at an Easter commemoration rally last weekend,
Martin McGuinness said republicans would use exclusively
peaceful and democratic means to try to achieve
their goal of a united Ireland.
This assurance was echoed by the leadership of
the Provisional IRA in their customary Easter
message. While both statements only confirmed
what has long been a working assumption, such
confirmation is nonetheless welcome. The words
used are significant.
A commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic
methods is much more binding than previous standard
lines from republicans which simply declared the
"war" to be over, or that the IRA would
not be an impediment to political progress.
Implicit in the statements, as well, is an acknowledgment
that the IRA had used violent and undemocratic
means in the past in pursuit of a unitary Irish
state (why else an undertaking not to do so in
the future?). Now this hardly ranks as a startling
revelation for those of us above a certain age,
but it will come as something of a surprise to
an awful lot of people too young to have any memory
of the Troubles.
Thanks to a concerted attempt by various commentators
and "historians" to rewrite history,
many young people believe that the Provisional
IRA's campaign was driven primarily, if not exclusively,
by the lofty aim of winning basic civil rights
for the Catholic population in Northern Ireland.
According to this new narrative, only when those
rights had been secured did the IRA feel able
to end its violence. Neatly avoided is any explanation
why, if that was indeed the case, the IRA did
not cease its activities in 1974.
By then the old Stormont regime had been closed
down and virtually every demand of the Northern
Ireland Civil Rights Association had been met,
yet the IRA campaign continued for another 20-odd
The truth is the IRA used the wholly legitimate
grievances of Northern Catholics as an excuse
to embark on a violent campaign aimed at forcing
Northern Ireland into a 32-county unitary state
against the democratically expressed wishes of
a majority of its people.
The IRA's campaign ended, not because it had achieved
its primary goal but, rather, because it had signally
failed to do so. Moreover, the violence had in
fact become counter-productive.
Republican talk of an "equality agenda"
only came very late in the day - long after it
had been delivered by the SDLP - when, in order
to get off the hook of conflict, it was decided
to replace an unachievable objective with one
that had already been secured. A carefully cultivated
political mandate gave most republican activists
a welcome exit route from a hopeless, self-perpetuating
struggle that was going nowhere.
On the cusp of a bright shiny new future for Northern
Ireland, the temptation is to ignore the revisionists
and spare oneself the bother and the boredom of
having to trample back and forth over old ground.
Except in the new historical narrative where republicans
are idealistic battlers for the rights of the
oppressed, unionists are conveniently cast as
the villains of the piece and, for the most part,
authors of their own misfortune.
The inference is that the conflict lasted only
as long as unionists resisted delivering on an
"equality agenda". This sidesteps the
fact that from the time Stormont was closed in
1972 the unionists were powerless to deliver on
anything. Any true account of the Troubles could
only determine that unionism was far from blameless,
particularly in regard to anti-Catholic discrimination.
But it was how unionists voted, not how they acted,
that provoked the ire of physical force republicanism.
Most of us in Ireland, whether Northerner or Southerner
and irrespective of religious or political affiliation,
are past masters at presenting "history"
not as it was but as we would like it to have
been. We are adept at the expunging of retrospective
"non-conformists" from the tribal pantheon.
In this way, the Presbyterians of the United Irishmen
have been almost completely erased from the collective
memory of Northern Protestants because their beliefs
and actions do not fit with contemporary political
Likewise, until very recently in the Republic,
the bravery and sacrifice of many thousands of
Southern Irishmen in two World Wars was considered
But it is the building of separate, partial histories
by the two traditional tribes in Ireland that
causes the real damage. Each tends towards a one-eyed
view of the past that sees only the positive on
one side and the negative on the other, and ignores
the bits that do not suit particular prejudices.
It is up to us whether this is indeed a bright
new dawn or merely an interlude that is used to
build up trouble for the future. If it is to be
the former, then we need to dispense with our
tendency towards monochrome history and deal honestly
and openly with the past.
with permission from the author.