Brexit Northern Ireland
The 35-year commemoration of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry. (Image: Wikicommons)

Well the explosion of a car bomb in Derry has led to fears of the possibility of violence returning to Northern Ireland*

So said the impeccably understated presenter on the BBC Radio 4’s Today program. To which your correspondent’s half-awake response (I cue up Today as my breakfast listening; sorry, Fran) was, “ya think…”

I doubt I was the only one with that reaction to the clip, which continued with a government spokesperson noting that an “automative explosive device” had indeed blown up in Northern Ireland’s second city; first in bombings.

The blame was attached to dissident armed-struggle Republicans, who are yet to claim credit for it or to give themselves a variant IRA name (New IRA? IRA Classic?). It was, by the standards of island of Ireland politics, a mere throat-clearing, a stern letter to the paper.

Nevertheless, it raises the question: has the rancid pantomime of Brexit, this party political question projected outwards, actually managed to undermine a treaty — the 1999 Good Friday Agreement — which has quite possibly prevented deaths and maimings, and put Ireland on a path, however torpid, of peaceful unification? That really would be the anti-achievement of all anti-achievements.

The Good Friday Agreement was one of its last hurrahs of the EU, which has now backed away from regionalism after realising how fragile its nation states are. Critics say that it has turned a political process into a technocratic one, in which the ultimate political act — reunification of Ireland — will, when it occurs, be a purely administrative act, assented to by referenda. Maybe so, but it seems preferable to the grinding mayhem and stalemate of the last decade of the stalled Republican war of liberation.  

That said, active struggle, on a small scale has never stopped. The Belfast-Dublin rail line is regularly disrupted, sometimes blown up, and there are dozens of other encounters. Unionist paramilitary forces have never stood down; splinters of the IRA have kept themselves together by running local “security” forces in Belfast and Derry, punishing, occasionally killing drug dealers and criminals; sometimes as genuine, brutal vigilante policing, and sometimes to keep the turf for themselves.

The Good Friday Agreement was based on a great deal of consent, from many parties. Outsiders may have seen it as an inexplicable conflict, surprised it took so long to end. The participants shared a weariness with its futility of action, but saw it as the opposite of meaningless, which made the deal all the more striking. Put together by Sinn Féin and Blair’s Labour government, it could only have been done by two parties who had, to a degree, signed on to the “end of history” — or “end of some history” — thesis. Ireland would be reunited, against the hopes of unionists, but its reunification would not be the transcendental Irish/global socialist moment, an idea on which Sinn Féin/the IRA had once based themselves.

So the only thing that could possibly undo it was the return, not of history, but of “History” — the mix of farce, panto, cynicism, politicking, nostalgia and delusion represented by right-wing Brexiteers. This was adopted by a jaded public, eager for a no deal crash-out, as something, anything to move things along (though a recent poll suggests that 25% of people who say they want no deal believe it to mean “keep things as they are.” Has there ever been a more screwed up process than this? Answer: yes, most of history).

You wouldn’t want to exaggerate things as this stage. After all a car bomb in the centre of Derry is not without a nostalgic touch itself; as 70s as flares and Thin Lizzy. But the point about how things come apart is that what looks crazy from the outside is rational for internal actors at every stage of the encounter. Thus, if there is to be a hard — or even stiffened — Northern Ireland-Ireland border, it makes perfect sense for armed-Republican factions to get a preemptive blow in, as a little propaganda of the deed.

In turn it will make sense for Unionists to withdraw from certain power-sharing processes — processes which they have only ever agreed to grudgingly. The Irish process has always had such a split between general and particular rationality that Yeats may as well have written “The Second Coming” about it (“the best lack all conviction/while the worst are full of passionate intensity”). Oh, ha, yeah, he did.

The worst, in this case, are the Tories: the Remainers who offered a one-stage referendum — that apparently they never believed they would have to make good on — and the Leavers who won’t support the least worst exit deal that would realistically be on offer. Labour, some might say, is going in hard too. But they’re the opposition, that’s their job. What the process has appeared to produce is a unique public kamikaze politics, in which millions who wanted a sensible Brexit are now baying for a no-deal leave, out of that most British of emotional sequences: sustained polite irritation, followed by an absolute red-faced shouty blow-up. It’s the prospect of it leading to real blow-ups elsewhere that should be concentrating the mind.

*from memory. Mornings are for dry retching, not note-taking.

Peter Fray

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