The past and the present… September 26, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland.
It’s interesting to reflect on Henry Patterson’s article on foot of Eamon Gilmore’s not quite, caveat laden, comments about the Irish state and the effort to ‘defeat’ the IRA. So many caveats in fact that any serious analysis of the text would suggest that he was acknowledging no real culpability on the part of the Irish state and effectively suggesting it was a matter of a problem of perception on the part of Unionism. Not that that is how the message has been received elsewhere. But the responses are fascinating.
Patterson’s can be summed up by the following quote:
Successive governments faced a dilemma. By co-operating with the RUC and British army against republicans, there was a risk of reigniting latent republican sentiment in a State with a nationalist ethos at its core.
This appears to be significantly lacking context. It is as if Northern Ireland was entirely uncontentious in and of itself, that the RUC and UDR were entirely uncontentious, and that such co-operation was entirely reasonable and that the only reason for problems would be on the part of those within the RoI who harboured some ‘latent republican sentiment’.
During the 1980s I thought that incredible in the face of evidence of widespread problems in the administration of justice and so on. In retrospect knowing what we do about the various levels of collusion it is remarkable that anyone would now seriously advance such a case.
There is also the inconvenient reality that the British government eventually disbanded the RUC and the UDR was amalgamated with the RIR. Disbanding a police and restarting it – even if there were continuities between the two – suggests an endemic problem with said force, and that is only partially indicative of just how for too many in the North the RUC was not and never could be a policing force that would come close to being acceptable, or even tolerable, for a significant number of people (just as an indication of this I recall being at a WP Ard Fheis in the 1980s where there was some emollient words about policing in Northern Ireland. One acquaintance, who would have been as far as I could judge deeply anti-PIRA, muttered at me something along the lines of ‘that’s good for the optics, but it’s a different matter on the ground’). If not the security forces then what of the state more broadly?
And this is underlined by a comment under the recent piece by John-Paul McCarthy in the Sunday Independent on the same topic. Even if we are willing to put aside those caveats, what more could the South have done given the fact that the structure of laws implemented in both North and South, right up to Diplock Courts and Supergrass trials were ineffective?
It strains credulity to believe that any measure or package of measures by the RoI would have been sufficient to seriously impact upon the IRA and the comparisons with the very limited scale of the Border Campaign are telling for their lack of applicability.
Simply put the situations in the late 1950s and the 1970s through to the 1990s were so radically different from one another, represented such a shift in the support for armed struggle, whether that support was passive or active, and indicated a rupture between significant portions of the Nationalist and Republican communities and the British state that no security approaches could possibly repair. That suggested an history that was overwhelmingly driven by dynamics extant within Northern Ireland and where the issue of the South was marginal.
And that merely points up a basic truth, that this was a political issue masked – and by almost all players within the mix at some point or another, in the military/paramilitary. Its only solution was political, that being to bring as many both in support and opposition politically to the then extant dispensation into a new one.
But there’s another issue too, and it points to a paradox. Unionism was never quite as comfortable, as it now portrays itself, with the idea of close co-operation between Dublin and London. Quite the opposite. For such co-operation contained within it the potential for approaches quite at odds with its own interests. What seems to have been sought was a sort of fortified border, quite beyond the ability of this state to deliver or police, with no political ramifications. But that was, in and of itself, utterly impossible – even given the obvious issues raised by a nationalist/republican population within the North. For such co-operation would by dint of necessity draw the two governments closer together. And one could argue that in some respects, albeit it went in a completely different direction, that was true of some of the 1980s where the governments did establish better relations and co-operation, and this fed into the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which again was anathema to Unionism. Now, as has been noted here previously, the AIA was essentially something of a cul-de-sac and largely unrelated to the later Peace Process, albeit I would argue it did break the crucial barrier of complete British sovereignty in Northern Ireland, something that was essential for any serious future progress. But it points to the potential for, ultimately perhaps, a non-Peace Process dispensation based on something approaching joint authority.
Patterson argues in conclusion that:
The role of the Irish State during the Troubles is more than an idée fixe of unionists, it is a question of major historical importance with a central bearing on any process of dealing with the past. While the Saville Tribunal’s inquiry into Bloody Sunday cannot act as a template for any broader mechanism for dealing with the past, it did demonstrate the immense value of a state making the vast majority of its records open for scrutiny.
To build on Eamon Gilmore’s speech, the Irish Government should consider opening the State archives on these contentious issues in as comprehensive a manner as Saville. This would not end the battle over history in Northern Ireland but it would at least cut down on the amount of permissible lies about the past.
In one way that’s fair enough. In another it seems deeply problematic given the lack of progress on other issues. It certainly would fit into a broader examination of the roots and processes and outcomes of the conflict, but whether that sort of exercise will be engaged with seems highly unlikely. And it reminds me of something I once put to a then WP TD, suggesting that an history of the Irish left would be no bad thing. The response was near incredulous, ‘why would you want to do that?’. Yep. One suspects that is the real attitude towards a comprehensive examination of the past.
Why would any of the players want to do that?