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Are the Troubles Over?

Yet the need to send these brutal messages, repeated again and again in many different ways, helps to explain one of the most significant absences of the conflict. What Donald L. Horowitz has called the “deadly ethnic riot”—an “intense, sudden but not necessarily wholly unplanned lethal attack by civilian members of one group on civilian members of another”—which has characterized brutal civil conflicts in India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, and elsewhere, hardly featured in the long history of the Troubles.5 The political conditions for this kind of mass violence certainly existed in Northern Ireland, and it was a feature of political life in the province in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, in July and August 1969, precisely this kind of ethnic riot broke out in the cities of Belfast and Derry, leaving ten people dead, 154 suffering from gunshot wounds, hundreds injured in other ways, and large areas of both cities devastated.6

But mass intercommunal violence did not take hold. One obvious reason is the intervention of the British army in August 1969 and the gradual militarization of the conflict. There is, though, a deeper reason. There was simply not enough support on either side for a sustained campaign of civilian attacks on other civilians. Even at times of extreme tension, ordinary Protestants and Catholics showed, after the initial wave of violence, no desire to invade each other’s ghettos in order to kill, maim, and humiliate the other side. For most ordinary people, ethnic and sectarian hatred was not deep enough to generate such acts. The apparent integrity of the quarrel was maintained not by the psychotic atavism of the general population but by the terror campaigns of small armed minorities on both sides and by the generally incompetent and sometimes brutal responses to those campaigns of successive British governments.

Both republican and Loyalist terror groups presented their violence as essentially defensive. The IRA, which killed nearly half of those who died in the Troubles, claimed to be a reaction against the unlawful and unjust occupation by Britain of part of the historic territory of Ireland. The Loyalist gangs wanted their murders to be understood as a defense of the Protestant and British community against IRA aggression. Even in their own terms, however, neither of these claims was in fact sustainable. Of the 1,771 people killed by the IRA, just 455 belonged to the British armed forces. Even if members of the local police and military auxiliaries—all, in the IRA’s ideology, fellow Irish people—are included, not much more than half of their victims were casualties of the kind of “war” they said they were fighting. 7 In the case of the Loyalists, the myth of a struggle against republican aggressors is even more flimsy. Figures compiled by the independent Cost of the Troubles Study and published as Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The Human Costs show that of more than a thousand people whose deaths can be attributed to Loyalist paramilitaries, just twenty-nine were serving or former members of the IRA or its allies. The overwhelming majority of their victims were innocent Catholics chosen purely on the basis of their religion.

More important for the long-term prospects for peace, however, is the fact that both sets of paramilitaries also made war on their own communities. Far from being a natural outgrowth of the festering animosities of ordinary Catholics and Protestants, the terror gangs found it necessary to enforce their authority within their own territories by repeated brutality. This was true even within their own ranks. While the British army and the police killed 115 members of the IRA, the IRA was responsible for the deaths of 149 of its own members. Over twice as many Loyalist paramilitaries were killed by their own colleagues as by the IRA. While many of these deaths were a result of accidents like premature explosions, many others were deliberate killings of alleged informers or dissidents, or, as in the violence which has claimed three further lives in recent weeks, feuds between rival paramilitary groups.

In the wider communities which they purported to defend, meanwhile, the gangs acted as aggressors. While the British army killed 138 members of the Catholic community, the IRA killed 198. Even in its own stronghold of West Belfast, where the civilian population was the target of random assassinations by Loyalist gangs, the IRA still managed to kill more local people than the Loyalists did. And this is without taking into consideration the thousands of beatings, maimings, and tortures that make up the paramilitaries’ continuing system of local “justice.”

All of this internal violence was necessary because the communities in which the paramilitaries operated were not made up of fanatical zealots driven by inherited hatreds. This reality, hidden by the mutually reinforcing propaganda of both sides, explains why, to this day, the best-kept secret of Northern Ireland is that even with all the polarizing effects of violence, the general population did not form itself into two monolithic blocs, one Protestant and loyal to Britain, the other Catholic and bent on uniting the province with the rest of Ireland. Though it is almost never mentioned by politicians or journalists, the extraordinary truth revealed by studies of popular attitudes is that a very significant and consistent proportion of the population refuses to be categorized as either unionist or nationalist. In the combined Northern Ireland Social Attitudes Surveys from 1989 to 1995, almost 40 percent of respondents fall into this “none of the above” category. Half of them are Catholics, the other half Protestants.8 Within both communities, in other words, a very significant element of the population does not even identify with the official ideology of the tribe, let alone support the use of violence to further that ideology.

How, then, could the presence and significance of this third political identity remain such a secret? The reason the people who refuse to be categorized tend to vanish from accounts of the Troubles is that, lacking any strong affiliation with a political party, they are largely invisible. Many of them are so disillusioned and despairing that they don’t vote at all. Others vote for the least extreme varieties of unionism or nationalism that present themselves within their communities. Only a small minority vote for parties like Alliance that specifically try to transcend the sectarian divide. Thus a diverse public opinion, with a huge middle ground, is represented by a polarized political system in which Protestants are assumed to be unionists and Catholics to be nationalists. Though less traumatically than Jean McConville, these nonaligned people are also made to disappear.

Nor, except for sporadic attempts at protest, did this third section of the population ever manage to revolt against the paramilitaries. Well-justified fear was a powerful inhibition. So too, however, especially in the Catholic community, was a genuine ambivalence. To tell the police where the IRA had stored its guns or who had carried out a particular act of violence was to side with the security forces who treated you and your neighbors as “stupid Micks.” Malachi O’Doherty captures this ambivalence perfectly in The Trouble with Guns:

As the transition to greater violence continued, I felt myself losing my own moral bearings. By 1971 I could, for instance, have been well able to point the police towards men on the run and to the likely positions of stores of arms and explosives. I didn’t do that because I didn’t trust them to come in and deal fairly. I wasn’t siding with the IRA, but I wasn’t siding with anybody.

Yet in one, albeit negative, sense, these uninvolved people retained a powerful presence. Their quiet, even silent, refusal to get involved thwarted the aims of the paramilitaries. The IRA was able to retain enough control in its own areas to prevent people like Malachi O’Doherty from betraying them to the police. But they could never win enough active support, particularly in the Republic of Ireland, where most Irish Catholic nationalists live, to have a realistic prospect of forcing the British to withdraw. As this reality became unavoidable, the IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein9 switched to a strategy of combining armed propaganda with electioneering, the so-called “Armalite and ballot box” approach. Eventually, however, it became clear that so many of its own potential voters were repelled by violence that the IRA itself had become a liability.


While the actual use of violence had become a hindrance to the hard-line Republican Movement as a whole, still, the implicit threat of violence remained a political asset. The hint that if the elected politicians did not get their way, they might, alas, be unable to control the hard men in the background has long been a powerful tactic in Northern Ireland. The Sinn Fein leadership was understandably loath to lose this implicit source of power. Conversely, the other parties to the Belfast Agreement, especially David Trimble’s Unionists, were determined that Sinn Fein would not have this extra leverage. That is why the decommissioning of IRA weapons became such a crucial issue and why the Unionists would not agree to establish the power-sharing Executive envisaged by the Belfast Agreement of April 1998 until the IRA had effectively ceased to be a threat.

The agreement was followed by two years of wrangling, including the establishment of the Executive, followed by its collapse when the IRA failed to deliver on promises to begin the process of decommissioning arms. The republicans were eventually forced to abandon their simultaneous bet on democracy and on terror. In early May, a combination of intense pressure and imaginative thinking by the British and Irish governments led to the IRA’s acceptance of a formula for putting arms “beyond use.” Its arms dumps were to be inspected by independent international figures—Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Marti Atissari of Finland. They were to be sealed and regularly reinspected. The first of these inspections took place in June, within a few weeks of the reestablishment of the Executive.

The scale of this breakthrough is monumental. In effect, the IRA is accepting that armed violence has no legitimate role in the new context created by the implementation of the Belfast Agreement. Just as significantly, in its statement accepting the arms proposals, the IRA defined the political process as one “in which Irish republicans and unionists can, as equals, pursue our respective political objectives peacefully.” As an ideological position, this statement by the IRA that unionism and republicanism are equally legitimate is even more historic than the agreement on arms. While the mechanisms for sealing the dumps put specific weapons beyond use, the recognition of the equal rights of unionists puts the whole notion of a terror campaign aimed at overturning those rights beyond use.

None of this means that Northern Ireland will become, overnight, a peaceful and stable democracy. The two years of sterile maneuvering over decommissioning arms broke the momentum of the April 1998 agreement and allowed the fatalism generated by thirty years of failure to reassert its grip. Political unionism is deeply divided, and at least half of its representatives in the elected assembly are opposed to key aspects of the agreement, especially the presence of two Sinn Fein ministers in the government.10 Dissident republicans, principally in the so-called Real IRA that was responsible for the horrendous Omagh bomb in August 1998—which killed twenty-nine people and injured over two hundred—are attempting to restart an armed terror campaign. Dissident Loyalists, including the Loyalist Volunteer Force and elements within the supposedly pacified Ulster Freedom Fighters, have been making belligerent gestures, most recently in the disturbances at Drumcree during the standoff between Orange Order marchers and Catholics, and also in fighting between the Loyalist paramilitaries themselves.

Neither the LVF nor the UFF is associated with a party that has secured seats in the elected assembly, and, though the UFF’s political wing is strongly committed to the peace process, the large anti-agreement constituency in some Protestant areas is a tempting prospect for gangs hoping to build a power base. Opposition to the agreement also offers political cover for local struggles to control the increasingly lucrative drug trade. Few societies know better than Northern Ireland does the capacity of a small group with access even to primitive arms and explosives to inflict grief and misery on a large scale.

But these are the aftershocks of an upheaval, not the earthquake itself. In a wider perspective, the most significant thing about this year’s Drumcree disturbances is how few people—perhaps a tenth of the number who participated in previous years—actually took part. Likewise, the most significant thing about the Real IRA is the tiny scale of its support base in the Catholic community at a time when the mainstream IRA has just abandoned its basic principles. With the three main sources of violence—the IRA, the main Loyalist paramilitaries, and the state—all now decisively committed to the peace process, the conflict as we have known it since 1968 is over. The task that faces the new political institutions, moreover, is not the almost impossible one of transforming a society saturated in murderous prejudice into a decent democracy. It is the easier, though still formidable, job of reshaping the political system so that it reflects the complex decency of the ordinary people that finally defeated all attempts to reduce them to unflinching bigots.

  1. 5

    Donald L. Horowitz, “Group Loyalty and Ethnic Violence,” in Charles Hermann, Harold K. Jacobson, and Anne S. Moffat, editors, Violent Conflict in the 21st Century: Causes, Instruments and Mitigation (American Academy of Arts and Sciences Midwest Center, 1999), p. 91.

  2. 6

    Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ulster (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1992).

  3. 7

    I have aggregated these figures from the statistical tables in Lost Lives, p. 1484.

  4. 8

    Ireland North and South, p. 479.

  5. 9

    Collectively, Sinn Fein and the IRA refer to themselves as “the Republican Movement,” or simply as “republicans.”

  6. 10

    Democratic Unionist Party, though a few come from the Ulster Unionist Party, whose policy is to support the Agreement.

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