The End of Wars to help End all Wars – why I am so proud of Northern Ireland
I have always found it a little strange that a small country like Northern Ireland with its silly and relatively insignificant quarrel has managed to attract so much international attention. Why do so many people around the world know about, and care about, our squabbles – known as the “Troubles”?
Winston Churchill put it best as far back as 1922, when Europe was still recovering from the Great War (World War One) and the recently-partitioned Ireland was gripped by a brutal civil war that killed more people in months than eight centuries of uprisings against the British. He said “The whole map of Europe has been changed … but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.”
I come from Omagh in County Tyrone – famous for it’s terrible IRA atrocity in 1998. Our steeples are not-at-all dreary and I was never offended by Churchill’s quote. He had it spot on. Certainly from Partition onwards, there was perhaps, at a stretch, a civil-rights cause worth dying for in Northern Ireland – but there was never, ever anything worth killing for.
However, kill we did. In a bitter, nasty 30 year war that saw casualty rates that are staggering. Proportionately, you can think of it as 10 Vietnam Wars. We grew up in segregated communities, we went to different schools and we largely socialized separately – nominally based on what minor branch of Christianity we supposedly adhered to, but in reality based on a sense of national identity. Irish or British. Catholic or Protestant. And yes, haves and have-nots. Protestants tended to “have” and Catholics tended to “have-not”.
Never mind that Irish nationalism was largely a product of the same European enlightenment that had fueled the non-sectarian French and American equivalents. Never mind that many of the great Irish nationalist leaders had been Protestant. The battle-lines from the late 1960s onwards were drawn around a Civil Rights problem. The Protestant Loyalist British-facing majority in Northern Ireland had treated the Catholic Nationalist Irish-facing minority terribly since partition. A situation that reached boiling point in the mid-1960s not unlike the situation for African-Americans in the United States.
But let’s be clear – it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the way African-American’s were treated. The civil-rights movement, through mis-steps by the British government, and often with the nefarious support of misguided Irish-American money, was swept away by the rise of the IRA and opposing Loyalist paramilitaries.
The conflict that ensued (it wrongly enobles it in some respects to call it a “war”) had an impact far beyond our small country. It evolved, through trial and error, the playbook for how countries should and should not deal with these forms of internal, ethnic-style conflicts in the modern-era. Internment-without-trial of suspect bad guys. Banning political wings of terrorist groups. Limits on the actions of government forces. Undercover counter-terrorism (on that point, where do you think the British learned to place or turn undercover spies in al-Quaeda in Yemen?) The British learned all this the hard way – and in the end a mix of undercover infiltration of the IRA coupled with “hearts and minds” initiatives to erode support for the IRA in their communities brought the IRA to the peace table. What a shame a lot of that playbook has been lost in subsequent conflicts in places like Iraq….
A long and torturous peace process ensued, and fourteen years ago a peace deal was signed that saw paramilitaries give up their weapons, and a series of peace-building initiatives begin.
Yesterday, when the Queen of England shook the hand of the former Chief of Staff of the IRA Martin McGuinness, this was the latest in a long line of events that have helped Northern Ireland (in fact, the islands of Britain and Ireland) progress away from their bitter past and towards a more friendly future.
Whilst both Ireland the UK face significant economic challenges, it turns out that we are actually great at making something that lots of others around the world want – a peace process that seems to be working.
Every conflict in our world is different. They have different origins, different past-sins, different protagonists, different balances of power.
The magic ingredients in the Northern Ireland process, however, can apply to all of them. Domestic political courage, significant outside help from those who genuinely care, talks and more talks, a heartfelt desire from the ordinary person for the conflict to just stop so they can get on with trying to better their lot and their childrens’ lots.
Above all, hope – a belief that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.
A handshake may seem like such a small thing, no matter who the two people may be that are shaking hands. The handshake won’t bring back a single loved one killed in our conflict – and no-one will ever forget the terrible atrocities that befell our people, even as we try to forgive them.
But make no mistake, everyone who loves the North of Ireland is marveling today at the progress we have made and full of hope that it can be contagious. That people elsewhere can learn not just from the futility of our conflict, but from how we eventually put it behind us.