Northern Ireland: 1968 and now

1968 was a momentous year around the world and there are all sorts of events marking its 50th anniversary. So, earlier this week, I was at the British Library in London for a talk sponsored by the Political Studies Association when the speaker was Bernadette McAliskey (nee Devlin).  She came to fame with the outbreak of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland in 1968 and became the then youngest ever Member of Parliament the next year.

I have a particular interest in this period and in this conflict. In 1969, the week after the troops went onto the streets in Northern Ireland, as a then university student I went over there for a week to walk the streets of Belfast and Londonderry to see for myself what was happening. Some years, later, I became professionally involved in the Northern Ireland situation when I worked at the House of Commons (1972-1974) and the Northern Ireland Office (1974-1976) for Meryln Rees, Opposition Frontbencher and then Secretary of State.

Bernadette McAliskey spoke without a text and seemingly without even notes in a long, fluent and passionate address. She has clearly given this speech before but in slightly different versions. It was a nuanced address and I want to be careful that I do not misrepresent her.

She was clearly against the campaigns of violence on both sides: “War doesn’t work”. But she was critical of the Good Friday Agreement: “We lied to win the peace”. She is a socialist and a republican and takes a class approach to politics, so she asserted: “There is not a nationalist bone in my body”.

She said that the terms of the eventual settlement were essentially available in 1972 (I agree) and that she could not understand why it took almost 30 years of war and almost 4,000 deaths for agreement to be reached (I think I do).

In my view, in 1972 the IRA could not have been persuaded to lay down their guns because they believed – and the Troops Out Movement in Britain encouraged them in this fantasy – that, with sufficient violence, Britain would give up on Northern Ireland, In 1974, the IRA somehow believed – on no credible basis – that a Labour Goverment would be willing to agree to a united Ireland. Sadly it took a long time for them to see that violence was not going to achieve their aims.

As a socialist, Bernadette McAliskey is deeply critical of the whole concept of the European Union but she voted remain (I believe) because it was best for the people of Ireland.

She made two forecasts: that Britain would leave the EU without an agreed deal for Brexit and that, in the face of such a hard departure, the people of Northern Ireland would find a way to vote themselves into a united Ireland.  Personally I do not believe that either event will happen. If Brexit does take place, there will be a deal – however messy and however transitional – and a way will be found to minimise the complications on the Northern Ireland/Republic border. The unification of Ireland is nowhere near.


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