This week saw the 50th anniversary of what is generally regarded as the start of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. No reminder should be needed of what ensued – but apparently it is.
The spark was lit in Derry when a civil rights march was brutally attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. To the Protestant hegemony, demands for civil rights were synonymous with the claim for a united Ireland, however much this was initially disputed.
Unionists reasoned that without gerrymandering, discrimination and a partisan police force, the artificial Northern Ireland statelet could not survive for long. A mirror image soon emerged and civil rights were sidelined by the objectives and methods of the Provisional IRA.
It took 40 years of bloodshed for that impasse to be broken, though Seumas Mallon surely had a point when he described the Good Friday Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners”, referring to Edward Heath’s attempt at peacemaking in the early 1970s.
Ultimately, the elixir of power became the broker of peace. Once the centre ground of peaceful politics was squeezed out, everything became possible, leaving the extremes to preside over the transition to normality. That accommodation with cynicism had to be accepted for the greater good.
This week, I was in the province of Ulster and twice crossed “the border” which now has no physical manifestation. Suddenly, you are in Donegal, distances are in kilometres instead of miles and place names are rendered bilingually. And that is it – where once there were border posts and all their militarised trappings.
This invisible “border” is critical to the grudging accommodation of the past two decades. Partition still exists in the sense that Ireland remains as divided between two jurisdictions as it was 50 years ago. That appeases unionists while republicans can define progress in terms of free movement and all-Ireland institutions.
Anyone who sets about upsetting that delicate balance might have much to answer for which is why its sneering dismissal by Boris Johnson is so contemptible. To Johnson, Brexit negotiations are “straining at the gnat of the Irish border problem”; no more than an irritation standing in the way of his ambitions.
You need to be middle-aged to remember what Johnson’s “gnat” can turn into – the nightly reports of atrocities, the senseless deaths of 3,500 people, the misery they left behind, the paralysis inflicted upon Northern Ireland, the deadly overspills onto the streets of Manchester and London. Some “gnat”.
A book called “Reporting the Troubles” was launched in Belfast this week, containing 60 contributions from journalists who covered these terrible years. It should be required reading for anyone who, for a moment, believes that re-establishment of a “hard border” should be a negotiable issue within Brexit.
The chapters have titles like “The Day the UVF told me ‘We bombed Dublin and Monaghan’”; “Gunned Down at a Football Match”; “IRA War Against Border Protestants”; “Daddy Won’t Get Up – Murder Under a Christmas Tree”; “My Meeting With a Woman Twice Widowed by the UVF” ... Read them, Mr Johnson, then tell us about your “gnat” of a problem.
Read the chapter by John Irvine, formerly of UTV, Mr Johnson: “Unexpectedly and suddenly, I found myself blubbering. A dam had broken. During that working week, I had covered ten funerals. As I wept, I realised that all the raw emotion and grief laid bare at those final farewells had exacted a toll on me too. Death was our stock-in-trade in those days.”
Serious people are edging towards a solution which ticks the Brexit box but inevitably works backwards. If you cannot have a hard border between Letterkenny and Derry, which you can’t, then you cannot cover half of Kent with lorry parks. In other words, a customs “arrangement” – not union – must relate to the whole UK. Get used to it.
To Johnson and co, that is “a monstrosity”. History will judge Theresa May not by her dancing but whether, in the last analysis, she was prepared to face these people down. That moment of truth is approaching and, leaving everything else aside, Ireland must define the answer.