Earlier this week the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) announced its long-delayed decision to not only lay down its guns but to actually allow for the decommissioning of all stockpiled weapons and miscellaneous armaments scattered throughout Ireland. It makes you wonder what in hell it had hidden around the country. On top of that, what was it planning on doing with it all?
I have to wonder what reactions will be like when these stockpiles are revealed. It’s long been known they have plenty of munitions, explosives, and small/ light arms but what might they have been storing up for a rainy day? A few surface to air missiles, anti-personnel mines, and any number of the newer and lighter methods of inflicting harm on your fellow human beings that are available these days.
The I.R.A. has long ceased to have any real relevance as a political force. Its brand of terrorism in the name of nationalism has always had the scent of a protection racket about it. Recent events like the murder outside of a pub of somebody who had made derogatory remarks about them only served to further tarnish their image.
I don’t think there is any coincidence concerning the timing of this announcement either. Coming as it does only weeks after the largest bombing to hit London since the I. R. A’s last wave of bombings it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure out which way the wind’s blowing. They have to realize that people’s enthusiasm for their “armed struggle” has waned to almost non-existent.
The thing that has always puzzled me is how people have romanticized the I.R.A. Throughout North America they were turned into some heroic figures standing up to an invading force. Pour a few pints of bitter down somebody’s throat, sing a few sad songs about the potato famine and everybody is ready to throw money in a jar to pay for guns to kill women and children.
But when the same people talked about the Palestine Liberation Organization, or the African National Congress, they called them terrorists. The only difference being the colour of their skin and their religion. Nobody in mainstream North America ever referred to Yassar Arafat as plucky or heroic, words nearly always associated with the I.R.A. by their supporters.
Up until recently a common element of St. Patrick’s Day parades would be some sort of semi-secret show of support for “the lads”. How many of those people knew or cared that St. Patrick was a British-born child of Roman parents? Or that the snakes he drove out of Ireland were the original Irish people who refused to give up their traditional way of life and surrender to the invading Christian church. Irony has never been the strong suit of the fanatical.
Now this is not to deny the injustices that have been served upon the people of Ireland. There is no doubt that over the centuries that little island has suffered sufficient indignities for a country ten time its size. Even the myths of the country obsess with its occupation and conquest. The Book Of Invasions a mythic history, details six invading races , five of them prior to the Celts.(The Celtic Tradition: Caitlin Matthews pg. 11-12: Element Books Ltd. 1995.) The Celts were the first people it seemed who were capable of repelling invaders, as they managed to keep the Roman’s at bay.
It wasn’t until Norman England had been established that Ireland came under the influence of the British Throne. But the real problems didn’t begin until Henry Vlll decided he wanted a divorce. The birth of a Protestant church, or at least a church that didn’t recognise the pope as it’s leader, was the spike that drove the biggest wedge between the two islands.
Queen Elizabeth l instituted what has since become known as the Plantation of Northern Ireland. With the final conquest of Ulster in the North and the exile of its land owners, colonists were lured to Ireland with the promise of free land. The native Irish were exiled to the bogs and mountains, while the English speaking Protestants were given all the farming territory. A whole new culture was transplanted and installed.
But the Irish wouldn’t give up easily and it wasn’t until Cromwell usurped King Charles l in the 1600s that they came completely under the thumb of the English. In one of histories lovelier examples of ethnic cleansing the Puritan armies descended upon Ireland bent on stamping out the papists.
The invasion was accompanied by the usual incidences of murder, rape, and butchery that we have come to associate with religious-driven warfare. Lands were seized and deeded over to Protestant nobility. This began the establishment of the class structure existent until even this day of poor Catholics and ruling Protestants. By 1703 all but 5% of land in Northern Ireland was in the hands of non-Catholics. Elizabeth’s plantation was complete.
Pretty much since that time underground rebellion has existed in one form or another. Various efforts of the English to repress Irish nationalism have met with little or no success. The attempted banning and elimination of the Irish language in the 1700’s only resulted in a strengthening of resistance.
That which we now euphemistically refer to as “The Troubles” can be traced back to the horrors of the potato famine. When blight destroyed the one cheap staple of the poor Irish people, thousands died, and thousands more fled into exile either across the Irish Sea to England or the Atlantic Ocean to Canada and the United States.
Not surprisingly very few wanted to go to still British Canada and ended up in the new republic south of the border. It was these expatriate Irish people who became the hot-bed of nationalistic support for the “boys back home”. Initially they were more than just financiers, and formed brigades of Fenians (named for the legendary Irish warrior Finn MaCool) to fight the British in Canada.
The Fenians were just another in a long line of fighters trying to resist against British rule for a variety of reasons. Some people viewed it as a class war, the poor against the rich. Others saw it as a fight for freedom of religion, while for others yet again it was all about nationhood.
These internal divisions plagued the 19th century and early twentieth century nationalistic movement in Ireland. One of its leaders, Nicholas Parnell was hounded to death by the clergy for an extra-marital affair. Others like Michael Collins were killed by fellow nationalists who felt that agreeing to the partitioning of Southern and Northern Ireland was a betrayal.
It was in 1921 that the partitioning of Ireland came into effect. The six counties of Northern Ireland were given over to the rule of the Protestant majority who had lived there since the times of Elizabeth. With their population only representing a third of the total, Catholics soon became marginalized first by circumstance, and than by policy. With the police, education, social services, and local governance all in the hands of Protestants they had little or no say in any matters of governments.
With permanent state of emergency laws in effect giving the police carte blanche, and a system of economic discrimination in place against Catholics it is no wonder that Irish nationalists in the South were continually struggling for unification. But it wasn’t until the British government who oversaw Northern Ireland introduced a series of reforms, including free schooling, that any base of support could be found amongst the Catholics in the North.
Obviously the preceding was a rather simplistic and skimpy retelling of those events, leaving out highlights like the Easter rebellion of 1916, and many other incidents of significance. Conflict In Northern Ireland is a wonderful site where I gleaned these highlights. For those interested in more historical data I would direct you there.
It was this mess that caused a resurgence of “The Troubles” for the past thirty years. Who came up with this romantic name for the killing of on average a couple hundred of people a year during that time I don’t know. But as romance has always been a major factor in the I.R.A’s popular appeal abroad I would hazard a guess that they are behind it’s origins.
Northern Ireland was created as a sop to the Protestant minority within the whole of Ireland. They were the descendants of the people who “colonized” the land during the reign of Elizabeth 1. They were used to positions of wealth and power and did not want to lose their sway over affairs in their fiefdoms. Under a unified Ireland they would just become one more citizen subject to the same laws and responsibilities as any other.
The maintaining of this last colony is an insult to the people of Ireland and one of the more backward situations in the world. It is as if after South Africa gained majority rule one small enclave was retained where apartheid continued. While the majority enjoyed freedom and rights, a minority continued on as virtual slaves.
But the activities of the I.R.A. have never accomplished anything except to put people’s backs up against the Catholic Irish minority in that region. The trust that is needed to continue the reunification process is next to non-existent. Acts like the murder of Lord Louis Montbatten, a cousin of the Queen, and a much beloved public figure, are hard to forget.
Now that the pendulum of public opinion has swung so far away from supporting any type of terrorist activity, they may have finally woken up to the fact that they will never accomplish their goal of reunification through violence. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the upswing in one brand of terrorism actually results in the resolution of a centuries old situation?
Stranger things have happened in the world’s history, and it would be nice for something good to come of all the horror we have lived through in the past little while. But one thing is for sure, that when peace is finally worked out for the people of Ireland, and their country is unified again, it will have been in spite of the I.R.A. not because of them.
light edit: NB