The unrest of recent weeks has fuelled fears that the Troubles are returning to haunt us, but, says Malachi O’Doherty, we struggled out of their terrible grip before and must do so again
It is disheartening to think how familiar an ordinary day’s news today would be to a reader of this paper in, say, 1983 or 1973. Back then the Troubles were worse, but they were not consistently horrific. Normality was the occasional atrocity against a backdrop of ubiquitous street protest, rioting, bomb scares, murders and attempted murders; commemorations and funerals and other occasions for paramilitary louts to flaunt their malice and disruption.
Not really very different from any normal day out of the last two months.
The damage done is less. There has not been much blood spilt, though one might add that it wasn’t for the want of some people trying.
Success for the UVF men who tried to incinerate a policewoman in her car last month, or for the republican bomber whose mission in Omagh at the weekend to kill a police officer also failed, would have been enough to bring us inside the average level of attrition and grief for a routine slack year of the Troubles.
And that’s without considering the added grief that might have come from reactions inspired by those events, had they been as bloody as their planners had hoped.
Familiar also to the imagined reader from the past would be the sense of political inertia and stalemate — parties blaming each other and bristling rather than making any eager effort to find accommodation.
What was routine back then was the conviction that Northern Ireland’s problems could not be solved.
Read almost any of the books about the Troubles published right up to the early 1990s and the ending is the same, a dispirited resignation to the intractability of the violence, the unlikelihood of our two main communities ever integrating and living at peace.
One small indicator of possible change is the disclosure that the Executive is thinking of working to bring down the peace walls in about 10 years from now. By then the first of them will have been up for 53 years. The Berlin Wall, which stood as a daunting symbol of the Cold War, was only up for half that period.
What are we reduced to when our ambitions for peace and progress are so modest and timid?
It might be as well, at this stage, to remind ourselves of what we thought we had achieved.
There was a day, not so long ago, when it seemed a miracle that leaders of the DUP were ready to cement a deal with Sinn Fein, that is, with leaders of Sinn Fein whom those unionists unreservedly believed had been the actual commanders behind the IRA campaign.
Those republican and unionist political movements had decades of history of mutual contempt behind them. They had no illusions about each other.
Privately their perceptions of each other’s pasts are actually darker than those held by most ordinary readers of this paper. Peace between them had never previously seemed likely. In fact, for many analysts of the peace process the inevitable breaking point was going to follow their eclipsing of the more moderate parties, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP. There might be some prospect of a deal in the middle ground, but not much chance of one at the extremes; yet that is what happened.
Unionists today who smoulder about how much they lost actually lost nothing. They didn’t even have to initiate the process that brought their historic enemy to the negotiating table; others did that for them.
Republicans who faced into old age at risk of being murdered or jailed, confined to the margins of political life, made enormous gains politically when they woke up to the reality that the Catholic community would back them a lot more enthusiastically in peace-making than in the pursuit of war, in trying to provide stable government in Northern Ireland than in trying to bomb away the border.
But we have been too complacent about the amazing transformation that happened in this society. One of the things we forget is that it was always minority groups which inflamed things.
Today we often hear talk of the conflict as if it was something that had engaged the whole of society; it wasn’t. That fact is reassuring in one way, for it tells us that the broadest swathe of the population here is peacefully inclined. But it reminds us also that while we live on a fault line between two communities, it will always be possible for small groups to wedge their way in and create havoc that will resonate through the whole population.
We are not at that stage now, but we could reach it very quickly.
One may be well assured that few among us would want to take us back; but what if it doesn’t actually take many to do that? What of the key vulnerability in this society, the estrangement of Protestant and Catholic communities and their anxieties about identity and respect? What if that vulnerability can be played on by a few?
There are still the old soldiers who think they had a grand time during the Troubles, and even that they still have a job to finish.
There are dimwits like Martin Galvin, a cheerleader from the sides, whose home patch in the US will never feel the thrump of an Irish bomb, whose life will go on as normal no matter how bad things get here. Galvin, a former Noraid publicity director, is due to address a controversial ‘welcome home party’ in Dungannon later this week for Gerry McGeough, the one-time Sinn Fein member who was due to be released from prison on Tuesday after serving less than two years for attempting to murder a UDR man.
And here there is a broad mass of people who will always feel that they cannot change how this society unfolds, who will be slightly surprised when there are periods of peace and never quite despondent when there is trouble, because that is what they expect.
When the peace deal was completed in 2007 and Adams and Paisley shared a corner of a table and announced their settlement, it was common to hear people in Northern Ireland express their surprise in terms like these: How come it turned out to be so easy? What was the fuss about after all?
We dread that we will slide back now into the old tedious drone of bad news about murder and stalemate, and that when we are there, the common refrain will be that this is exactly what we always expected.
And the period of high hopes will be forgotten or dismissed like a silly and pointless dream.
People then will say: “What came over us? How could we ever have imagined it could be any different?”