Category: Archive

Echo Opinion: North peace was nearly inevitable

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

And yet, the IRA’s announcement that it will dump arms and forsake armed struggle had an element of anti-climax to it. Did anybody — other than Ian Paisley, and one wonders about his sincerity — really think the IRA would return to a war footing after so long a truce?
Wasn’t this day inevitable, then?
Of course it was, which is why the announcement did not lead the news, as it might have had it been made a decade ago. Peace, at least a reasonable facsimile of it, has broken out throughout the north of Ireland, and people have grown accustomed to it, savored it, embraced it.
Peace has fallen drop by drop across the North for more than a decade, and now a generation of lucky children cannot recall the barren days of despair and violence. Peace and hope have blossomed on a formerly parched and desolate landscape.
Wasn’t this day inevitable, then?
Not necessarily. The IRA voided its first truce, announced in 1994, when it grew impatient with the pace of politics in Belfast, London and Dublin. It returned to cease-fire very quickly, but the point was made. There was no reason to believe, at least in the mid-1990s, that peace was inevitable. Indeed, there was nothing in the Irish narrative to offer comfort to those who took the side of hope against history, to borrow from the late Jack Holland’s phrase.
By the turn of the millennium, however, there indeed was an air of inevitability to the peace process, if not in the musty corners of government buildings then surely in the streets and villages of the North.
Save for the bigots on one side and the diehards on the other, the people of the North got used to peace, and benefited from its sudden and unlikely outbreak.
To visit Belfast around 2000 was to witness a city transformed by those drops of peace. Hotels were springing up. Tourists appeared. It was wonderful.
Yes, it was grim in parts of the Falls Road, and on the Shankill, too, and each was grim in its own way. The Falls was poor, the Shankill, bitter. How much will peace, real peace, change either place?
The poor may have a better chance, for with an absolute end to violence, Belfast may continue its transformation, speeding mightily from the early 20th Century to the early 21st.
Some may sneer at the notion that there will be more service jobs available to unemployed Catholics if tourists continue to come in droves and somebody builds hotels and to accommodate them and restaurants to feed them. But any job is preferable to none.
The new northern economy is and will continue to be relatively free from the sectarian bullies who ran the shipyards and the factories in the Belfast of old. Those thick-necked, ill-educated, sash-wearing bigots have little place and less power in a Northern Ireland with a modern economy.
Of course some bigots in white collars will continue as before, reject Catholics as “unqualified,” but that has become much harder to do. The global service economy may not pay as well as the shipyards, but it is fairer and more-just than the one the Orange Order controlled.
As middle-class Catholics continue to move into old Protestant enclaves and take their place in leadership positions in the economy, the grievances which gave birth to the IRA campaign more than 30 years ago will continue to fade.
Was it inevitable, then?
It was, once people began to realize that it might be, once investors decided that it was, and once the Army Council surveyed the landscape at home and abroad and realized the time had come. The realization no doubt is several years old. It just took a while to make it all official.
The IRA never really was a threat to the stability of the United Kingdom, not even in the late 1970s. But the new millennium has produced just such a threat, a threat which is aimed not only at London, but Washington, Paris, New York – wherever “infidels” gather.
With the emergence of Osama bin Laden and his followers, the IRA understood that the game had changed dramatically. While it was, and is, unfair to equate the IRA with al-Qaeda, in this terrible global conflict, just such a comparison was inevitable. Branded as terrorists, they were dismissed as no different from the suicide bombers and mass murderers who struck New York, Washington, London and elsewhere.
Those who would argue that there were difference between the two groups, and I am one of them, risked being accused of being “soft on terror.”
So, in an instant on September 11, 2001, everything did change. In the face of al-Qaeda’s global offensive against the West, the notion of a resumed IRA campaign against Great Britain was simply unthinkable. What’s more, the war on terror strengthened the bond between Washington and London, leaving Irish-American IRA supporters open to the charge that they were hurting an ally and thus, hurting the United States.
The energy of Irish republicans, save for the blind and the dysfunctional, will continue to transform the province and improve the lives not only of Catholics, but of Protestants, too. Not the embittered, perhaps, and the bigoted — but the poor families tossed aside in that turbulent sea known as the global economy.
At home, Irish Americans, wounded so grievously on 9/11, can take comfort in knowing that a resolution to one conflict is at hand, even as they set their sights on winning the next one.
And that conflict involves us all, like it or not.

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