Bobby Sands and the Tragedy of Northern Ireland is a 152-page piece of propaganda on behalf of the Provisional IRA. It consists in about equal parts of hagiography and bad history. The hagiographical part, of which I shall have more to say, concerns the story of Bobby Sands—the young IRA man, and elected MP for Fermanagh, whose death on hunger strike, in Long Kesh Prison, in May 1981, attracted worldwide media attention. Mr. Feehan’s treatment of the story contains little information about Sands, and almost nothing about the activities which led to his arrest and sentence. The “historical” part of the book applies the usual techniques of propagandist historiography: highlighting of enemy atrocities; failing to mention those of one’s own side; converting a far-fetched interpretation of a given event into the narrated event itself, and so on.
In itself, Bobby Sands and the Tragedy of Northern Ireland would not merit extensive attention here. But the phenomenon—Irish Republicanism—of which this book is a product does, I believe, deserve such attention. I propose, therefore, in this essay, to consider Irish Republicanism, both historically and in relation to the present condition of Northern Ireland and the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985, which in March 1986 led to a general strike and violent protest in Northern Ireland and will almost certainly be the cause of more such protest in the months to come. I shall take account of Mr. Feehan’s book insofar as it sheds light on the Irish Republican mystique, the source of the initial drive leading to the present troubles.
The father of Irish Republicanism was Theobald Wolfe Tone, in the French Revolutionary period. Wolfe Tone was one of a number of European patriotes who during the 1790s—in Belgium, Holland, the Rhineland, and various parts of Italy as well as in Ireland—sought to shake off monarchical, aristocratic, clerical, and/or alien rule and turn their countries into sister republics, républiques soeurs of la Grande Nation, Revolutionary France.
Wolfe Tone died, by his own hand, in 1798, as a prisoner of the British. His life and death remained, and remain, an inspiration to Irish physical-force separatists. His aim “to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils,” was also the political aim of the hero of the 1916 Rising, Patrick Pearse, who called Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown “the holiest place in Ireland,” thus deliberately putting Tone above Saint Patrick.
Today the members of the Provisional IRA (“Provos”) claim, not without some warrant, to be following in the footsteps of Tone and Pearse. The considerable element of truth in this claim is a source of constant embarrassment, dull rather than acute, to the principal established democratic political parties in today’s Republic of Ireland. These parties—Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, especially Fianna Fail—profess a commitment to the ideals of Tone and Pearse. Yet it is obvious that today’s Republic of Ireland is not the republic for which Tone and Pearse died. Their republic—never attained in fact, but undying, or undead, as an ideal—was a republic of the whole island of Ireland, totally separate from Britain.
The real-life political entity which today bears the same name as that ideal entity—the Republic of Ireland—is territorially deficient, by the exclusion of the six northeastern counties, still a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And today’s republic—the real-life one, as distinct from the ghost one—is spiritually deficient also, from an Irish Republican point of view. A real-life republic, a democracy expressive of the material demands of ordinary citizens, cannot possibly live up to an ideal, ever-unrealized republic, for which heroes and martyrs died. Yet citizens of the real-life republic feel—at times and dimly, for the most part—a bit guilty about not living up to the ideal republic, the ghost, and vaguely aspire to catching up with it somehow, someday.
The aspiration is feeble—because common sense keeps breaking in—and it is also hopeless. It is hopeless because the ghost republic is not about living up to. It is about dying up to, and killing up to. And these, the sacrificial elements, which are the sole substantial elements of the cult, are looked after by a minority subculture, a sort of hereditary priesthood of blood: the IRA; today, the Provisional IRA.
The ghost republic and its bloody priesthood have a perennially unsettling effect on the real-life republic. Most citizens of the real-life republic don’t really want Northern Ireland; that is, the real-life Northern Ireland. But they do yearn a bit, when they happen to think of it, for a kind of ghost Northern Ireland, an imaginary entity which will someday be united, by consent, with today’s real-life republic, thus making that republic identical, territorially at least, with the republic of Tone and Pearse. This would close a schism (of sorts) in the soul; it would also, it is supposed, make those frightening priests redundant, and end the blood sacrifices.
So successive democratic governments, in the real-life republic, are impelled to lay claim to Northern Ireland, and to assert that the separation of Northern Ireland from the republic constitutes an injustice which must be repaired. It must be repaired, the democratic leaders insist, peacefully and by consent. But as a majority of the population of Northern Ireland passionately and consistently refuses its consent, the injustice in question is most unlikely to be repaired, peacefully and by consent. Since this has become rather obvious by now, the attempt to unite Ireland, peacefully and by consent, turns in practice into unintended legitimation of the Provisional IRA, those who are most committed to the rectification of the injustice which must, by common consent of the majority (around 65 percent, according to polls) of the republic’s citizens, be achieved.
Thus there are “hard” and “soft” versions of the demand for a united Ireland; the hard version being directly inspired by the vision of the ghost republic, and the soft version reflecting the same vision, at second hand. And the two versions share the allegiance of the consciously and politically “Irish” elements in the population of the United States. The hard version in America is what keeps the Provisional IRA going in Ireland itself through money collected in American cities, and through pro-IRA propaganda exercises, using occasions such as the annual St. Patrick’s Day march along Fifth Avenue.
The soft version—of which the principal contemporary exponents are Senators Edward Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—condemns the violence of the Provisional IRA. But it agrees with the Provisional IRA, to the extent that it insists that the only acceptable “solution” to the “problem” is a united Ireland. “By consent,” adds the soft version. But how exactly do you get unity by consent, when that consent is firmly refused—as it is by the Ulster Protestant population, nearly one million people, a majority of the population of Northern Ireland?
I have put that question, on various occasions, to a number of exponents of the soft version, both in Ireland and in the United States. The answers are invariably offhand and hazy, amounting to little more than a verbal shrug. But what the shrug has to imply in the context of “we must have unity by consent” is that, if the Ulster Protestants (Unionists) go on refusing their consent, they have no one but themselves to blame if the Provisionals go on attacking them. Thus the soft version abets the hard version, as the “nice cop” works together with the “touch cop.” New forms of this relationship have now appeared as a result of the Anglo-Irish Agreement concluded between Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher, at Hillsborough in County Down, last November 15. I will consider these later.
At this point it is necessary to consider the religious dimension of Irish Republicanism, which has undergone a notable mutation since the ideology first took shape under the guidance of Theobald Wolfe Tone in the 1790s. Wolfe Tone and his friends, like their contemporary patriotes everywhere, were militant secularists, deists, or atheists, contemptuous of superstition, and especially of Roman Catholic superstition. Wolfe Tone, like most of his comrades in the leadership of the United Irishmen, was a secularist of Protestant background. He and his friends saw themselves as the advance guard of the Enlightenment in still-benighted Ireland, leading their backward Catholic fellow countrymen toward enfranchisement, both from material despotism and from their Romish superstitions.
But when the flame of Irish Republicanism was relit, in the early twentieth century, by the Catholic Patrick Pearse, in the name of Tone, it was a different kind of flame. Tone’s secular ideology meant less than nothing to Pearse. What interested Pearse about Tone was Tone’s sacrifice, which Pearse proposed to emulate, and did in 1916 when, after his surrender, he was promptly executed. And Pearse was emulating not just Tone but Jesus Christ, as the dating of the Easter Rising was meant to exemplify. Pearse’s ideology, wildly remote from Tone’s, was a syncretic mysticism, fusing Irish nationalism and Irish Catholicism into one. And it was Tone’s ironic fate to become the major saint in the Pearsean pantheon. The grave of the man who had set out to emancipate his country from superstition had become “the holiest place in Ireland.”
Anthropologists tell us that, on the collective farms of contemporary western Siberia, shamanism has taken syncretic forms, blending communist teaching with traditional beliefs. In this way the Parisian Communards defeated in 1871 took refuge in Lake Baikal where they were metamorphosed into otters, to whom the Siberian collective farmers of today offer sacrifice in order to ensure fulfillment of their quotas under the Party’s fishery plan.*
The metamorphosis of Theobald Wolfe Tone, in the thaumaturgic hands of Patrick Pearse, is hardly less fishy.
In any case, the mystical Republicanism of Patrick Pearse, unlike the secular Republicanism of (premetamorphic) Tone is an ideology of and for Catholics. Ulster Protestants reject it in all its forms, hard, soft, or disguised (as in the recent Anglo-Irish Agreement). And so, to seek to incorporate Ulster Protestants in any kind of Irish republic is a recipe for holy war. Which is what is already going on, on a small scale and intermittently.
The point is made effectively, though quite inadvertently, in John Feehan’s book on Bobby Sands. Sands’s self-immolation was thoroughly Pearsean, and Mr. Feehan’s exaltation of Sands is in a Pearsean mode (though lacking any trace of Pearse’s power with words). “The conflict has very little to do with religion,” says Mr. Feehan at one point, but his own metaphors and analogies and those of his hero, Sands himself, say something different. Like Pearse, Sands saw himself as one of a line of martyrs for the republic (beginning with Tone) whose sacrifice repeats the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. On receiving a fourteen-year sentence for possession of arms with intent to endanger life, Sands wrote the lines:
The beady eyes they peered at me
The time had come to be,
To walk the lonely road
Like that of Calvary.
And take up the cross of Irishmen
Who’ve carried liberty.
Mr. Feehan takes up this Pearsean hint, which provides the leitmotif for his book. Near the beginning, commenting on Cardinal Hume’s view that men like Sands, by deliberately starving themselves to death, are committing suicide, Mr. Freehan writes: “Jesus Christ could have saved his life when he came before Pilate, but he refused to do so. Did the founder of Christianity therefore commit suicide?” A few pages later on, the perceived resemblance to the founder of Christianity is more boldly suggested:
In the quiet evening silence of Milltown graveyard it seemed as if the Republican Movement had reached its Calvary with no Resurrection in sight, that Bobby Sands had lost and the overwhelming power of the British empire had won yet another victory.
The author goes on to suggest that the Resurrection duly followed, in the shape of the boost given to the Republican cause by the international protests that followed Sands’s death. But the clincher is in the last words of Mr. Feehan’s sixth and final chapter:
In the early hours of the morning of 5 May the immortal soul of one of the noblest young Irishmen of the twentieth century came face-to-face with his Fellow Sufferer and Maker.
Bobby Sands was dead.
There were other fellow sufferers, lower-case ones: the thousands who were either killed, maimed, or bereaved by the devotees of the Irish republic in Mr. Sands’s organization, the Provisional IRA. Those other dead, however, being the wrong kind, are implicitly excluded from what’s seen as a celestial tête-à-tête.
The effect of elevating anyone prepared to kill and die for the republic to the status of Jesus Christ is to annihilate, morally and spiritually, the adversaries of the republic, whom the Republican Christs feel impelled to bump off. Those adversaries of Christ are necessarily cast in the role, if not of Antichrist himself, then of the agents, or at best the dupes, of Antichrist. They deserve no mercy, and that is exactly what they get. This is the very essence of holy war. And Mr. Feehan shows his hero, on his last birthday, receiving with joy an icon of Catholic holy war: “He was thrilled to get a picture of our Lady from a priest in Kerry who had encouraged him to take arms for his oppressed people.” To wit, the Catholics of Northern Ireland.
Theobald Wolfe Tone would hardly have been “thrilled” to get such a present and such a message. But then Wolfe Tone was trying to lead people out of the seventeenth century, while Republicans of our own time have brought the seventeenth century back.
The sole but significant merit of Mr. Feehan’s book is that it provides such authentic whiffs of the emotional mystique which keeps the IRA going, and for which some (though not all) of its members are not merely willing but anxious to die. Nine other prisoners followed Sands’s example, and fasted to death. More sophisticated apologists for “the Republican Movement” (the euphemism for the Provos and their camp followers) like to stress the “modern” and “social” aspects of the movement. Mr. Feehan tries to do that too, with his “very little to do with religion” bit, but he just can’t help blurting out—especially at the emotional high points—some of the obstinately archaic and numinous realities.
The holy war is an incipient reality. But it is not—at least not yet—a war between Catholics-at-large and Protestants-at-large. Most Catholics and most Protestants don’t want to fight one another, and have no craving for martyrdom, or for the seventeenth century. But holy wars are brought on, not by the mass of people on either side, but by quite small numbers of fanaticized pacemakers. In the Irish case, the pacemakers, for more than fifteen years now, have been a minority on the Catholic side: the Pearsean Catholic/Nationalist fusionist fundamentalists of the Provisional IRA. The Pearseans have long—and well before the emergence of the Provisional strain in 1970—been a source of considerable embarrassment and confusion to the leaders, and many other members, of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
On the one hand, a good many churchmen are disconcerted by the tendency of Pearsean Republicans to go about killing people and then—when punished for killing people—to assimilate themselves to Jesus Christ. Some theologians—most notably the late Francis Shaw, S.J.—have discerned a heretical potential in this pattern of behavior. But most Catholic churchmen are considered more indulgent than that. As well they might be, for the Church in Ireland, over many years and in many ways, has done much to encourage that assimilation of religion and nationalism which the Pearseans have pushed to extremes (or perhaps merely to its logical conclusion). Generations of Irish Catholic schoolchildren have inscribed on their copybooks the Gaelic words: Dochum Glóire De agus Onóra na hEireann, “For the Glory of God and the Honor of Ireland.”
And what is wrong about that? you may ask. Isn’t Ronald Reagan, whenever he links God with America—as in every speech during his last election campaign—doing just the same thing, blending religion and nationalism? He is indeed. But there might just possibly still be something wrong with the practice all the same.
In any case, the Catholic Church resolves its ambivalence about the Pearseans—in today’s context, the Provos—in ways that have by now become a well-established routine. After each spectacular act of violence admitted, or claimed, by the Provisionals, prominent churchmen express their abhorrence of such acts, and call for an end to them. But whenever people are punished for such acts by the secular authorities, and when the Provos then launch a spectacular protest—as for example by hunger strike—prominent churchmen are to be found supporting the protest.
On the Ulster Protestant side, the Catholic Church (like the Dublin government) is seen as essentially supportive of the IRA, in that the IRA has been able to ignore the Church’s reiterated chidings, and to benefit from the Church’s backing for its protests. Thus the Ulster Protestant community sees itself as coming under attack from virtually the entire Catholic population of the island: with the Provos forming the actual assault forces, while the democratic parties in the Republic, and the Catholic hierarchy, provide various forms of tacit or oblique—and deniable—support to the Provos, and seek to turn the results of the Provos’ activities to their own advantage. This is an oversimplified picture, but it contains more truth than most lay or clerical spokesmen for the Catholic community would admit.
It is the IRA Provos who have been setting the pace and doing most of the fighting in the incipient holy war to date. There are potential holy warriors—and more numerous potential holy warriors—on the Protestant side. And there have been—especially in the mid-Seventies—a number of ghastly “sectarian murders” of Catholics by Protestants. The reader should note that in Northern Ireland the murder of a Catholic by a Protestant is generally classified as “sectarian,” whereas the murder of a Protestant by a Catholic is “political.” This terminology tends to create, or fortify, the misleading impression that only one side—the Protestant—is fighting a holy war, whereas the other side is engaged in a strictly contemporary sort of struggle. Which is not exactly the case, as you can see from my citations from Mr. Feehan’s book.
The commitment of many Ulster Protestants to seventeenth-century values is blatant, as in the Orange iconography that commemorates every summer the victory—at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690—of the Protestant champion King William III over James II and his Irish Catholic followers. There is plenty of fuel for holy war on the Protestant side: fuel openly stocked, and not camouflaged as “antisectarian,” as in many official pronouncements on the Catholic side.
If the inflammable material on the Protestant side has not been widely ignited as yet, despite the sparks coming from the Catholic side, the reason appears to be that Protestants generally have felt that holy war might endanger their position in the United Kingdom, seen as their most secure defense against incorporation in a Catholic-majority united Ireland.
The main trouble with the Anglo-Irish Agreement Mrs. Thatcher made with Dr. FitzGerald in November 1985 is that it weakens that perception of the United Kingdom, and proportionately weakens Protestant inhibition against eventual recourse to holy war. The agreement—which gives the Dublin government, for the first time, a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland—is intended by its sponsors in London and Dublin to bring about “peace and stability” in Northern Ireland, and also “reconciliation between the two traditions.” With the eye of faith, some signs of increasing “peace and stability” might indeed be detected as resulting from it, although the Provisional IRA has kept up its campaign of violence, on apparently much the same scale, after the agreement.
As a measure for “reconciliation between the two traditions” the agreement is an obvious and total failure, as could have been (and was) predicted. The agreement has infuriated one tradition, the Ulster Protestants, who regard it as a betrayal by Britain at the instigation of their Catholic enemies. If the upholders of the other tradition, the Catholics of Northern Ireland, accept the agreement—as most of them do—this acceptance is based not on any perception of a potential for reconciliation in the agreement, but on a very clear perception, and keen enjoyment, of the agreement’s power to infuriate the Protestant enemy. “I like hearing Paisley squeal,” as one Catholic put it. So, far from reconciling, this agreement adds new fuel to a communal animosity now nearly four centuries old. The newly appointed Church of Ireland (Episcopalian) Primate and Archbishop of Armagh stated on March 6 that “since the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement, the job of reconciliation has become ten times harder.” Coming from the most eminent representative of moderate Protestant opinion in Ireland, that is a definitive verdict.
The main feature of the agreement is that it creates an institution for consultation between Dublin and London over the affairs of Northern Ireland. The institution is the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to deal “on a regular basis,” with “political matters, security and related matters,” and “legal matters, including the administration of justice” in Northern Ireland, as well as with “crossborder co-operation.” The Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference has a secretariat, at a heavily guarded headquarters, behind a barbed-wire fence, at Maryfield, Belfast. The Irish foreign minister, Mr. Peter Barry, periodically meets with Her Majesty’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland within the framework of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. When Mr. Barry goes to Belfast for this purpose—as on March 11—he and his aides travel by helicopter, and the meetings are held under conditions of maximum security, with angry protests outside.
Thus for the first time London has accorded to Dublin an officially recognized role in Northern Ireland. This is rejected by the Protestants (Unionists) who see it as giving Dublin “a toe in the door” which is to be used to break through the resistance of the Protestants to being incorporated in a united Ireland. Privately many, perhaps most, of the supporters of the agreement (almost all Catholic) view the agreement in precisely the same light. But officially—and to keep the agreement with London in being—the agreement’s Dublin sponsors disclaim any such intention, although in delicate and Delphic language. They point to Articles 1(a) and (b) of the agreement, which affirm that “any change in the status of Northern Ireland would only come about with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland”; and recognize “that the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland is for no change in the status of Northern Ireland.”
Supporters of the agreement, on both sides of the Irish Sea, believe that these clauses should reassure the Unionists. Unfortunately for the future of the agreement, those who should be reassured are in no way reassured. The Unionists believe that a major “change in the status of Northern Ireland” has already come about, through the Anglo-Irish Agreement, without “the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland,” which was not consulted at any stage in the Dublin–London negotiations which produced the agreement. The Unionists also believe, not without reason, that it is the intention of the Dublin side to use the agreement to bring about further changes in the status of Northern Ireland, to the disadvantage of Unionists and the undermining of the Union itself, in the hope of eventually achieving a united Ireland, the Irish Republican objective.
When the Unionist members of Parliament at Westminster made clear their strong, indeed passionate, opposition to the agreement, their opponents in Mrs. Thatcher’s party at first claimed that the Unionist members were misrepresenting those for whom they purported to speak, and that many ordinary Unionists would find the agreement perfectly compatible with Unionist principles and traditions.
In order to demonstrate the contrary, and prove that their Unionist constituents were fully with them, the Unionist MPs decided to resign their seats and fight for reelection, standing as declared and determined opponents of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Since Unionists, in 1985, held fifteen out of the seventeen Northern Ireland seats, this meant fifteen simultaneous by-elections. This mini–general election, in January 1986, resulted in fourteen of the fifteen Unionists being reelected. (The loss of the fifteenth seat, Newry-Armagh, did not betoken any Unionist/Protestant tendency to accept the agreement. Newry-Armagh has a Catholic/Nationalist majority, which had previously split in such a way as to let the Unionist in, and which now came together in such a way as to put the Unionist out.) The Unionists, on their new plank of opposition to the new Anglo-Irish Agreement, held the whole of their previous Unionist/Protestant vote. In this way, the Unionist MPs demonstrated that their constituents were behind them, against the agreement.
Naturally, the Catholics were in no way impressed. They merely changed the nature of the indictment against the perennial foe. Before the elections, the Unionist leaders were accused of “misrepresenting” their community. Since the elections the Unionist leaders are accused of “misleading” the same community.
Those January elections, however, showed a change, of a nature gratifying to the sponsors of the agreement (as well as to other peace-loving people), in the voting patterns of Northern Ireland Catholics. There was a swing of about 10 percent away from Provisional Sinn Fein (the political front for the Provisional IRA) and toward Mr. John Hume’s nonviolent Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP), the mainly Catholic group that favors the agreement. That this benign shift was due to the agreement is not in doubt. It remains to be seen whether this electoral shift portends—as the sponsors of the agreement believe—growing isolation for the IRA, and a decline in violence. We must hope so, but there is room for doubt. Electoral preference is not a precise guide to actual behavior. It has not been unknown, in the past, for significant numbers of Northern Catholics to give electoral support to “constitutional nationalists”—in order to keep out Unionists—while also sympathizing with the IRA, and providing their members with practical help. “Isolating the IRA,” within the community which gave it birth, is not an easy task, nor is it one that looks like being within the capacity of an agreement between London and Dublin.
The demeanor of Sinn Fein IRA leaders such as Mr. Gerry Adams on television during the past year did not suggest that they were alarmed by the agreement as a threat to their movement. They are against the agreement in principle, but they are also greatly tickled by the agreement’s infuriating effect on the Protestant community, an effect from which the IRA can hope to benefit by emerging in its favorite role as “protector of the Catholic people.” Sinn Fein’s loss of votes is not as depressing to the IRA as some democratic observers suppose. Votes are a sideshow; “the armed struggle” is the real thing.
Protestants see the agreement as having been extorted from Britain by the IRA’s “armed struggle,” of which Protestants (together with British troops) have been bearing the main brunt over fifteen years. Protestant fury against the agreement is proportionate to that perception. And this fury has not died down with the passage of time since last November, as sponsors of the agreement had fondly hoped. On March 3, a Protestant one-day strike, attended by considerable intimidation and some violence, brought the industrial areas of Northern Ireland to a standstill.
A feature of the strike was that in a number of places, members of the police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, were passive in the presence of Protestant intimidation (where threatening behavior only, as distinct from direct violence, was involved). The RUC is about 90 percent Protestant (partly because Catholic recruits to the force were especially liable to be IRA targets and their families were especially vulnerable to IRA-inspired intimidation and violence). Many members of the RUC undoubtedly share the feelings toward the agreement that are general in the community to which they belong. One of the most ominous consequences of the agreement, therefore, is the strain which it places on the loyalty and discipline of the police. It is feared that this will become only too evident during the “marching season” this summer.
The marching season—from late June to mid-August approximately—is when many Protestants take to the streets with banners to commemorate the Protestant triumphs of the late seventeenth century, such as the Battle of the Boyne and the lifting of the Siege of Derry. This is often a difficult period for the maintenance of law and order, and all the signs are that it will be exceptionally difficult this year: the first marching season since the signature of the Hillsborough agreement.
There are signs also of a new and harder leadership emerging in a Protestant community which today feels itself more isolated and threatened than at any time since 1690. Even Ian Paisley, hither-to the symbol and supreme animator of Ulster Protestant resistance, seems no longer to meet the mood of the hour. Paisley is good at roaring defiance, but something more than roaring is now felt to be required. The rising star is now that of Peter Robinson, deputy leader of Paisley’s Democratic Union party. Mr. Robinson is young, brisk, fit, ascetic, intense. Unlike Mr. Paisley, he is not a compulsive ranter; his speech in the House of Commons against the agreement was the most passionate in that debate, but it was a controlled passion, and a correspondingly powerful speech. In a different context, however—as at the Loyalist mass rally on March 3—Mr. Robinson can show a touch of his leader’s style (a “joke” about how the power-stoppage of that day would unfortunately make it impossible to electrocute Mrs. Thatcher). In any case, Mr. Robinson is determined to smash the agreement and he seems to match the present mood of his people.
Protestant opposition to that agreement is unconditional. But Catholic support for the agreement, in Northern Ireland, is conditional, dependent on further measures being forthcoming of a nature congenial to the Catholic community, and proportionately distasteful to the Protestant community. The most sensitive areas where change is demanded are those involving security: the courts, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Ulster Defense Regiment. Major changes in these areas would signify to many Protestants that they are being disarmed in the presence, and at the behest, of their hereditary foes. To Protestants seeing the matter in that light, it would look like a case of “now or never”: time to take on the Catholics in earnest, and if necessary throw the connection with Britain to the winds. And at that point the holy war, now only smoldering, would break into full conflagration.
The danger should not be discounted, but neither should the catastrophe be accepted as inevitable. There are signs on the British side of a growing recognition of the danger: of an awareness that they had miscalculated—not for the first time—the depth of the resistance of Ulster Protestants to any changes that look to them like leading to their incorporation in a Catholic-majority united Ireland. The Catholic sponsors of the agreement had expected some Protestant resistance, though they too underestimated it, as has been the habit of Catholic leaders since John Redmond’s time. The Catholics, in Dublin and Derry, however, counted for success on Mrs. Thatcher’s celebrated intransigence: a quality which they had all deplored in chorus five years ago, in the days when she was letting all those hunger strikers die. But in the matter of the agreement, the Catholic sponsors, and the Catholic press, looked to Mrs. Thatcher to give ruthless backing to the agreement that bears her signature. The Iron Lady was their secret weapon. If the Protestants didn’t like the agreement she would stuff it down their throats, so she would. If they wanted confrontation they would darn well get confrontation, and high time too.
Unfortunately for these expectations—but perhaps fortunately for a number of ordinary people, both Catholic and Protestant—the Iron Lady is no longer what she was in the days when she signed that agreement at Hillsborough Castle. The repercussions of the Westland affair, and the resignations of two members of her cabinet, have seriously damaged her. Her special, quasi-presidential (or quasimonarchial) authority has gone; she is now no more than a lame-duck prime minister who looks as if she may lead her party to defeat in the next general election if her party has not dumped her before then.
In relation to Northern Ireland she cannot afford to be any more imperious than her cabinet and party will bear; and that is probably not particularly imperious. Specifically, she cannot afford to sacrifice another cabinet member, not even a refractory secretary of state for Northern Ireland. If Mr. Tom King, the present incumbent, wants to drag his feet where the agreement is concerned—or rather to drag his feet in relation to the Catholic agenda of expectations from the agreement—then the post-Westland Mrs. Thatcher can probably not do much about it. And I think I can already hear the sound of dragging feet from Mr. King’s office at Stormont Castle. On March 6, Mr. King declared, on Ulster television, that the agreement is “a bulwark against a united Ireland.” Nobody believes this, but it seems to reflect a growing need to appease Protestants.
If that is the way things go—as looks quite likely at present—then Catholic disappointment will make itself heard quite loudly. The Irish will have been let down by the Brits yet again. Now just as the sound of Protestants complaining that they have been let down by the Brits is music in Catholic ears, so the sound of Catholics similarly complaining is music in the ears of Protestants. So—if things develop that way—Catholic disappointment will tend to assuage Protestant resentment, and the holy war will recede; or, rather more likely, subside into the smoldering condition in which it has continued now for more than fifteen years. Which is about the best that can realistically be expected.
As for the agreement itself, I doubt whether it can last very long. It is true that it is not as vulnerable, on the Protestant side, as was its predecessor, the Sunningdale arrangement of 1974 (with a power-sharing executive in Belfast, and a Council of Ireland involving both Belfast and Dublin). The Sunningdale executive initially had Protestant participation, and it collapsed when it became plain that the Protestant participants were repudiated by the Protestant community. Since the Hillsborough agreement never had any Ulster Protestant participation, it cannot be overthrown by a withdrawal of Protestant support, which was never there in the first place. The agreement’s institution, the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, lacks any representation from Northern Ireland. It will consist of people appointed by Mrs. Thatcher and Dr. FitzGerald and it is therefore not directly vulnerable to repudiation by either majority or minority in Northern Ireland.
But it is vulnerable to a certain kind of interaction of Protestant and Catholic pressures. Protestant reactions—including strikes, mass demonstrations, and some violence—will probably not be sufficient, in themselves, to make the British government formally abandon, or even suspend, the agreement. But they may well be sufficient to make the British government slow down on implementing the Catholic agenda for the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference: an agenda that includes the legalization in Northern Ireland of the Irish Tricolour and the elimination, or emasculation, of the Ulster Defense Regiment (the locally recruited contingent in the British forces, whose members are overwhelmingly Protestants). If this agenda appears to be blocked, support for the agreement from Catholics in Northern Ireland will wane. And if the Catholic “constitutional” party, Mr. Hume’s SDLP, should withdraw its support from the agreement, the position of Dr. FitzGerald’s government as a partner in the Anglo-Irish Agreement would speedily become untenable.
The opposition in the republic, led by Mr. C.J. Haughey, is already critical of the agreement (for failing to live up to the ideals of Tone and Pearse). Dr. FitzGerald can easily dominate that opposition in this particular matter, as long as he is fortified by the approval of Mr. Hume and his friends, representing the Northern Catholics. Mr. Hume is very popular in the Republic, where his views on Northern Ireland are invested with an almost papal authority. So if Mr. Hume, after a while, should show disappointment with the progress made under the agreement, then Dr. FitzGerald would be blamed for failure, and the opposition would dominate the internal debate on the subject in the Republic. The government of the Republic would be under pressure to withdraw from the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, thus bringing the agreement to an end.
Now Mr. Hume and his friends are bound to be disappointed, unless the British government is willing, for their sake, to plunge the Protestants into desperation and secession. As pointed out earlier, the SDLP’s support for the agreement has been conditional from the beginning. The agreement was acceptable to them “as a first step” in that Catholic agenda. If there is not sustained progress in that direction, SDLP support for the agreement will dry up. Also SDLP support is vulnerable at any moment to any incident involving Catholics and the security forces. Unless each such incident is resolved in a manner acceptable to the Catholic community—and unacceptable to the Protestant community—SDLP members will say the agreement is not working, and the Irish partner to that agreement, the government in Dublin, will be undermined.
So the choice in relation to the future of the agreement appears to be this:
Either the agreement will be implemented in accordance with the SDLP’s interpretation and demands, in which case the Protestants will be driven in the direction of civil war.
Or the agreement will not be so interpreted and will collapse, because of the withdrawal of the Irish partner from the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
However, the fortunes of the agreement are likely to fluctuate uncertainly, perhaps for a while, between the two alternative outcomes. For example, the agreement may for a time be sufficiently unpopular with Protestants to keep it popular with Catholics, while not enraging Protestants sufficiently to make them move toward independence. But that is not a balance that seems likely to maintain itself for long, under the strains and shocks of conditions in Northern Ireland. The most likely outcome, in my opinion, is essentially the second alternative: the drying up of Catholic support once it becomes apparent that the limits of British concessions to the minority have been reached.
Granted the nature of the alternatives, I prefer the second.
Readers may ask what solution to the problem I envisage. None. I think the language of “problem” and “solution” is inappropriate to the case. What we have here is a conflict, which is likely to continue as long as the island of Ireland contains both a large Ulster Protestant community and a significant and determined minority of Irish Republicans, with a hold on the Catholic community. That looks like being quite a long time. No tinkering will reconcile those irreconcilables and the effort to reconcile them often serves only to inflame the conflict, by arousing conflicting hopes and fears. On the other hand, if the governments in London and Dublin learn, from unhappy experience of this agreement, that it is better to stop tinkering with ambitious “solutions,” and to return to quiet cooperation in security matters, then the level of the violence involved in the conflict of irreconcilable wills could be reduced (the level of violence showed a falling trend between 1975 and 1985). It would also help if future Dublin governments and their American backers could desist from their well-meant efforts to bring about progress toward a united Ireland; efforts whose unintended effects help on the holy war.
Readers are likely to be surprised at the contrast between this bleak survey and the optimistic commentary on the agreement which was almost universal in the American (and European) press, after the agreement was signed. The media welcomed the agreement because any agreement between Dublin and London over Northern Ireland seemed fit matter for rejoicing. That in itself was understandable. But in the euphoria over that aspect, the press ignored (or glossed over) the obvious fact that the agreement between London and Dublin was unacceptable in Belfast, and among the great majority of the population for whom the agreement was intended; or rather on whom the institutions of the agreement were to be imposed.
Anyone who took account of that fact could see that the agreement was quite unlikely to bring peace and stability to the area in which a majority rejected it, or to reconcile two traditions, one of which it outraged. By failing to take anything like adequate account of that fact, the press and television were able to present their rosy picture, and to convey to the general public the impression that the “problem” of Northern Ireland was, if not actually solved, at least well on the way to a solution.
The coverage of the agreement was one example of the power of wishful thinking in commentary on international affairs. The distortion was similar in kind to the mirage promoted by the press of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. In this mirage, Israel is to acquire lasting peace, through general acceptability in the Arab world, by handing over the West Bank to Arafat and/or Hussein; the idea that this is attainable ignores the obvious but unpleasant fact that any such “settlement” would be rejected, and violently sabotaged, by several PLO factions, backed by several Arab states. It is pleasant to contemplate perspectives of peace, even if these can be shown, in the prevailing conditions, to be illusory. The trouble is that if you refuse to recognize how bad certain relationships are, and how durable their badness, you risk making them even worse than they need be.
As an exhibit of Irish Republican ideology and hagiology, Bobby Sands and the Tragedy of Northern Ireland has the merit of supplying an unintentional antidote to wishful thinking, and to an excessive confidence in the healing power of compromise.
April 24, 1986