The Irish Question: A British Problem

A man walks past an IRA wall mural in Ardoyne, north Belfast, 2015. (Cathal McNaughton/Courtesy Reuters)

The current cycle of conflict in Northern Ireland began over 11 years ago. As a practicing politician in Northern Ireland throughout that period, I have taken a particular interest while traveling abroad in following the world media coverage of the problem. For the most part, this has been a chronicle of atrocities reported spasmodically from London or by "firemen" visiting from London. It has struck me that, for the outside observer, it must have been difficult during these years to avoid the impression that Northern Ireland was hopelessly sunk in incoherence and its people the victims of a particularly opaque political pathology. There have, it is true, been a few brief interludes when some measure of clarity seemed to take hold, only to be swept away in the inevitable swirling clouds of violence, intransigence and misery-in other words, the normal political climate.

The people of Northern Ireland, however divided, share a keen awareness of the bewilderment of outsiders, which occasionally finds expression in the mock-heroic couplets of the street: "To Hell with the future and long live the past/May God in His mercy look down on Belfast."

The cynicism and dismissiveness of the Irish style (Churchill's Dunkirk exhortation, "The situation is serious but not desperate," is said to have evoked the somewhat bleary comment from an Irish listener, "Over here the situation is always desperate but never serious") often conceal, as the readers of Swift and Joyce know well, a quite serious desperation. Nevertheless, in its superficial manifestation the hopeless wit of the people proved congenial to those who are currently responsible for the affairs of Northern Ireland, and who, of all "outside" observers, often seem the most puzzled and wearied by its problem, i.e., the British political establishment. This is nothing new. It was, in fact, Churchill, speaking in the House of Commons in 1922, who most eloquently caught this feeling of his colleagues, then and since:

Then came the Great War. . . . Every institution, almost, in the world was strained.

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