Category: Archive

Editorial Troops out, politics in

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Two significant developments took place quietly in Northern Ireland within the last few days. On Saturday, Sept. 12, British troops were pulled off the streets of Belfast. Two days later, the new Northern Ireland assembly met for the first time in full session. It is to be hoped that both events will prove to be preludes to much greater, and much needed, changes.

Almost 30 years ago, troops first went into Belfast in the wake of sectarian riots that left whole streets burning and thousands of people, most of them Catholics, homeless. The city was on the verge of civil war. The soldiers were sent in by a reluctant British government who did not know what else to do. They were a stop-gap solution that soon became part of the problem as they quickly antagonized the people they were supposed to protect.

The soldiers’ presence there has remained a problem throughout the course of the Troubles, as evidenced by an event that took place a few days before they were withdrawn from the streets. Two of their number were released from prison after serving less than six years of a life sentence for murdering a young Catholic man in September 1992. Among the handful of soldiers ever sent to jail for the murder of civilians, they had the distinction of having served the longest sentences. The others served less than four years.

That was part of the problem: soldiers are not trained to be policemen, and to place them in a situation where they have to act as such was asking for trouble. As long as they remained, they were a living reminder of Britain’s dismal failure to solve its oldest problem. They were a military solution to a political problem, which in effect was no solution at all. It is to be hoped that their removal from the streets of Belfast is a prelude to a total withdrawal from all parts of Northern Ireland.

Politics began again, in a modest way, this week, with the assembly meeting for the first time. Though the discussion about which flag to fly and which languages to recognize indicated that the members were more interested in symbol than substance, the significance of the event should not be underestimated. Gathered in the one chamber was Gerry Adams and the Rev. Ian Paisley. When the troops first entered Northern Ireland in 1969, Paisley was roaring around the Shankill Road, proclaiming doomsday had come, and his rhetoric inspired Protestant mobs to attack the Falls Road, the district that Adams calls home. A19-year-old Adams and his pals, meanwhile, were laying siege to various police stations, and erecting barricades to defend their neighborhood.

Now the two antagonists can glare at each other across the chamber of a political assembly rather than across burning barricades. There will doubtless be a lot to glare about in the coming weeks and months as the many difficult issues that have to be resolved come before the assembly. But the very fact that they are in a chamber of debate rather than fighting on the streets is surely progress and should be celebrated.

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Over the years, Northern Ireland has had little enough to celebrate. Even when it did, it was usually only one side that did the celebrating. People celebrated the arrival of the British troops, only to soon lament their presence. They celebrated the setting up of the power sharing executive in 1974, only to lament when it collapsed. The problem was that what was the cause of celebration for one side proved a matter for lamentation on the other.

Hopefully, this new assembly will lay the groundwork for a new set of political arrangements that will give both sides more cause for celebration than lamentation.

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