This time of year, the Irish heritage, or wish for Irish heritage, of any and all comes out. As well as perverting beer with green food colouring, drinking all day, and uping the intake of potatoes and Lucky Charms, the more historically aware among us cursed the English or shouted “up the republic!” this past St. Patrick’s Day. In the not too distant past, donations to violent Irish nationalist groups could be made in pubs up and down the East Coast of North America. A wave of nostalgia for the “home country,” which most of us “Irish” folk have never seen often ends with us voicing irrational and nationalistic opinions.
The legacy of the English relationship with their neighbours (and everyone else, quite frankly) is a rocky one. They insisted on occupying and colonizing whatever they could get their hands on. Ireland was among the first to fall victim to British imperialism. The Irish and British crowns were united in 1542. Since then, there have been numerous independence attempts, or, since 1922, attempts to unify the north and the rest of Ireland.
Throughout British rule, Irish Catholics found themselves discriminated against, both politically and economically. Laws limited the rights of Catholics to hold land, and such oppression came to a head during Cromwell’s invasion. The Penal Laws, along with famine and forced indentured servitude severely shrank the Irish population and left a long legacy of inequality.
In response to these legitimate grievances, Irish republicanism flourished after successful republican revolutions took place in the United States and France. When Ireland received semi-independence in 1921, many militant nationalists were not content with a partitioned Ireland, because of the allegiance of Ulster’s gerrymandered electoral districts to the United Kingdom.
Invariably, an argument about Irish unification turns to the conduct of the modern Irish Republican Army, in all of its various incarnations. The self-described strategy to achieve of their armed campaign, from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, was that of “Armalites and ballot boxes,” meaning rifles and voting to unify Ireland. Undeniably, the IRA factions murdered many innocent people in their quest for separation from the UK, but the conduct of the British security forces was also reprehensible. Bomb attacks targeting civilians were committed by the IRA, rioting by Loyalist groups displaced families, and massacres and apathy by the British governmental forces aggravated the conflict.
In the words of South African and former union leader Jay Naidoo, “violence from any side is inexcusable, but deadly force from a democratic state is a cardinal sin. It strikes at the heart of democracy.” The violent conduct of illegal nationalist groups made up of marginalized citizens is obviously unacceptable, but a democratic, modern, industrialized country needs to be held to a higher standard.
The violence resulted in 3,500 dead and 47,000 injured during the thirty-year period. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought the majority of hostilities to a close, as both sides turned to a political solution. There are still remnants of dissident Republican groups who plant bombs and try to re-aggravate the conflict, and groups of Loyalists violently protesting the recent decision of the Belfast City Council to stop flying the Union Jack on a daily basis.
Today, those sectarians, nationalist or unionist, who would plunge Ireland into violence are behind the times. If a government has even a hint of democratic legitimacy or popular support an internal armed insurrection against it cannot succeed. There was a time when armed conflict was necessary for the protection of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, but that time has passed. Our celebration of Irish history and culture, or at least of their alcoholic beverages, should be limited to those things that enrich lives, not destroy them. While I would like to see Ireland re-unified, with Northern Ireland it needs to come through legal, democratic means. Forsake the Armalites in order to make time for the ballot boxes.