The Good Friday Agreement twenty years on – Why can’t we get over the Troubles?

Sometimes an idea for an article just comes along. I was listening to the radio last week and Dermot Nesbitt, one of the Ulster Unionist negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement, was speaking on Nolan about its 18th anniversary. He pointed out that that when he was a young man, the Second World War had ended eighteen years previously and none of his generation thought about it.  Young people were more interested in Beatlemania than the Battle of Britain and that got me thinking: Why can’t we get over the Troubles?

I’m referring to Northern Ireland society as a whole, not the grieving relatives of the slain or the maimed who still carry their scars and disabilities. Almost without exception, they carry their burden with calm and remarkable dignity which is a lot more than can be said for the place in general where bitterness is the flavor of the day and what-aboutery a national sport. If we take 1994, the date of the ceasefires as the end to The Troubles, teenagers who weren’t a gleam in their father’s eye in 1994 are engaging in recreational sectarian rioting because they feel ‘left out’ at having missed the more politically motivated riots of their fathers and, God help us, grandfathers. The rioters of 1969 have now got their bus passes and the young men who bore arms in the 1980s are now grandfathers with arthritis and diabetes, yet the grisly history of our past still dominates the news media, political and talk shows. Why do we insist on refighting the battles of the past?

Our politicians, when they head to Downing Street with a begging bowl to avoid taking tough decisions, moan about us being a special case and a society emerging from conflict. Emerging? To use Dermot Nesbitt’s Second World War analogy, let’s equate 1994 with 1945. In February 1945 American bombers laid fifteen square miles of Tokyo to waste in a firestorm that devoured 83,000 lives. [i] Six months later, the Americans dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki taking another 100,000 lives, inflicting radiation sickness and deaths from cancer for decades to come. The war ended with almost every major Japanese town and city in ashes, millions of homeless and the population in a state of near starvation.  Nineteen years later, yes NINETEEN years later, Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games and Japan was one of the world’s leading economies. While Hiroshima is not going to unveil a statue of Harry S Trumann any time soon, Japan has forgiven its old enemy; Disneyland has a park in Tokyo and the relations between the two countries are as good as they can be. The Japanese did not blame America for all their ills, or wallow in victimhood, they got on with building a peaceful and prosperous country. Not perfect, nowhere is, but there is a lesson to be learned and before someone asks, yes, the Americans still occupy part of Japan as anyone in Okinawa will tell you.

While the Troubles were no cake walk, particularly for people living in the thick of it, the 70s, 80s and 90s saw the Vietnam War and genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The last two are chilling examples of what the Northern Ireland conflict could have degenerated into. We are not unique. Other societies have endured far worse and have been traumatised to an extent we can’t even imagine yet we cling to the idea we are somehow a special case. Contrary to popular legend, most of the world’s population are blissfully unaware of our Troubles and even fewer care about them. They have problems enough of their own to get on with. Let’s take the American city of Philadelphia as another comparison. It has a population of 1.5m, a similar number to Northern Ireland’s population through most of the Troubles. Over the past 10 years its annual body count from homicide has ranged from 246 to 391.[ii] Only the four worst years of the Troubles – 1972-76 surpass even the best Philadelphia year of 246 deaths.[iii] Violent death is ubiquitous in much of the world included its richest country.

The problem perhaps is that we can’t define what the problem was. Have we gone through a low intensity civil war, an armed insurgency against British Rule or a law and order problem? Probably a bit of all three, but until we nail down exactly what happened the blame game and endless what-aboutery will be exactly that – endless. The German Federal Republic has produced a comprehensive, multi-volume, official history of the Second World War that lays bare all the crimes of the third Reich but also a detailed, sometimes brutally honest analysis of the conflict which includes the suffering of its own people. Maybe we could do get a team of distinguished historians, none of them from Britain or Ireland, to examine the conflict to tell us, in the most impartial and informed way possible, what actually happened. We can’t trust ourselves to do that. Our moral compass has become so skewed murder is now a matter of opinion. If we approve of the killer and disapprove of the person killed, it is not considered murder at all, often not even a matter of regret, but all killings by the ‘other side’ are always murder most foul and the perpetrators must be hounded to the ends of the earth. As a society do we really want to emulate what is happening in Germany where a 93 year old former clerk at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a man who individually killed no one but who knew people were being killed, is awaiting trial for the murder of 300,000 people?[iv] Is that really justice?

I don’t pretend to have the answer, if I did I would be standing in the assembly elections – I’ve merely thrown a few suggestions out there for consideration and discussion. In response I would like to read what a teenager or twenty-something thinks of this self-obsessing.  Doubtless many readers will object to what I have said and tell me in no uncertain terms, but we can’t go on like this, we really can’t. Does anyone think the status quo is the best way ahead? How long will it take us to ‘emerge from conflict’?  Until the last former ‘combatant’ dies? If we can’t walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes then at least let us try to imagine why people we hate, behaved as they did, what events and influences took them down a particular road in life?  Simply dismissing the enemy – our neighbours -as evil bastards deserving of a jail cell or bullet has left us in the dreadful mire we are currently stuck in. History teaches us that decent people will do dreadful things in dreadful circumstances. As a society we must decide whether our violent past will define us forever or whether we can be better than this.

Let the what-aboutery commence.

Sam Thompson can be contacted on Twitter @Jarriesam

[i] Spector, 2001, p.505 & TIME magazine 19/03/1945





  • Skibo

    I as a Republican will not say the RUC were bad. The vast majority of the RUC were good officers. Unfortunately there was a rotten core just as there was within the community who looked at anything Nationalist or republican as alien and to be avoided at all costs.
    That nucleus was enough the blacken the name of the RUC within the Nationalist community and leave us not knowing who to trust.
    Its like what someone said to me recently, “a good reputation is hard earned and easy lost”
    I would be no lover of the SDLP but they had to tread a thin line in those days on policing just as SF has had to do since the peace process.

  • Reader

    murdockp: Irony really, if they want to march down Twadell, the ROI would have the freedoms in place to allow them to do this.
    Just like when the OO tried to march in Dublin a few years back, right? How did that work out?

  • Skibo

    Unfortunately the republican bogey man has been sold to the Unionist people for so long, it will be hard to reverse. The next generation will tell a tale and as the younger generation realise that Catholics are not baying for their blood and don’t have cloven hoofs, they will realise the other stories they have been told on their granny’s knee must be false also.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The core ideology has failed though. Nationalism is nothing if not about uniting the “Irish people” (and it’s previously made great play of other identities being essentially bogus e.g in the Proclamation). But in the GFA, nationalism agreed there were two main forms of national identity in Northern Ireland, Irish and British, and both were equally valid.

    It has given up, quite rightly, on simply telling everyone they are Irish, not British, whether they like it or not (notwithstanding a few jokers on these pages :-)) Put simply, the people of the island do not constitute a single “people” and therefore it’s no longer clear why they should come together as one country.

    Nationalism now, if it’s about anything, has to be about the coming together of Irish people with British people in Ireland to construct a new national identity both can subscribe to. It will mean either reinventing Irishness or constructing a completely new form of Irishness or both. The role of Britishness in the new amalgam is one of many moot points.

    That may or may not be a worthwhile endeavour – but either way it represents a very different project from the old “kick out the Brits” model we all love so well.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Not a single people?
    Are Irish and British different species or something?
    Must they be separated at workplaces, city centres, hospitals, sports stadiums, housing estates and even churches?
    Is this how we should treat migrants and refugees, they are not “my people”.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Perhaps you’re right, in which case Ireland should be in the UK.

    I take the view they are different nationalities, with allegiance to different nation states. Other than that we’re pretty similar.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Allegiance matters in terms of armies and other defence forces. Ordinary Joe Public affiliates with people. E.g supporting Usain Bolt in sprinting when they are not Jamacian.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “the republican bogey man has been sold to the Unionist people for so long”
    Well, between 1969 and 1998, no one had to sell anything as regards the “Republican bogeyman”, as he was out every day, doing a lot more than just scaring people. 30-odd years of actual experience of that Republican campaign do more than “tell a tale”, let alone a false one. You seem to have missed quite a large thing that Republicans did and will forever fail to live down.

  • Skibo

    I think I have already shown that the IRA violence was not the main instigator in 1969. The political situation of naked sectarianism was the instigator.There were more killed by the security forces that year than by anyone yet we should not consider them the bogey men!
    I have not forgotten all the violence of the troubles but then I do not just dwell on that of the IRA.
    We are in a new era. You have to start listening to the messages coming from SF. They are not “violence is acceptable” they are not “brits go home”. They still want a reunited Ireland of equals and they want all the people of NI and the south to be part of it.
    You continue to dwell in the recent past and I could counter that with 70 years of sectarian miss rule in a state set up at the point of a gun but at least we are talking not like it was when I was a child hiding behind sand bags when Loyalists fired into the house only to be told the munitions found were actually security issued!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Forgive me if I don’t find that anything like an accurate recognition of the Irish Republican role in the Troubles. The record shows the Troubles overwhelmingly consisted of Irish Republican violence – not to discount the other portions, but nevertheless – and you would never guess it from either you or SF say on the period.

    I’m not so silly as to think it was all Republicans, but it does seem to me Republicans are in denial over their role in driving both the course of events and the scale of the loss of life, to a degree spectacularly higher than anyone else. And they have had some success in having their self-justificatory narrative swallowed by some in the outside media and commentariat. Hence having to continue to emphasise that side of the case – it is the part that needs rebalancing.

    And as I said before, one of the biggest problems with the wider nationalist way of telling the story of the Troubles is to treat the whole period as if it were all just 1969-70 repeating. You can argue the toss over who started what, who was to blame in the opening year, but it doesn’t account for the rest of the Troubles. The death tolls and numbers of violent incidents speak for themselves. 60 per cent Republican overall; and for about half of the Troubles years it was running at 70+ per cent. Don’t pretend now it was some kind of equal conflict. Republicans had it in their power to stop or continue the Troubles as they chose.

  • Skibo

    MU the troubles was a Pandora’s box. The seeds for which had been sown long long before 1969. It was built on the treatment of the minority community for 70 years.
    From 1967 to 1969 civil disturbances were the result of this treatment. When people believe they have nothing to lose, they are prepared to give all. It could have been stopped then. Even in 1969 the Ulster Unionist Party could have put enough legislation in place to appease the majority of the Nationalist community but it didn’t happen. Had the fire been put out at the start who knows what would have happened.
    Republicanism seized on the mistrust of Unionism within the Nationalist community to again raise the flag for independence and reunification of Ireland as the only solution. They used methods similar to that of the French Resistance. They targeted the economic centres and tried to make NI ungovernable.
    Once the box was opened it was always going to be difficult to close.
    In 1973 we had the Sunningdale Agreement where most of the issues were resolved. It was rejected by Republicans as it was not the Ireland they wanted but the IRA did not bring it down. The protestant people through the Ulster Workers Strike brought it down.
    I for one believe a large majority of the blame can be laid at the feet of the voters who did not back Terrence O’Neill in his quest to reform NI in 69 and again in 73/74 when they would not support Sunningdale. It seemed to Nationalists again that they could not be part of power sharing in NI.
    Percentages change all the time about who killed the most. Unionist politicians actually quote at times that 90% was at the hands of Republicans.
    So we can continue to cast aspersions at each other over who did what and who was in the wrong. All life lost or damaged during the troubles on both sides was a travesty hopefully never to be repeated. I include in that those who took part in violence on both sides as they were victims of the political system in NI as much as anyone.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    you’re still not taking on board that Republicans did 60 per cent of the killing and an even higher proportion of the bombing, or that the “armed struggle” was a Republican mission. You attribute way, way too little responsibility for the violence to the people who chose to carry it out. With Pandora’s box, the ills of the world flew out of their own accord. But the murders of the Troubles didn’t happen of their own accord – people planned and carried them out deliberately. The Pandora’s box analogy is no different really from throwing your hands in the air and saying, “sh** happens”. It’s completely inadequate as a moral response to the Troubles.

    Btw the unionist government did actually bring in the reforms NICRA had asked for in 1970, but it didn’t stop the violence.

    They used methods similar to the French Resistance you say. There is a huge problem in that though, is there not? They weren’t invaded or occupied, they chose to take up arms to fight against the sovereignty that had the overwhelming support of the people of the region, then and now. And they didn’t just attack the imagined ‘invader’, but their fellow residents, including even their own community. Indeed, most people who died in their “armed struggle” were Northern Ireland people.

    Isn’t the reality that, as we’ve been reminded in the last month with the 1916 commemorations, Irish Republicanism had a belief in its own right to make a blood sacrifice of other people which pre-dated the reasons they now cite? The IRA, even of the Goulding variety, never dropped its claims to have the right to kill in pursuit of forcing a united Ireland, something it saw as an urgent and morally just goal. They were just wrong, weren’t they?

    Second post to follow …

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The IRA may have been blind-sided briefly by events in August 1969, as nearly everyone was, but in a few months they had got themselves together and split into two factions both of which thought going out shooting and bombing in our towns and cities was a great idea. The PIRA Army Council met in January 1970 and resolved to use the breakdown of order on the streets as a launchpad for a violent campaign against UK sovereignty as soon as conditions allowed – and then proceeded to execute that.

    There can be no getting out of that from those who support the Republican Movement today. That a breakdown of order developed into a 28 year “armed struggle” is very largely Republicans’ doing and Republicans’ responsibility. Not *just* them – all parties who committed murder in the Troubles, and bombing, must take full responsibility for what they did, no more and no less. That applies to Loyalists too in particular and even to those crimes committed by security forces (of which there were many, many fewer) in the course of trying to stop the paramilitaries’ reigns of terror. But most of those murders and most of those bombings were of course Republican murders and Republican bombings.

    If all those involved and anyone supporting them can accept that and stop trying to wriggle out of responsibility, we can all move on. Few in NI are fooled by the haze of vagueness the Republican narrative seeks to shroud the Troubles in. Edwards and McGrattan in “The Northern Ireland Conflict” put it well:
    “Certainly, the paramilitary leaderships – the loyalists involved in the first killings in 1966 and the republicans involved in deciding to take the war to the ‘Brits’ in 1969 – bear a greater responsibility than most … each community was ‘provoked’ by acts of violence, but only a tiny minority of the North’s population became involved in the paramilitary campaigns.”

    They go on to criticise paramilitary attempts to ask society to draw a line under the past:
    “This attitude underpins the not inconsiderable accomplishment of rendering null and void the responsibility of the perpetrators for their actions and removing victims’ sole power – remembrance.”

    So you can continue trying to sweep the Republican campaign under the carpet, but I can confidently predict it will keep crawling out again. You just can’t hope to airbrush something that massive and profoundly bad that was done in full public view for 30-odd years. It’s the best revenge really for those of us who opposed the paramilitaries throughout – that what they did will continue to be remembered. It’s more damning than anything I could say.