Sinn Féin, the Irish republican political party, held a press conference Sunday with its leader, Gerry Adams, who had just been released from police custody after four days of questioning about a long-unsolved murder. The location of the event, Belfast's Balmoral Hotel, dislodged a few uncomfortable memories for me about the Northern Ireland Troubles.
My father worked as a bartender in the hotel, then called the Greenan Lodge, when I was a child. He lost his job when the Irish Republican Army blew the place up. He got another job working nights in the Europa Hotel, which went on to become the most-bombed hotel in Europe, before finally giving up one night. One bomb too many. He quit working. I say this without an ounce of bitterness—as a very young child, I was more affected by my father working nights and sleeping days than by the conflict I would come to see as I aged—but the press conference brought home to me just how much things have changed in recent years. And how much they haven't.
Adams was arrested in connection with Jean McConville's murder 42 years ago. An international media circus ensued, as it does whenever the Troubles resurface. Sinn Féin accused police of attempting to harm the party’s prospects in European Parliament elections due just three weeks later, particularly across the border in the Irish Republic, where Adams's left-wing party has been making remarkable gains since the 2008 economic crisis. There were even claims that the wheels could come off Northern Ireland’s rickety peace bandwagon.
Gerry Adams said at the press conference that the IRA, the illegal armed group his party once represented, has gone away and isn’t coming back. People in Northern Ireland aren’t going back to war either. Pro-British loyalists will continue to riot and make incoherent complaints about British culture being under attack. Dissident republicans will continue to take pot shots at the police, but they have the support and operational capacity of a street gang, not an army. Commentators on Irish affairs talk a lot about the potential for instability, but what they rarely mention is that neither the IRA nor loyalists operated in a vacuum. The truth is that there was an awful lot of turning of blind eyes and passive support. Despite any fire-and-brimstone proclamations that might be made today, or the annual street riots, even passive support for armed violence has dissipated. This is a real change. At the height of the conflict, people who would otherwise have denounced violence said nothing, buckling under the pressure of living in a dismal unreality, partly inured to it all but also partly committing extraordinary feats of casuistry.
Can you blame them? When I was a little child, soldiers pointed their guns at me as I walked to school. I still remember the introduction of the SA80 assault rifle and how it was blandly talked about by adults as a defective weapon. What child should know the name of materiel? My childhood barber, a man called Sean Hughes, was killed by loyalists. One day in 1993 they walked into his salon and opened fire. He was an easy target during a period of so-called “tit-for-tat” killings when loyalists would respond to IRA killings of policemen and soldiers by shooting random Catholics. Even for the luckiest of us, like me, life in Northern Ireland was abnormal.
The abduction, torture, murder, and secret burial of McConville occurred before I was born, but in recent years it has taken on a totemic status in Northern Ireland’s post-conflict arguments. It’s not hard to see why: a widowed mother of ten, Protestant but expelled from her home for having the temerity to marry a Catholic, met a terrible fate at the hands not just of the IRA but of her new neighbors—or so it’s now believed—who accused her of being a British army informant. But McConville was just one of 497 people killed in the conflict in 1972. Over 3,500 people were killed in the fighting that raged from 1969 to 1997.
By the mid-1990s the vast majority of people were very, very tired and wanted it all to stop, even if no political progress could be made. There was genuine euphoria when the IRA ceasefire took effect in 1994 and genuine sadness when it was broken with the Canary Wharf bombing in 1996. A year later the euphoria returned when a new ceasefire was declared, only to intensify with the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. In retrospect the celebration of peace seems absurd. Today the feeling is one of irritation and resignation. The appetite for further violence has never returned, though.
I went to school with the children of men who had been jailed. My family lived in the republican Upper Falls district of Belfast and I attended a Catholic primary school and, later, a non fee-paying grammar school, also Catholic. This was close to Milltown Cemetery, where loyalist Michael Stone killed three mourners at the funeral of three IRA members assassinated in Gibraltar by the British army. Stone had thrown hand grenades. I witnessed this from my bedroom window, albeit distantly and with the naked eye, or naked ear to be precise.
As I recall it, I’d been kept home from school because my parents feared violence, but it was a long time ago and I was a child. I cannot be entirely sure; perhaps school was just off that day. A few days later, at the funeral of those murdered by Stone, a mob dragged two plain-clothed British soldiers out of a car and murdered them. I remember asking my classmates how anyone knew they were soldiers. I never got an answer. News footage of both sets of murders can be found online—if you have a strong enough stomach.
I don’t know what anyone can do for the McConville family, whose lives have been ripped apart to a degree I can't comprehend. But the prospect of seeing old men on trial, whether British army or IRA, does not appeal to me. Perhaps I am Pollyannaish and suffer from a kind of middle-class detachment (my family was poor, financially ruined by the conflict, but retained its petit bourgeois worldview), but letting go of the past seems to me a better option than reliving it. Then again, it’s not for me—someone who survived the Troubles unscathed, other than perhaps the development of an overly keen sense of danger and a chip on my shoulder—to tell the relatives of murdered people they can’t have justice. I have no desire to tell the grieving to buck up.
Gerry Adams says he was never a member of the IRA, let alone a member of its ruling army council. Few believe him, and he knows that few believe him, but the question only comes up in the context of other political disputes. Opponents, north and south of the border, scoring points against his growing party. After Adams was arrested, a mural was painted in Belfast hailing him a peacemaker and visionary, cueing much guffawing. It’s not so long ago that he was feted as such by the American, Irish and even British governments. He cuts a grubby figure today, but it is undeniable that he brought the IRA campaign to an end by convincing Irish republicans to support the Belfast Agreement and pursue their goal of Irish unification by the ballot box alone.
Some say justice must be done at any cost, but everyone has their own idea on how it should be meted out. Northern Ireland’s attorney general was roundly slapped down last year for suggesting there should be an end to historic prosecutions. Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, the former U.S. diplomat who's helped mediate the all-party talks, suggests a special historical investigations unit be formed, one which will choose to prosecute some cases and not others. Sinn Féin, for its part, wants to set up a truth and reconciliation commission, one that would apply to actors on all sides, republican, loyalist and British state. There is little reason to believe this will ever happen. Certainly the British government isn't keen on the idea. Besides, how would it work? South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission occurred in the context of a decisive victory by the black majority over their former white rulers. In Northern Ireland there was no victory, merely a conflict over national sovereignty that has been suspended in amber.
We call it power-sharing, but power-sharing is not what happens in Northern Ireland today. "Division of power" would be a more accurate description. Even as the new political class becomes bound together by the “consociational” constitutional arrangements that carve up Northern Ireland on the basis of communal affiliation—Irish republican or British unionist—those on the ground are pushed ever further apart, squabbling over territory and nonsense like flags and parades, while the middle-class tuts and tries to ignore it all. This is the bitterest irony of the peace process. For all its talk of inclusivity and shared futures, all that is shared are demands for government funds. The ruling unity government is only united in that there is no official opposition. The two sides, literally and metaphorically, build monuments to their fallen comrades and can do so because the other side is never meant to see their “culture”—and they rarely do, except perhaps during the marching season when Protestant fraternal organizations parade the streets, and even that annual conflagration now has a theatrical feel.
Sinn Féin frequently equates opposition to its party, whether from commentators, political rivals or disgruntled ex-IRA members, with opposition to peace. In some cases, this is justified. There are plenty of people who opposed the peace process from day one, many on the basis that Sinn Féin were simply not to be tolerated at all. But the accusation is mostly nonsense. Equating opposition to Sinn Féin with being opposed to peace is not only absurd, it smacks of desperation and an inability to deal with dissent. It also misreads the mood on the streets. Few in the republican heartland of west Belfast where I grew up would have been pleased to see Gerry Adams arrested, and a good proportion probably accept Sinn Féin’s claims of a conspiracy against it, but no one was going to go back to war over Adams’s arrest—or over anything else.
Today, when violence flares I write about it. I’m a reporter. There is nothing else to be done. It’s easier than you might think to be dispassionate about it all. Perhaps I was so sheltered from the worst of it by my parents that I don’t feel it as viscerally as others. Or perhaps it's because I know that peace, such as it is in Northern Ireland, is here to stay.
Jason Walsh is the Ireland correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.