If you were to capture an Irishman and blindfold him until you set him down in the center of an unfamiliar village somewhere north of the border, one thing would immediately tell him where he was: the pristinely kept war memorial.
It is a sight not seen south of the border in the Republic of Ireland, for the new independent Ireland stayed formally neutral in World War II, referring to the conflict as “the Emergency” as if to establish by an Orwellian verbal trick that Ireland did not inhabit the same universe as its former master Britain.
Nonetheless, all in Ireland knew there was a war on, and individually the Irish joined the British Army, thousands upon thousands of them, many thousands more than joined from tiny Ulster, where all the well-kept war memorials are. The few people who wear poppies around Dublin on Poppy Day now are assumed to be British or Protestant or both, and the Irish World War II dead lie officially unrecognized, a great historical secret.
The Irish Republican Army could not have picked a more stark emblem of Britishness for the target of its Poppy Day bombing than a war memorial surrounded by Remembrance Day observers, nor could it have picked a more thoroughly British holiday than last Nov. 8, when all Britain mourned its war dead.
Yet that bombing, which killed 11 civilians in the little Northern Irish town of Enniskillen, has been the single worst public relations disaster for the IRA since the modern “Troubles” began nearly 20 years ago. The Irish Catholic bishops condemned it en masse, and the Irish people stood in lines for a week to sign a condolence book in Dublin for the victims’ families. Now similar books have been opened all over the country because there are so many in the Republic who want to express sympathy.
Charles J. Haughey, the Irish Prime Minister, issued a stern condemnation of the IRA soon after the bombing, and six days later his staff indicated that his government would support legislation which, for the first time since the partition of Ireland in 1922, allows the extradition of Irish nationalist terrorist suspects from the Irish Republic to Britain and Northern Ireland. The following day Haughey, a Roman Catholic, took a conspicuous place in Dublin’s most prominent Protestant church during a memorial service for the bombing victims. He looked somber and determined during the televised ceremony, as if conveying a mute message to everyone who has identified him with the nationalist cause: To the hard men of the IRA, the Republic says no.
Of course the pendulum of Catholic Irish public opinion will inevitably swing back out of sympathy with Northern Irish Protestants. Nothing is ever static in the complicated relationships between Ireland, Britain and Northern Ireland, and two days after the announcement of his intention to support the extradition bill, Haughey was qualifying that support, warning British officials that there must be procedural safeguards “at the highest legal level” to prevent abuses.
But the fact that Haughey was able to support the legislation at all is amazing, given his party’s traditionally negative attitude toward the idea of such a law. Probably the most astute politician in the Republic, Haughey divined that this was the moment when the national mood would allow him to move his party a giant step toward cooperation with Britain.
He had help in the person of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who stood up to pleas from northern Protestant Unionists after the bombing that she drop Britain’s end of the Anglo-Irish accord. Her firmness against the Unionists on the question of the Anglo-Irish agreement throughout its two-year existence has won her the quiet respect of the Irish Republic. A recent newspaper poll showed overwhelming support for the agreement in the Republic, although most respondents did not think the accord had caused much real change in the north.
Not long after the Anglo-Irish agreement was signed by Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald (Haughey’s predecessor) two years ago, an IRA sympathizer confided to me that Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, had begun to flounder in search of issues to topple it. The agreement was the brain-child of John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party which competes with Sinn Fein for the Northern Irish nationalist, and usually Catholic, vote. Since the signing, Sinn Fein’s electoral support in Northern Ireland has gone down a few percentage points, the SDLP’s has risen, and the SDLP has won two more seats to the British Parliament, now holding three of Ulster’s 17 seats.
It is certainly no accident that the Enniskillen bombing fell close to the second anniversary of the signing of the accord, a time when the IRA was doubtless trying to make both governments feel they had gotten nowhere on the issue of security. Ironically, the IRA only strengthened both governments’ commitment to the process the accord set in motion, while the Unionist leaders--presumably archenemies of the IRA--played into their hands, fulminating about how the bombing proved the agreement had done nothing for Northern Irish security.
What drives the Rev. Ian (“Ulster Says No”) Paisley and the other Unionist leaders crazy about the agreement is the creation of a secretariat, comprised of British and Irish civil service, that is housed in a building outside Belfast. Although the agreement states explicitly that it is not a derogation of sovereignty in either Britain or Ireland, Unionist leaders have yelled that it is. They have repeatedly tried to arouse Protestant fears of domination by Dublin. Last May, a marketing research firm asked Northern Irish voters (two-thirds Protestant) whether they thought the agreement or the economy was more important politically; 71% said the economy.
But probably more important than the symbolism of Dublin civil servants working on Northern Irish soil is the agreement’s provision for regular meetings of British and Irish cabinet ministers to discuss matters related to the governing of Northern Ireland.
The most significant achievement of the agreement is its own survival. The last power-sharing agreement worked out by Britain, Ireland and Northern Irish politicians lasted half a year. It was destroyed by the violent Ulster workers’ strike led by Paisley. Paisley has now met his match or more in Hume, whose brilliant manipulations of British and Irish politicians prepared the way for the agreement. Hume shepherded it like a father, helping to bring Haughey around to support it.
Not to be forgotten in the analysis of Anglo-Irish relations in these harrowing last two weeks is the figure of Gordon Wilson, father of the youngest bombing victim. He held the hand of his 20-year-old daughter, Marie, while she died and soon thereafter told the world in a gentle voice that he forgave her killers. A leader of one of the Protestant paramilitary groups said Wilson’s calm example had saved many people from revenge killings.
The bitterness of the region’s ancient conflict remains, though. The funerals were hardly finished before a Presbyterian church leader publicly rebuked the spiritual leader of Irish Catholics north and south for having offered prayers for the souls of the bomb victims. Presbyterians, he said, believe that those among them who are saved ascend to Heaven immediately and don’t need any assist from later prayers for their souls.
That is the kind of place it is, where people begrudge others their style of prayer for the dead.