On “The Conversation,” my friend and colleague Donald Beaudette and I discuss the lessons that the United States can learn from the process of reforming the police in Northern Ireland.
Read it here.
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.
On his personal blog, Gerry Adams has asserted that there should not be a border poll in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland until there is a cogent plan for what a united Ireland would actually mean in practice. In his view, we all learned a lesson from Brexit: “A referendum without a plan is stupid.” Maybe there should be a border poll in the near future, but Adams doesn’t make a terribly convincing case in his blog post.
Certainly, the debacle in the aftermath of the Brexit vote has shown Adams to be correct that there should be a clearly defined plan in place in the event of a vote for Irish unity. He also said that it is the “duty” of the government of the Republic of Ireland to plan for that poll and the potential result of a vote in favor of Irish unity. To support his optimistic claim that Ireland is on the verge of voting for unity and an exit from the UK, Adams cited data fro the 2011 Northern Ireland census. Specifically, he notes that only 48% of respondents in Northern Ireland self-identified as British; a professor who examined the results noted that there is a “measurable trend” towards a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland. Adams seems quite optimistic that those two ideas combined translate into a majority in favor of Irish unity.
I’m not so sure. A look at the summary report from the 2011 census (found here) shows that only 25.26% of the population self-identified as “Irish only” and 20.94% of the population identified as “Northern Irish only.” That’s about 68% of the population that does not self-identify as Irish. There are other statistics with smaller numbers for people who self-identify as more than one of these three groups. But I think the statistic for “Irish only” is important: only ¼ of the population of Northern Ireland believes itself to be exclusively Irish. An additional 2.74% of people include “Irish” in their self-identity, along with another category.
From these statistics, it’s impossible to determine how people will vote in a border poll. Adams is certainly too optimistic in his blog post. That doesn’t mean a border poll shouldn’t happen though–certainly it should happen in the next few years; indeed, wouldn’t it make sense to hold a poll on a periodic basis, with other elections?
But what of the notion that Éire is duty-bound to plan for unity? What does such a plan entail?
Safe guards for Unionists are essential, but I foresee the fear of persecution being greatly exaggerated. Adams notes, too, that dialogue must exist to make Unionists feel as though they will be safe and their rights will be protected in a united Ireland. Éire is an increasingly diverse country, and I see no reason why northern Unionists/Protestants would be persecuted–indeed, if anyone has anything to fear, it’s non-Irish immigrants to the island, based on deep-seeded prejudices that are not unique to Ireland. Éire is a liberal democracy that is not dominated by the Catholic hierarchy, and I have every reason to believe that Unionists will be welcomed.
The exchequer also requires great planning. Currently, the North receives a millions of pounds per year from the UK purse, and it could lose that money upon Irish unity. In theory, it would lose that money. Might there be a plan to slowly ween the North off of British money? Also: what of the civil servants in the North who will probably lose their jobs when a single government takes over?
Adams doesn’t seem to have considered money in his call on the government of the Republic of Ireland to prepare for Irish unity with a detailed plan. He’s right that a plan is necessary, but I think perhaps many people in Éire would object to putting money toward that when there is a housing crisis; rural populations lack access to the Internet; and a massive percentage of people want the government to take meaningful action to help stem the tide of climate change. Plus, by most accounts the British NHS is far superior to healthcare available in the South, and I don’t imagine northerners want to give that up–so surely the South will have to pour a lot of money into improving health services. That’s a lot of work already, and all of that costs money. Will the people of the Republic want to allocate valuable resources toward planning for Irish unity? Maybe, but I definitely don’t think I’d bet my house on it. (And on this subject, the statistics Adams gives for the percentage of people in the South who favor Irish unity is somewhat absurd in its interpretation, even if the raw numbers are accurate.)
So now to address the optimism Adams expressed about the triumph of Irish unity in the event of a border poll. If we can return to the comparison with Brexit for a moment: we are left with the question, “If there had been a plan for Brexit-ing and post-Brexit UK, would the people still have voted to leave the European Union?” Maybe the plan would have resulted in a greater number of people supporting Brexit, as they could have been reassured of their economic security in advance of the vote. But, on the other hand, maybe tangible details would have scared people in the UK and eliminated much of the vote for Brexit that was essentially “protest” vote. We have no way to know, but I think this possibility is possible for an Irish-unity vote, too. Plans for unity may be comforting and reassuring, or they might scare people. So again, I think people who foresee Irish unity on the immediate horizon (that is, within a couple of years) are overly optimistic–particularly if Brexit never pans out at all (October is the next deadline).
On this note: will Sinn Féin support membership in the EU in the event of Irish unity? Sinn Féin is historically opposed to the European Union, because, as per the party name that translates to “ourselves,” they want the island of Ireland for the people of Ireland, and therefore oppose intervention from Brussels. I think Sinn Féin needs to do a bit of soul-searching itself as they push for a border poll and plans for unity–and let the Irish people know exactly what their vision is, as the most vocal advocates for reunited the island.
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:
Some minor provisions:
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.