The myth of the gunman

February 15, 1996|By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON -- The irony is that if it weren't for the Irish Republican Army, Ireland would be effectively united by now.

Early indications are that the IRA broke the cease-fire because it was on the brink of splitting internally. The ''hard men'' who were talked into declaring a unilateral cease-fire in late 1994 had lost faith in their colleagues' promises that this tactic would finally bring the organization recognition as an equal negotiating partner in Irish affairs.

Facing a choice between internal division and renewed war, the IRA followed its instincts and went back to bombs. It has lost much of its remaining popular support by breaking the peace, but it still has enough dedicated ''soldiers'' to operate at a low level both in England and in Northern Ireland for many years to come.

What it cannot do is escape the basic paradox of its existence. It is an organization consecrated to the cause of a united Ireland -- and it has become the greatest obstacle to the realization of that goal.

Imagine for a moment that the IRA had not exploited the civil-rights struggle of the late '60s in Northern Ireland to re-launch an armed struggle against ''British occupation.''

The mistreatment of the Roman Catholic minority in the North by the Protestant majority would have been ended even more quickly if the Protestants had not been able to wrap themselves in the British flag. And in 1973, both the United Kingdom and Ireland joined the Common Market (now the European Union).

If there had been no war

If there had been no war in Northern Ireland, by now there would now have been 23 years of completely open borders between the Irish Republic and the North. Hundreds of thousands of people would have moved from the Republic to the North and vice versa. All kinds of joint business ventures would have sprung up, and the old tribal mistrust between Catholics and Protestants would have been greatly eroded. There might still be a sign marking the border on the road between Dublin and Belfast, but there would be no checkpoint, no delays and little sense that there are two separate countries on the island of Ireland. It would, in fact, be little different from crossing the border between England and Wales.

Thanks to the IRA, things are a bit different. More than 3,000 people are dead, and the inter-Irish border is one of the most heavily guarded in Europe. Mistrust between the two communities in Northern Ireland has never been greater, and the Protestant majority in the North still believes (falsely) that the Irish Republic is a monolithic Catholic juggernaut that would crush them if they abandoned their British ties.

Saboteurs of unity

You couldn't have done a more effective job of sabotaging Irish unity if you wanted to. So why does the IRA persist with such a spectacularly unsuccessful strategy?

Seventy-five years ago the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, writing about the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, penned the lines that have cursed Ireland ever since.

I write it out in a verse --

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

MacDonagh and MacBride and Connolly and Pearse were among the couple of hundred Irish nationalists who seized several central Dublin buildings during the First World War, hoping all of Ireland would follow them in revolt against British rule. But they died under British cannon fire or were hanged afterward, and there was no mass uprising.

Instead, the ''gunman'' was canonized in Irish literature and mythology as the epitome of romantic nationalism. ''A terrible beauty is born,'' said Yeats, but the aftermath was much more terrible than beautiful.

By 1921 the parts of Ireland with a Catholic majority had won independence from Britain. But the gunmen of the IRA then fought a two-year civil war against their own government for making a deal that did not force London to compel the Protestants of the north to accept Dublin's rule, too.

The IRA had been illegal in the Irish Republic ever since, but the myth of the gunman still has a powerful grip on many Irish minds.

In the North, where the Catholic minority had no prospect of ever winning its goal of unification with the Catholic south by democratic means, its appeal was particularly seductive. But the results have been -- well, terrible.

After 25 years of ''armed struggle,'' the IRA seemed to reach that conclusion itself in 1994. It was being contained at a cost in money and lives that Britain could easily go on paying forever, and there was no reason to believe that would change. So a unilateral cease-fire at least offered it some political credit.

Those brought up in the mythology of the gunman despise such crass political calculations, and for the moment they have won over their IRA colleagues. But the new violence may not last very long, and it certainly isn't going to get them anywhere.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian whose columns appear in 30 countries.

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