Let them eat farls

More gloomy news from Northern Ireland. I can’t tell you how depressing it was a few weeks ago to be woken by Radio 4 reporting on the terrorist attack that killed two soldiers in Northern Ireland.

Because really, if you’d asked me to pick one unambiguously good news story from my time on earth, I’d have said the ending of violence in Northern Ireland. I grew up with bombs going off regularly in London; it wasn’t an unusual experience to go up to Oxford Street to do your Christmas shopping, and find a whole chunk of it roped off because of a bomb scare. And there seemed to be no end in sight: the conflict had been going on in its modern form for decades and in one way or another for centuries. It was a poisonous mixture of politics, identity and religion, weighed down by centuries of historical baggage, and there seemed to be no common ground to serve as a starting point for compromise.

For all the frustrations and messiness of the ‘peace process’, it still seemed miraculous that we had reached a point where the British Army was no longer on active duty in Northern Ireland, no-one was blowing anyone up, and the conflicts were being resolved via something like normal politics.

And so, on top of all the other bad news, to wake up to the news of that particular wound being re-opened… bleargh. I wouldn’t want to overstate the importance of what has happened so far; by historical standards the murders of two soldiers and a policeman are fairly minor incidents. And it’s a sign of how far we’ve come that Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin condemned the attacks standing next to the head of Northern Ireland’s police force and someone from the DUP. But it’s a depressing reminder that the underlying causes of the conflict are still there, and that we’re a long way from being able to say that it’s all over.

It may not be a coincidence that the peace process coincided with Ireland’s period as the Celtic Tiger, the great economic success story of Europe, and that the re-emergence of violence comes with the bursting of the Irish housing bubble and the collapse of their economy. That happened in the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland, but their politics are intertwined. And Northern Ireland has been particularly badly hit by the recession, apparently, because of its ‘large exposure to the construction sector’.

One more reason to hope, against all the evidence, that the G20 can somehow get the world economy started again.

3 Comments

  1. 3 April 2009 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    I can’t imagine, Harry. It’s like today’s (April 3) hostage killing thing in New York. Very depressing but geographically a long, long way from me. I can’t imagine living with the constant threat of violence. I am very fortunate. And like you, I hope the G20 can pull off some kind of miracle.

  2. Harry
    3 April 2009 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    Just to be clear, in case it sounds like I’m claiming something I don’t mean: even when the IRA were regularly bombing in England I didn’t feel like I was living with the constant threat of violence. It was a pain in the arse rather than anything else because it used to screw up the transport network so often. For the people who actually live in Northern Ireland, yes, it must have been much worse; not just the actual threat of violence but the psychic wear and tear from living in a place which is permanently at war with itself.

    Of course even the violence is relative: I remember in the 80s or early 90s there was the possibility of a US politician visiting Belfast and a whole load of associated security complications — can’t remember the details now. Anyway, it was pointed out that the murder rate in Belfast was much lower than in Washington DC. It’s just the murders in Washington were apolitical.

  3. 6 April 2009 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Good point, Harry. One that should be made here in the States a little bit louder maybe.

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