Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Why what binds us together is of vastly greater importance than what threatens to tear us apart

Yes, the Troubles were brutal and pointless, but they pale by comparison to Chechnya or Rwanda

When I was researching my recent book and looking at the emergence of the civil rights movement, I came across an interesting quote from Seamus Heaney, in an article in The Listener. (Photo by Paul McErlane for the Belfast Telegraph)
When I was researching my recent book and looking at the emergence of the civil rights movement, I came across an interesting quote from Seamus Heaney, in an article in The Listener. (Photo by Paul McErlane for the Belfast Telegraph)

By Malachi O'Doherty

When I was researching my recent book and looking at the emergence of the civil rights movement, I came across an interesting quote from Seamus Heaney, in an article in The Listener.

Heaney expressed a fear, in 1968, that what he called "the old polarisation" was coming back.

This is fascinating, because most of us think that the core problem in Northern Ireland at that time was that it was still polarised.

Yet here was a man, who is famous for picking his words with care, saying, in effect, that things had changed; that the deep sectarianism of his father's generation was in danger of coming back. Which, of course, it did. Within weeks, civil rights protesters would be ambushed by "Paisleyites" at Burntollet and within a few months we would see sectarian gun battles in Belfast.

Meeting bright pupils in the Politics Society at Sullivan Upper school in Holywood last week, the question was inevitably raised: could it happen again?

In 1998, I wrote a book called The Trouble With Guns, arguing that political violence had been futile, more protest than warfare.

My conclusion was pessimistic, however. It was that the SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party would both be overtaken by their rivals, Sinn Fein and the DUP, and that these would find it impossible to enter power-sharing together.

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Actually, I was wrong. Sinn Fein and the DUP did prevail, but they also made a deal and it survived for 10 years.

So, a phrase like "old polarisation" might be perfectly serviceable today to describe a darkening mood that many young people would not have experienced here.

We appear to be tilting back towards a depth of intercommunal suspicion and animosity that we were, for a time, growing out of.

Brexit is the irritant. Unionists see the Union being sold out and can't see the pulling together of Sinn Fein and the SDLP to take some DUP scalps as anything but sectarian in its outworking.

You would think that, now that it has become clear to slow learners that Brexit does threaten the Union, there would be a unionist swing to Remain.

And you would think that Sinn Fein and the SDLP would be a little more uncomfortable beside each other, given that Sinn Fein's momentum towards a border poll will slacken if Brexit doesn't happen.

In other words, Brexit should logically be cutting across the "old polarisation", not reinforcing it.

Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds do seem to have realised that they may have to choose between Brexit and the Union and say flatly that they will put the Union first.

Others remain convinced they can have Brexit and a strong Union, which I seriously doubt.

But what of the question of where this deepening division can lead? Whether it can take us back into a period like the Troubles?

There are several strong reasons why it should not. The most important of these is that the last Troubles were futile, a total waste of life and energy, productive of nothing.

The violence did generate mythologies, by which loyalism and republicanism could sustain themselves, but put neither in a position to deliver on its ultimate goal, a united Ireland, or a secure Union.

When the Troubles broke out, writers like Andrew Boyd and ATQ Stewart described it in the context of past phases of sectarian violence, almost like the past crashing up through the cobbles and the cobble stones once again being used as weapons against the police and the Army.

Actually, the arts of street fighting and insurgency have evolved. They evolved, indeed, during the Troubles and they have further evolved since.

The tactics of modern rioting are being developed now in Hong Kong. In the old Ballymurphy and Falls Road riots, a phalanx of rioters faced a line of soldiers with shields, pelted them with stones and petrol bombs and the Army replied with CS gas grenades at first, then by shooting rioters.

The Metropolitan Police developed the tactic of "kettling", surrounding a protest and confining it until people had wet themselves and were desperate to go home.

In the 2011 London riots, we saw tactics to evade that, the mob breaking up into small groups, using cyclists as scouts, communicating with each other on Blackberries. We saw that same method in Derry and in east Belfast two years ago.

Since the IRA developed mortar bombs and electronic timers, jihadists have introduced home-made explosives and poisons. They took terror to a level the IRA never contemplated, using suicide bombers and seeking mass civilian deaths.

The suicide bomber isn't just a declaration of commitment to a cause. That bomber destroys the evidence and can't be followed back to base. Very practical. No need for a safe house to scrub down in.

States have, since the end of the Troubles, deployed helicopter gunships and assassination. When the police used "shoot-to-kill" methods here, they denied that. When the British killed British jihadis, they announced it in Parliament.

So, compared to modern insurgency, the IRA and loyalist campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s look as dated now as the Home Rule riots of the 1880s looked to the urban guerrilla with an Armalite.

Even before the end of the Troubles, the IRA was more interested in acquiring pistols than assault riles, because they had no intention of engaging in Beirut-style urban warfare and getting wiped out.

So, what might happen if someone wanted to generate a new Troubles period?

One dreads to think, or to offer suggestions. But remember Heaney's phrase: the "old polarisation".

He was talking out of a realisation that Northern Ireland wanted to normalise, wanted stability and was consolidating around ideas of how we might at least put old divisions to rest.

There were very few times in those decades of trouble when, for most of the population, the post office wasn't open, public transport didn't function, the dole wasn't paid on time.

Water, health and electricity services were maintained and civil servants living in Twinbrook and Downpatrick and Whitehead and Rathcoole went to work every morning and the BBC broadcast the news and the weather forecast and Dr Who.

There are those who call that period a war, but that isn't what happens in war.

We have seen since what happened in Beirut, Sarajevo, Chechnya, Rwanda, Yemen and elsewhere, when intercommunal violence is unleashed and it is all very unlike what happened here.

One of the most interesting questions about this place is not what has the potential to tear it apart, but what holds it together.

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