|Ethnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)|
|11. An intractable conflict? Northern Ireland: A need for pragmatism|
The conflict in Northern Ireland is often seen as intractable, mainly because of the persistence of violence in conducting it and the failure of Catholics and Protestants to reach political accord. Both indicators must be qualified. The violence, though persistent, operates under a number of military and social constraints which have prevented it from spiralling out of control.
Although no political accommodation has yet been reached, progress has been made on other elements - social reforms, respect for cultural diversity, discrimination, and socio-economic inequities - of this multi-faceted problem. It is clear that the problem will remain until it is tackled across a broad front.
One of the numerous apocryphal stories arising from Northern Ireland's violence concerns an event which allegedly took place in 1969. That was the first year of serious widespread violence in the current outbreak of what we euphemistically call the "Troubles." The British army had just arrived to separate the warring factions and was still regarded with benevolence by the Catholic community. Some soldiers based in Derry, therefore, were surprised to find themselves the targets of stone-throwing children. Grabbing an eight-year-old boy, one of the soldiers asked him for an explanation. "Listen," said the child. "You English bastards have been pushing us around for 800 years and we're taking no more of it."
Two points about the anecdote are illuminative. First, it seems to confirm the widely held view that the conflict in Ireland has remained essentially unchanged since the English invasion in the twelfth century, that it is essentially a colonial struggle, and that it cannot be solved. The second point is that the child knew, with some precision, that the English had first invaded Ireland in 1170. Dates, slogans, and apocryphal stories are important in Ireland. They provide the furniture for debate and disagreement. The following observation was made in 1976:
Sellar and Yeatman, in their comic history of Britain, 1066 and All That, decided to include only two dates in the book, because all others were 'not memorable'. They would have had much greater difficulty writing an equivalent volume on Irish history. 1170, 1641, 1690, 1798, 1912, 1916, 1921, 1969 - all these dates are fixed like beacons in the folklore and mythology of Irishmen. They trip off the tongue during ordinary conversation like the latest football scores in other environments, and are recorded for posterity on gable walls all over Northern Ireland. (Derby, 1976: 1)
The intervening 15 years of violence - on top of the seven already experienced by 1976 - have changed public perceptions of history, shifted the furniture around. A succession of historians has radically challenged the nationalist interpretation upon which Irish historiography was based for almost a century; that is, the view that all Irish history exists only to justify the struggle for unification.
I teach a course on the Irish conflict in the University of Ulster. The students, most of them from Northern Ireland, enter readily into class discussions. The same issues are not discussed afterwards over cups of coffee or pints of beer. It is certainly not that they are uninterested - the course, which is optional, is currently being taken by all final-year undergraduates. It is that they have become heartily sick and deeply wary of discussing the Troubles outside the formal setting of a university lecture theatre. Could it be that they share the gloomy analysis that nothing has changed, or can be changed?
If so they would cite in support two of the most over-used quotations about the Irish problem. The first is from Winston Churchill, describing the end of the first world war:
Then came the Great War. Every institution, almost, in the world was strained. Great empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed... The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world. (Churchill, 1934)
More recently, Richard Rose offered this devastating conclusion:
Many talk about a solution to Ulster's political problem but few are prepared to say what the problem is. The reason is simple. The problem is that there is no solution. (Rose, 1976:139)