Northern Ireland: Past and Present, Real and Imaginary

Northern Ireland is regarded as a thing that happened rather than a place that exists; the country, and the issues it faces, are all but ignored.

In mainstream British political discussion, Northern Ireland is regarded as a thing that happened rather than a place that exists; the country in its current form and the issues it faces, are all but ignored. When it is alluded to, it is done so with such embarrassingly poor understanding that people here would rather just go back to being forgotten about. Instead, the North is primarily invoked in our political discourse to discuss its ‘bad old days’. There has been an explosion in coverage of The Troubles era in recent weeks as it has become the primary mode of right-wing attack upon Corbyn and his alleged sympathies toward the IRA. It will not come as much surprise that much of this hysteria is based on binary and wilfully ignorant understanding of the conflict, in which the IRA were one of three primary participants.

The Troubles are often presented as a battle between violent extremist terrorists against ‘British Law & Order’; a simple good and evil tale where Britain, as always, is standing up for its values against those who hate them. In British political culture, any conceptual understanding of history going further back than 20 years is dominated by cliché. Thus, the IRA have been completely divorced from any of the wider history of Northern Ireland, where the legacy of British imperialism is laid bare.


All I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State
James Craig, first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, 24 April 1934

The Northern Irish state was established as a compromise in 1921. It was something that no one wanted. Following the War of Independence, representatives from the new Irish state signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty under pressure of a continued war effort from the British. This partitioned the island into two states of 26 and 6 counties respectively. Stemming from plantations begun by James I in 1606 and following hundreds of years of migration, the North of Ireland had a large Protestant population that was overwhelmingly unionist. Although initially sceptical, the unionist leadership accepted the compromise of partition and set about establishing total political, social and economic domination of its new state. Placed in the context of wider imperial development, the North of Ireland seems somewhat typical. Plantations and colonisation were integral facets of imperial projects, while partition was a favoured tactic of the British in the 20th century: India/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine being the most obvious examples. A rudimentary grasp of history is enough to guess what would follow.

The Unionists controlled the Northern Irish government for the entirety of its existence, presiding over a state where the rump Catholic/nationalist population suffered from a disproportionate lack of employment, structural discrimination in housing allocation and a rigged voting system that gerrymandered constituency boundaries and allowed votes only for property and business owners, favouring the wealthier Protestant population. Meanwhile, the Special Powers Act allowed the deeply partisan police force to conduct stop and search programmes and arrest without trial. Relatively subdued IRA campaigns in the 1950s came to nothing and the drudgery and immiseration continued. Civil rights organisations emerged in the 1960s, inspired by African-American activists in the United States, took to the streets in opposition to sectarian discrimination. Marchers were met by violence from loyalist gangs and the police, leading to the eruption of the Battle of the Bogside in Derry. Marchers were attacked and Catholics were burned out of their homes. British troops were deployed to ‘keep the peace’, and would not depart for almost forty years.

This parade of sectarian violence – a culmination of decades of oppression – is that was the backdrop for the emergence of figures like Martin McGuinness onto the national scene. The IRA, long dormant, re-emerged initially to protect Catholic areas. However, following a split in the organisation, the Provisional IRA fronted by McGuinness and Gerry Adams embarked on an armed struggle to rid Ireland of British rule altogether.

The next few years were amongst the most violent of the conflict and, as they had done 50 years before, the British government returned to its colonial repertoire in response. Indeed, police officials who had overseen operations in Malaya and Kenya were placed in key positions by the government. Atrocities such as the Bloody Sunday killings, in which 13 peaceful protesters were shot dead by the British army, and the Ballymurphy massacre, which claimed the lives of 11 civilians in West Belfast, repulsed the nationalist population. Regular stop-and-search became a fact of life for young men in working-class Catholic areas, and over 1000 of them were detained under the Operation Demetrius internment policy. This brought about a drastic intensification of conflict as the structural and then physical violence of the British state radicalised young nationalists to commit to armed struggle.

Another issue ignored in the conventional media narrative of the Troubles was the widespread unionist militancy of this period. The conflict was not simply a battle between the IRA and British state forces - there was also the element of loyalist extremism expressed both through hardline Protestant firebrands like Ian Paisley and armed paramilitary groups. It must be remembered that the initial attempts to establish a power-sharing cross-community government was brought down by unionism, not the IRA. The Sunningdale Agreement was brought down by the Ulster Workers Council, a collaboration of hardline parties and paramilitary groups which enforced a mass strike via road blocks and worker intimidation. The secretive Glenanne Gang, which routinely murdered Catholic civilians in the border regions, killed 33 in the Irish Republic with car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan. The tale of the loyalist paramilitaries is not complete without understanding their relationship with the British state. Collusion between British intelligence and loyalist gangs had long been suspected. In 2012, then Prime Minister David Cameron admitted to “shocking levels of collusion” in the UVF murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane in 1989. However, to this day the Finucane family and others have been routinely frustrated in their quest to attain an inquiry into state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries during the Troubles


This does not seek to be apologia for or romanticisation of republican violence. It is simply an examination of the context in which the IRA emerged; to show why so many on the British left empathised with the Irish republican cause, to show the absurdity of UKIP’s calls for Muslim interment and to show why the performative howls about Corbyn and the IRA are so profoundly ignorant of the reality behind the conflict in Northern Ireland.

It is of course vital to put the current IRA hysteria into a modern context as well. In Northern Ireland there is now peace, although it is an uneasy one. What has been demonstrated over the last number of years by the British government is a wanton ignorance and lack of consideration that has actively harmed stability in the North. Theresa May’s calling of the general election came at a point where Northern Irish parties were in negotiations aimed at reinstalling power-sharing governance, following a collapse of the governing institutions amid a financial scandal which implicated DUP leader Arlene Foster. May’s political gambit has suspended these talks, leaving Northern Ireland without a government for even longer, and plunging us into our seventh election campaign since 2014.

The government’s flirtation with hard-right positions on the military also has implications for Northern Ireland. May’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference last year made clear her distaste for “activist left wing human rights lawyers” who seek to prosecute British soldiers for illegal activity in Iraq. This sentiment also extends to Northern Ireland, where May is in lock-step with hardline unionists in opposing the “victimisation” of British soldiers under investigation for their role in civilian killings.

It seems that for Theresa May, the families of those killed by the army in Derry and Ballymurphy. or those who were victims of collusion between the British security state and loyalist paramilitaries, are not entitled to justice - lest it disrupt ‘our brave boys’. This makes the media exasperation at Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to single out IRA violence all the more revolting. Seeking to single out IRA violence as worse than that of loyalists or the British state is nothing short of an erasure of those victims, making clear that their lives and deaths do not matter. At a time when the British government seeks to obstruct justice for victims of the state, we are reminded of the narrow parameters of discussion allowed on state violence and the British military.

Looming large in the background of all this is Brexit, and the profound impact it is set to have on this island. Two decades after the Troubles, Britain’s exit from the EU seems likely to result in a return to a militarised border in Ireland. This is against the consent of the majority of voters in Northern Ireland. Although both May and the Irish government have made clear their opposition to this, there is no defined strategy for how it can be avoided. This simply adds to the monumental issues that Northern Ireland already faces. Northern Ireland still lags behind the rest of the UK on key human rights issues. The hardline DUP have exploited anti-sectarian veto powers to deny same-sex marriage legislation despite its support amongst the majority of the population. Neither of the main five political parties have particularly progressive stances on abortion, which continues to be outlawed. Child poverty is at 24% and is particularly high in working-class North and West Belfast, and Derry. Suicide has claimed more lives in peace than were lost to violence in the Troubles. The proposed solutions to economic deprivation are distinctly neoliberal – one of the few things the DUP and Sinn Fein agree on is their desire to cut corporation tax.

Northern Ireland is a place with deep and sustained problems. It has improved immeasurably since the violence of previous decades but as these issues come to a head, the response from Westminster has done more harm than good. It is, however, worth maintaining some perspective. There is no immediate potential of a return to mass violence, as some commentators seem to believe. However, at a time when compromise needs to be made in order to restore power-sharing, the government has aligned itself with hardline unionism in its dismissal of justice campaigns. During the campaign, the Conservatives and the media cynically dragged up the horrors of the past to try to clip the wings of Corbyn’s surge, alienating many in Northern Ireland with their ignorance and opportunism. As Sinn Fein continues its call for a unification poll, and the threat of a Hard Brexit seems set to tear communities and economic relations apart, more will begin the question the logic of the existence of a border at all.