The power-sharing agreement between former IRA militant Gerry Adams and the fiery Protestant politician Ian Paisley on March 26 is an historic moment. Both sides have abjured their confrontationist rhetoric and their recourse to violence. The Sinn Féin, representing the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, and Democratic Unionist Party, representing the Protestant majority, have swallowed their pride and agreed to cooperate. Sinn Féin has abandoned its goal of unifying Ireland by force of arms and the Unionists have abandoned their insistence on Protestant dominance.
It might be the end of a 30-year-old war, a 400-year-old war or an 800-year-old war. But whichever it is, it was about as muddled an end as you will find in many a war, as far as winners and losers are concerned.
In Ireland we are all winners -– because it is over -– and we are all losers because it should never have started in the first place. Dr Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, yesterday’s men par excellence, finally met and agreed to let the forces of normal -– well, fairly normal – political life fall into place in the six Ulster counties which make up the political entity of Northern Ireland.
Some would say it all began a little over 800 years ago in the distant feudal past when a disgruntled king of an Irish province asked Henry II of England to help him in his row with one of this neighbours. Others might put the key date at exactly 400 years ago when the leaders of the last great rebellion of Gaelic and Catholic Ireland came to an end with the flight of its leaders from the shores of Donegal. It was essentially a tragic event, recorded in Irish history as the Flight of the Earls. It is not a little ironic that this event is being commemorated nationally in Ireland this very year. For others it is a 30-year war of unfinished business left over after the Anglo Irish settlement of 1922.
Whatever it was, Irishmen on both sides of the so-called “Border”, Irishmen across the Irish Sea, English, Scottish and Welshmen on either side of the same sea (the largest single group of non Irish-born residents in the Republic of Ireland are British) have longed for this peace. They do not mind too much that it came in the end, not with a bang but with a whimper. Irish peace comes better this way.
Now ordinary men and women can get down to work and think about the ordinary needs of normal people. Dr Paisley, with his phantom-dread of a united Ireland ruled from Rome, and Gerry Adams, with his equally grotesque myth of a tyrannical British State occupying the sacred land of Ireland and oppressing its innocent people, can now fade into the shadowy past where they belong.
Nevertheless, some gratitude is owing to them in their later incarnations: they helped create two monsters but in the end they came good and have successfully chained them up again. Hopefully they will stay there. Real and unqualified credit, however, must go to the Prime Ministers of the two states which have had to suffer the consequences of the terror unleashed by these two monsters on their respective island jurisdictions -– UK PM Tony Blair and the Irish PM Bertie Aherne. Both should surely be high on any shortlist of contenders for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Their efforts have not only been supremely skilful but also truly heroic.
The business of containing death-inflicting terror on the island of Ireland can now be left behind. Sadly for Britain, no sooner has one source of terror gone than another has raised its ugly head in the form of Islamic extremism. However, the peoples of these two islands can now get together again to pursue their common economic interests and the business of life, sharing their common heritage of language and literature, institutions and laws, and in the mutual enjoyment of their glorious differences -– sport, music, native languages and customs.
While the undoubted event of the week was that “Meeting”, there were a few other events which seemed to contain a not-unrelated symbolic significance, pointing to the reality of our shared culture. The first was the investiture -– if that is the right word -– of Bono of U2 with a knighthood by Her Majesty the Queen of England. (In Ireland, if you say “the Queen”, some will ask you, “which queen?”)
For the other event we have to go all the way across the Atlantic and down to the shores of the Caribbean. There, in Guyana, the English cricket team faced the Irish (that is, island of Ireland) cricket team in the World Cup. Unsurprisingly England won -– although as one of Ireland’s first cricket players, the Duke of Wellington, famously said of the Battle of Waterloo, it might have been “a damn close run thing”.
The irony and symbolic significance of the event runs right through it. The Irish team consists of a mixture of native-born Irishmen and British Commonwealth citizens living and working in Ireland, while the English team consists of native-born Englishmen, not a few from the same Commonwealth and probably the best cricketer Ireland has ever produced -– well, at least since the Duke of Wellington -– Irishman Edmund Joyce.
If all that doesn’t give us a glorious confusion of identity to rejoice in what will? But it is not confusion. It is what we are that matters and gives us our true identity. The truth is that what the people of these two islands have in common far outweighs our differences -– differences about which we sometimes share a joke but which in the end we really value. Narrow nationalistic preoccupations with what we think we were, should be or might have been is -– as sad experience shows -– the stuff of poison cocktails.
Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin.