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A New Ireland?

Bertie Ahern, who was the taoiseach (prime minister) of the Irish Republic from 1997 to 2008, was a brilliant machine politician, not a nationalist or an ideologist. In fact, if you said the word ‘principle’ in his presence, he might have to look up the meaning. But here’s what he said after the Sinn Féin Party came first in last Saturday’s Irish election.

“I think a border poll (on the unification of the Republic and Northern Ireland, which is currently part of the United Kingdom) is inevitable. If you ask me when that is, I think it’s probably five years off at least….but it will be inevitable over this decade.” Are we about to see the final, peaceful solution to the 400-year-old ‘Irish problem’?

Not necessarily, but the long, frozen stability of Irish politics both north and south of the border is definitely dissolving. In Northern Ireland the Catholics have finally achieved the ‘revenge of the cradle’, displacing the Protestants as the majority population – at a time when, coincidentally, the turmoil of Brexit is making all the old certainties about the province’s ties to the UK open to question.

In the south, independent from the UK for a century and home to almost three-quarters of the island’s 6.6 million people, almost everybody is of Catholic heritage and matters have long seemed more settled. Politics was dominated by two centre-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, neither of which gave more than lip-service to the notion of unification with the North.

Nobody in the Republic wanted to hear about that. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ years (ca. 1995-2008) had finally made the Republic a prosperous place, after a long history of genteel poverty. Most of its citizens had no desire to see a united Ireland if it risked bringing the North’s chronic violence (‘The Troubles’, 1968-1999) to the south as well.

In these circumstances Sinn Féin, an all-Ireland leftist and nationalist party that operated as the political front of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the ‘Troubles’, had little attraction for voters in the Republic. It was Northern-dominated and linked to terrorism, and both of the major parties in Dublin refused to have anything to do with it.

And now, suddenly, Sinn Féin ends up with more votes than any other party in the Republic. What happened?

This political revolution is NOT driven by Irish nationalism. Few of the people who voted for Sinn Féin cared much about the North, or unification, or any of that old stuff.

They voted for Sinn Féin because they were fed up with high rents, housing shortages and long hospital waiting lists. Their only alternative was to vote for the same two old parties that have been passing power back and forth for a hundred years, so they ignored Sinn Féin’s IRA links and voted for it anyway.

Those links recently became easier to ignore because Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin’s leader for 35 years and simultaneously a senior officer in the IRA (though he always denied it) finally retired in 2018. His successor, Mary Lou McDonald, definitely has no blood on her hands, and she was born in the Republic, not in the North. She’s voter-friendly, not scary, and she got the votes.

Irish politics is clearly now a three-horse race, in the sense that Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael each got between 21% and 25% of the vote. But that leaves each of them with fewer than half the seats they would need for a majority in the Dáil (parliament).

Prospects for viable coalition-making were looking grim after the election, with both traditional major parties saying they would never enter a coalition with Sinn Féin. The only viable alternative was yet another deal between the two traditional major parties – but that is what the voters had just revolted against.

Now it’s looking a little saner, with Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil saying that he’s open to talks with Sinn Féin. But the sheer tribal truculence of Irish politics is embodied in the very names of the Republic’s major parties: ‘Ourselves Alone’ (Sinn Féin), ‘Tribe of the Irish’ (Fine Gael), and ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ (Fianna Fáil ).

It will therefore take some time to make a deal, but one will be reached eventually, and it will probably include a place for Sinn Féin. Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader, said it plainly – “We are going to have a unity referendum” – and Fintan O’Toole, the best Irish political commentator of his generation, explained what that means in his column in the Irish Times.

“(The voters) have gone where they were warned not to go,” he wrote, “and in doing so they have redrawn the map of Irish politics to include territory previously marked ‘Here Be Dragons’.”

To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 13. (“Nobody…well”; and “Now…Fáil”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Northern Ireland

Martin McGuinness, who began as a terrorist and ended up as Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, died peacefully in hospital on Monday aged 66. His career spanned almost five decades in the history of that small but troubled place – and by resigning from the power-sharing government in January, he began a new and possibly final act in that long-running drama.

If it really is the last act in the Northern Irish tragedy, leading eventually to some form of “joint sovereignty” over Northern Ireland by the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, then there may be some more blood spilled before the end. That would not have bothered McGuinness, for all his latter-day reputation as a man of peace.

As a Catholic born in Derry, Northern Ireland’s second city, McGuinness grew up believing that Britain must be driven out of Ireland and that the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland must be forced to accept unification with the Irish Republic. But the burning issue when he was a young man was the oppression of Northern Irish Catholics by the Protestant majority.

The initial Catholic protests against that in the mid-1960s were non-violent, but McGuinness (aged 21) was already the second-in-command of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Derry at the time of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 14 civil rights protesters were killed in the city by British soldiers.

The Provisional IRA exploited atrocities like that to convert the Catholics’ non-violent struggle for civil rights into a guerilla war employing terrorist tactics and aiming for unification with Ireland. McGuinness was one of the foremost advocates of violence, and quickly rose to become the IRA’s chief of staff.

He claimed to leave the IRA in 1974 in order to enter politics (which made it possible for him to talk to the British authorities), but all local observers agree that he remained a senior IRA operational commander at least down to the end of the 1980s. As such, he was probably responsible for such IRA innovations as “human bombs” (not to be confused with suicide bombs).

In 1990, for example, Patsy Gillespie, a Catholic civilian who worked as a cook at a British army base, was abducted by the IRA and strapped into a van packed with 450 kg of explosives. While his family was held hostage, he was ordered to drive the van to a British army check-point – whereupon the bomb was detonated, killing Gillespie and five British soldiers.

In all, the IRA killed 1,781 people during the period when McGuinness was a senior commander, including 644 civilians, and McGuinness was probably involved in the decision-making on half of those attacks. Fintan O’Toole, a columnist in the Irish Times, recently called him a “mass killer”.

But if so, he was a pragmatic mass killer. When it became clear in the 1990s that the campaign of violence was not delivering the results McGuinness had hoped for, he was open to peaceful compromise, at least until circumstances improved. He played a key role in persuading most of the more dedicated IRA killers to accept the power-sharing government embodied in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

As the leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, in Northern Ireland, McGuinness became the Deputy First Minister of the province, sharing power with the biggest Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). He was seen as a calm, constructive politician during his ten years in office – but he never lost sight of his ultimate goal.

When he resigned in January, he had two excellent pretexts for doing so. First, he knew that he was dying (from a rare heart condition). Second, First Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP and his partner in office, was entangled in a profoundly embarrassing energy scandal but was stubbornly refusing to step aside.

However, McGuiness was also well aware that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in last June’s referendum created new possibilities in Northern Ireland (which voted heavily to stay in the EU).

The open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic depends on both countries being part of the EU. When Britain leaves it will almost inevitably become a “hard” border that controls the movement of both goods and people. That would greatly anger the Catholic of Northern Ireland, and if Sinn Fein goes on refusing to appoint a deputy prime minister then no new power-sharing government is possible either.

There was an unscheduled election early this month that produced no movement from Sinn Fein, and another may be called at the end of next week. But there is no sign that either Sinn Sein or the DUP will budge, and in the end Britain may be obliged to re-impose “direct rule” from London on Northern Ireland, which would anger Catholics even more.

McGuinness was probably not hoping for a return to violence, but he was undoubtedly open to it if necessary. Solving the border issue will require creative thinking all round, and could lead to outcomes the IRA and Sinn Fein would welcome – like joint British-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland. A little violence could help to stimulate that kind of thinking.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“He claimed…soldiers”)

The IRA: What Went Wrong?

10 March 2005

The IRA: What Went Wrong?

By Gwynne Dyer

The implosion of the Irish Republican Army has been so sudden and complete that it seems to defy explanation. For thirty years the banned IRA commanded the loyalty of a large part of Northern Ireland’s Catholic population, and had significant support in the Republic of Ireland as well. Only months ago its legal political wing, Sinn Fein, was still seen as a necessary partner in a power-sharing government that would finally restore self-government to Northern Ireland. And now, in a matter of weeks, the IRA has dwindled in most people’s eyes to a mere criminal organisation.

It was real crimes that precipitated this dramatic change in the IRA’s public image. The first was a huge bank robbery in Northern Ireland on 19 December that netted $40 million — an incident that would have been celebrated by IRA supporters in the days when it was a revolutionary organisation waging a guerrilla war against British rule in the province, but was hard to defend eleven years after a ceasefire.

Then came a pub brawl on 30 January in a Catholic area of Belfast in which ten IRA members visiting from Derry for the Bloody Sunday commemoration, including a very senior officer, knifed Robert McCartney, an innocent fork-lift driver and Sinn Fein supporter, to death. The killers then wiped the pub clean of their fingerprints, took the tape out of the security cameras, warned the seventy witnesses not to say anything on pain of death, and left.

That was standard operating procedure in the old days, when the IRA was seen as the Catholic community’s only defence against the Protestants and the British authorities. But seven years after Sinn Fein committed itself to a peaceful political process it is just murder and intimidation , and Robert McCartney’s five sisters, all lifelong IRA supporters themselves, refused to abide by the traditional code of silence. They publicly demanded that the IRA hand their brother’s killers over to the authorities.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams invited the sisters to the party’s hundredth anniversary convention in Dublin last week in an attempt to heal the rift. It didn’t work: the sisters continued to demand that the IRA hand the killers over, and public opinion was with them. Incredibly, the IRA then offered to inflict “punishment shootings” on the guilty men: bullets through their knees, wrists and/or elbows, designed to cripple and cause a lifetime of pain but not to kill. The sisters refused, but message was clear: the IRA is still above the law and it will punish its erring members itself.

The contradiction between that stance and Sinn Fein’s commitment to a peaceful political role is so stark that the peace process now lies in ruins. Yet only three months ago a “historic compromise” between Sinn Fein and the main Protestant party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, seemed to be just around the corner: a power-sharing agreement between Gerry Adams and the DUP’s leader, Ian Paisley, that would have led to the disarming of the IRA and the restoration of self-government in the province.

It would not have been a happy marriage: Adams predicted that the new government would have “a battle a day” and Paisley agreed: “Hell would have been let loose, probably every morning.” But it would have been political hell, not terrorist hell: all of the IRA’s weapons were to be “decommissioned”, and normal, democratic political life would resume in Northern Ireland after a hiatus of over three decades. Then it all blew up in everybody’s faces.

The IRA stopped attacking the local police and British soldiers after the ceasefire of 1994, but it never abandoned violence in its own Catholic areas: dozens of people were kiolled over the years for “transgressions” ranging from drug trafficking to winning fistfights against IRA members in bars. It didn’t abandon its “fund-raising” activities, either: smuggling, extortion, money-laundering and occasional robberies. Just last year it carried out a $2 million supermarket robbery in May, a bank heist in September, and a $4 million cigarette robbery in October.

The British government had long turned a blind eye to the IRA’s involvement in these crimes in order not to damage the “peace process”, but that crashed anyway in December when Ian Paisley demanded that there be at least photographic proof that the IRA was really “decommissioning” its weapons and the IRA refused. (Gerry Adams explained that the IRA would “not submit to a process of humiliation.”) Then came history’s biggest bank job, followed by the murder of Robert McCartney and the extraordinary arrogance of the IRA’s response. It has evolved into a primarily criminal organisation with a paramilitary veneer.

That evolution was almost inevitable during the long years of the ceasefire. IRA active-service units are populated by “hard men” for whom violence is a normal tool. For the past eleven years they have been operating exclusively against soft and often highly profitable targets, while the discipline and self-sacrifice that was required for operating against hard military and police targets gradually melted away. They have turned into a kind of mafia, and Sinn Fein must break its ties with the IRA or face a bleak political future.

Sinn Fein has split five times in the past hundred years, and three times the split ended in bloodshed. Now it has to split again, and the possibility of bloodshed cannot be excluded this time either. But the chance of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland will be better if it takes the leap than if it does not.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The contradiction…faces”)

Catholics and Palestinians

22 October 2003

For ‘Catholics’, Read’Palestinians’

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s hard to guess which group would be angrier about being compared to the other, Israeli Jews or Northern Irish Protestants. The Islamist gunmen of Hamas would be outraged to hear themselves equated to the Catholic gunmen of the Irish Republican Army, and vice versa, too Yet the comparison is there to be made: the political and demographic situation of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland is very like that of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. And in Northern Ireland, the Catholics already sense that they are going to win.

There was political chaos in Northern Ireland last Tuesday (21 October). British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern had both flown into Belfast to preside over a ceremony that would mark the symbolic end of the long guerilla insurgency by the IRA in the British province. It’s over five years since the Good Friday Agreement ended all the shooting and bombing, but everyone is still in much need of ‘closure’. Only it didn’t quite happen.

There has been some unravelling of the peace process recently, with Protestants doubting that the IRA would ever really abandon its guns and the IRA leadership determined to do nothing that would signal military defeat or surrender. After a generation of direct rule from London democracy returned to Northern Ireland, but the elected assembly in which Catholic and Protestant parties uncomfortably shared power was suspended last year after the IRA was caught spying on government officials. So this occasion was meant to bind up all the wounds.

The event that would provide a symbolic end to the war was to be the third and largest act of ‘decommissioning’ of weapons by the IRA,. The day began well, with Tony Blair proclaiming a new election to the Northern Irish assembly on 28 November and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein (the IRA’s political front), vowing to “bring an end to conflict on our island, including physical force republicanism.”

But then Canadian General John de Chastelain, head of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, said that he had seen some more IRA weapons ‘put beyond use’ — but he wasn’t allowed to say when, or where, or how many weapons, or what proportion they were of the IRA’s remaining arsenal. The IRA was willing to give up some arms in the cause of peace, but it just couldn’t bear to let anybody see it publicly renounce its weapons after a century of romanticising the gunman as the ultimate Irish Catholic hero.

In the face of that act of childishness, David Trimble, head of the largest Protestant party in Northern Ireland, responded with one of his own and walked out, leaving Tony Blair to say helplessly that he wouldn’t have walked if he could only be told how many weapons the IRA had decommissioned. So everyone is in disarray, and even the November election and the restoration of democratic rule in Northern Ireland are now uncertain. Yet there is no chance that the province will slide back into war. Why?

Because the 2001 census revealed that Protestants, who were 63 percent of Northern Ireland’s population forty years ago, are now barely a majority: 53 percent of the province’s 1.5 million people and dropping fast. Catholics have risen from 35 to 44 percent, and will probably have a clear majority by 2010: there were 173,000 Catholic children in Northern Ireland’s schools last year, compared to only 144,000 Protestants. So the IRA no longer needs violence to end British rule; Sinn Fein can do it through electoral politics.

The British government will not resist that outcome, if it is achieved legitimately, because the British people lost interest in hanging onto the province long ago: according to a Guardian/ICM poll two years ago, 46 percent of Britons would prefer to see Northern Ireland merged with the Irish Republic, compared to only 21 percent who want to keep it in Britain. So of course Sinn Fein wants the assembly restored: nothing seems to stand between it and victory except time.

Now compare this situation with Israel and the occupied territories, where today there are 5.5 million Israeli Jews and 4.5 million Palestinians. Only one million of those Palestinians live in Israel proper, which is therefore guaranteed a permanent Jewish majority despite a much higher Palestinian birth-rate — but in ‘Greater Israel’ Palestinians will outnumber Israeli Jews as early as 2010. So you can have a Jewish, democratic Israel within the country’s pre-1967 borders, or a Greater Israel that is either Jewish, or democratic, but not both.

That was the original British mistake at the partition of Ireland in 1922. In being greedy about the borders of the new, Protestant Northern Ireland, it included hundreds of thousands of Catholics with a much higher birth-rate. So greater Northern Ireland could not forever be both Protestant and democratic; eventually it would have to choose. In fact, since the British government calls the shots and will not condone permanent suppression of Catholic rights, the choice will make itself. It’s just a matter of time.

Northern Ireland is twenty to thirty years ahead of Israel: carved out of the new Irish republic in 1925, whereas Israel was carved out of Palestine in 1947; plunged into a bloody 25-year guerilla war in 1969, whereas the intifada in Greater Israel only started three years ago. But both countries are travelling the same road, and both face the same choice sooner or later.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“The British…time”; and “That was…time”)