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The British Haven't Learned Their Lessons from the Troubles
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Fifty years ago, the Battle of the Bogside in Derry between Catholics and police, combined with the attacks on Catholic areas of Belfast by Protestants, led to two crucial developments that were to define the political landscape for decades: the arrival of the British army and the creation of the Provisional IRA.

An eruption in Northern Ireland was always likely after half a century of undiluted Protestant and unionist party hegemony over the Catholics. But its extreme militarisation and length was largely determined by what happened in August 1969.

An exact rerun of this violent past is improbable, but the next few months could be equally decisive in determining the political direction of Northern Ireland. The Brexit crisis is reopening all the old questions about the balance of power between Catholics and Protestants and relations with Britain and the Irish Republic that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 had provided answers with which everybody could live.

The occasion which led to the battle of the Bogside came on 12 August when the Apprentice Boys, a fraternity memorialising the successful Protestant defence of Derry against Catholic besiegers in the 17th century, held their annual march. Tensions were already high in Derry and Belfast because the unionist government and its overwhelmingly Protestant police force was trying to reassert its authority, battered and under threat since the first civil rights marches in 1968.

What followed was closer to an unarmed uprising than a riot as the people of the Bogside barricaded their streets and threw stones and petrol bombs to drive back attacks by hundreds of policemen using batons and CS gas. In 48 hours of fighting, a thousand rioters were treated for injuries and the police suffered unsustainable casualties, but they had failed to gain control of the Bogside.

Its defenders called for protests in other parts of the North to show solidarity with their struggle and to overstretch the depleted Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). In Belfast, Protestants stormed into the main Catholic enclave in the west of the city, burning houses and forcing Catholics to flee. The RUC stood by or actively aided the attacks. The local MP Paddy Devlin estimated that 650 families were burned out in a single night, many taking refuge in the Irish Republic

I was in Bombay Street, where all the houses were burned on the night of 14-15 August, earlier this year. The street was long ago rebuilt but still has a feeling of abnormality and menace because it is only a few feet from the “peace line” with its high wall and higher wire mesh to stop missiles being thrown over the top from the Protestant district next door.

The most striking feature of Bombay Street is the large memorial garden, though it is more like a religious shrine, to martyrs both military and civilian from the district who have been killed by political violence since 1916. A high proportion of these were members of the Provisional IRA who died in the fighting during the 30 years of warfare after Bombay Street was burned.

The memorial is a reminder of the connection between what many local people see as an anti-Catholic pogrom in 1969 and the rise of the Provisional IRA. It split away from what became known as the official IRA because the latter had failed to defend Catholic districts.

Pictures of the ruins of Bombay Street on the morning of 15 August show local people giving British soldiers cups of tea. But this brief amity was never going to last because the unionist government in Stormont had asked the prime minister of day, Harold Wilson, to send in the troops not to defend Catholics but to reinforce its authority.

It was the role the British army were to play in one way or another for the next 30 years. It was one which was bound not only to fail but to be counterproductive. So long as the soldiers were there in support of a Protestant and unionist political and military establishment, the IRA were always going to have enough popular support to stay in business.

British governments at the time never got a grip on the political realities of the North. Soon after the troops were first sent there, the cabinet minister Richard Crossman blithely recorded in his diary that “we have now got ourselves into something which we can hardly mismanage”. But mismanage it they did and on a grotesque scale. The Provisionals were initially thin on the ground, but army raids and arrests acted as their constant recruiting sergeant. Internment without trial introduced on 9 August 1971, the anniversary of which falls today, was another boost as were the hunger strikes of 1981 which turned Sinn Fein into a significant political force.

What are the similarities between the situation today and 50 years ago? In many respects, it is transformed because there is no Protestant unionist state backed by the British army. The Provisional IRA no longer exists. The GFA has worked astonishingly well in allowing Protestants and Catholics to have their separate identities and, on occasion though less effectively, to share power.

Brexit and the Conservative Party dependence on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for its parliamentary majority since 2017 has thrown all these gains into the air. DUP activists admit privately that they want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic because they have never liked the GFA and would like to gut it. Sinn Fein, which gets about 70 per cent of the Catholic/nationalist vote these days, is pleased that the partition of Ireland is once again at the top of the political agenda.

“I am grappling with the idea of a hard border which I would call a Second Partition of Ireland,” Tom Hartley, a Sinn Fein veteran and former lord mayor of Belfast, told me. He is baffled by British actions that appear so much against their interests, saying that “they had parked the Irish problem, but now Ireland has moved once again into the centre of British politics”.


Would Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm to get rid of “the backstop” evaporate if he wins or loses a general election and the Conservatives are no longer dependent on the DUP for their majority? Possibly, but his right-wing government has plenty of members who never liked the GFA and their speeches show them to be even more ignorant about Northern Ireland politics than their predecessors in Harold Wilson’s cabinet half a century ago.

An example of this is their oft-declared belief that some magical gadget will be found to monitor the border by remote means. But any such device will be rapidly torn down and smashed where the border runs through nationalist majority parts of the border.

Northern Ireland may be at peace, but in a border area like strongly Republican South Armagh, the police only move in convoys of three vehicles and carry rifles, even if they are only delivering a parking ticket.

Catholics are no longer the victims of economic discrimination, though Derry still has the highest unemployment of any city in the UK. There has been levelling down as well as levelling up: Harland and Wolff, the great shipyard that once employed much of the population of Protestant east Belfast, went into administration this week.

Irish unity is being discussed as a practical, though highly polarising, proposition once again. Political and economic turmoil is back in a deeply divided and fragile society in which the binds holding it together are easily unstitched.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Brexit, Britain, Northern Ireland 
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  1. Concerning a British general election.

    This article outlines a strategy for Boris Johnson to sideline parliament and go for a no-deal Brexit by holding a general election on October 31.

  2. I’m not getting how a UK exit from the EU affects relations between UK and Ireland.

    As far as I can tell, BREXIT is similar to manmade global warming.

    “We’re all going to die!!!” “Everything will fall apart!”

    Was the Good Friday Agreement manufactured by technocrats in Brussels and dependent on the UK staying in the EU?

    • Replies: @animalogic
    , @Tsar Nicholas
  3. A123 says:

    Would Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm to get rid of “the backstop” evaporate if he wins or loses a general election and the Conservatives are no longer dependent on the DUP for their majority?

    Probably not. The backstop as currently created is a trap that gives the EU veto power. It’s current structure is:

    The withdrawal agreement says that the UK and the EU could get rid of the backstop requirements, but only if both the UK and the EU agree … In other words, the UK couldn’t opt out of the Irish backstop without EU consent.

    For the past 2-3 years, the EU been trying to reverse the Brexit decision. Giving the EU a Brexit stopping veto is impossible. There would be a rebellion and no confidence vote If Boris tried to give the EU veto powers.

    If the EU is willing to negotiate, a better Backstop2 arrangement could be reached. However, years of EU intransigence has burned a lot of bridges and left very little time.


    The anti-Brexit crowd has been trying to create Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt [FUD], with very little success, on this issue.

    No Backstop does *NOT* immediately mean Hard Border.

    The UK is most likely to adopt soft border techniques. For example, checking citizenship/residency for certain critical events such as employment, public assistance, school enrollement, etc. People, locally made goods, and currency will still move fairly freely.

    The DUP may push to make this tighter, but there is only so far they can get. Budget realities dictate the amount of “border patrol” that could be deployed and there is no chance of getting enough UK budget for a hard border. Major road and rail corridors will be monitored to discourage large shipments of continental EU goods, but there will be leakage. Minor roads and paths will remain open with at most spot checks.

    While the German controlled EU Commission may want a hard border to “punish” the UK it is unclear how much they can actually do. Ireland has less interest in a hard border than the UK. And, the EU probably cannot force the issue if the Irish government resists.


    • Replies: @animalogic
  4. Sean says:

    The simple fact is there were too many Unionist /Protestants/ ethnic British. The P IRA campaign was futile. A new campaign would be futile for the opposite reason: the community that would vote to keep Northern Ireland in the UK is in such a relative decline that there there is going to be a United Ireland before too long. Getting behind a bunch of half-baked gangsters starting up the IRA again would be demonstrate the Irish to be the obtuse ones.

    We will see how Ireland as a relatively rich country does in the new expanded EU. They are going to to be a mulch cow, and their sweetheart deals with Google ect are already falling apart under EU regulation. Free ride is over.

  5. @SaneClownPosse

    OK, not an expert, but here goes. Ireland is part of the EU. Come Brexit Nth Ireland won’t be in the EU. The EU has strict rules about trade with non-EU counties. Thus a hard border between Nth & Sth Ireland could ensue. The GFA dictates there be no hard border. Big problem. The withdrawal agreement establishes a “backstop” — that is EU rules will continue, for some time, to apply to the Nth — thus no hard border…. But, Westminster has rejected the withdrawal agreement 3 times. And Johnson, that puke, seems happy to exist without a deal. Thus this article…..

    • Agree: Bardon Kaldian
  6. @A123

    If you think the EU is going to make everyone-happy regulatory amendments to suit either Ireland or the UK then I want to try what you are smoking….

  7. Svevlad says:

    The way I see it, without a total destruction of one side (in this case, probably the Protestants) there can be no real solution that can be done in the current administrative framework (and British administration is, from my PoV, absolutely insane)

    But, if certain changes are placed, the only viable peaceful solution would be something resembling the Millet System of Ottoman Turkey, turning the area into a sort of condominium

    • Replies: @Hibernian
  8. The lesson the Brits should have learned is that in armed conflict, you have to take sides, and go all in, or you cannot win. By protecting its enemies, the UK was asking for nothing but trouble.

    Sort of the same mistake Trump is making now.

    So, yeah, probably the Brits have not learned their lesson.

    Who ever does?

  9. Who don’t want, never learn…

  10. the arrival of the British army and the creation of the Provisional IRA.

    According to my friend’s Protestant father, whose father was forced to leave with the family or risk of being killed by the IRA pre Easter Uprising, and to a friend whose family can be traced back 1000 years in Ulster, the IRA never left. There was still a low level of IRA violence directed at individuals, including RC’s who were thought to be traitors.
    The Provos were a radical splinter group of IRA members already there, whose goal was a united Ireland a la Cuba and went beyond the what the “old” IRA stood for. They were “supported” out of fear, by the majority of RCs.
    In the 70s, I met Proddys who were republicans and RCs that were loyalists. I met people from the Republic both Proddy’s and RCs. Some were in favour of unification, and others questioned why anyone in their right mind would want to be in the Republic. By the way, it was an RC couple from the Republic that pointed out to me that whatever was happening to the RCs in Ulster was happening to Proddies in the Republic, and worse.
    Even during the “troubles” the border was porous. My experience was that the majority of people on the “little” island, both North and South, are scofflaws by nature, and I don’t mean that in a nasty way. Whether a hard border is decreed or nor, unless people are sent from Brussels to enforce it, there will be a porous border.

    • Replies: @Dan Hayes
    , @Hibernian
  11. @SaneClownPosse

    As far as I can tell, BREXIT is similar to manmade global warming.

    No, global warming is very real. The Brexit hysteria is just that; hysteria based on very little.

    There was no hard border between the Irish Free State/Irish Republic and Great Britain in the period before both countries joined the European Economic Community. Not even during World war II.

    Mr Cockburn used to do a good job when writing about the Middle East. He is totally useless when pontificating on the question of Brexit. He is at best, my equal. He had a vote, just like me. But he spouts out this never ending rubbish. I am not a censor by nature, but I wish Mr Unz would stop publishing his drivel.

  12. Tyrrell says:

    The soft border will not work. The issue is all about the different costs of living between the the republic and the UK. The difference currently is about 20% which resulted in one family in five from the south doing their Christmas shopping in the north last year. Half of the republics population is an hours drive from the north. What will happen if as a result of brexit the cost of living difference moves to 40% (in the early 2000s the difference was 33% and that was with both countries in the EU). Its not about lorries because they can be monitored easily its about ordinary families doing their weekly shop in the north and as a result putting thousands of small southern businesses out of business. Remember the UK to France booze cruises when the difference in cost of goods was about 40%? It cost the UK billions in revenue.

    • Replies: @YetAnotherAnon
  13. @animalogic

    I don’t believe you’re correct about the Good Friday Agreement.

    You can read the text of the GFA here:

    There is no clause in it which prohibits a hard border.

    Right now there is effectively a border for tax, legal jurisdictions, policing, currency and political institutions. Brexit will add customs and product/service standards to the mix.

    The UK will probably collect any customs duties it levies the same way it collects VAT (sales tax), with customs duties recorded and paid away from the border.

    Governments can collect sales taxes without having tax officials sitting next to every cash till. They’ll be able to collect customs duties the same way.

    In the TV Documentary “Brexit Behind Closed Doors”, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is heard saying that the real point of the Irish backstop is as a “tactical and strategic means to apply permanent pressure on the UK.”

    • Replies: @Digital Samizdat
  14. Dan Hayes says:


    Southern Ireland had a very good record towards their Protestants both before and after the Republic’s formation. And any anti-Protestant actions were usually tit-for-tat in specific response to acts of British malfeasance or for supplying information to Crown forces.

    The North was entirely different. There it was dog-eat-dog pitting Roman Catholics against their Presbyterian oppressors whereas the South was Church of Ireland (Anglican)!

  15. @animalogic

    Ireland has always been complicated . If England has let go almost all her colonies why not Northern Ireland ? The reason is it’s her last look down your nose snob objective .it still makes them feel like there big shits in the world ,when in reality England will become America’s trade dump.

    • Replies: @Christian Moon
  16. Richard S says:

    The Provisional IRA no longer exists.

    Wink wink

  17. A German says:

    Anglos are notoriously stubborn and arrogant. Even their accents enunciate a very dated and unwarranted superiority complex that linguistically just floats above everyone else, and is often the subject of much satire and ridicule. These people would have been so much better off speaking German. As a German I would normally apologize right now that we didn’t try harder to conquer you for your own good, but we did have the (((USSR))) to worry about. And the Anglos backstabbed us and firebombed our women and children. So I say go to hell Britain and every Briton in it.

    • Replies: @Matra
  18. @Complainoman

    England has not let go of Northern Ireland because that’s not what the people living there want. Under the Belfast Agreement they are free to vote to leave whenever they want to.

    Seems like quite a good principle tbh.

  19. SkyHigh says:

    And we all know how good the British government is at honouring the democratic decisions of its people with Brexit and all lmfao!
    The IRA did nothing wrong.

  20. Matra says:
    @A German

    “A German” is almost certainly an inferiority complex-ridden Irish American.

    • Replies: @Hibernian
  21. @Tyrrell

    “its about ordinary families doing their weekly shop in the north and as a result putting thousands of small southern businesses out of business”

    If the Republic wants a hard border then they can police it themselves and see how that goes down.

    Cockburn keeps recycling old IRA stuff like “the English are slow learners, but we are patient teachers“. Not sure how much utility there is in reading his stuff any more. Do all young iconoclasts end this way, staunch supporters of the status quo?

    • Replies: @Tyrrell
    , @A123
  22. Tyrrell says:

    You have it in a nutshell. Via free trade agreements the UK cost of living will go down so the border is not a problem for the UK. It is a problem for republic which is why hardballing on the backstop is the correct strategy. The DUP is very shortsighted on this. In 2021 the census results will be in and they will show a catholic majority for the first time in northern Ireland’s history (2011 census showed 110000 protestant schoolchildren versus 170000 catholic). Northern Ireland inside the EU customs union while keeping the pound the police and government could be a good halfway house that staves off a reunification referendum.

  23. A123 says:

    Precisely correct.

    If the Republic wants a hard border then they can police it themselves and see how that goes down.

    And, the Republic does not want a hard border or the costs that go with it.

    The only side that wants a hard border is Germany. They want to punish the UK for leaving the EU and intimidate other nations to stay in. Germany is about to be hit by a truck. The US-UK trade deal negotiations are kicking into high gear (1):

    The United States overtook Germany as the biggest supplier of imports into Britain for the first time since the early 2000s in the last financial year, the UK government said on Friday.

    British trade minister Liz Truss has said the United States tops her priority list for post-Brexit trade deals

    The Republic doesn’t want to be tied to failing Germany, and does want to participate in UK driven prosperity. The border will stay largely open because that benefits both the UK and Ireland.




    • Replies: @YetAnotherAnon
  24. @A123

    “Failing” Germany is a pretty impressive country – if only the UK could “fail” half as well as Germany do. I really envy them their Mittelstand and their technical education.

    I voted Leave, but there are many admirable things about the country.

    • Replies: @A123
    , @Digital Samizdat
  25. A123 says:

    The German people are industrious, but their leaders come in two categories “extremely bad” and “even worse”. Those leaders have had terrible policies for some time now.

    Merkel more or less singlehandedly created the migrant crisis by inviting economic vagrants into the EU as refugees. Everyone is still paying for that mistake.

    She also cut off inexpensive nuclear power and tried to replace it with “fantasy green” sources such as solar and wind. The resulting higher prices for electricity are causing problems for German businesses.

    The rigged single currency kept the balance of trade in Germany’s favor, but time is up on that too. Transferring wealth from Periphery nations to Berlin has hit the wall Italy. And, because of the construction of the single currency agreement there is no practical fix (1) to the now overwhelming problems and imminent catastrophe.

    And here lies the kernel of the crisis. There has been a call from all sides to try something different: such as relaxing the fiscal rules that are destroying public services; or, more daringly, to touch the ‘holy grail’: of reform of the financial and banking system.

    But here is the rub: All such initiatives are prohibited in the locked-down treaty system. Everyone might think to revise those treaties. But that is not going to happen. The treaties are untouchable, precisely because Germany believes that to loosen its hold over the monetary system will be to open Pandora’s Box to the ghosts of inflation and social instability rising, to haunt us anew. Weidel was very clear on this danger.

    I don’t agree with everything in this article, but it is on point demonstrating that Germany is the problem.



    • Replies: @Digital Samizdat
  26. It’s time to break up the Brutish Empire. Scotland to be independent, Northern Ireland to go to the Irish Republic, Gibraltar to Spain, las Islas Malvinas to Argentina, Diego Garcia to be returned to the Chagossians and the Amerikastani base evicted; and the Welsh can do as they please.

    • Replies: @Digital Samizdat
  27. @georgesdelatour

    In the TV Documentary “Brexit Behind Closed Doors”, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is heard saying that the real point of the Irish backstop is as a “tactical and strategic means to apply permanent pressure on the UK.”

    That’s what I suspected from the start. But this smacks of waging a campaign of intimidation against the British people–Stay in the EU or else!–which I’m sure will ultimately backfire.

  28. @YetAnotherAnon

    I really envy them their Mittelstand and their technical education.

    You once had that, too. What happened to Britain?

  29. @A123

    Actually, I was 100% in agreement with your comment until the end:

    I don’t agree with everything in this article, but it is on point demonstrating that Germany is the problem.

    As far as I understand Cockburn here, he’s not really blaming Berlin (which, as you correctly surmised, is the real source of the problem). He’s actually taking the much safer tack of blaming Brexit.

    Otherwise, you’re totally on point. And the Alastair Crooke article you linked to is a good one to. Everyone here should take a look at it.

  30. @Fiendly Neighbourhood Terrorist

    I’m a nationalist by temperament, so in principle, I don’t have a problem with the Celtic countries seceding from Britain, if that’s what they really want. But what about the EU’s role in all this? Has it ever struck you that Brussels may see inspiring lots of pro-EU ‘nationalist’ movements in the bigger member states simply as a way of further weakening those member states vis à vis the EU? So we need to deal carefully with some of these secession movements (such as those in Scotland and Catalonia). My advice in this case would be to adopt a posture of at least mild skepticism toward all ‘nationalist’ movements within the EU that are openly pro-EU.

    • Replies: @Jake
  31. Hibernian says:

    Ireland as the new Cyprus. That’ll work. The Archbishop 0f Armagh could be the new Archbishop Makarios.

  32. Hibernian says:

    “whatever was happening to the RCs in Ulster was happening to Proddies in the Republic, and worse.”

    In the early 1920s, and even then what your friends said is an exaggeration (the “and worse” part). There were real atrocities in the SW of Ireland by some Catholics against some Protestants just for being Protestant. Post WW2, yes, there were atrocities on both sides – in the North.

  33. Hibernian says:

    Because everybody except the Irish loves the British to pieces.

  34. Jake says:
    @Digital Samizdat

    Well, as it seems very clear that the UK in leaving the EU is going to play bitch to the Anglo-Zionist Empire run from NYC, DC, and Hollywood, I am now coming around to seeing the EU, as awful as it is, as preferable to the Brit WASPs going rogue, as it were.

  35. conatus says:

    “Irish unity is being discussed as a practical, though highly polarising, proposition once again. Political and economic turmoil is back in a deeply divided and fragile society in which the binds holding it together are easily unstitched.”

    This is a pipe dream based on the mistaken idea that Catholics vote straight line to unite with the Republic.
    They dont want any part of it. Why?
    Jobs. There are more jobs in the North for Catholics because of the greater amount of government money the British throw at NI.
    You can see it in Wikipedia “Politics in Northern Ireland”
    About halfway down they have a series of charts showing polling for staying in the United Kingdom.
    All the percents under ‘Vote to stay in United Kingdom” are over 50, some in sixties; even Armagh, known as ‘bandit country’ is 50%.
    The fact is the Catholics know their bread is buttered in the United Kingdom. They do not want to be part of some tiny Republic echoing the long ago wistful past, but now run by a gay Indian Taoiseach who is all for more immigration to the Republic.

    • Replies: @martin2
  36. martin2 says:

    You are absolutely right, and the fact that no-one on this thread or indeed many other threads of a similar ilk have not pointed this out sooner is further proof of the blindness people generally have to the importance of domestic economics in shaping how one votes.

    The simple fact is that Northern Ireland, just like Wales, is a net economic drain on England. Scotland would be too were it not for the oil industry. I do not mean to be disrespectful, these nations are all joined at the hip to England and long may they remain so. I am just stating a fact. A disproportionate amount of the wealth generated in the UK is in the South East and of course London.

    The UK has a population in the region of 70 million, thus the cost of supporting Northern Ireland, which has a population of, what, four million (?) can be borne quite easily. But Southern Ireland has a population that is not much larger than Northern Ireland, and it would be bankrupted in no time. Furthermore, many of the Northern Irish jobs are working for the government. If Ireland was to become united, then those jobs would come back to the mainland and there would be massive layoffs.

    Having said that, it is pretty obvious that not giving the Irish home rule in the nineteenth century was a massive balls up.

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