The Northern Ireland conflict is now fought over the lessons of the Troubles. One apparent lesson is that only extremists can make deals stick. But perhaps the real conclusion is that the late-colonial British did not properly study their own historyby Dean Godson / November 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
Why should anyone still care about the Ulster Unionist party, the Orange Order or, for that matter, Northern Ireland itself? The UUP, the ruling party for the first half century of Northern Ireland’s existence, from 1921 to 1972, is about as healthy as Ariel Sharon—nominally alive but, to all intents and purposes, a goner. The Orange Order seems destined to enter one of its extended periods of quiescence, such as it went through in the 19th century. Even the novelty of Ian Paisley’s danse macabre with Martin McGuinness has attracted less attention in Britain than might have been expected.
The reasons for this apparent indifference to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact by the Lagan aren’t hard to fathom. Northern Ireland isn’t news any more because the second IRA ceasefire is now a decade old. And many in Northern Ireland believed all along that mainland opinion only ever cared about the ending of full-scale violence. With vast amounts of British taxpayer and EU money still flooding into the place, Ulster seems to have reverted into its complacent, parochial, pre-Troubles self.
And yet, like the proverbial tar baby, Northern Ireland won’t let go. In their own peculiar way, the Troubles and their aftermath became the defining national security experience for the postwar generation in Britain—much as the first world war was for Eden and Macmillan, or the second world war for Heath and Callaghan. Of course, most of the dramatis personae this time round never donned a uniform. But this squalid little war, conducted over the constitutional status and governance of the most cussedly unfashionable part of the Kingdom—and which seemed utterly sui generis for much of the time after the start of the Troubles in 1969—has suddenly become a trendy template for conflict resolution across the world. There is now something of an “international ideology of Northern Ireland.”
One could have drawn many lessons from the Troubles, but what…