The latest “troubles” in Northern Ireland began 45 years ago, and though much reduced, sometimes to invisibility, they are not over yet and will not be for some time. Protests over the Republican-dominated Belfast Council’s decision to fly the Union Jack just on certain days happened again over the weekend, if smaller and less violent than in the past few weeks.
This is what can happen after more than a century of demand for Irish independence: violence, on both sides, takes time to lose its attraction, and its adherents. Yet the bid for Irish unity, which from the late sixties to the late nineties was written almost daily in blood, has failed. Now, as we’re witnessing what may be its long withdrawal from politics, republicanism may not have another chance.
Sinn Fein, for nearly all of its life a front organisation of the IRA, has made an accommodation with unionism. Its two leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness – respectively once heads of IRA brigades in the seventies and eighties – have not just implicitly accepted the partition of the island, but have called for the nationalist community to work with the police (whom they previously sought to slaughter). They have also denounced those republicans who carry on terrorism under the name of the Real IRA as ‘traitors to Ireland.’ In a much quoted observation, the historian Paul Bew quipped that “the IRA is too intelligent to admit that they have lost and the Unionists too stupid to realise they have won.” This is what the 1998 Belfast Agreement brought.
Bringing Sinn Fein in from the cold was the raison d’etre for the Belfast Agreement. At its core, it was a negotiation between the British state and a terrorist-nationalist group, of the kind Britain has often carried off through the past century.
The prism through which moderate unionists see the current events is to hope that the status quo will hold. Most do not like people whom they regard as murderers or apologists for murder being deputies and ministers in the Northern Ireland assembly. But peace eases the disgust, as does a return of tourism to Northern Ireland.