Fifty years on, Northern Ireland is unsettled once more

There are troubling parallels between conditions 50 years ago and the situation now

Fifty years ago Northern Ireland was facing into an uncertain future with no notion of the horror ahead. Today there is no doubt the North is facing into another uncertain future.

August 1969 is viewed as the month when the powder keg exploded and the Troubles began in earnest. In the previous year there had been demonstrations and some unrest around the push for badly needed civil rights such as fair voting, jobs and housing.

But amid the turbulence there was a certain optimism, excitement and innocence about a movement that gelled with a global period of social change.

The Battle of the Bogside marked a darkening change. There was the rioting in Derry, the violence and deaths in Belfast, the Royal Ulster Constabulary unable to cope and the unionist Stormont regime clueless how to deal with the escalating mayhem. Finally the British army was introduced to bring order, the soldiers at first welcomed by Catholics in Derry's Bogside. That did not last long, a sort of calm before a great storm.


The conditions were created for the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries to re-enter the stage, and for the British army and RUC to act – not always properly – in trying to dampen the violence.

In 1969 there were 18 deaths. Just three years later, the worst year of the Troubles, there were very close to 500 killings and thousands more maimings and injuries.

That was the past. What of the future, of the next 50 years? What happens in the coming few years will colour how the next five decades unfold. The big three interlinked tests are Brexit, the mainly Sinn Féin push for a referendum on a united Ireland, and making Stormont work.

A deadly battle of bluff and counter-bluff is being waged between Dublin and Brussels on one side, and Boris Johnson and the new Tory government and the Brexiteers on the other, over the backstop. How and if that is going to be resolved is unclear. There are real fears of a crash-out Brexit and of the economic stresses that would cause. Will there be a British general election, or a new referendum?

The Brexit effect

The UK quitting the EU without some sort of deal will have consequences that go beyond the economic. The Belfast Agreement is a delicate structure that respected the union and allowed the nationalist dimension to be reflected through the North-South bodies and the North-South Ministerial Council. A largely unspoken part of that arrangement was the UK's membership of the EU, which allowed nationalism quietly see there was a wider cross-sovereignty element to their aspiration that kept them satisfied. Taking away Europe from that equation will shift the careful Dublin-Brussels-London balance and cause nationalist resentment.

There is also the huge matter of whether Brexit, if it goes ahead, will require checks at or near the Border in order to protect the EU single market. There have been warnings a hard border could result in a return to violence, despite Dublin and London saying they don’t want any Border posts. If republican violence kicks off there is an obvious danger loyalists will be drawn into the circle of trouble.

Recently, Fianna Fáil senator Mark Daly published a report on unionist attitudes to a united Ireland in which 14 members of a loyalist flute band in Co Derry were asked how they would react if Northern Ireland voted by the narrowest of majorities for a united Ireland.

None of them said they would accept the democratic decision peacefully, while 57 per cent said they would “support resistance by physical force and protest”.

In such an eventuality there will be plenty of old-style purist republicans and loyalists to egg the young people on.

Seamus Mallon has warned of the dangers of a 50 per cent plus one vote for unity. That has annoyed some constitutional nationalists who make the point that that's the way democracy works. And that is fair enough, but who can gainsay Mallon's contention that a "premature Border poll may deliver a narrow and completely unworkable majority for unity?"

Yet, there is unmistakable demographic change that down the line could lead to some form of unity or agreed Ireland. How to get there while avoiding agitation is one of the great and important conundrums to be resolved by this generation of politicians – and by the public they serve.

Unsettled society

For that to have a chance of happening peacefully you need a settled society. But Northern Ireland is far from settled.

A reinstated and functioning Northern Executive and Assembly would assist the goal of harmony, but what are the odds of that happening when, despite all the British and Irish urgings, the DUP and Sinn Féin just can’t go that extra distance to get the agreement over the line?

Here one must always be conscious the DUP could miss the boat by trying to further exploit its links with the Tories, or that Sinn Féin may prefer to let the DUP stew in the current mess and decide to a play a much longer game.

Both parties insist they are genuine in trying to strike a deal. There was a deal done in February last year between the DUP and Sinn Féin but it collapsed because Arlene Foster and her senior colleagues could not sell to party grass roots, in a raft of linked cultural and identity legislation, an Irish-language Act, which in the grand scheme of things is not a big issue to concede.

There were a lot of misjudgments by the DUP: the multimillion pound calamity of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme; and then the smaller niggly, petty things such as DUP Ministers withdrawing an Irish-language grant to children, and changing the name of a fishery protection vessel from Banríon Uladh to Queen of Ulster – and that’s not to mention the fury triggered by Foster with her comment in respect of Sinn Féin and the Irish language that “if you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more”.

The anger Foster’s crocodile remark prompted among nationalists, including among many middle-class Catholics who had been decidedly small-n in their nationalism, created an electoral windfall for Sinn Féin, bringing them to fewer than 1,200 votes behind the DUP in the 2017 Assembly elections.

If nationalists could get wired over such a simple comment, how agitated could they get if their own sense of identity were to be diminished by Brexit?

Problems of symbolism work the other way too. Think of the protests and disorder when Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the British union flag would fly over City Hall. More recently there is the controversy over a Belfast-based civil servant purportedly getting £10,000 in compensation because he objected to having to pass a portrait of Queen Elizabeth at work.

DUP complaint

One of the big issues for the DUP in the current talks is their complaint that in nationalist-dominated councils west of the Bann, vestiges of British symbolism are being excised, leading to the claim that nationalists don’t want a unionist or Protestant about the place.

The fact is that there are two tribes in Northern Ireland, which adds to the difficulties of understanding and communication. Unionists generally are straight-talkers, flintier people; nationalists more discursive, more softer limestone. Not enough attention is paid to that difference between Planter and Gael.

Good manners and a willingness to walk a mile in the other person’s moccasins would help. A reasonable degree of political concord would positively feed into the rest of society and perhaps allow Brexit to at least be coped with.

Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill have not risen to that examination. A poor recent series of northern secretaries didn’t help. And that difficulty is compounded by the fact that London and Britain are so consumed by Brexit that they have little time for our problems.

It has been mentioned here before that the best times in Northern Ireland are when people think, speak and act generously. That’s been absent for too long.

Northern Ireland had that for a period when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were in charge, and to a degree also when Peter Robinson took over from Paisley. There was an expectation and confidence that Foster and O'Neill would continue that fruitful and amicable engagement but it wasn't to be.

Amid the perpetually recurring divisive arguments there is a public craving for a return to the hope that existed before. The DUP and Sinn Féin acknowledged that fact during the European and local elections in May. The message candidates consistently got on the door was to get back into government at Stormont.

Disrespected nationalists

The discord and the DUP refusal to move on issues such as the Irish language has helped created the civic nationalism movement in Northern Ireland and a consequent greater concentration on a united Ireland. That isn’t going away but if Foster could recognise the community desire for an end to hostilities then perhaps the push for a Border poll could become softer-focused.

The DUP leader doesn't seem to have noticed that there is nationalist goodwill out there. After the murder of young journalist Lyra McKee, Foster went into the republican heartland of Creggan in Derry to join a political and community demonstration against that New IRA murder. She was warmly and genuinely applauded for so doing by local people. She got the same reception when she attended the funeral of Martin McGuinness.

Nationalists might want to see a united Ireland some time, but more particularly they want a society comfortable in itself. The message perhaps is that they would prefer to let those issues be argued and debated on the margins in the years ahead and let normal life proceed.

It is when nationalists feel disrespected that they get riled and life gets troublesome – that need for manners again. Some flinty-edged unionist politicians just can’t learn that lesson.

The urgent, major test is for politicians to learn from 1969. One must guard against exaggeration and self-fulfilling prophecies but equally the comparisons with 50 years ago must not be ignored. There are dangers.

The issues of Brexit and the Border poll probably could be managed if a good-hearted form of devolution was restored. That seems key.

As one DUP source said, “We could have the Executive and Assembly back but what’s the good of that if every day is the Twelfth of July or every day is united Ireland day. We need something transformative that will last.”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times