Foreign Policy

Continuity IRA Slogan
Continuity IRA Slogan

It’s looking dangerously similar to the 1980s in Northern Ireland, but a lot has changed since the worst days of “the troubles.”

Last weekend shattered the illusion that the gun had been permanently removed from Irish politics. Two Irish Republican Army (IRA) splinter groups carried out what seemed to be well-planned hits, first against two Afghanistan-bound British soldiers, and later, against a Catholic policeman responding to what turned out to be a terrorist trap. Tragedy that it was, the violence was just the first of two related messes now threatening peace and prosperity in Ireland. The financial crisis has also sent a wave of panic across the now-dead ‘Celtic Tiger’ — whose economy is now set to shrink by at least 6 percent in 2009 after a decade and a half of record growth.

Is history repeating itself? To many in Ireland, it’s like a return to the 1980s — shootings in the north and a basket-case economy in the Republic. No one, barring the hard-line pro-independence minority, is nostalgic for the bad old days. But some fear they might get a return to the 80s nevertheless.

From the politics, at least, the crisis looks familiar enough to warrant concern. The two splinter groups, which call themselves the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, continue to push for Irish unification by gunfire; they have resisted the political approach adopted by mainstream IRA leaders. Although this is the first fatal attack since 1998, there have been ample warnings recently that IRA splinter groups were sizing up potential targets. Northern Ireland has seen more than 20 gun and bomb attacks in the past 18 months, wounding seven police officers. One month ago, police found a 300-pound car bomb outside a British army barracks, a hint that some of the old IRA bomb-making and training networks might have been revived and co-opted by the dissident groups.

To be sure, these latest murders were intended to spark either a heavy-handed British response, or a reaction from terrorist counterparts on the other side of the sectarian divide. Indeed, the perpetrators might have sought both in a bid to reinvigorate the tit-for-tat vortex of violence that took so long to seal off. The governments in London and in Dublin were quick to condemn the attacks. Yet London will not want to redeploy additional soldiers back in Northern Ireland, for fear that this will play into terrorist hands.

It was significant that Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s deputy prime minister, pointedly and evocatively described the killers as “traitors.” As an IRA leader during the 30 plus years of attritional terror endured by Northern Ireland, McGuinness (who helped dole out a good proportion of the misery) today views the “dissident” IRA groups as a challenge to his authority and that of Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin, the political party linked to the ‘mainstream’ IRA. Today, the pair lead Irish Republicanism through political channels — resisting the tradition of using political violence to agitate for an all-Ireland independent republic. McGuinness called the perpetrators traitors to preempt what hard-liners consider his and Adams’s own treachery — taking formal political office as part of a British-ruled Northern Ireland under the 1998 Good Friday peace deal.

What now? During the troubles, as the 1969-1998 conflict is now referred to, Dublin was ambivalent about hunting down the IRA in the Republic, partly given the heavy-handed British response in Northern Ireland and the threat of protestant terror groups mounting attacks in the Republic.

Now, however, co-operation between the police forces in both jurisdictions is good. The Republic has a highly-professional counter-terror police unit and an elite Army Ranger corps modeled on the British SAS (that latter of which is now contributing to an EU – UN joint peacekeeping mission in Chad). Both could be deployed against IRA factions hiding out in the Republic.

One can only hope that the dissident IRA factions have not got too much of a head-start on the security forces with the recent attacks. As the Irish economy capsizes, the Dublin government – and the Irish population — certainly have plenty of other things to worry about. Unemployment, for example, is expected to reach at least 10 percent before the year is out – leaving vast legions of jobless, much as in the 1980s. This time, there is no where to flee to, as the U.S. and European economies falter too.

Thankfully it’s not yet the troubles of the 1980s all over again. As Peter de Vries once said — “Nostalgia just isn’t want it used to be.”

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