Northern Ireland: fighting a time warp – ISN

The murder of two UK soldiers and a Catholic policeman Northern Ireland by two IRA splinter groups threatens to set the country back decades, Simon Roughneen writes for ISN Security Watch.

When Irish Taoiseach (or Prime Minister) Brian Cowen joins political leaders from Northern Ireland in Washington for next week’s St Patrick’s Day jamboree, President Barack Obama will hopefully show them more courtesy than he did UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week.

He should, because rather than bore the new president with wonkish jabbering about the merits of the G20, the Irish will give Obama a spin on the time machine, a Tardis ride to an older Ireland assumed to be but an artifact.

Given the context, that all might come off as somewhat glib. An old anecdote tells of a British pilot, making his landing announcement on a flight from London to Belfast, sometime in the early 1970s. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are commencing our descent into Belfast. Please set your watches back 300 years” – in reference to Northern Ireland’s seemingly anachronistic sectarian disputes.

Now, however, recent developments in Ireland – on both sides of the border – connote some grim 1980s kitsch for anyone brought up on the island, amid the mix of bullets, bombs and unemployment that pushed 40,000-50,000 people to emigrate during the worst years of that decade.

Nostalgia had its place in St Patrick’s Day celebrations, more so for Irish-Americans than in the old country itself. The word comes from the Greek nostos or “coming home” and algos, or “pain.” Ireland is now looking once more at real pain, as the old ghosts of economic failure and political violence re-emerge.

The 7 March shootings shattered the illusion that the gun had been permanently removed from Irish politics. Two IRA splinter groups carried out what seem to be well-planned hits. Firstly, the “Real” IRA carried out a brutal drive-by execution, shooting dead two British soldiers, and later, a Catholic policeman after being lured into a booby-trap by the “Continuity” IRA.

The governments in London and Dublin were quick to join Northern Ireland’s political leaders in condemning the attacks. Northern Ireland Deputy Prime Minister Martin McGuinness evocatively described the killers as “traitors.”

The deputy PM sees the “dissident” IRA groups as challenging his and Gerry Adams’ leadership of Irish Republicanism – the political tradition that has generally reserved itself the right to use political violence to form an all-Ireland independent republic.

To be sure, these latest murders are intended to spark either a heavy-handed British response, or a reaction from terrorist counterparts on the other side of the sectarian divide, or better still, both, as this could re-invigorate the tit-for-tat killing spree, an age-old genie that took almost 30 years to bottle.

By calling the killers traitors, McGuinness sought to pre-empt what hardline IRA types regard as his and Adams’ treachery – taking formal political office as part of a British-ruled Northern Ireland, as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace deal.
Times have changed. McGuinness was as the effective head of the Provisional IRA during the conflict, and remains a bete-noire figure for many Protestants and for the British security establishment.

And the dole, in another sense, is another 1980s icon back in vogue – this ‘dole’ being the weekly unemployment benefit paid out to Ireland’s then-vast, and once again, growing legions of jobless. Unemployment will reach 10 percent before the year is out – and that is a best-scenario prediction.

Back in Ireland over Christmas, the sense of bewilderment and simmering anger was palpable, as people struggled to rationalize the parlous state of the Celtic Tiger economy, now slated to shrink 6 percent in 2009 after a decade and a half of record growth.

Warnings of an imminent and painful crash were issued by a few John the Baptist voices in the wilderness, who were mostly ignored while the country partied. Hindsight, however, points to a hugely disproportionate housing and property bubble – which had to burst at some stage – during the Tiger’s twilight years.

In much the same vein, there has been ample warning recently that IRA splinter groups were sizing up potential targets, with more than 20 gun and bomb attacks in the past 18 months, wounding seven police officers but causing no fatalities. One month ago, police found a 300lbs (135kg) car bomb outside an army barracks, an indication that perhaps some of the old IRA bomb-making and training networks had been revived, and co-opted by the dissident groups.

Now, the illusion that Ireland would be forever at peace, with unlimited prosperity, has been shattered, and there’s an eerie Vico-esque recycling of history going on.

The consumerist, feckless Celtic Tiger Ireland prompted some navel-gazers to hanker for some idealized, less materialistic past. Misplaced nostalgia, perhaps?

To be fair – loss, history, sentimentalism, hindsight – all have been recurring tropes in Ireland’s artistic output – good and bad.

However, that does not mean anyone, barring the hard-line minority, wants a return to the bad old days.

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