The Herald on Sunday
Talking up the threat of violence in Northern Ireland helps no one
AT the end of the First World War in 1918, the French prime minister Clemenceau suggested that his British counterpart David Lloyd George “having won the war” now faced the more difficult task of “winning the peace”.
As the “Welsh wizard” was about to face revolution in the UK’s own back yard in Ireland at that time, winning peace there has proved elusive for over a century. Even 23 years after the historic Good Friday Agreement, sectarian tensions remain between the two tribes of differing British and Irish identities.
But there is peace – significant progress has been made in the Province with erstwhile enemies sharing power, however spikey the exchanges can be at times.
There are problems, of course, but I would dispute the hyperbole of the “Threat of murder hangs heavy in Ulster air” which headlines Neil Mackay’s piece in The Herald earlier this week, in which he suggests “There’s much talk of coming violence,” and talks of the “terrifying deterioration of peace” in Northern Ireland.
It’s not a Northern Ireland I recognise, and my country is a very different place to the one I grew up in. Nobody would underestimate the danger of a wrong move seeing us slip back to violence, but the feeling is that the brutal bloodshed in the Troubles at the end of the last century is too raw and fresh in the minds for responsible people to allow that to happen.
So, it’s important not to hype up perceived danger.
I feel people in Scotland will understand the Northern Ireland psyche because of the affinity between the two places.
The 17th-century Plantation of Ulster, described by Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter as a “massive project of social engineering”, saw numerous Scots take up residence in that north-east part of the island of Ireland. Family links have survived over those centuries.
My great-grandfather, William McDaniel, ran a coal business in Glasgow in the 1890s and when his young wife died he sent his son, my grandfather, back to County Tyrone to be brought up. While I’m Protestant, links on the Catholic side are as commonplace as fans of Celtic will recall the formation of their club by Irish immigrants.
The influx of Scots into Ulster changed the Province. It became an industrialised powerhouse compared to the rest of Ireland, as well as culturally and religiously different with a predominance of
Presbyterianism as opposed to the Gaelic Catholicism of the south.
When Sinn Fein began a War of Independence in 1919, the Ulster Unionists were already heavily armed to take “any means necessary” to prevent Home Rule which they saw as Rome Rule. They succeeded when the island was partitioned and a Northern Ireland state formed in 1921.
This is the context of loyalists fighting to remain British and goes some way to explaining why Northern Ireland Unionists are alarmed by the so-called border down the Irish Sea enforced by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But this is not 1921, nor is it even 1974 when a loyalist Ulster Workers Strike brought the Province to its knees and demolished a previous power sharing administration. Large parts of loyalism today are about drugs and organised crime, and they’re a scourge on their own communities. The vast majority of people in the large loyalist estates in Belfast don’t want them.
When Northern Ireland was set up, Protestants were in a two-toone majority. Today, neither side has a majority; about 48 per cent identify as Unionist and about 45% Nationalist.
Studies show that more younger people don’t identify with the divisive nature of the politics of the past. Brexit has been a gamechanger, and the debate about a new Ireland grows stronger with more Protestants than ever open to discussion about what it means, whether a united Ireland or a closer relationship between north and south.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is an issue for some, but we should not overplay the notion that the men in balaclavas have huge swathes of support and we are about to run terrifyingly out of control.
Unionists in Northern Ireland are a pragmatic people – as circumstances and demographics change, they know that east-west and north-south relationships across the British Isles have to move into the 21st century.
While the threat of violence in Ireland can never be discounted, too many people are working hard not to let the men of violence drag us back into the last century.
Talking up the threat doesn’t help.