forced off their land in favor of Protestants from England and Scotland, and can thus also be viewed as anti-Catholic or sectarian. From that perspective, it’s difficult to see someone being both Irish and Orange, because July 12th is then a commemoration of forced removal of Irish people from their land.

On the other hand, many historians and Orangemen see the Glorious Revolution and William’s victory at the Boyne River as not only the triumph of Protestantism, but the triumph of democracy over absolutism. This interpretation also has merit. Because Parliament invited William and Mary to take the throne, the legislature acquired symbolic authority over the monarchy; this power was then codified when the king and queen acceded to the Declaration of Right, which limited the power of the monarchy and asserted certain rights for citizens.

The Republic of Ireland in 2019 is a liberal democracy that has no monarch at all, and would certainly endorse the rights of citizens laid out in the Declaration of Right. But, the Glorious Revolution also represents for much of Ireland a period of disenfranchisement, penal laws, and, ultimately, the Great Famine in which wealthy landed Protestants made out okay while Irish Catholics perished by the millions.

How can Orangemen celebrate their culture without simultaneously denigrating Irish culture? The current methods of celebrating, notably the bonfires, are inextricably linked with anti-Catholic hatred in the eyes of many Irish people. Historically, these celebrations have indeed been Protestant triumphalist displays, and so we can understand why many Irish people feel this way. Instead of taking direct shots at the celebrations, though, Sinn Féin has taken to attacking the impact of the bonfires on the environment. True, large fires do pump out a lot of avoidable pollution into the air, but it seems extremely disingenuous of Sinn Féin to use this particular occasion to make this point. Why not scrap the bonfires in exchange for a celebration that has no historical ties to sectarian hatred? Bonfires may be traditional, but they’re not inextricable from the celebration of the Battle of the Boyne. My recommendation: Take the time to read aloud from the Petition of Right, and celebrate the universal good that came with the Glorious Revolution: limited monarchy and rights for individual citizens. 


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.