Here’s a graphic illustration of reactions to the murder of Ronan Kerr. Now, I’m not suggesting that commenters on sluggerotoole.com are a cross-section of anything other than commenters on sluggerotoole.com (or trying to promote blogs as anything other than conversational noise). But I’d seen a few people dismissing the reaction, both on here, and elsewhere, and pointing to an underlying tension that they consider is barely disguised, even at the best/worst of times. The above, courtesy of Wordle is a word cloud from all the text in comments on the half a dozen or so threads reacting to the murder (basically starting with Turgon’s) up to around 12 pm last night, with only posters names edited out and plurals/singular words condensed (for the pre-condensed version see here). You can make as little or as much as you want from it – but the most frequently occuring word is people.
I had expected the emphasis to be more strongly on an elephant in the room for republicans (inside and outside of Sinn Féin) – the historical and definitive failure of violence to achieve it’s overall objective of a united Ireland. Challenging as public discussion of it might be, the logical under-pinning to Sinn Féin’s political strategy is simple: violence didn’t work as a tactic with the obvious proof that it didn’t achieve its strategic goals. However, whether violence ever worked on the Irish political stage also requires unionists, and the state, to bring so many elephants into the room that any conversational space gets squeezed out (although I’m going to address those elephants in a follow-up, just not today).
The militarisation of the ‘Irish question’ in the early twentieth century took place in the aftermath of the Boer War, which consciously, or unconsciously, must have given significant shape to the expectations of how a conflict would develope between a modern Empire and western European insurgents. The imposing backdrop of the widespread militarisation and socialisation of violence that was brought about by the Great War was the formative experience for a generation of soldiers, which, in itself, under-pinned much of the political direction of Ireland (and indeed Europe) in the first half of the twentieth century. Even in this light, the attempted establishment of the Irish Republic in 1916 was a military and tactical disaster, failing in a number of key areas such as securing major infrastructural nodes and the lack of provision of artillery. Strategically, it achieved limited goals in promoting the concept of an Irish Republic, but I suspect that the overall doom-laden vision of those who actually turned out on Easter Sunday was heavily fuelled by stories of the Paris Commune rather than more immediate practical lessons in siege-and-hold military tactics.
The campaign that followed the end of the Great War saw republicans largely avoid set-piece engagements with units of company size rarely deployed. Either way, neither in 1916, nor during the War of Independence, did republican strategy target a limited, partitioned solution, so ultimately, it too failed in its objective. The ‘political’ solution, to geographically define unresolved issues of hegemony and identity to the six counties in the north-east was to be qualified by the rapidly-ignored Boundary Commission. Militarily, challenges to a partitionist solution failed during the Civil War and in subsequent sporadic attempts to catalyse political changes through violence.
The dramatic increase in intensity of violence at the end of the 1960s is obviously all to fresh in many peoples’ memories. Oddly, many assumed at the time that it would be short-lived. Indeed, when Whitelaw seemed to be putting the suggestion of withdrawl on the table in 1972, he may have even reinforced the idea that the IRA campaign was close to, and capable of, achieving its overall objective (Brian Walker will happily correct me here if that isn’t correct). Any immediate prospect of success was obviously chimeric with a futile attempt to return to the Whitelaw dynamic in 1975 followed by confrontations with the critical mass of republicans held in state prisons. A lengthy security campaign provided the state and it’s civic society ample opportunity for the development of counter-insurgency tactics. In such a small society, the human toll of the actions by various republican groups, which included many deaths and injuries to those supposedly not regarded or intended as ‘targets’ is hardly measureable.
But, perhaps the most damning indictment of violence, as a tactic, came in Jim Molyneaux’s assertion that it’s end was the greatest threat to the ‘union’. Indeed, the only sustainable solution, for republicans, lies in persuading enough of the electorate to support a united Ireland. Oddly trying to persuade unionist politicians, per se, is a distraction, since by definition, they hold their own political convictions. The real theatre of conflict to be fought over here is in the minds of voters (not politicians). This is the dynamic and presents unusual challenges to others (e.g. what will the Alliance agree as the status quo if it takes so many seats that there are more designated nationalist than unionist MLAs)?
This a point on which those, who still believe they can attain the strategic goal of a united Ireland by violence, should ponder. History doesn’t give them any chance of success.