This entry turned out to be a lot longer than I anticipated, but you can’t talk about the Troubles without delving into Irish history. (Actually, it’s probably not detailed enough…)
Prior to this trip, I had visited England, Scotland, Wales, and the Republic of Ireland, but I had not visited Northern Ireland. That six-county statelet was certainly on my bucket list: for most of my lifetime Northern Ireland was synonymous with The Troubles, a seemingly intractable ethno-nationalist conflict over the constitutional status of the place, and I wanted to see a) any reminders of that time, and b) how it is doing these days.
I admit that my interest in The Troubles may have been somewhat ghoulish, but violence is always attention grabbing, and political violence even more so. Furthermore, that such a thing should have taken place in a major First World country, a member of the EU, G7, and UN Security Council, made it stand out. Finally, I confess that I just may have taken a side here: my homeland shares a monarch with the United Kingdom, and I support this monarchy as a form of government, for Burkean reasons. I am prone to disagree with anyone opposing it, especially those who do so violently.
But I also admit that, historically, British rule in Ireland was terribly oppressive and produced a great deal of misery. John Derbyshire sums it up nicely:
The primal misfortune, the one that generated all the others, was to be a small, poor island next to a larger, richer one, in whose sight Ireland was economically worthless and culturally alien yet strategically vital.
English colonialism might have worked – Ireland could have ended up like Wales, with a distinct culture and persistent low-key grudge against England, but otherwise fully integrated into the United Kingdom, enjoying all the benefits of membership and even certain privileges. The trouble is that the English never devoted enough effort to make such a project succeed – something else always came along and diverted their attention. More importantly, religion came into it, exacerbating the distinction between rulers and ruled on this most existential of issues. You could say that religious prejudice against the Irish goes back to Bede and the thorny question about the date of Easter, but the real problem, of course, occurred when King Henry VIII (1509-47) broke with Rome. He was able to force this decision on the English; he was not able to force it on the Irish beyond the immediate environs of Dublin. Quite apart from the apocalyptic struggles that ensued between these two fundamentally different interpretations of Christianity, Ireland then represented a back door into England for any continental Catholic power wishing to invade – the “strategically vital” quality that Derbyshire noted. So I’m sure that the English felt practically compelled to oppress the Irish. If they couldn’t impose the Reformation by fiat, they could always settle people there, as Machiavelli had recommended. In Tudor times the three main English “plantations” were in King’s and Queen’s Counties, in Munster, and in Ulster. Of these, only the last was successful, especially after the so-called Flight of the Earls in 1607. The new king of England, James I, who was already king of Scotland, promoted the settlement of Ulster as a joint British project. Settlers at all levels of society, whether landowners, overseers, merchants, craftsmen, or even tenants, were to be either English or Scots, and definitely not Catholic. This setup, it was hoped, would make the plantation safe from the depredations of the Irish, and provide a concentration of loyal settlers who would not be in danger of going native.
The Irish, as you might imagine, objected to this state of affairs, and eventually launched a serious revolt against it. In 1641 Ireland’s Catholic landowners attempted to take over the government of the island, which also opened the door for the Gaelic Irish to avenge themselves on the settlers. Some 4000 of these, it is reckoned, died at the hands of the Irish, with many more dying for secondary reasons like disease; the settlers, and English troops sent to protect them, committed their own atrocities in return. But this “Confederate War,” as it happens, turned into the Irish theater of the English Civil War, with the Irish Catholics (uneasily) allied with King Charles I (1625-49), and the Protestant settlers allied with Parliament. As everyone knows, Parliament won, and Charles was executed – and Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, then visited the Irish in order to put the fear of a Protestant God in them. Whatever the precise nature of his actual brutalities, the legal settlement was of lasting consequence: all Irish Catholic landowners were stripped of their property, and only those who had not supported the Confederation of Kilkenny were entitled to compensatory grants of land in the western province of Connaught. Thus were most Irish Catholics reduced to a permanent status of tenantry. Cromwell also forbade Catholics from serving in the Parliament of Ireland and from living in towns, and ordered that Catholic priests be killed on sight. The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 brought a minor relaxation of these rules, but the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had more unfortunate consequences for the Irish. Charles II died in 1685 and was succeeded by his brother James II, who was Catholic and who did not have the good sense to keep this to himself. Frightened by his arbitrary rule on behalf of his religion, the English Parliament invited his Protestant daughter Mary, and her husband William, Prince of the Netherlands, to become their monarchs instead. They landed in England in 1688, and when James fled London, Parliament declared that he had actually abdicated, and William and Mary were crowned co-monarchs of England and Scotland on April 11, 1689. James did not go away, of course, and after trying to raise support on the continent, went to Ireland to do the same thing there. This produced the (unsuccessful) Siege of Derry, a key event in Irish Protestant mythology, and the Battle of the Boyne, a decisive victory for William, Protestantism, and British settlement in Ireland. From that point on, the only people allowed to vote, hold office, serve in the military, attend university, become lawyers or judges, inherit land, or adopt children were members of the established Church of Ireland, and usually wealthy ones at that.*
Note that this dispensation did not include Presbyterians. In one of the stranger ironies of history, whatever rights that members of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland enjoyed in their own country did not follow them to Ireland. This alienated many Ulster settlers from the regime. Even the so-called Protestant Ascendancy that ran the country would, at times, express an incipient Irish nationalism, when overruled by Parliament at Westminster. Henry Grattan (1746-1820), an influential member of the Irish House of Commons, is the name associated with this movement, which itself was only the latest instance of the natural inclination for settlers to go native in Ireland, as the Vikings or Old English had before them. But however much the British shortchanged Ireland, it was never enough to unite Catholics, Presbyterians, and Protestants into a sort of national front. Such efforts usually foundered on the rock of sectarianism, a fate that befell the United Irishmen, a group founded by Theobald Wolfe Tone in the 1790s and dedicated to winning Irish independence.
The United Irishmen also represent the birth of so-called “physical-force republicanism.” Inspired by the French Revolution, they were dedicated to doing in Ireland what the Jacobins had accomplished in France. They did not set out to vindicate Catholic rights as such; they wanted an independent and secular Irish republic, to which end they launched a rebellion in 1798. Alas, this idea did not find much purchase among many Irish Catholics. The Catholic Church had an interest in not being oppressed; it had an even greater interest in squelching secularism and political violence.** As a result of the threat represented by the United Irishmen, the British bribed, wheedled, and cajoled the Protestant Ascendency into accepting parliamentary union with Britain, which occurred in 1801 – the idea being that the franchise could then be safely extended to Catholics, since they could be outvoted at Westminster if need be. But the British then reneged on this promise! So the Irish lost their parliament, and got nothing in return.
The British take pride in the stability of their political life. Change occurs, but it occurs incrementally and without (much) bloodshed. Revolutions, barricades in the streets, heads paraded around on pikes, public execution by guillotine… they might do such things on the continent, but not on the scepter’d isle. It’s true that in the seventeenth century Parliament waged war against, and then executed, the king, but that’s the one example to the contrary. In more recent times, for instance, the narrative of how the franchise got extended, starting with the Reform Act of 1832 and culminating in the Representation of the People Act in 1928, makes for an edifying if somewhat dry story.
There was an Irish echo of such things. Numerous Irish nationalists in the nineteenth century struggled for a better deal for Ireland, but within the bounds of the law or at least without resorting to violence. Chief among these was Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), the Great Liberator, who contrived to get himself elected as a Member of Parliament in 1828 and thereby embarrassed the British into passing the Emancipation Act, allowing Catholics to vote and hold office across the UK if they met certain property qualifications. Non-payment of tithes to the Church of Ireland, and rent strikes (one of which gave us the word “boycott” in its present meaning), were not necessarily legal, but they were attempts at widespread passive disobedience to get laws changed, and were eventually successful – the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1871, and a series of laws passed between 1870 and 1909 offered protection for tenant farmers from eviction, and allowed many of them to purchase their own land with government help. The biggest movement of all was for Home Rule, the main objective of the Irish Parliamentary Party, founded in 1874 by Isaac Butt. Home Rule sought to reestablish an Irish parliament, with a more universal franchise; only when the Irish controlled their own affairs, they reckoned, would their situation improve. After the first two attempts failed, a third Home Rule Bill finally passed into law in 1914, although it was not enforced on account of the First World War. It is true that the threat of violence might always have been hovering over these movements, and may have spurred the British into taking action before things spiraled out of control, but the point is that the British did take action; the UK of the nineteenth century did not witness a repeated cycle of bloody revolution and bloody reaction, as did France.
But some people did not get the memo. Physical-force republicanism, of the sort promoted by the United Irishmen, remained an ideal for a certain type of Irishman. A group calling itself Young Ireland attempted to carry out a revolution in 1848, which was even less successful than all the other revolutions of that fateful year in Europe, but which gave rise to Fenianism, the idea that Ireland had a natural right to independence, which could only be won through violent struggle against Britain. The secret Irish Republican Brotherhood kept the flame alive in Ireland, and tried to carry out another revolution in 1867, which failed miserably. The Fenian Brotherhood, a group of Irish expatriates in the United States, attempted to invade Canada and hold it hostage for Irish independence. This also went nowhere but was instrumental in spurring the foundation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867. The Phoenix Park murders (of the Chief Secretary for Ireland and his undersecretary) in 1882 were the work of an IRB splinter group.
So here were two major strains of Irish political nationalism, one open and “constitutional,” the other secret and dedicated to violence. Ideally they were working together for Irish rights – the implicit threat being that if you don’t grant us what we want today, we can’t guarantee what will happen tomorrow. The trouble is that by the late nineteenth century, the Protestants of Ulster were as firmly dedicated to the Union as the Irish were to Home Rule. How this came about I’ve never quite understood. Presbyterians had been excluded from power in the same way that Catholics had been, and Protestants of all stripes had been living long enough in Ireland to start thinking of it as home. Furthermore, the British treatment of the Irish had been a blatant injustice to any fair-minded observer, including any number of Protestants (Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Isaac Butt, Charles Stuart Parnell, Roger Casement, W.B. Yeats, Erskine Childers, and many others, were all Irish nationalists and all Protestant). Still, the vast majority of Protestants, both Church of Ireland and Presbyterian, were deathly afraid of and vehemently opposed to Home Rule, which they called “Rome Rule.” Why should this have been the case – especially when the Irish republican ideal was supposed to be secular? After all, the republican tricolor, which debuted in 1848, expressed equality and the hope of peace between Catholics and Protestants. What went wrong?
I suppose that, like white South Africans during Apartheid, there was a sense that any appeals to unity were just a ruse – that they’ll have their revenge on us the minute they get control of the place. It also seems to me that, over the course of the nineteenth century, religious difference was exacerbated by economic difference. That is, the City of Belfast, the beating heart of Ulster, did very well out of the industrial revolution, becoming a great manufacturing city like Glasgow or Manchester, extremely proud of its linen and shipbuilding and all the other industry that arose there. Although Max Weber only proposed his thesis about the connection between Protestantism and capitalism in 1905, the link between these things would have been manifestly apparent to the average Ulster Protestant, who felt in his guts that the union with Britain was the only guarantee of their continued existence. By contrast, the rest of Ireland appeared terribly backward, and not just because of British oppression – it was largely agrarian, leaving it vulnerable to such things as the potato famine, and with the Catholic church largely responsible for this sorry state of affairs, valuing education only insofar as it produced priests, and promoting large families (and even poverty and suffering) as an absolute good. Thus did nearly 500,000 Ulster Protestants sign a Solemn League and Covenant in 1912, some allegedly in their own blood, pledging to use “all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us, we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognise its authority.” That was not merely rhetoric: that same year saw the foundation of the Ulster Volunteers, a paramilitary force that quickly grew to some 100,000 members, which began illegally importing weapons in order to resist Home Rule, either in the entire island or, failing that, in Ulster itself. In response, Irish nationalists, at the instigation of the IRB, formed the rival Irish Volunteers, “to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland.” By mid-1914, it boasted some 200,000 members. Clearly, the stage was set for civil war.
In some ways, it was fortunate that Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914. The Home Rule Bill would pass into law in September but was suspended for the duration of the hostilities. The Ulster Volunteers, in order to demonstrate their loyalty to Britain, joined the army en masse. Many of the Irish Volunteers followed suit – John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, called on the Irish to support the British war effort, in the hopes that such loyalty would be rewarded, and many Irish Volunteers did so, becoming the National Volunteers and ostensibly fighting for the rights of small nations in Europe, including their own. A rump of more dedicated nationalists remained in Ireland, retained the name “Irish Volunteers,” called for Irish neutrality, and waited for a chance to act on the nationalist principle that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.”
As everyone knows, the war that was to be over by Christmas bogged down in a bloody stalemate, and certain nationalists were not willing to wait for the war’s end in order to assume the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature entitled them. This impatience, coupled with the German desire to sow discord behind enemy lines, produced the seminal event in modern Irish history: the Easter Rising of 1916, carried out by the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the Irish Citizen Army, a small paramilitary group founded in 1913 in order to protect striking workers. (There was some overlap in membership between these groups, of course.) They managed to seize several blocks of the Dublin city center and declare the existence of an Irish Republic before British troops arrived and crushed it after week, executing sixteen of the leaders for treason and interning some 1000 other participants in the Frongoch Prison Camp in Wales.
The standard interpretation of these events is that most of the Irish public did not support the rebels at the time, but sympathy only grew for them after the executions, and the threat of conscription in 1918 pushed the Irish away from the IPP towards Sinn Fein, a more hardcore nationalist party, founded in 1905 and soon taken over by the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Most remarkably, in the general election of December 1918 (the so-called Khaki Election), Sinn Fein took 73 out of 105 of Ireland’s seats. Sinn Fein was “abstentionist” – that is, members would stand for election, but if they won, they would refuse to take their seats at Westminster, boycotting it in favor their own parliament, which they called the Dail Eireann. The Dail redeclared the Irish Republic of 1916, and once it did, the Irish Volunteers pledged their loyalty to it, renaming themselves the Irish Republican Army and recruiting many new members. Thus began the Irish War of Independence, which was not quite as dramatic as its name suggests: it was largely a guerrilla campaign and resulted in the abandonment of a few police barracks in rural areas, although both sides managed to kill some 2000 people by 1922. The British, at first, were not prepared to recognize the Dail and this “Irish Republic” it claimed to represent, but they did abandon the Home Rule Bill of 1914 in favor of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, the so-called Fourth Home Rule Bill. The main feature of this bill was the division of Ireland into two polities: a six-county “Northern Ireland” and a twenty-six county “Southern Ireland,” with separate parliaments for each but with both remaining constituent parts of the United Kingdom, and with the hope that eventually they would be united. Elections for both of these parliaments took place in May 1921 – Sinn Fein ran candidates for this election and won 128 seats, practically sweeping Southern Ireland and even winning 6 seats in Northern Ireland, demonstrating its overwhelming support, or at least its ability to bully any political opponents into withdrawing. The Sinn Feiners then convened as the Second Dail. (Only four people who were not members of Sinn Fein were elected in Southern Ireland – these were Independent Unionists representing Trinity College Dublin, who farcically met once as the Parliament for Southern Ireland on June 28, 1921).
So clearly the British were no longer in control of most of Ireland. The IRA might not have won independence in a decisive, Yorktown-style battle (in fact, it may have been on the verge of collapse), but the hearts and minds of most Irish had gone over to the Dail, which managed to annex the court system and revenue collection, two essential functions of state. But as the Dail did not want to carry on a war that had reached a stalemate and that they may have been in danger of losing, and as the British had no interest in defending a regime that had lost its legitimacy, both sides agreed to a truce in July 1921. The British recognized the Dail, but not the Irish Republic; a delegation from the Dail then negotiated the Anglo-Irish treaty, which granted Dominion status to Ireland, henceforth to be known as the Irish Free State. The Northern Ireland created by the Fourth Home Rule Bill was allowed to opt out of the treaty, and promptly did so; a boundary commission was to revisit the question of where, exactly, the boundary between the IFS and NI should be drawn. Dominion status within the British Empire, enjoyed by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and South Africa at the time, was more than Home Rule, but less than the completely independent republic that the IRA had been fighting for, and the Treaty was deeply controversial, narrowly passing the Dail by a vote of 64 to 57. That the king was to retain sovereignty over Ireland, and members of the Dail were to swear allegiance to him, was too much for a lot of people, and it split Sinn Fein and the IRA right down the middle. Thus did the war continue in Ireland, only now it was not between British security forces and the IRA, but between pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty IRA. With British help, the pro-Treaty forces prevailed by 1923, and the Irish Free State became a functioning reality. Michael Collins, the main negotiator for the Dail, famously said that the treaty represented the “not freedom, but the freedom to achieve freedom,” and claimed that he was signing his own death warrant – sure enough, he was killed in August 1922 in an ambush by anti-Treaty forces.
Whatever the precise outcome, this sequence of events, from 1916 to 1922, represented a vindication of physical-force republicanism. It’s true that the Easter Rising was a short-term failure, and that the IRA did not succeed in winning an all-island Irish Republic in 1922, but it inflicted enough damage on the British that they (mostly) washed their hands of the place, as they later did in Palestine. The anti-treaty Eamon de Valera, who had escaped execution in 1916 owing to his American citizenship, somehow escaped execution again by the Free State in 1923. He came to the realization that turning the clock back to 1916 wasn’t really viable, so he took up Collins’s pledge to “achieve freedom.” He resigned from Sinn Fein to found a new party, Fianna Fail, which contested the Free State election of 1928 and which actually took power in 1931. The British Statute of Westminster (1932) was a godsend to De Valera – it gave legal equality to the Dominions, so he took the opportunity to rewrite the Free State constitution to omit all references to the king, and to replace his representative the Governor General with a popularly elected president. After the Irish approved this constitution by referendum, it went into effect in 1937, after which the Irish Free State was officially known as “Eire” and was, as far as de Valera was concerned, a republic. Apparently the king still held some residual powers over the state, though, so in 1948 the political party Fine Gael, which had taken power earlier that year, passed the Republic of Ireland Act, which went into effect on the symbolic date of Easter Monday, 1949. Coupled with the UK’s Ireland Act of 1949, the Republic of Ireland Act unambiguously achieved complete legal independence for place, and took it out of the British Commonwealth to boot (it also bestowed upon the state its current name).
With the king gone, nationalists’ attention could then shift towards Northern Ireland. How big Northern Ireland was to be had been a matter of debate: would it comprise all nine counties of Ulster, or only the four counties where Unionists had majorities – or some number in between? It’s true that across the entire province of Ulster, Unionists held a slim majority, but it was too slim for their comfort, so they sloughed off Counties Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan, and retreated to the FAT LAD*** counties, which gave them a sizable majority in population while still holding as much territory as possible. The trouble is that Counties Tyrone and Fermanagh had nationalist majorities, and there were other nationalist communities scattered throughout the other four. The Irish Free State thought that the boundary commission would allow them to annex these areas and, hopefully, make NI economically unviable, but it never convened, and the North was left with a significant minority problem. They dealt with it though a combination of popular- and state-sanctioned violence, gerrymandering, triumphalist propaganda, and social exclusion, which they got away with because they were in control of their own devolved parliament.§ I’m sure that, if asked, they would have justified their regime with something like: “This is the Protestant and Unionist part of Ireland. If you want to be Irish and Catholic, then you’re welcome to move to one of the twenty-six counties you’ve managed to shear away from the United Kingdom, and which encompass five-sixths of this island.” And I regret to say that the Irish Free State did not really help itself. Despite any official talk of Irish unity and religious equality, it essentially turned over health care and education to the Roman Catholic Church, and in general seemed beholden to a traditionalist, isolationist, and agrarian vision of Ireland. In a radio speech in 1943, De Valera summed it up thus:
The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age.
Or, as John Derbyshire puts it (much less charitably), independent Ireland was
for the first few decades of its existence a stagnant rustic theocracy with little appeal to anyone whose aspirations rose to anything higher than sitting around a peat fire discussing the Council of Trent in Gaelic.
I understand that, despite everything, there was a continuous net migration from the Irish Free State/Eire/Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, because there was a greater possibility of finding work. (Apartheid was an odious system, but even under it South Africa attracted black immigrants from neighboring countries, for much the same reason).
When I said nationalists’ attention was focused on Northern Ireland, I should qualify this. Article 2 of De Valera’s 1937 Constitution reads “The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas,” and Article 3 speaks of “re-integration of the national territory” and “the right of the parliament and government established by this constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole territory.” Definitive postage stamps from the Irish Free State illustrate the entire island of Ireland, without acknowledging that it did not have control over six northeastern counties. But the Dublin regime never tried to annex the North militarily. It never cheekily ran candidates in the North for the Dail, or accepted appeals for justice from beleaguered nationalists there. In general, its claim to represent a united Ireland was rhetorical.†
Instead, the IRA, such as it was, carried on the ideal of a united Ireland, achieved through physical force. The Anti-Treatyites lost their war with the Free State in 1923. However, their organization was not destroyed, but retreated to the shadows to become a sort of secret society, as the IRB had been. They refused to accept defeat, on the principle that the Second Dail’s ratification of the Anglo-Irish treaty was illegitimate. Members of the Dail had taken an oath to uphold the Irish Republic, and so a vote for any other sort of regime was ipso facto null and void. According to one strain of Irish republican legitimism, Anti-Treaty Sinn Fein and the Anti-Treaty IRA represent the real Irish Republic of 1916 on a sort of spiritual level, a kind of internal government-in-exile. The IRA is proud to boast that Sinn Fein turned over the “rights” to the Irish Republic to the IRA’s Army Council in 1938 – thus does the IRA itself embody the true and legitimate government of Ireland. Once De Valera’s constitution passed, however, their actions were focused exclusively against the British “occupation” of the North, thus its so-called S-Plan (1938-40), the Northern Campaign (1942-44), and the Border Campaign (1956-62). You might think that Eire and/or the Republic of Ireland might have covertly supported these operations, but De Valera had no sentimental attachment to his former comrades-in-arms. They were an embarrassment, and threatened to disrupt relations with the UK, Ireland’s biggest trading partner. He and his successors had no problem arresting them and throwing them in jail for any freelance violence they may have committed, or even just as a precaution. This policy crippled the IRA, and the Border Campaign was called off in 1962, having failed to achieve any of its ends. The IRA was then taken over by a group of activists who tried to give the organization a new, Marxist orientation.
As a consequence, it lost whatever legitimacy it had with Northern Ireland’s nationalist community, when it didn’t do much to defend it during Northern Ireland’s Civil Rights era. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement in the United States, in the late 1960s Northern Ireland’s nationalists began serious, nonviolent protests against the systemic prejudice of the Stormont regime. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, founded in January 1967, sponsored a march from Coalisland to Dungannon in August 1968, parallel to the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. And it met the same response: whether from the more excitable sort of Protestant, or from the police themselves, this march, and subsequent marches, were blocked and attacked. Events just escalated after that: 1969 saw the Battle of the Bogside in Derry, numerous Catholic families burned out of their homes in Belfast, and rioting, street fighting, and much other mayhem. Ian Paisley, an outspoken Protestant minister and fierce opponent of the Civil Rights movement, claimed that he “would rather be British than just,” and I think that sums it up: many of Ulster’s Protestants were deeply insecure about the status of their country, seeing the Civil Rights movement as a front for republican annexation, which practically compelled them to oppose it, as forcefully as necessary. But the IRA wasn’t very visible in these dark times; some nationalists claimed that its initials stood for “I Ran Away.” Beholden to its novel Marxist ideology, it was more interested in class struggle than in sectarian street fighting or community defense, leaving nationalists to the mercy of the police, who were not as neutral as they ought to have been.
In this context, nationalists apparently greeted the arrival of troops from mainland Britain, after an intense period of rioting in August 1969, with a sense of relief. The Brits were certainly preferable to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and for the time being were somewhat able to keep the two sides from attacking each other. But meanwhile, changes were brewing in the IRA. Frustrated by the unwillingness of its leadership to do anything about the crisis, members based in Northern Ireland eventually split with the Dublin-based command, naming themselves the Provisional Irish Republican Army and pledging to properly defend nationalist communities, as they had done since the 1920s. But they were still Republican – that is, their long-term goal was a united Ireland, achieved through violent struggle against the British. The British troops, therefore, were cast as an alien, occupying force, a legitimate target for violence. This new Provisional IRA started attacking the British troops, and the Brits responded accordingly, thereby “proving” how oppressive they were. Certainly in Derry on January 30, 1972, the Parachute Regiment played the role assigned to it by republican ideology: at a peaceful protest against internment without trial, which had been introduced the previous August, the Paras shot and killed some fourteen nationalist civilians. Whether the Paras were being shot at themselves, as they later claimed, was no matter: “Bloody Sunday,” as it quickly became known, was a propaganda disaster for the British, and a boon to the Provisional IRA, now the dominant faction in the physical-force republican movement. Membership soared; more importantly, it won the group a great deal of legitimacy in the nationalist community as being the only people really on their side. And thus it continued: for the next thirty years or so, the Provos waged a guerrilla campaign against the British and their Northern Irish lackeys, mostly through bombings and shootings, and mostly in Northern Ireland itself, although they occasionally took their campaign to mainland Britain or even to the European continent. They were active in defending nationalists, but true to their ideology, they did not (often) attack unionist civilians, or (usually) engage in sectarian killings. This was not the rebellion of 1641 – the idea was that Ulster Protestants were now rightfully Irish, and were suffering from a sort of false consciousness, and the minute the Brits were expelled, they would see the light and join their fellow Irish in bright future in a republic finally coterminous with the island. British Army personnel, members of the RUC, judges, politicians, and other important government officials were all fair game. Bombing buildings to cause extensive property damage was OK too, but they would usually give warnings to avoid unnecessary loss of civilian life (not that this always happened, of course). The idea was that if they caused enough harm over a long enough period, the British would eventually throw in the towel and abandon their claims to the place.
Of course, they also ran protection rackets against nationalist businesses, tortured and killed anyone suspected of collaborating with the British, and in general cared for their “people” only insofar as they could support the armed struggle. My hunch is that there were a lot of nationalists who were ambivalent to the IRA, and many nationalist areas that it did not actually control. Certainly the Social Democratic Labour Party, and not Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, received the most nationalist votes throughout the Troubles. Still, my understanding is that the IRA enjoyed a much greater support within the nationalist community than the Protestant paramilitaries ever did within the unionist community. There were two main ones: the Ulster Volunteer Force, founded in 1966, and the Ulster Defence Association, founded in 1971, and they too engaged in shootings and bombings, although apparently they were a lot more sectarian than the IRA was. That is, the IRA was motivated by a political vision and attacked specific targets, while the UVF and UDA were happy just to kill Catholic civilians in “revenge” – the McGurk’s Pub bombing in 1970 and the Shankill Butchers, a gang of psychopathic serial killers active between 1975 and 1982, are good examples of this tendency. The idea, I think, is that if they attacked ordinary members of the nationalist community, the survivors would put pressure on the IRA to stop their own attacks against the state. But on the whole, I am led to believe, most unionists favored law and order and thus supported the police and the army, the legitimate instruments of state (which were, generally, on their side anyway). Extrajudicial and sectarian violence, many felt, was redundant and embarrassing. Anyone convicted of membership in a paramilitary group was banned from membership in the Orange Order, for instance. (Perhaps it was simply a class thing, the paramilitaries being a product of working class neighborhoods, with the wider support that the IRA enjoyed in the nationalist community simply reflective of the fact that there were more working class nationalists?)
Unfortunately, state authorities did not always obey the law themselves. Nationalists suspected, with much justification, that the RUC and the British Army colluded with paramilitary groups, turning a blind eye to joint membership, or supplying them with intelligence and equipment in order to do what they were forbidden to do themselves. Then there was the army’s shoot-to-kill policy, aimed at IRA men on active service. Although the British formally believed that the IRA was a criminal organization, best dealt with by arrest, trial, conviction, and prison, in practice it often took the IRA at its word and treated its members like enemy combatants. British army units, especially the Special Air Service, would ambush and kill IRA members, most famously at Loughgall in 1987 or at Gibraltar in 1988. This violation of principle was somewhat controversial.
The issue of whether the IRA were soldiers or criminals surfaced most famously in the late 1970s and early 1980s over the issue of Special Category Status (SCS). SCS had been introduced for paramilitary prisoners as a concession to the IRA during a ceasefire in 1972. As an “army” fighting a “war,” the IRA asserted that its “POWs” were entitled to certain privileges under the Geneva Convention, including not having to wear prison uniforms or do prison work, being housed with other political prisoners and being able to maintain their command structure, and being allowed extra visits and care packages. The British withdrew SCS in March 1976, re-designating IRA men as criminals and providing a Major Issue for the republican movement. Thus did HM Prison Maze witness the blanket protest (when prisoners refused to wear prison uniforms and simply wrapped themselves in blankets instead), the dirty protest (when prisoners refused to leave their cells and smeared excrement on their walls), and in 1980, a hunger strike aimed at the restoration of all lost privileges. The strike was called off when the British were apparently prepared to negotiate, but when it became clear that they weren’t, on March 1, 1981, IRA man Bobby Sands refused food, and was joined at staggered intervals by a number of his other comrades. Hunger striking has a long tradition in Ireland, apparently going back to the early Middle Ages as a means of bringing attention to an injustice and shaming one’s lord into doing something about it, and Irish republicans had used it before during the War of Independence. So Sands’ action was certainly attention-getting, not only among the Irish but among leftists throughout the world. I suppose that the election of the right-wing Margaret Thatcher in 1979 helped; anyone opposed to her couldn’t be that bad. Furthermore, these IRA men weren’t actually shooting anyone or blowing things up, they were inflicting harm only on themselves, literally holding themselves hostage for the return of SCS. The ensuing battle of wills grabbed the world’s attention: would the British government allow the hunger strikers to die, or would they give them what they wanted, which was mostly symbolic anyway? The stakes were raised significantly when Bobby Sands ran as a candidate in a by-election for the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The mainstream SDLP, in a show of support, did not run a candidate, so the nationalist vote was concentrated, and succeeded in getting Sands elected as a Member of Parliament on April 9. Still the Conservative government did not give in, and Sands died on May 5, 1981, sixty-six days after he stopped eating. Margaret Thatcher famously said that he “was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims” – a sentiment that was not shared by the 100,000 people who attended his funeral, and the great numbers of protestors who demonstrated across Ireland and throughout the world. Over the course of the summer nine other hunger strikers followed Sands to the grave; the British changed the rules to forbid prisoners from standing for election, but quietly reintroduced a de facto form of SCS.
The Hunger Strike of 1981 was a boon to the republican movement, earning it worldwide sympathy and showing the British that Sinn Fein was much more popular than they had claimed. It also encouraged the IRA to adopt the “Armalite and the ballot box” strategy – that is, Sinn Fein would begin contesting elections and engaging in “politics” as conventionally understood, while the IRA continued its armed campaign. Sinn Fein’s electoral support was never quite as good as it had hoped, but the IRA’s campaign certainly kept on going, which included a long list of atrocities like the Hyde Park and Regent’s Park Bombings (1982), the Harrods Bombing (1983), the Brighton Hotel Bombing (1984), the Newry Mortar attack (1985), the Remembrance Day bombing at Enniskillen (1987), the assassination of MP Ian Gow (1990), a mortar attack against 10 Downing Street (1991), the Teebane Bombing (1992), and so on. I remember studying in London in 1992 and hearing IRA bombs going off in the distance. And of course, the Protestant paramilitaries, and the state security forces, did some killing of their own, including not only Gibraltar and Loughgall, but also the Milltown Cemetery attack, the assassination of lawyer Pat Finucane, the Cappagh and Drumbeg killings (both in 1991), the Sean Graham bookmakers’ shooting (1992), the Castlerock killings (1993), and numerous others.
But then in 1994 the IRA declared a ceasefire. Behind the scenes, its leadership was in negotiation with the British government. They broke it in 1996 with the Docklands and Manchester bombings, but the election of the Labour Party in 1997 under Prime Minister Tony Blair, who did not need any unionist votes to keep his government in power, meant that what had become known as the Peace Process could move ahead more swiftly. Sure enough, the Good Friday Agreement was ratified on April 10, 1998, and it is usually seen as the formal end of the Troubles.
I remember feeling a visceral hatred for Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein and avuncular spokesman for murderers. Whenever I saw a video of him acting as a pallbearer for some IRA “volunteer” killed “on active service,” I wished that the British could somehow contrive to pack the coffin with explosives and detonate it at the right time, thereby removing his head and those of five other Sinn Fein assholes, and maybe a few others in the vicinity for good measure. That would be a coup! But in fact the British were protecting him, and foiled a number of plots on his life by Protestant paramilitaries. By the late 1980s, they had estimated that he was the one most likely to get the IRA to call off its campaign and bring it to the negotiating table. And indeed, he himself had come to believe that the armed struggle was pointless – the British would never defeat the IRA, but the IRA would never be able to force the British out either. So he came around to Michael Collins’s position: that it was time to make a deal, perhaps the “freedom to achieve freedom,” but not the immediate realization of a united 32-county Republic of Ireland.
There are many aspects to the Good Friday Agreement, which involved all Northern Irish political parties, the Republic of Ireland, and the British government. The Agreement created a devolved assembly for Northern Ireland with a power-sharing executive (that is, nationalists and unionists were both guaranteed places on it). All signatories agreed that the only way to achieve a united Ireland would be peacefully, and only with the consent of the majority of the inhabitants there (the nationalists may be on the verge of achieving this, simply through demographic shift). In return, the Republic of Ireland agreed to modify Articles 2 and 3 of their constitution, foregoing an overt irredentist claim to the North. The border was to be completely open, and several cross-border institutions were set up. Famously, everyone born in the north was now able to apply for an Irish passport. The British agreed to withdraw all troops and dismantle their extensive intelligence operation, and the RUC was reformed, becoming the Police Service of Northern Ireland and featuring strict cross-community membership. Perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow was the IRA’s insistence that paramilitary prisoners be released, and some truly evil men (on both sides) were subsequently freed; in return, they all agreed to decommission their weapons.
Or did they? The IRA was certainly happy to see its prisoners freed. It was much less cooperative on decommissioning. In late 1999, when I was living in London again, Gerry Adams was claiming that the IRA never actually agreed to hand over its arms. “What undefeated army has ever given up its weapons?” I recall him saying. As a result, the nascent Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended in February. Again, I was disgusted by Adams’s hypocrisy, but now I realize that he was playing a delicate balancing act. For he may have been president of Sinn Fein, and he may have dominated the IRA’s Army Council (he has always denied membership in this, but no one believes him), but he was not in a position to simply order the IRA to do his bidding. As with Michael Collins the 1920s, many Irish republicans felt betrayed by his new, peaceful direction. Physical force republicanism, with its history going back to Wolfe Tone, its success in winning Irish freedom in 1922, and its compelling vision of a secular united Ireland, was a deeply ingrained ideology, and the more that Adams pushed for the Good Friday Agreement, the more that activists simply abandoned the Provisional IRA and joined the Real IRA, a splinter group dedicated to carrying on the armed struggle. I read once that Adams even tolerated a reciprocal membership policy between these two groups for a while. To voluntarily disarm was a step too far for many people, and it was said that the IRA would never hand over “a single bullet or an ounce of Semtex.” Compromises were proposed: perhaps someone could verify that the weapons were put “beyond use”? Perhaps we could ignore decommissioning, as long as they’re not actually shooting anyone?
So the Peace Process could only move forward fitfully. Who knows what went on behind the scenes. The Northern Ireland Assembly was revived in May 2000, and after more than a year of missed deadlines, ultimatums, resignations, and other brinksmanship, a breakthrough occurred in August 2001, when the IRA agreed on a method of destroying its arsenal, to be confirmed by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. They began to do so in October 2001, at which time, you may recall, terrorism was suddenly and very seriously out of fashion. It took four years, but the IICD verified in 2005 that the process was complete. I guess it took Adams that long to bring the IRA around to his vision. The Real IRA has continued to carry out occasional attacks, although apart from the horrific Omagh bombing in 1998, they have been nowhere near as numerous or as deadly as those carried out by the Provisionals – the RIRA seems to have fewer members and enjoy much less community support. Perhaps the parts of the Good Friday Agreement that guaranteed equal rights to nationalists have succeeded in lessening the appeal of any armed struggle, along with the inevitable blowback.
So what is the place like now, twenty years on the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement?
From what I could gather talking to people, it seems that it’s in bad taste to remember. Everyone has to pretend that Sinn Fein is a legitimate political party, and its connection to the IRA not something that anyone is supposed to dwell on. The Bogside in Derry and Falls Road in Belfast still have their share of murals, in honor of various street battles, the Hunger Strikers, or how bad the British were. Such murals also express solidarity with other causes supposedly parallel to their own, most notably the Palestinians, but also the Kurds, black South Africans under Apartheid, the Castro regime in Cuba, Tamil Eelam, and various workers’ strikes throughout history. The Republican plot in Milltown Cemetery is as you would expect it, with lots of flags, Easter lilies, and green, white, and orange wreaths. Along the Falls Road there is also a memorial garden to the volunteers of the D Company of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade who died on active service. Derry hosts the Free Derry Museum, largely devoted to Bloody Sunday, while in Belfast you can find the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum, staffed by volunteers and exhibiting items from the Troubles and how everyone suffered, etc. One tolerates these things as we (used to) tolerate Confederate memorials – as the price we have to pay for peace. Actually, tours of Belfast murals are a thriving attraction these days – and a lot of murals are now nonsectarian or apolitical. The guide for our own Falls/Shankill tour said that he’d love for the Peace Wall to come down, but that it’s too good for business! He also said that “people are coming to appreciate each others’ traditions,” including the massive bonfires that Protestants build for July 12 (nationalists still don’t like it when Prods immolate nationalist flags though); some unionist, once in jail and then freed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, is now an Irish language teacher. Funnily enough, he also claimed that according to one survey, only 21% of Northern Irelanders actually want independence from Britain, the idea being that it is still more prosperous and has more generous benefits than the Republic of Ireland. Lord, give us a united Ireland, but not yet! (But I would like to see how this question was worded, if the survey actually happened at all).
One question I wanted to find an answer to was: how troublesome were the Troubles, really? The violence got lots of attention, but most people in Northern Ireland, Catholic or Protestant, lived their lives without much incident. Some 3500 people were killed during the thirty years of the Troubles – a tragic waste of human life, to be sure, but far fewer than the number of people killed in completely apolitical car crashes. I met a woman from Belfast once who pretty much mocked my inquiry about the place, claiming that my apparent idea of Belfast was the equivalent someone from Europe thinking that the US was nothing but race riots and school shootings. Another woman I met, a friend’s wife from Co. Antrim, said that the IRA was only really active in West Belfast and in South Armagh, and did not affect her family at all. And P.J. O’Rourke touched on this in “The Piece of Ireland that Passeth All Understanding,” an essay I like so much that I quote it at length:
You probably think Belfast looks like those photographs of Belfast you always see. Not at all. It’s a charming port, one of the world’s great deep-water harbors, cupped in rolling downs on the hight of Belfast Lough. Cave Hill rises to the north like Sugar Loaf Mountain above Ipanema beach, causing some to go so far as to call Belfast “an Hibernian Rio”…. The city is built in the best and earliest period of Victorian architecture with a delicate brickwork on every humble warehouse and factory. Even the mill-hand tenement houses have Palladio’s proportions in a miniature way and slate roofs you couldn’t buy for money now.
The Belfast pictured in Time magazine, the rubble-and-barbed wire, litter-and-graffiti Belfast, is, in fact, a patch of highly photogenic impoverishment no more than a mile long and half a mile wide. It’s as though Architectural Digest came to “do” a house and only took pictures of the teenager’s bedroom. The rubble is from slum clearance, not bombs (though which is worse may be argued by critics of the modern welfare state). And the barbed wire is on top of the “Peace Wall,” a kind of sociological toddler gate erected by the British to keep the ragamuffin Protestant homicidal maniacs on Shankill Road away from the tatterdemalion Catholic murderers in Falls Road two blocks over. The graffiti and litter are real.
People who live in this heck’s half acre have been worked over by social scientists until there’s hardly one of them who’s not a footnote on someone’s master’s thesis. And they’re so thoroughly journalized that urchins in the street ask, “Will you be needing a sound bite?” or criticize your choice of shutter speeds.
So yeah, I’m sure that my perspective is skewed somewhat, even after my visit (the only residential areas I walked though were the Bogside in Derry, and Falls Road and Shankill in Belfast – probably the three most politicized areas in Northern Ireland, so hardly a representative sample).
But one lady I spoke with at the Ulster Museum, in her sixties and from Coleraine, insisted that it was not just the Belfast working class who experienced the Troubles. They may have borne the brunt of it, but it affected most everyone in society on some level. She had been a teacher, and she knew two RUC officers, former students of hers, who were both killed. Another time the IRA exploded a car bomb in Coleraine (apparently by accident – they were ferrying it somewhere else) and it killed a number of people. In a nationalist pub in Belfast, we were listening to Irish music and got into a conversation with a guy at our table. He was from Newry, in Armagh. I mentioned that I had read about Newry in Eamon Collins’s book Killing Rage. He said that there is a better book called The Hooded Men (about sensory deprivation of prisoners by the British in the early 1970s, which the EU has ruled constitutes torture, and whose case has recently been reopened) – he knew some of the people concerned and, as another man came up to the table, announced “Here is their solicitor now!” The solicitor angrily shushed him, telling him that “you never know who you’re talking to!” Another friend of mine, who had joined the Territorial Army while a student at Oxford, always had the IRA somewhere on his mind. “Irish republicanism wasn’t just a fashion statement, they really were trying to kill me,” he told me once. Another time:
I went out for a few drinks with a friend of mine who is gay, and who tends to dress in a certain obviously gay style. Anyway, we popped out to a local near his house in South London that looked suitably bland from the outside. Inside turned out to be a different story. It was filled with orange, white and green flags and bunting, lots of banners with weird Gaelic phrases (and not the ones that mean “hey, everyone let’s drink Guinness and have a good time” or “top of the morning to you”), and packed with surly, old, pissed off and pissed up men. I thought there was no harm in staying for a pint (also there is nothing weenier than to walk into a bar, get scared and walk out again), but I couldn’t figure out why everyone was looking at us so angrily. At first I thought it must be the gay thing, but then I realized they were singling me out. Towards the end of the pint I suddenly realized I was wearing a polo shirt with a big British flag embossed on the sleeve, and the British army infantry crest on the left pocket. We left quickly. So there you go, I walked into an IRA bar wearing recognizably British Army clothing and lived to tell the tale. Thank goodness for the “peace process.”
So clearly, even if the death toll of the Troubles wasn’t all that impressive in the grand scheme of things, it was and even remains an issue of concern for a lot of people. Political violence is intentional, and not random like car crashes, and you could never tell when it might be directed at you, or those you care about.
In 2012, something called Titanic Belfast opened on the site of the former Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast Lough. It takes the form of a specially-built tourist destination, representing a shiny new post-Troubles Belfast. It is devoted to the most famous passenger ship of the twentieth century, which was built in Belfast and sank after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912. Of all the ships that have ever gone down, why this one should have attracted so much sustained attention has always puzzled me. I suppose all the extremes add up: it was the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ship ever built, with a number of famous and wealthy passengers, and sank on its maiden voyage (despite the hubristic claims that it was “unsinkable”). But that it merits an entire museum seems a bit much. One of our tour members called it “Disney,” and part of me agrees. The Eileen Hickey Republican History Museum was certainly “authentic” – small, poor, funded by donations, and staffed by volunteers – how could such a thing compete with the razzle-dazzle of Disney? And indeed, if you’re into politics, the Hickey Museum is a lot more meaningful than a commemoration of a luxury liner that sank more than one hundred years ago.
And yet, as it turns out, the Titanic Experience was not nearly as Disney as we feared. It started off with quite a bit on the social and economic context of nineteenth century Belfast. The process of building the ship was explained in detail, but accessibly and in interactive exhibits. There was a “ride” that took you through the ship under construction, a reconstruction of a shipboard dining room to explore, and large video illustrating the sinking. Following this was a history of commemoration, the place of Titanic in popular culture, including all those movies and videos of the rediscovery by Robert Ballard in 1985. But even if it were more “Disney” – even if it were a completely contentless “experience” – I would say that it is still preferable to the Belfast of the Troubles. A parallel may be drawn to Times Square in New York, or an article decrying, in soccer, “the drive to sterilise the matchday experience and make it safe and family friendly” (as opposed to the glory days of hooliganism). But I do not understand any nostalgia for the violence, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy of Troubles, “authentic” and “meaningful” as they may have been. Happy is the land where things like this don’t happen.
* In the Republic of Ireland, it seems, the word “Protestant” often refers only to members of the Church of Ireland, and not to any other Dissenting or Reformed branches of Christianity. See, for instance, a line in the song “Galway Races,” which refers to “The Catholic, the Protestant, the Jew, the Presbyterian.” Are Presbyterians not Protestants? To my mind they certainly are. (In fact, most Anglicans I know are chary of referring to themselves as “Protestants.”) In Northern Ireland, however, the word “Protestant” does seem to encompass the Church of Ireland and the various Presbyterian sects, and there does not seem to be much sectarianism or often distinction between them. No one seemed to know, for instance, what sort of Protestants made up the paramilitary groups, or the Orange Order. They were all just “Protestants.”
** I’ve often wondered how Irish nationalists, overwhelmingly Catholic as an essential part of their identity, could reconcile the “physical force tradition” with the requirements of their faith, one of which is “thou shalt not kill,” and another of which is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Indeed, the Catholic Church repeatedly condemned political violence, something that did not seem to bother IRA men all that much. Where there is overlap between the Catholic religion and Irish nationalism is not in killing, but in suffering. I’ve mentioned before about how the “Easter Rising” connotes “blood sacrifice” and “redemption,” and is accordingly celebrated on Easter, no matter when that holiday falls, and not on April 24, when it actually started. One of the more remarkable monuments I saw in Ireland was in Dingle, and consisted of a life-sized roadside crucifix, with St. Mary and St. John on either side… but this was in honor of the sixteen Irish revolutionaries executed by the British in 1916! At the foot of the cross was a list of their names, and the Declaration of the Provisional Republic, in English and Irish. As Jesus died for your sins, so also did Pearse, Plunkett, Connolly, et al., die for Ireland.
*** Fermanagh, Antrim, Tyrone, Londonderry, Armagh, Down.
§ It’s interesting, isn’t it, how dead-set they were against Home Rule, but had no problem with it at all once they were in charge.
† Most citizens of the Republic of Ireland, as far as I can gather, look back on 1916 and the subsequent War of Independence in the same way that Americans look back on 1776 and their own War of Independence. You see references to 1916 here and there, the graves of any soldiers who died fighting for Ireland are specially marked, and a Garden of Remembrance on O’Connell Street in Dublin remembers all those who died fighting for Irish freedom. But they believe the canon is closed, so to speak. Whatever sympathy they may naturally have had with the nationalists in Northern Ireland, they did not see the IRA’s campaign there as a continuation of 1919-22. The Republic of Ireland, apparently, refused the PIRA access to republican plots in the country (although there are rumors that they may have secretly funded the PIRA at the commencement of the Troubles). Contrarian Kevin Myers, though, claimed that Republic’s celebration of the War of Independence fed directly into the IRA’s armed struggle:
WHILE audiences in Dublin have been cheering the theatrical celebration of Tom Barry’s ‘Guerilla Days in Ireland’ (mis-spelt, of course), in Belfast a bomb from so-called republican dissidents nearly killed three police officers. The failure to realise the connection between a celebration of ‘good’ violence in the past and ‘bad’ violence today has long been a chronic condition in Irish life. Whereas the myth of republican violence takes merely artistic form in some souls, in others it serves as a moral authoriser, like a virus that affects its hosts in different ways. Actual violence is always a consequence of this myth.