[NOTE: I once seriously considered retiring in Ireland. It was 2010 and, closing in on 70, I wondered if there were any peaceable options to the ongoing mess and mass shootings in the USA.
Initially, Ireland seemed to be several positives: ancestral ties (O’Brien was my mother’s maiden name); a similar language; a reported friendliness to writers; Quakers had been there for 300+ years; and after a decade of intensive peace work amid seemingly endless stupid wars, the fact that Ireland was neutral, not even in NATO, sounded good to me.
In December, the chance came to test this theory: a European anti-torture group flew me to France for an unexpected speaking gig; so I stretched the trip by several days to take in a personal tour of Ireland.
The Irish tourist agency made it easy: foreign visitors over 65, with a free pass on their light rail network, to see up close the glories of what they called “the land of a hundred thousand welcomes.”
It was a promising concept and a catchy slogan. But this time it was a big mistake.
The train rides delivered the closeup look: but what jumped out from the stubbornly green winter landscape were long rows of new houses: empty, abandoned, many only half-built, their roofless walls open to the cruel Atlantic winds.
From the turn of this century, Ireland had seen a decade-plus of amazing growth and prosperity, gaining the nickname of “The Celtic Tiger.” But this boom was smashed almost overnight in the international housing crash which had come on them (and us in the USA) like an endless hurricane two years earlier.
For generations, nay centuries, the Irish could justly blame most of their poverty on British oppression. But this time, much of the bloodletting was the work of crooked, lying domestic banks and their paid-for local politicians: Ireland’s wealthy had eaten their own, and got bailed out for it.
The ongoing impact was also clear inside the gently swaying cars: I rode several stretches at rush hour, and all the marketing talent in the north Atlantic couldn’t hide the despair and depression on so many of the faces crowded around me.
And there was, I sensed, more to it this time than just economic depression. For centuries, through the many times of trouble, the Irish had clung to one abiding place for solace: on their knees, with their rosaries, in the Catholic church. Up in County Mayo, the village of Knock had the proof of divine favor in a Vatican-approved 1879 appearance there by the Blessed Virgin Mary & other heavenly notables.
But almost simultaneous with the housing/bank crash, there came a series of utterly devastating reports exposing not only the long brutal history of clerical abuse, but a parallel record of connivance and coverups by a succession of bishops and earlier governments.
Watching them file past in the stations, it came to me that here was a people, my distant kin, who were still reeling from a double assault: as if a criminal burst through their collective front door, swinging a baseball vat. But when the victims sought shelter in their traditional sanctuary, its keepers turned out to be another criminal-infested gang, smeared with the blood of thousands of their children.
The last morning trip there dropped me at Cork, on the southwest coast. My mind a roiling jumble, I asked directions to the public library, walked to it and slid into a chair in a corner. I soon dropped into a nap; when I awoke an hour or so later, I had a raging fever. The rest of my days there were spent on the couch of a Friend who took me in on short notice, shivering and eating small oranges from Africa. By the time I climbed into the airliner at Dublin airport for home, any thoughts of emigration were left behind. The “Troubles” in the USA were no better (probably worse, actually), but they were familiar. Here in North Carolina is where my hand had been dealt, and was to be played out.
The fever cut short a plan to visit the North. This meant I missed out on the one big piece of good news Ireland had to offer then, and now: the actual making of peace after so many years of sectarian bloodshed. Because this was achieved in real life, their peace is untidy and vulnerable. But as Gwynne Dyer notes, its endurance is a badly needed sign of hope (and its fragility a warning) for other lands suffering from similar unrest, such as our own.]
Gwynne Dyer · Columnist | April 11, 2023
U.S. President Joe Biden is visiting Ireland this week to celebrate an anniversary that almost didn’t happen. It’s the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that ended 30 years of killing in Northern Ireland, but it almost unravelled this year.
The actual anniversary is April 10 and Biden will be in Northern Ireland on April 11-12.
The Troubles saw more than 3,000 people killed in assassinations, ambushes and bombings as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) waged a guerilla and terrorist war against the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland and the British army, seeking to unite the province with the Catholic-majority Republic of Ireland to the south.
Eventually, the two sides fought each other to a standstill and a 1994 ceasefire was followed four years later by the Good Friday Agreement, an intricate structure of balanced concessions, compulsory power-sharing and, of course, amnesties for many people who had done terrible things.
The Agreement was guaranteed by the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the European Union, to which both countries then belonged. And, for the next quarter-century, Northern Ireland, with just under two million people, about half-Protestant, half-Catholic, enjoyed both peace and a flourishing economy.
The secret of its success was the ultra-open border it created between the British-ruled province and the Irish Republic.
Border controls were being dismantled between many EU members, but even the signposts disappeared along the 500-kilometre frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The only evidence that you had crossed from one country to another was that the speed signs changed from miles per hour to kilometres per hour.
Catholic nationalists dreaming of a united Ireland could live their lives as if it were true and even claim Irish passports. Protestant loyalists could still fly the Union Jack and pretend that nothing important had changed.
The British army was withdrawn from Northern Ireland, a new non-sectarian police force was created and most people lived more or less happily ever after. Unfortunately, this agreeable compromise depended critically on the invisibility of the virtual border, so, when Brexit came along in 2016, the whole deal was undermined.
With nationalism resurgent everywhere and the British empire gone, an outbreak of English nationalism was quite likely and the obvious target for it was the European Union. An ambitious journalist named Boris Johnson put himself at the head of the Brexit (‘British exit’ from the EU) cause, hoping it would make him prime minister — and lo, in 2019, it did!
Johnson neither knew nor cared anything about Irish politics and diplomacy, but some kind of real border with the Republic of Ireland had to reappear if the U.K. left the EU. He denied this fact as long as he could, but, in 2019, he signed a withdrawal agreement that put the U.K.-EU border in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
This infuriated the Northern Irish loyalists, who believed they were becoming second-class British citizens. It hugely encouraged the more militant nationalists among the Catholic population, who imagined that it was the last step before the inevitable unification of all Ireland.
And just coincidentally, the 2021 census revealed that Catholics have finally become a narrow majority of Northern Ireland’s population. So, the ancient conflict began to reawaken from its two-decade nap.
Johnson, having lied about the meaning of the treaty with the EU for two years, then threatened to tear it up, but his own Conservative Party dumped him last July over his incessant lying on this and other subjects. After the brief, but deranged, prime ministership of Liz Truss, the relatively calm and competent Rishi Sunak took over in London in October.
Sunak negotiated a deal with the EU in February that eases the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., but leaves the border in the Irish Sea. Maybe that will lull the monster back to sleep — and maybe not.
There is still no democratically elected government in Northern Ireland because the biggest loyalist party is boycotting the Assembly until the border in the Irish Sea is removed. But, put it back on land, and the nationalists will revolt.
The hard men on both sides are gaining influence and the next government in the Republic of Ireland, for the first time ever, is likely to be led by Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA.
Many good people are striving to head off a collapse of the agreement and they will probably succeed. But it’s hardly surprising that Joe Biden, of Irish Catholic descent, is starting his Irish visit in Belfast, in Northern Ireland — and that he is not planning to attend the coronation of King Charles III in London next month.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “The Shortest History of War.”