Category: Archive

Borders, bombs and ballots

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Last Sunday’s voting in Iraq may have exceeded expectations in terms of turnout, but elections aren’t everything, as most of the essayists in this volume would tell you.
The Jan. 30 poll took place against the backdrop of George W. Bush inaugural call for the spread of freedom and liberty. All you need is democracy, is the president’s current maxim, it seems, in the way the Beatles’ was “All You Need Is Love.”
It’s never been that simple in the Middle East, however — or anywhere.
Take the most populous democratic nation in the world. India (never a favorite with the GOP) was plagued by political violence at its edges through the 1980s and ’90s. Its disputed territory of Kashmir, once a tourist paradise, was plunged into a conflict that claimed 20,000 lives. India also became embroiled in the even bloodier ethnic war in Sri Lanka, which cost the life of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber during an election campaign.
Seven years earlier, his mother and predecessor, Indira Gandhi, was murdered by her bodyguards, extremists it turned out who supported a “Khalistan,” or independent Sikh Republic.
Sikhs made up just 10 percent of the population of the historic Punjab, but in the modern state of that name they were a clear majority. It’s just one simple example of how a strong identity marker, in this case religion, can form the basis for ethnicity, which in turn, if you draw borders the right way — or if “natural” boundaries intervene — can lead to claims for autonomy or full independence.
From within the group, various “moderates” and “extremists,” “democrats” and “constitutionalists,” as well as “militarists” and “militants” can emerge.
This volume grew out of a conference at University College Dublin in 2001 about the tensions between militarism and constitutionalism in Ireland on both sides of the nationality divide.
Obviously, the medium has certain limitations when dealing with the latest developments. A publisher’s note warns that Gen. John de Chastelain’s essay only takes the narrative up to the summer of 2003.
And given his particularly bitter exchanges with Sinn Fein TDs last week, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern might today write a less soft-focused introduction. Nonetheless, each of the 12 essays has a lot more to offer students of Irish history and politics than the usual daily commentary in the press.
One of the editors, John Coakley, notes in an essay that despite the upheaval and tragedies of the 19th Century, Ireland was one of the quietest places in Europe when it came to overtly political violence. In that great year of European revolution, 1848, only two people died in Ireland, while just a dozen were killed during the 1867 Fenian rising.
By the early 20th century, one commentator later wrote, Irish politics was “as respectable and constitutional as a cricket match.” And in 1915, the Irish nationalist leader at Westminster, John Redmond, referred to Sinn Fein as a “temporary cohesion of isolated cranks.”
What happened? Veteran UCD historians Ronan Fanning and Michael Laffan both point to constitutional and extra-constitutional resistance to Home Rule as a turning point.
Revolutionary nationalism became the predominant strand after 1916, but, as Laffan’s writes, some revolutionaries believed that “the mass of the population could not be let out on their own.”
The people, he adds wryly, did not “feel outraged at Britain’s reluctance to surrender unconditionally,” and embraced compromise. Civil war resulted.
The commentary looking at unionism explores how its elected representatives have often operated in a gray area between constitutional and extra-constitutional methods.
But Paul Dixon writes that the DUP, for instance, has involved itself in street politics as much to keep campaigns out of the hands of the paramilitaries, as to pressurize the government. It’s been argued, he says, that when Ian Paisley joined in 1986 with Ulster Resistance, a paramilitary-style outfit opposed to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, he “played a moderating role within the organization.”
Dixon adds: “The problem lies in trying to distinguish the shades of gray.” The taoiseach might agree.

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