Thursday, June 28, 2012

Not Looking Back

The big news in Ireland this week centered on whether a picture of a scheduled handshake between Martin McGuiness, a former IRA commander, and the Queen would be circulated to the media. After opposition from Buckingham Palace was dropped this morning, the photo and video of the encounter was eventually released. The handshake itself was largely symbolic (the Queen, while commander-in-chief of British forces, has no real power), but the gesture of unity from both sides of the long-running conflict was historic.

For outsiders, context is important. For over three decades, the IRA battled British rule in an attempt to reunite Northern Ireland with the Republic. That lofty goal of reuniting a country, while always remaining the stated purpose of the IRA, at times seemed less important than the real reason most Catholics in the North supported the terrorist group and its political wing, Sinn Fein: In standing up to British power, the IRA showcased to the world the civil rights violations being inflicted on a minority religious group. Indeed, the populist rise of the IRA might not have been nearly as successful had it not been for the resentment felt by Catholics over subpar educational opportunities and unequal incomes.

Martin McGuiness, in his early years as a leader in the IRA, helped pick out bombing targets in Northern Ireland and on mainland Britain. (He was jailed in the Republic for a few years for attempting to transport arms and ammunition.) In fact, the Queen was personally affected by the IRA violence: Her cousin was killed off the west coast of Ireland in the 1970s when the terrorist group blew up the yacht he was on. The IRA campaign, while notorious for its killing of innocent civilians, forced Britain to change how it treated its own citizenry.

History can change quickly. In 1998, with a push from Bill Clinton, the governments of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern (the PM of the Republic), signed a long-term agreement with the people of the North to enhance the self-determination of the province. One key tenet of that agreement was the proclamation that the people of the North should be able to decide in a democratic fashion whether to break away from the U.K or not. That tenet is greatly important because when the Republic of Ireland was formed, the Protestant population in the North outnumbered Catholics by a large majority. Now, however, due to high birth rates among Catholics and the tendency of young Protestants to attend university in England and then never return, demographic trends predict a Catholic majority within twenty five years. People outside the country, thus, might easily predict that a reunited Ireland might not be far off. But a funny thing has happen to Northern Ireland: Despite being a true province of the island of Ireland, the North feels, in terms of culture, a lot more British than Irish. As the lot of Catholics has improved markedly over the last few years (Catholics now outscore Protestants on high school exams), the chorus of dissent over British interference in the province has largely dissipated. It seems that Catholics, while still very aware of their history, now in fact view themselves as true citizens of the United Kingdom. Recent surveys have revealed that over half of Catholics in Northern Ireland would vote against a referendum that would reunite the state with the Republic. (On this matter, it would unwise to ignore the fact the economy in the North benefits greatly from a Parliament in London that has lavished the region with money in recent years. That economic calculus no doubt plays into how Catholics view the issue.) I think there is a real sense, regardless, though, that history has started to heal itself. I watched the Irish evening news today and the news journalist, on a walk through Belfast, couldn’t find anyone who was skeptical of the peace process. The only people, it seems, who aren’t impressed by the progress in the North, are columnists for British newspapers. Despite popular reaction on the street to a meeting between not-long-ago sworn enemies, and the near elimination of sectarian violence, some in Britain don’t think that reconciliation between the communities has even taken place. This is unfortunate.

Martin McGuiness, for his part, has parlayed his leadership skills into the job of Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. By most accounts, he has done an outstanding job of not only administering the Northern bureaucracy but also of controlling radical, fringe republicans in his own party. With Europe facing a prolonged economic slump, it is not guaranteed that Northern Ireland will succeed in the near term, but the hard work done on mending fences has put it in a better position to do just that.
- Read more about it here: Irish Times and NYTimes