A return to war in Ireland?

Northern Ireland

The recent attack on a British army base in Antrim by, it appears, so-called republican dissidents, will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with politics in the six counties of Ireland or who’s spent even a small amount of time there.

What has always seemed clear is that the peace process in Northern Ireland was cobbled together in state rooms and government ministries. It involved throwing money at the communities involved in a clear attempt to buy their support, hoping that in time the contradiction that lies at the root of the conflict – namely partition – would recede in importance in line with a peace dividend in the form of prosperity and a boom in consumption.

This latest attack, in which two British soldiers have been killed and four injured, comes fast on the heels of the controversy surrounding revelations that the chief constable of the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) had requested the help of British special forces in gathering intelligence on dissident republicans, revealing an increase in organisation and activity by those republicans intent on resuming the war. Ultimately, both the news of British special forces being sent to the province, and now this attack, reminds us that the underlying causes of the conflict haven’t gone away. More importantly, it will place enormous pressure on the leadership of Sinn Fein by the British government and unionist parties to cooperate with the security services in apprehending and nullifying the threat posed by any resurgence of physical force republicanism in the province.

The Peace Process was well named given the years it took to get from the IRA’s original ceasefire in 1994 to the formation of a devolved government in the province in May 2007, signed up to by mainstream unionism and republicanism. This process went through a temporary setback in 1996, when the IRA broke the ceasefire due to the stance taken by the then British government, under John Major, on the decommissioning of weapons. It got back on track shortly thereafter, and in 1998 US Senator George Mitchell presided over talks which bore fruit in the form of the Good Friday Agreement. As for the IRA, despite announcing their original ceasefire back in 1994, it wasn’t until 2005 that they formally announced the end of the armed struggle and pledged to decommission all weapons.

In July 2007, two months after Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) formed a government, the British Army announced the end of Operation Banner, the name given their military operation in the province that began in 1969.

The significance of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness working together as First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively of the nascent Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont seemed entirely justified. Throughout the Troubles, Ian Paisley personified loyalist intransigence and a commitment to preserving the status quo of loyalist ascendancy in the province. Martin McGuinness was a former IRA commander in Derry, whose status among the ranks was largely responsible for bringing on board the so-called ‘hard men’ of the IRA who were reluctant to end the war.

The mere fact of these two men, each representative of the hardcore in their respective movements, working together in government was proof to many that the war and, more importantly, the hatred underpinning the war, had absolutely and finally come to an end.

But has it?

Passing through the likes of Armagh, Newry, Portadown, Loughgall, small towns the names of which are internationally known as a result of the war, there’s little sign that the separation between both communities lasting generations has in any way dissipated. Marking the entrance to loyalist working class housing estates in every town are an abundance of Union Jacks, Red Hand of Ulster flags, red, white, and blue bunting, lampposts and kerb stones painted red, white, and blue, along with crests of King Billy and various other symbols in deference to loyalist militarism. Orange Order halls are also common, meeting places for an organisation which more than any other in the North represents a tradition of loyalist and protestant domination. Driving into Loughgall, for example, you pass under a massive arch painted red, white, and blue, over which a large metal crest of protestant King Billy on a white horse looks down imperiously, leaving visitors and residents in no doubt who rules in this part of the world.

As for the security apparatus, whilst there are no longer British Army patrols and armoured cars out on the streets, nor military helicopters flying overhead (especially in South Armagh, where the British Army and security forces were forced to abandon the road to the IRA at the height of the conflict), you still get a feeling that a heightened security apparatus is in place. Police stations in every town are more like armed fortresses, replete with high walls, wire fencing and watchtowers. Atop hills and mountains as you drive around the countryside are listening masts, used by the security and intelligence services for surveillance and which still appear operational.

Moving up to Belfast, the contradiction between the modern face of the six counties which the establishment is eager to project, and a past defined by over 30 years of war and conflict, is very much in evidence. The centre of the city is no different to that you will find in any modern European city. It is vibrant, affluent, and judging by the sheer number of construction cranes dotting the landscape, booming (at least in the summer of 2007 just before the credit crunch began). An abundance of cafes, restaurants, designer stores, and upmarket bars clog the streets, and the demographic seems predominately young. Indeed, passing Queens University, the energy and dynamism produced by so many young people out on the street is palpable.

But move out to the outskirts, to West, East, North and South Belfast, and you enter a different world. Despite the peace process, these areas remain citadels of sectarianism in the case of loyalist areas, and uncompromising resistance to British rule in republican areas. The preponderance of so-called ‘peace walls’ separating republican and loyalist communites, and the obvious continued attachment to their separate identities and traditions, rubbishes any notion of a meaningful peace bringing them together. Each community is decidedly off limits to members of the other, and the pride which each takes in their martyrs and the war is immediately evident in the elaborate wall murals which abound.

Clearly, the underlying cause of the conflict, partition and the contradictions it has wrought, still lies at the heart of society in the six counties. That said, whether any return to militant republicanism will enjoy popular support in republican communities, after 12 years of relative peace, is the key question – one that will largely determine whether or not we see British troops once again patrolling the streets of Belfast.


  1. Let is prayb that the Irish do not make the same mistake as the Sri Lankans: mistaking cease-fire for peace. Peace is an ongoing process of working hard to address the underlying causes of the shooting war. Until those causes have been addressed, the impetus for war still simmers.

    I visited Batticaloa in 1998 when it was under siege, and Sinhala settlements in the northeast as the LTTE was about to overrun them in 1999. Sinhala and Tamil civilians both told me, “We don’t want to fight.” Yet the war went on, because neither leadership really represented its constitutency.

    I remember well my 2006 visit to Anuradhapura and Batticaloa, two Sri Lanka cities that had been severaly impacted by the war. During the cease fire, small businesses sprouted along the roads. In Batticaloa, formerly-abandoned buildings again bustled with commerce. Peace is good for business! But we (the peacemakers) had dropped the ball following the CFA in 2002, and already the two combatants were moving toward a resumption of hostilities, despite the desire of the Sri Lankan people for peace…

    • DJ’s insipid view of the Sri Lankan conflict aside — I think the point about the Six Counties is captured here with a historical focus that is totally lost on DJ: “Clearly, the underlying cause of the conflict, partition and the contradictions it has wrought, still lies at the heart of society in the six counties. That said, whether any return to militant republicanism will enjoy popular support in republican communities, after 12 years of relative peace, is the key question – one that will largely determine whether or not we see British troops once again patrolling the streets of Belfast.”

      The complication is how is this “underlying cause of the conflict and the contradictions it has wrought” resolved?

      That’s a political question which challenges Sinn Fein’s unconditional embrace of Stormont. I suggest that’s why the “underlying cause of the conflict” has not been resolved– the Good Friday Agreement has failed, not to end the war but to secure even a semblance of justice for nationalists in the Six Counties.

      The tragedy is that Sinn Fein dissidents are locked into the dead end tactic of militarism and the whole history of Republicanism has been a ping pong tactical exercise of bouncing between electoralism and the gun.

      And DJ (who has not commented at all on the current level of genocide in Sri Lanka nor lamented its savagery) would do well to note that fact too. (The quintessential marker of liberals like DJ is their dedicated preference for averting their eyes ).

      Do the Irish Nationalists in the Six Counties have a just cause? Does the Tamil Minority in Sri Lanka have a just cause? Do the Palestinians brutalised and dispossessed by Israel for 60 years have a just cause? You betcha:Clearly, the underlying cause of the conflict…still lies at the heart of society …

      • DJ’s not a liberal, and he’s mentioned the mass killings in Sri Lanka before. Just throwing that out there…

        • Indeed, DJ has mentioned the killings in Sri Lanka extensively. And shooting at pizza delivery men will not bring people to your cause. Quite the opposite, more likely.

      • Have you ever read my work, Dave? It doesn’t sound like it. Because I am very clear about two things: (1) There has been no respect for life or human rights in Sri Lanka– by either combatant party. And that includes intra-ethnic as well as inter-ethnic– both sides have killed plenty of “their own” civilians as well as each other’s– tens of thousands in the case of Sinhalese civilians killed by GOSL, a non-civil-war-related number comparable to the total number of people killed in the conflict. And (2) The underlying conflict in Sri Lanka has little to do with the Tamils, they just happen to be caught in the middle of an intra-Sinhala conflict.

        Do the Tamils have a just cause? Absolutely. Does the LTTE represent that cause? Sadly not. They never have– they represent a low-caste minority of Tamils whose original beef was as much against the Tamils who kept them oppressed as against the government. There was a time (during the CFA) when LTTE made noises about moving toward democracy. How serious they were we never found out– those noises stopped as soon as the war resumed. (For that matter GOSL doesn’t fairly represent the Sinhalese, either. A just settlement in Sri Lanka would benefit both the Tamils and Sinhalese– and give the Tamils what they so desperately want– at the expense of both LTTE and GOSL.)

        As for genocide, there’s a definitional problem: there’s no concerted effort to wipe out the Tamils as a people. There IS a concerted effort to disempower (and keep them disempowered) by GOSL. There IS a complete lack of respect for life toward them by both GOSL and LTTE (and Karuna as well). But aside from a small handful of fringe (so-called) Buddhists, no one talks of eliminating them completely. Genocide makes a press-worthy claim, but it just doesn’t exist in Sri Lanka.

        The current slaughter is appalling– and both GOSL and LTTE are to blame for not permitting civilians to leave the area. It’s not the first time LTTE has used human shields, but it’s the first time I’m aware of that GOSL has ignored those human shields and conducted an all-out assault anyway. The current administration has, in my opinion, devolved into terrorists just like their partners– uh, opponents.

        Back to the question at hand: “Clearly, the underlying cause of the conflict…still lies at the heart of society…” It takes pressure to address those underlying causes– but shooting rarely does the trick. In fact, too often when someone tries to resolve those issues while a shooting war continues, one side or the other assassinates him or her. That’s why there are so few peacemakers and potential peacemakers left on either side in Sri Lanka– neither combatant has any use for them.

  2. PS: and while that underlying cause exists — as the Irish say, “Ireland unfree will never be at peace.”

    The complication is that the justice of the struggle does not suddenly cease to exist because the LTTE or Sinn Fein dissidents or Hamas pick up a gun instead of a placard.

    Because some of these oppressed people use military means it doesn’t follow that by default you side with the oppressing power. If you did then you’d have to denigrate the American struggle for Independence. If you did that then the US belongs in Afghanistan and Germany’s occupation of France in the forties was preferable to the terrorism deployed by the French Resistance….

  3. Dave:

    Because some of these oppressed people use military means it doesn’t follow that by default you side with the oppressing power.


    Very well said.

  4. Hullo,Lets just face it These paramilataries or what ever they call themselves are low life thugs and murderers who would be up to the same old behaviour what ever country they lived in, they have no honest employment and the majority never finished school due to there parents been the same cut of the old cloth, the british government should have nothing to do with them, and save us tax payers a fortune,because the public in britain could not care wheather notrthern irland fell into the sea tommorrow or not. the romanian gypsies and people from eastern europe are ten times the people this paddies-loyalists are because lets face it there all low life the same spongers.

    • Buckets of blood were spilled on all sides. The IRA used to give a “six pack” to suspected collaborators / informers. They would shoot the person with a .22 in the knees, shoulders, and elbows. The other sides did equally barbarous things.

      Martin McGuiness just said, “I was a member of the IRA, but that war is over now.” May it stay that way. And may the very real grievances that are still there get resolved too.

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