I always feel a little apologetic when I write about Ireland for an American audience. Given that Ireland is a very small place with very few people, it’s hard to see why Americans should bother about it. A few Americans, of course — the so-called “Irish-American activists” — are very bothered about it. These people are, however, in my considerable experience of them, either ignorant, or insane, or very frequently both, and I don’t have anything much to say to them. Ireland is interesting to me, and I attempt to make it interesting to Americans, as a sort of morality play — an illustration of the difficulties civilization gets into when it has not the courage to deal vigorously with its enemies. The parallel between the events in Northern Ireland and those in the Middle East is striking and obvious, as I have pointed out in a previous column.
Recent developments have all been ominous. Three stories have dominated the news from Northern Ireland recently.
- In the U.K. general election on June 7th, Northern Ireland voters of both persuasions abandoned their more moderate parties (the nationalist* SDLP and the unionist UUP) for more hard-line ones (Gerry Adams’s Sinn Féin and Ian Paisley’s DUP). If we tag the SDLP and UUP as “soft,” Sinn Féin and the DUP as “hard,” then Northern Ireland’s 18 parliamentary seats went from 13 soft, 4 hard, and one other in 1997, to 9, 9 and zero this year.
- Unionist leader David Trimble, leader of the moderate UUP and a principal architect of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that has brought a measure of peace to the province, has declared his intention to resign as First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly if the IRA do not begin the decommissioning of their weapons — a thing which everyone thought they had committed to at the time of the Agreement. Trimble’s resignation will come on July 1st, after which, everyone believes, the Assembly — Northern Ireland’s latest attempt at a government in which power is shared between unionists and nationalists — will not be able to function.
- Fierce rioting has broken out in Belfast. Loyalist mobs have been preventing little girls from walking through their district on the way to a Catholic primary school. The ferocity of the riots — Molotov cocktails thrown, live bullets fired (with the police, not the little girls, being the target in both cases) — has shocked everybody, and the British government is sending 1,600 troop to support local police. (Not “16,000,” as the pro-IRA Boston Herald reported.)
The polarization of Northern Ireland voters is not difficult to understand. Unionists who voted for the Good Friday Agreement back in 1998 now feel that they were suckered. Everyone understood that Sinn Féin had committed, as part of the Agreement, to decommission its** huge stockpiles of guns and explosives. After all, since all parties were saying that politics was henceforth to be conducted in a civilized and democratic way, what need for arms? Sinn Féin got dramatic concessions in return for this commitment to civilized values, notably the release of prisoners, including men who had committed the most outrageous and inhuman atrocities.
It is now clear to unionists that Sinn Féin was lying, and never had any intention of giving up arms. Their supposed conversion to civilized politics was merely tactical. Unionists are angry: not so much with Sinn Féin, which, like the scorpion in Æsop, cannot be other than what it is, but with the British, Irish and American politicians who sold them the Agreement with all these empty promises attached, and also with moderate unionist politicians like Trimble who assisted in the sale. The swing to the DUP and the riots in Belfast are symptoms of that anger. Another symptom was the 400-lb bomb found in a loyalist Belfast apartment last week. (About the same size as the IRA’s Omagh bomb of August 1998, which killed 31 people.)
But why are Northern Ireland nationalists voting for Sinn Féin in larger numbers? When polled, after all, most nationalists say they want decommissioning of weapons to take place. So why are they voting for the party that promised to do it, then reneged on its promise? In part this is just a failure of long-term memory. Sinn Féin is nothing but a thin cardboard front for the IRA terror gangs, and all the party’s current leaders started out as IRA murderers. (On Friday, July 21st, 1972, 19 bombs exploded in the streets of Belfast, killing nine people and injuring 130, many very horrifically. The Provisional IRA’s Belfast Brigade boasted publicly of their responsibility for the atrocity. The brigade’s commander at that time was Gerry Adams.) This fact, well-known to everyone in Ireland, made sane nationalists reluctant to vote for Sinn Féin while the murders were going on; but since the ceasefire that preceded the Good Friday Agreement, memories of the killings have dimmed.
Other factors are probably involved in the increasing acceptance of Sinn Féin among nationalist Irish people. All nationalists cherish the dream of Ireland united under a single government, and the tactics Sinn Féin has been pursuing these past four years — tactics that might be described as unyielding duplicity — actually look as if they have some chance of delivering this result. Nothing succeeds like success. Further, as I predicted last year, Sinn Féin has been the beneficiary of increasing disillusion with the European project. There is also, it must be said, a great willingness on the part of nationalist Irishmen to believe in Sinn Féin’s good faith, for sentimental and historical reasons. The party was, after all, the landslide victor in the British general election of 1918 which led directly to Southern Ireland’s independence. It is easy to forget that, five years later, the Cosgrave government of the Irish Free State was hunting down Sinn Féiners and shooting them in batches, with the full approval of the Irish electorate, who had been sickened by Sinn Féin’s murderous tactics in the Irish civil war of 1922-23.
Though perhaps it is not very polite to talk about it, there is a fascist strain in the Irish character to which Sinn Féin appeals. Nobody could possibly be more Irish than Donall MacAmhlaigh***, author of the 1960s Irish-language classic Dialann Deorai, which Valentin Iremonger translated into English under the title An Irish Navvy. Reflecting on his experiences among the English, of whom he was not over-fond, MacAmhlaigh none the less allowed that:
The average Englishman has a deep-rooted opposition to any dictatorship whatsoever — communism, fascism, or the kind of thing you get in Spain or Portugal; and my own opinion is that, although we are Catholics, we would accept a dictatorship quicker provided only that it came from within our own country.
The polarization of the voters, Trimble’s upcoming resignation, and the increasing unrest among unionists, have had the effect of uniting all parties to the conflict, including the Irish government and the moderate SDLP, in calling on Sinn Féin to begin decommissioning of weapons. Even the New York Times has joined the chorus. Under all this pressure it is probable that Sinn Féin will feel the need to make some minimal, grudging gesture in the right direction. The party will never give up any really significant quantity of its arms, though, for very fundamental reasons. The clues to those reasons can be found in the fact of those 1,600 extra British troops coming in to help the police, and in the nature of Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin is not, never has been and never will be a political party in the sense in which that term is properly understood in a constitutional democracy, and the great folly of the British and Irish governments this past thirty years has been to tolerate Sinn Féin’s continued existence. Sinn Féin is a fascist organization, the last survivor of the great fascist surge that rose up all over the world during the first quarter of the twentieth century, characterized by a fierce blood-and-soil nationalist ideology, utter amoral ruthlessness of method, antisemitism where applicable (Sinn Féin was founded by Arthur Griffith, a rabid antisemite of the old Catholic “they-killed-Our-Lord” variety), and various kinds of esthetic and back-to-nature tide-scum left over from the ebbing of the Romantic Movement. Sinn Féiners still read, and quote, the clerico-fascist intellectual Patrick Pearse, killed in the 1916 uprising; photographs of Sinn Féiners in the 1920s show that they actually favored jackboots; and the party worked hard for an Axis victory in WW2. From time to time in its 96-year history, Sinn Féin has hovered on the edge of respectability; but the love of violence, gangsterism, and conspiratorial methods that unite its ideological core membership have always drawn it back into the darkness, and Sinn Féiners have been able to function in civilized political life only by leaving the party and turning on it — Éamonn de Valera being the outstanding instance.
Sinn Féin’s short-term aim is the complete withdrawal of Britain from the North. This is in pursuit of its long-term aim: domination of all Ireland. The party knows very well that following a British withdrawal, vicious ethnic warfare will break out. The police would not be able to contain it — they cannot even contain the present low levels of unrest, as the need for those 1,600 troops shows. With Britain gone, there will be no-one to hold the ring between the two tribes. The brute unpalatable fact about Northern Ireland is that unionists and nationalists cannot stand the sight of each other, and each of them would eat grass rather than submit to be ruled by the other. The British Army, together with unceasing British (and some occasional American) diplomatic busyness, has kept the lid on this mutual detestation. With Britain gone, it will all be out in the open, naked and hideous, and the blood will flow. Sinn Féin knows this, and looks forward to it, and believes it can win the war by driving out as many unionists as will go, and slaughtering the rest. For this task, it needs those weapons.
Such a conflict would, of course, be a tragedy for Ireland. It would first of all be a tragedy for the several thousand Irish people who will die while it is happening. If Sinn Féin wins, tragedy will then consume the whole island as, gorged with blood and flushed with triumph, the victors turn their attention to the larger goal. If, on the other had, they lose the ethnic war, we shall see the “Cyprus solution” that people in Ulster speak of openly now, with the island more permanently and bitterly divided than ever. The fault for that tragedy will lie squarely with politicians in London, Dublin and Washington, who for thirty years have refused to do what the leaders of civilized nations must do when faced with terrorism in their own jurisdictions: hunt it down and exterminate it, without pause or pity or quarter or apology.
* In writing about Northern Ireland, American newspapers tend to characterize the two sides as “Catholic” and “Protestant.” That is, in fact, quite a fair approximation, but it misses the real point of the conflict. The fight is not about Papal Supremacy or the Doctrine of Transubstantiation. Large numbers of Northern Irelanders, as is the case in any region of any western nation nowadays, are agnostics or atheists. Many of the atrocities of the past 32 years have been so psychopathically inhuman in their conception and execution that the perpetrators cannot possibly have been any kind of Christian at all. The common convention in Ulster is to say “unionist” for those who favor the continued union with Britain, and “nationalist” for those who wish to join Ulster to the Irish Republic. The words “loyalist” and “republican” are understood to be somewhat stronger versions of these words, i.e. a loyalist is a passionate unionist, and a republican is a passionate nationalist. I follow this convention. I also follow unionist practice in using “Ulster” as a shorthand for “Northern Ireland,” though the modern province encompasses only six of historic Ulster’s nine counties. Nationalists don’t like this usage; but since my sympathies are with the unionists, I don’t care.
** Technically, the stockpiles are the IRA’s. However, Sinn Féin is nothing but the IRA in different jackets, and in most contexts, “the IRA” and “Sinn Féin” are perfectly interchangeable terms.
*** The pronunciation of this name is given by its usual English spelling: “Macaulay.”