Connecting History

Connecting History logo

Milestones

Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

Ending the War in Northern Ireland

by Daniel Szechi on Apr 22, 1998

Daniel Szechi

Hurrah! The war in Northern Ireland is over. There will be celebrations, and peace will be welcomed by the ordinary people of Ulster. But as the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats once observed, sometimes “peace comes dropping slow.” History stands like a ghost at the elbow of everyone involved in the peace process; and history suggests that a final, bloody act of the war has yet to be played out.

For there are some who do not want the thirty-year war between Catholics and Protestants to end. The very weekend agreement was reached by the Northern Ireland political parties the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) murdered a retired policeman, and a Continuity Irish Republican Army (CIRA) bomb factory with nearly 3,000 pounds of explosives was discovered in Belfast.

Both INLA and CIRA are small Catholic organizations, and they are matched on the Protestant side by the tiny but lethal Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). The LVF continued randomly to kill Catholics throughout the negotiations, and its spokesmen have stated that it has no intention of stopping because of the peace agreement.

Most dangerously of all for hopes of a permanent peace, the leaders of the Irish Republican Army and the Protestant paramilitary organizations that agreed to the accords may be displaced by these hardliners. The internal politics of all of Northern Ireland’s underground armies revolve around who has purest commitment to the cause, and Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness on the IRA side and Gusty Spence and Billy Hutchinson on the Protestant Loyalist side are already being denounced as traitors by these extremists.

This has been the pattern for the last 80 years. Every IRA and Protestant Loyalist leader who has dared to compromise has been denounced as a traitor by the extremists in his own organization.

Even Michael Collins, the military genius behind the IRA’s victory over the British in the Irish War of Independence in 1919-21, could not escape such attacks. As everyone who has seen the movie “Michael Collins” knows, he paid for the treaty that created the Irish Republic with his life.

The pattern has continued to the present day. In 1969, when Cathal Goulding, the chief of staff of the IRA, and his supporters decided on a more constructive, political role they produced a schism, out of which came the present IRA. One of the most vocal denunciations of Goulding’s willingness to compromise came from the young Gerry Adams.

In 1975, when the IRA’s leadership first announced a ceasefire, many of its men on the ground in Northern Ireland refused to observe it. Under the guise of “retaliation” they continued to bomb and shoot as if there had never been a ceasefire. And the men who negotiated it were soon displaced by hardline activists: Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

When the Protestant paramilitary leadership declared a ceasefire in 1994 a section of their extremists refused to accept it. Within a year Billy Wright had organized the dissidents into a new organization, the LVF, dedicated to carrying on the war by murdering Catholics. So how can the peace settlement survive?

All parties in Ireland use history to justify their actions. The politicians on both sides are acutely aware of the lessons the past can teach them. And only once this century has this eternal process of one-upping those willing to compromise failed to prevent peace from breaking out. In 1922, rather than let hardliners sabotage the treaty he had hammered out with the British, Michael Collins reluctantly took up their military challenge. A savage civil war between former IRA comrades followed, with Collins’s pro-treaty IRA ultimately victorious.

Gerry Adams and the other paramilitary leaders at the peace talks know that the war will stop — and their own leadership continue — only if the dissident hardliners are physically prevented from carrying it on. Which means there is almost certainly a last terrible act of the war in Northern Ireland yet to come.

It will consist of the elimination of dissident hardline paramilitaries on both sides by their former comrades. Some will be informed on to the police, others will be beaten and intimidated, and a few will be murdered.

If, as seems highly likely, events take this course, the fratricidal bitterness and hatred this concluding phase of the war (or first phase of the peace) will generate will last for generations. The final, horrible paradox of thirty years of violence in Northern Ireland may well prove to be that in the end peace could only come through a last act of betrayal and bloodshed.


Daniel Szechi is a professor of history at Auburn University and a writer for the History News Service.