Columns, Opinion

SZAFRANSKI: The trouble with the “Troubles”

Tuesday was St. Patrick’s Day, a day of revelry, celebration, Hiberno-American pride and moderate imbibing of intoxicating substances. It is appropriate then to turn our attention to the actual Emerald Isle, which, were it not for tourists, would probably see the day as a mostly religious event.

Last week, Northern Ireland was rocked by the first signs of violence in more than a decade. Several shootings have killed both police and soldiers in the province still in union with Great Britain. Responsibility has been attributed to splinter groups that broke off from the Irish Republican Army.’

The attacks connect back to the atrocities of British rule and the later division of the island following independence. The British were simply terrible to the island’s inhabitants, namely its Catholic ones. Although always disgruntled because the Protestant majority counties of present-day Northern Ireland remain under the crown, Catholics are further incensed by the discrimination they have encountered in Northern Ireland. During the ‘Troubles,’ a period of post-WWII violence in Ireland, the IRA engaged in terrorist activities against British targets in Northern Ireland and the British mainland while battling Ulster Unionists paramilitary groups. The dead numbered in the hundreds. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement more or less ended the violence and culminated in a power-sharing agreement between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in 2007.

Although both sides denounced the recent violence, it has underscored the continued tenuousness of the new arrangement. Media reports have indicated a fear among many that Northern Ireland may descend into a new era of Troubles. It is hard to discern whether these concerns are simply media speculation or grounded in real tension felt among the populace of Northern Ireland. Such a scenario might play out if the Ulster Unionist groups reverse their foreswearing of violence and retaliate.

Perhaps what makes the whole situation in Ireland so vexing to so many is how Britain and Ireland, despite their animosity over the centuries, remain so close. Although in no small part due to British imperialism, almost all natives of Ireland speak English and the two nations’ economies are intimately linked. Although not part of the British Commonwealth, British law grants many of the same rights to Irish citizens as those given to Britons. To some extent, the same is true for Irish law if the Briton was born in Northern Ireland. In a way, despite growing European trade that occurs independent of the United Kingdom, Ireland can never fully escape its former colonial masters.

For all the talk of Protestants and Catholics, much of it boils down to economics. It is economic discrimination that has fueled the fire for Irish reunification, and it was a fear of losing economic control that stymied reform in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Had Unionists of the Victorian and Edwardian periods not objected to an Irish assembly and Irish home rule – which Northern Ireland has today anyway – the whole of Ireland might have remained in union with the crown.

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