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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Lessons from the Good Friday Agreement

Lessons from the Good Friday Agreement

Ireland, left to the Irish, is a small, charming place with a population that is pleasantly full of… let’s call it blarney. They say clever things like “God invented Guinness to keep the Irish from taking over the world.” Given the hammerlock those famine refugees had on American politics for the better part of the 20th Century, they damn near did it anyway. Our current president’s people fled the island 150 years ago. And yet, when it comes to a solid political grip on their own country, the record is mixed.

Joe Biden wasn’t in the motherland last week to avoid the car-bomb of US politics. The man was playing up his Irish Catholic roots and waxing eloquent on how lovely the place is when they aren’t all trying to kill each other in the northern counties. He was getting squired around on both side of the partition to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement – which proved that it was possible for a population, exhausted by conflict, to simply vote to end it.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple, the violent spasms didn’t stop immediately. Even today the UK’s MI5, responsible for internal security, devotes some 20% of its resources to Northern Ireland. The government has been temporarily suspended some six times since power sharing began in 1998. Catholics and Protestants tend to stick to their own neighborhoods, but they mix freely in public spaces where blast walls once kept then from eye-balling each other. The gun, as the say here, has been taken out of Irish politics. Catholics now outnumber Protestants in Ulster, although neither have a majority. Since the agreement, another faction has sprung up: the one that would rather keep religion and identity politics out of it.

We can all raise a glass to that. A rational American, exhausted by identity politics that are getting more radical, violent and just plain weird, might ask what lesson we might draw from this qualified success of the accord to avoid own thirty years of “troubles?"

Ireland’s current political distress has morphed from identity to mostly economic. Last year, the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party walked out the National Assembly in protest, not over Catholic shenanigans, but over border protocols with Ireland, the UK and the rest of Europe caused by Brexit. There is a good reason why everyone is so fussy about market borders: from 1998-2019, the GDP of Northern Ireland grew 43%, about the same as the rest of the UK and the GDP of the Irish Republic grew about half again more.

In light of Brexit, things would be easier, and probably cheaper, for Northern Ireland if it just reunited with republic. Still, old habits die hard and the Protestant unionist faction has dug in its heels because… because… well, it’s a long story.

II. The Short Version…

As good as the English eventually got at colonies, the Irish possessions didn’t amount to much. In the late middle aged there was Dublin and the surrounding Pale – an archaic word for fence, or figuratively, a border. Most of the country remained perpetually beyond the pale – which is where we get the term. Neither country had a sense of nationhood in the modern sense, but England was moving beyond the mere plaything of a few nobles families. Then Henry VIII went rogue with Rome. One daughter, Mary, tried to reverse it, and her half-sister Elizabeth, reversed the reversal. It brought to the fore the question of what religion the English should be?

In broad strokes, the English civil wars amounted to parliamentarian forces with a deep Puritan faction, called “roundheads” going to war with the “cavaliers” who were for the King and the Church of England. In a pinch, Oliver Cromwell called on the Scottish Presbyterians to help his Puritans win the war and put the king on trial. It ended badly for the king: In the words of Monty Python:

The most interesting thing about King Charles the First

Is that he was 5 foot 6 inches tall at the start of his reign

But only 4 foot 8 inches tall at the end of it

After Cromwell took control of England in 1649 and promptly invaded Ireland. The Puritans hated the Church of England on the grounds that they were “too Catholic” – they found the Irish even more so.

Back in England, life under the Puritans was about a fun as you’d imagine. Cromwell was a brilliant politician, but when he died the parliament re-established the monarchy and the ole C of E. Well aware of what they’d done to dear old dad, Charles II “encouraged” the Puritans to go away (famously, boatloads went to America), the Presbyterian Scots to keep settling Ireland, and the Irish Catholics to jolly well stay put.

In 1707, England and Scotland were merged by the Acts of Union into Great Britain. In 1801, after losing most of its North American colonies over the issue of representation twenty years earlier, the crown upgraded Ireland from mere put-upon colony to the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland with seats in parliament. The Brits though the whole thing was a spanking idea. but failed to run it by the Irish. lovely the place is when they aren’t all trying to kill each other in the northern counties.

III. Gerrymandered State

A century later, the Irish were still gunning for Home Rule – not necessarily independence but dominion status, like Canada gained in 1867 – and got it in 1914, just after the outbreak of World War I. The hitch was that London wanted to sort out its current mess with Germany before getting on with things. So the nationalists staged the Easter Rebellion in 1916; it ultimately failed, but stirred up the locals, who voted heavily for Sinn Fein – the Irish Nationalist party. The candidates had pledged not to take their seats at Westminster, but create their own assembly in Dublin. Making it one of history’s few elections were constituents voted to not be heard in Parliament. The reaction of the Protestants clustered in the north – who identified as “British” rather than “Irish” – was lively. They launched one of history’s few rebellions designed to avoid independence.

And so it was that in 1921, London granted Ireland dominion status, and gave the north counties the option to remain with the UK. Which they did, creating Northern Ireland. It was what an American would call a gerrymandered state: Drawn up in a way that taken as a whole, would always be run by a Protestant majority and the sizable Catholic minority – about 30% of the population – just had to take it. The gerrymandering baked a political instability into the system by publicly accepting religious identity as a legitimate basis for political division. The mostly Catholic Irish wanted representation in their own country. The mostly Protestant British were (rightly) suspicious that the Catholics would try to unite with the rest of Ireland if given half a chance. So, they made sure that it never happened.

Meanwhile, south of the border, Protestant minority was to small to be a threat, that they were never excluded from power. Ireland became a republic in 1937 and left the Dominion in 1949 while the hot air just sort of seeped out of the issue.

The Brits though the whole thing was a spanking idea, but failed to run it by the Irish.

IV. The Troubles

Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, the Catholic population in Ulster changed tack from nationalism to civil rights. If you strip away all the tweed, it’s easy to see the parallels: a repressed group demanding reform from an establishment so stacked against them that they can never vote themselves into power or even have a voice. Said establishment, threatened with a loss of the status quo, then wildly over-reacts with police and “citizens” group violence – Klan, paramilitary groups, take your pick.

There, though, the similarities diverge. The leading lights of the American civil rights movement were preachers, like Martin Luther King, espousing Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance in the face of violent oppression. In Ireland, the civil rights movement was led by a well-armed group that that been calling itself an “Army” for 50 years. Faced with violence by police and paramilitary groups, they reacted in their customary way and took to the car-bomb.

So began the Troubles, that wave of violence that started somewhere in the late 1960’s. With the locals unable to sort the situation out, the UK sent in a real army. Like the National Guard being sent to South to integrate schools, the British army was sent in to protect the Catholics who were being brutalized by local police. With tensions as wound as tight as they were, soon everything went sideways. By March of 1972, Northern Ireland was a failed state that was taken over by Westminster. And stayed that way until 1998.

Why it went on that long, and what we need to realize about our current political climate was best put by strategist Tom Hartley, in a 2001 interview with Richard English for his book Armed Struggle. “You see, war is easy, you have to remember that. War is easy because there are the baddies and the goodies – and you don’t ever have to engage, or think about, or find out about the reasons that people act the way that they do.”

V. The Take-Away

The most glaringly obvious lesson here is that America’s fashionable foray into identity politics is going no place good. Ireland is just one glaring example; In the last century it has given us wars in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, all over Africa, and that doesn’t include those two very inclusive world wars.

Without a history of population centric warfare, the US is lucky enough to think of war as something far-away that our heroic (or dastardly, imperialist) armies get up to. Realistically, though, there is no reason to believe that it won’t happen here. Or hasn’t already started.

We’ve always had our weirdo separatists – if the Puritans we inherited from England don’t count as well-armed religious maniacs I don’t know who would qualify. We’ve always been able to send our right-wing crackpots out on the far side of a purple mountain majesty or the amber waves of grain and hole up leftist crazies in academia. The system worked well-enough until - thank you internet - they started to connect. Suddenly we had “Unite the Right” rallies aping the Nazis (didn’t we’d all agreed they were the bad guys…) on one side, while on the far left Antifa goons established “autonomous zones” and started carrying on about communist (again, hadn’t we all agreed they were the bad guys?) Ah…the summer of 2020, covid, Black Lives Matter, murder hornets, lefties trying to assassinate conservative judges and right-wing gun nuts trying to kidnap the Governor of Michigan. Then, on 6 Jan we put the cherry on the top.

Yes, it was absurd, watching self-absorbed radicals play at revolution, but buildings got burned and people got killed, not to mention the looting and destruction of private property. As a geopolitical analyst, I’d argue that the only thing currently keeping America from descending into Irish style “Troubles” is the cartoonish incompetence of the American radical. The same extremists to which the major parties are hitching their fortunes. Americans are, admittedly, a bit slow-on the uptake, but we aren’t a republic of morons. While we talk past each other and refuse to compromise, eventually someone is going to successfully light the relevant fuse and the whole place is going to explode.

So how do we avoid it? There isn’t going to be one right answer, the trick is to avoid the obviously wrong ones. The take away from the Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement that that its success is based on that unfashionable concept of compromise. It’s never fun, and the compromises they swallowed were particularly noxious: jailed paramilitaries on both sides were set free having murdered piles of innocents. The population heeded, if reluctantly, Edmund Burke’s advice against using history as “a magazine, furnishing offensive and defensive weapons.” Everyone had to give up something, but they more a lot in return.

"War is easy because there are the baddies and the goodies – and you don’t ever have to engage, or think about, or find out about the reasons that people act the way that they do.”

We should do the same. An American is only on the hook for engaging with an idea they don't already think they know. How hard is that? Someone unwilling to compromise isn’t necessarily principled, more likely, they are a fanatic. Compromise is what gave America the dynamism to become a superpower. It also created the stability to have, in 2023, the world’s second oldest government. The first, if you are wondering, was established in 1660 when the English set the crown on Charles II still attached head.

So, let’s not lose ours.


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