Earlier this month a few hundred people gathered in Newtonards for a public protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol. Despite the presence of a strong cast of speakers – including former-MP Kate Hoey and former-MEP Ben Habib – it wasn’t the podium soundbites that caught my eye and inspired this article. Instead, it was a very telling vox-pop that Sky News captured with one of the protestors at the event. A lady who’s grey hair, pashmina-type shawl and well-spoken North Down accent gave her the appearance of someone you’d expect to be more likely to find accompanying her grandchildren along Bangor seafront than at a loyalist protest. But the three short sentences she uttered to the camera revealed a shocking outlook that left us in no doubt as to why she felt in good company there. Commenting on the presence of banners reading ‘Peace or the Protocol’, she declared “The other side have got everything they wanted by causing mayhem, fear and death. Maybe it’s about time we thought about doing the same. I certainly am willing to give my life for it”.
Whilst the idea of a well-spoken elderly lady offering to lay down her life in opposition to the Protocol is both baffling and easy to sneer at, her assertion that violence pays off in Northern Irish politics is an oft-repeated mantra within loyalist and unionist circles. It was used to justify April’s outburst of paramilitary-orchestrated violence in loyalist and interface areas, which sought to pressure unionist politicians over the Protocol. And it has been heard frequently ever since to hint at dire consequences should loyalists not get their way on this issue. But is it true to claim that republican violence resulted in them getting their own way? Or is that just a convenient and disingenuous myth to disguise the fact that loyalists have always been prepared to resort to force in pursuit of their own objectives?
The Troubles provided conclusive evidence on this issue. Ever since the 1916 uprising Irish Republicanism has considered violence to be a legitimate tool in the pursuit of its core objective of ending British rule and the creation of an independent 32 county socialist republic. By the early 1960s, however, the IRA had esentially been mothballed following their ineffective and poorly supported six year ‘Border Campaign’.
When the Troubles ignited in 1968/9, the organisation was hastily resuscitated to indulge in what was to become three decades of political violence – again portrayed as a legitimate route for pursuing British withdrawal. Rather than lead to British disengagement, however, the actions of republican paramilitaries during the Troubles instead led to Britain’s military presence and infrastructure being increased significantly in Ireland. And it also undermined the cause of a United Ireland – by contributing to the stark polarisation of society in the north, and a desire amongst many in the south to have little to do with the place.
By 1997 the IRA had accepted that it needed to change tact and declared a second and final ceasefire. Through the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin (the IRA’s political wing) committed republicanism to pursue its objectives through peaceful means instead, in what was again a de-facto admission of the failure of violence. The unfolding Peace Process also led to a number of further outcomes that likewise exhibited the failure of republican violence. The South removed its territorial claim over NI (Articles 2 and 3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann), which some felt had offered a degree of legitimacy to militant republicanism. And despite abstentionism and opposition to institutions of the British State being at the very core of republicanism, Sinn Féin took up seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly and publicly supported the new Police Service of Northern Ireland – both of which implicitly acknowledged the reality of partition. Since then leading figures from the party have also met and shook hands with members of the British monarchy, and as recently as April – whilst loyalists rioted in the streets – the Sinn Féin leadership was offering sincere condolences on the death of Prince Phillip. If you had told senior IRA figures in the 1970s or ’80s that their organisation would not only willingly end a three-decade-long campaign of violence without securing British withdrawal – but would do so to support a partitionist Assembly, an NI police force and amicable relations with the Royal Family, you would have been laughed at. Yet that is precisely what has happened. All of which proves that republicanism failed utterly in the task of advancing its core objectives through violence. This is obviously why they changed tact in the 1990s. After all – you don’t abandon a winning strategy.
The fact we don’t live in an independent 32 county Irish republic is therefore all the proof that is required that republican violence HASN’T worked in Northern Ireland. It is therefore patently false for unionists and loyalists to perpetuate the myth that ‘violence has worked for the other side’. And it is deeply dangerous – as it provides justification and cover for those within loyalist communities who are all too willing to use force to pursue their own political aims.