The Irish Republican Army’s recent announcement that it would dump arms and end its decades-long campaign against the British seemed oddly anticlimactic. Save for a brief episode in the mid-1990’s, the I.R.A. has been on a cease-fire since 1994. So its dump-arms order received only passing notice in the United States. Those who know even a little about Irish history, however, realize that the I.R.A.’s decision truly was dramatic and historic. It surely is good news for the Irish at home and around the world, and good news indeed for Great Britain, which now faces a much more ruthless and murderous threat than the I.R.A. ever was.
Many courageous political figures helped bring the Irish peace process to this happy conclusion, including Americans like President Bill Clinton, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, Congressman Peter King and the businessman William Flynn. History will record the patience and determination of two British prime ministers, John Major and Tony Blair; two Irish prime ministers, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern; and three political leaders from Northern Ireland, John Hume, Gerry Adams and David Trimble.
There are other figures in this drama, and it remains to be seen whether they will adjust to a new Northern Ireland or will continue to wallow in the old politics of hatred, distrust, bigotry and violence. The Rev. Ian Paisley, the George Wallace of Northern Ireland politics, has emerged as the province’s most powerful political figure as he nears the age of 80. Thought to be yesterday’s man as the peace process unfolded, Paisley has re-emerged as the voice of Loyalist backlash, a Catholic-baiting demagogue more powerful today than he was in the 1960’s, when he fought every attempt to grant equal rights to Catholics in Northern Ireland.
Until now, Paisley could rally Loyalists by raising the specter of I.R.A. violence and papist treachery. The latter may still play well to certain audiences, but the former is history. As he nears the end of a life filled with fire-breathing sermons on the subject of his fellow citizens who happen to be Roman Catholics, Paisley must confront the politics of the future. How can he reach out to the community he has condemned for so many years?
Similarly, I.R.A. dissidents seem stuck in the politics of the past. They abhor the peace process, and regard Adams and other members of Sinn Fein as traitors to the cause of a united Ireland. In their view, those who participate in Northern Ireland’s politics are collaborators in what they regard as Britain’s occupation.
Rather than engage the British and Loyalists in peace and politics, the I.R.A. dissidents prefer the tactics of the past. Several years ago, a bomb left by one of the I.R.A. splinter groups tore through the village of Omagh in Northern Ireland. More than two dozen civilians were slaughtered in the worst terrorist attack of Northern Ireland’s troubles. The dissidents showed themselves for what they were and remainviolent extremists, not very different from the extremists who attacked New York, Washington, London, Madrid, Bali and so many other places in recent years.
History no doubt will note that the war in Ireland came to an end as the global Islamic insurgency reached the United Kingdom and the United States. This is not a coincidence. In fact, Osama bin Laden may not know much about Ireland or Irish politics, but he surely has played a role in hastening an end to the I.R.A..
Once those airplanes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the global equation changed. The United States and its allies realized that they were the targets of an evil conspiracy whose goal is the destruction or conversion of the non-Islamic West. Had the I.R.A. attempted to break its cease-fire after 9/11, its members would have been seen as Irish equivalents of bin Laden’s followers. Its political allies, like Adams, would have been ostracized, again, and Americans who tacitly supported the I.R.A.’s goals, if not its methods, would have been accused of giving aid and comfort to the sort of people who attacked the United States.
So the I.R.A. had no choice, really, but to dump arms and bring an end to its campaign. As it does so, it is important to remember two salient facts that the media have ignored.
First, the I.R.A. barely existed in the late 1960’s, when Northern Ireland’s Catholics, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., marched to demand their civil rights. Those marches were broken up by Loyalist gangs and British security forces. Politicians like Paisley rose up to oppose equal rights for their fellow citizens..
Then, during a huge civil rights demonstration in 1972, the British Army opened fire on marchers. The massacre was unprovoked and murderous. Thirteen people were killed instantly, another died later. A British coroner called the attack sheer, unadulterated murder. Decades later, inquiries showed that the coroner was correct, and that the government lied when it said the soldiers fired in self-defense.
Catholic civilians turned to the I.R.A. They joined, or they were quiet co-conspirators.
Second, the media have said that I.R.A. violence since the early 1970’s claimed 3,000 victims. That is simply not true. British security forces and Loyalist paramilitary forces accounted for slightly less than half of those casualties. Does that matter? Of course it does, because it reminds us that the I.R.A. was not the only armed organization in Northern Ireland.
But it is, thus far, the only armed organization that has declared itself out of business. That, too, is worth noting.