The Greening of Ulster

The two Irish Republican Army bombs that ripped through the heart of London in February may have shattered the delicate cease-fire and cast the two-year peace process into limbo, but they have done little to slow a seemingly inexorable pull toward a united Ireland. Beneath the surface, encouraging trends are percolating, causing a few commentators to suggest that some sort of solution may eventually be devised–even though the historical intransigence of the warring parties seems as strong as ever.

Though Britain is loathe to say so, it “may have arrived at the conclusion that a gradual transition to a united Ireland is desirable,” writes Gavin Evans in the New Internationalist (Dec 1995). Similarly, observes Sean Cahill in Radical America (July 1995), the IRA has noticeably softened its own line. Republicans speak increasingly of an “agreed Ireland” (as opposed to a “united Ireland”), implicitly acknowledging that the Protestant majority in the North must be politically persuaded, rather than militarily coerced, into switching its allegiance.

Political analyst Richard Todd, meanwhile, sees signs that Northern Ireland’s Protestants–known as Unionists because they want to sustain the union with Britain–are slowly coming to terms with their own Irishness. Writing in Civilization (Jan-Feb 1996), Todd asserts that many Protestants are now “staking a claim in the culture of the island they actually inhabit, rather than the one that governs them.” A few are even studying the native Irish language, which, he notes, “in this century, has been the symbolic property of nationalists.”

Todd quotes an Irish-language revivalist who thinks that more and more Protestants are deciding that “it’s possible to be politically British but culturally Irish.” The peace process is facilitating this shift in identity, Todd believes, drawing wavering Unionists “nearer and nearer to their reluctant home.”

Even if nothing else transpires, the North’s 700,000 Catholics may ultimately outbreed the country’s nearly 1 million Protestants, thereby altering the democratic equation within the six British-ruled counties. And the process of integrating into the European economic community in the coming years should gradually render Northern Ireland–and its age-old conflict–an anachronism. As Evans notes in theNew Internationalist, “in the long term the economics of the island and the changing demographics of its northern corner seem to make a certainty of the eventual transition to single nationhood, albeit with provision for a high level of regional and religious autonomy.”

At present, however, there’s no hint of consensus on how to get from here to there. While many Northern Irish yearn for some “third way” transcending both Unionism and nationalism, Todd concedes that “what that way is politically no one seems to know.” Altered cultural attitudes notwithstanding, Northern Ireland’s Protestants remain firmly Unionist in their self-identification. Evans expresses hope that a Protestant equivalent of South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk will one day lead his constituents to an acceptance of Irish unification, but such a figure is nowhere on the horizon.

The same degree of intransigence prevails on the other side of the divide. “Despite nationalist claims to have a secular agenda,” Evans observes, “in practice their approach to politics remains tribal.” Most Catholics, in other words, are no more willing than their Protestant counterparts to abandon mutually antagonistic beliefs.

The IRA’s recent return to violence shows that the republican movement is mired in an internal contradiction, argues Mark Ryan in Living Marxism (March 1996), a journal published by a left-wing British organization. On the one hand, the IRA remains committed to its principle of a united Ireland as the fulfillment of the democratic will of all Ireland’s people; on the other hand, republican leaders now speak of achieving an “inclusive negotiated settlement,” clearly implying that this principle cannot be realized without the democratic consent of Northern Ireland’s (mostly Unionist) population.

Ryan depicts an absurdist, Waiting-for-Godot-like situation in which the “peace process” becomes an end in itself, never reaching any conclusion. In fact, he writes, the negotiations are “premised on the idea that there is no solution to the Irish problem.” The talks will go on indefinitely because they seek to bring about an accommodation between two irreconcilable identities. “There can be no point at which all can say, ‘Now we have a solution,’ because an identity, unlike a nation, has no clearly defined boundaries to be ratified by international treaty,” Ryan writes. “The relations between two identities have to be constantly monitored and readjusted.”

Seen from this perspective, occasional IRA bombings will have no significant impact on the negotiations. Indeed, in Ryan’s view, “the peace process has violence built into it.” He points to the examples of South Africa and the Middle East, where outbursts of violence have produced flurries of worry but haven’t caused the peace process to come undone.

Ryan’s pessimistic, even fatalistic, prognosis may seem realistic, given Northern Ireland’s tortured history. But the dance of hope and intransigence that occupies the warring parties these days may, in fact, be a necessary prelude to a solution.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.