Review: Northern Ireland’s incomplete peace

Issue 

Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace
Feargal Cochrane
Yale University Press, 2013
368 pp, $38.00

Reginald Maudling, the Tory Home Secretary who oversaw the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland, perfectly expressed the British ruling class’s blend of condescension and indifference towards Ireland when he blurted out to his staff: “For God’s sake bring me a large Scotch — what a bloody awful country.”

As his policies created mayhem on the streets of Ulster, he coined the cute phrase “acceptable level of violence” to describe what was going on.

Maudling was just one of a long line of reactionary British politicians who fashioned a culture of violence in Ireland. For centuries, as Feargal Cochrane usefully summarises, British policy had aimed at control and the extraction of profit from their first colony, no matter the consequences.

Kicked out from 26 of Ireland's 32 counties by the 1919–21 War of Independence, Britain maintained a stranglehold on its last remaining sliver of Ireland through ruthless gerrymandering of electoral boundaries that favoured pro-British Protestant loyalists.

The anti-democracy was backed up by a fascistic police militia called the B-Specials.

Cochrane writes that there is even an underground wall separating Protestant and Catholic sections of the Belfast cemetery to segregate the dead. Such is the sectarian nightmare Britain helped foster on the six counties it still claims in Ireland's north.

In the late 1960s, peaceful student protesters, inspired by Martin Luther King, marched for civil rights, drawing international attention to the unendurable suffering of the nationalist (largely Catholic) minority. The end was in sight for the unaccountable, discriminatory Ulster system.

Civil rights marchers were set upon by loyalist thugs, leading to heroic street battles. In response, British troops were sent to “restore order”. This translated to even greater repression for the nationalist community.

All illusions in British justice evaporated with the Bloody Sunday murders. British paratroopers opened fire on unarmed civilians, killing 14.

Civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin, having been elected to Westminster, tried to tell the House what she had witnessed on Bloody Sunday, but was denied the right to speak. Instead, Maudling rose and said British troops had been fired upon and acted in self-defence.

Devlin, to her eternal glory, strode across the House and slapped him across the face — for which she was suspended from sitting for six months.

British policy led directly to the emergence of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA)and the armed conflict that lasted decades and spread to the British mainland.

Along the way, the IRA destroyed the edifice of the Northern Ireland government, necessitating long-term direct administration from London

Cochrane, a professor of international conflict analysis at Kent University, has an academic’s appraisal of this.

Rather than a class analysis, he sees the problem as “contested identities” that people have difficulty settling “without resorting to violence”.

“The simple answer to this is because violence has worked in Northern Ireland,” he says. “More precisely, it has worked for some people some of the time, in a manner that the democratic political process has not.”

Cochrane says that in the political vacuum of direct Westminster rule, paramilitaries (both nationalist and loyalist) and London politicians had “power and leverage”, rather than locally elected Northern Ireland politicians.

He said this “led to disinterest and disdain for the local political process”.

He refers to the interaction of British armed forces with loyalist death squads, but fails to really drive home the point that the loyalist paramilitaries served as an unofficial arm of British policy, not as fully independent actors.

This is shown today in the fact that, while the IRA has totally disarmed and joined the political process, loyalist paramilitaries have not. Instead, they turned into murderously squabbling gangsters.

Cochrane’s book is a well-researched account of the long drawn out peace process. For students of “game theory”, the Northern Ireland negotiations are a classic example of dialogues that occur when there is zero trust on all sides.

For decades, the British government, the IRA, the Republic of Ireland government, the loyalists and the US government warily circled each other and inched towards agreement. All that held the talks together was the recognition that neither the IRA nor the British could score an outright military victory.

A vital element that Cochrane draws out is that in the absence of democracy, non-government community groups grew powerful and pushed hard for a resolution to the suffering.

Within the limits of his academic outlook, Cochrane is insightful. His historical summaries are effective and, being born and bred in Ulster, he has an insider’s view that sometimes peeks through, spiced with humour.

Today, former IRA leaders sit in a power-sharing governmental structure, with former intransigent loyalist leaders administering a government whose budget is still controlled by a British government committed to austerity.

Distrust abounds and, as Cochrane points out, there is little advancement towards ending sectarianism and discrimination on the ground.

But people are no longer killing each other on a large scale, and for such small mercies, Cochrane says, most are grateful.