When the Queen met Martin
By GK Rao
04th July 2012 12:48 PM
When Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth eyed each other and shook hands on June 27, it was a moment of history. It was formal acknowledgement of the fact that peace has finally broken out in Northern Ireland, so long the theatre of a bitter, sectarian and nationalist conflict that has raged intermittently for nearly a century. For outsiders the significance may be a little hard to grasp, but people in the British Isles understood it immediately. For almost the first time, the principals (in the case of UK, the Crown) met face to face and each acknowledged the other.
In another time, even as recent as 50 years ago, McGuinness might have been hanged as a rebel and traitor to the Crown. The mediaeval punishment for treason was truly fearsome, disembowelment while alive, followed by decapitation. That was the fate of Sir William Wallace, the Scottish patriot (in England’s eyes a traitor) in the 13th century. In today’s kindlier world, Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister and former commander of the Irish Republican Army, which has much innocent blood on its hands, is received by the Queen of Britain as an equal.
But this is not the only measure of change. Fifteen years ago such a scene would have been inconceivable. But after years of patient negotiation by US Senator George Mitchell backed by Washington, the accord over Northern Ireland, so long deadlocked over Catholic and Protestant extremists, became reality on Good Friday, April 1998.
To understand the extraordinary bitterness that has characterised Anglo-Irish relations it is necessary to remember that Ireland is England’s (or Britain’s) oldest colony, although English administrators never saw it as that. For a long time they regarded it merely as an unruly province populated by unschooled savages. That was a serious mistake born of ignorance coupled with imperial arrogance. By the time the English took control of the Emerald Isle they were the strongest power in the British Isles. Ireland, however, had by far the older culture.
It is perhaps Ireland’s misfortune that it never came under the rule of a single prince or king in its early years. Irish and British history may have been different then. The island remained a chaos of kinglets and chieftains who were unable to impose any central order. That made it an easy prey for an ambitious outsider such as England. But Ireland was also one of the first outposts of Latin, and especially Christian, culture.
So-called Celtic Christianity, a regional variation that nearly became a distinct Church on its own, much like the Greek Orthodox or the Syriac Church, was born in these parts well before there was anything like England or the English language. Indeed, Ireland was the home of Latin in the British Isles for a long time. The Celtic languages held sway and English was, in the words of Robert Graves, “a despised vernacular”.
All this was, of course, a long time ago, well before the Norman invasions of 1066, and so much of it is forgotten. But it is instructive to remember that Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Norman (it is hard to separate the two) supremacy was preceded by a period of Celtic influence that had nothing to do with political hegemony.
Ireland remained on the fringes of English consciousness until Henry VIII (in 1542) declared himself King of Ireland. Until then, English monarch had styled themselves only as Lord of Ireland. But Irish travails started with the ascension of the Protestant Oliver Cromwell. With Cromwell and the Protestants triumphant in the English civil war (1642-1649) Ireland became victim of an apartheid that stripped the Catholic majority of most of its civil rights, including the right to sit in Parliament. Religious allegiance to Rome or London became a legal way of deciding loyalty to the Irish king and Parliament.
This stark discrimination over the next two centuries produced deep divisions, with the minority Protestants on top and Catholics at the bottom. It created a legacy of mistrust and resentment that sometimes erupted into open rebellion, suppressed by a heavy hand. The unreasoning hatreds that it spawned are evident even today to an outsider visiting Belfast, ostensibly at peace following the accord. Indeed, as a wag put it, in Belfast if you say you’re a Hindu, the next inevitable question will be, Protestant or Catholic? So the handshake does not signal an end to the Irish embitterment, but it probably does mark a new beginning
When Ireland became independent in 1921 as the Irish Free State, the British government split it into two, a larger, southern part comprising the new state, and a smaller northern one comprising Ulster or Northern Ireland to remain under Britain. The reason was that Ulster was where the country’s Protestant mostly lived, and they feared for their future in an overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland. The formal start of the Troubles is dated to 1922, but the ultra-violent Catholic-Protestant conflict erupted much later. There is no agreement on the exact date, but the middle of the Sixties is when the violence began to spiral into outright anarchy as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Catholic) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (Protestant) faced off, with the British army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary caught somewhere in between. On May 21, 1966, the UVF declared, “We declare war against the IRA and its splinter groups. Known IRA men will be executed mercilessly.”
The IRA responded in kind, and over the next three decades the two fought a vicious, tit-for-tat battle, attacking unarmed civilians and police and soldiers (this was mostly the IRA) in a campaign that led to thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of casualties, besides bringing Northern Ireland to the brink of economic ruin. Peace was finally reached in 1998 through the mediation of US Senator George Mitchell, backed by the Clinton administration, in the Good Friday accord.
The Irish Republican Army (Óglaigh na hÉireann) was descended from the Irish Republican Brotherhood, established on November 25, 1913 which staged the Easter Rising in April 1916. In 1919 the Irish Republic proclaimed during the Easter Rising was formally established by an elected assembly and the Irish Volunteers were recognised as its legitimate army. Thereafter, the IRA waged a guerrilla campaign against British rule in Ireland in the 1919–21 Irish War of Independence.
Following the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which ended the War of Independence, a split occurred within the IRA. Members who supported the treaty formed the Irish National Army founded by IRA leader Michael Collins. Much of the IRA was opposed to the treaty. The anti-treaty IRA fought a civil war with their former comrades in 1922–23, with the intention of creating a fully independent all-Ireland republic.
Having lost the civil war, this group remained in existence, with the intention of overthrowing both the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland and achieving the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916.
The Provisional Irish Republican Army, a splinter group, emerged in 1969 following a split in the IRA. It was the Provos who were responsible for the mayhem on the Catholic side primarily in Northern Ireland but also in England and mainland Europe, causing the deaths of around 1,800 people including the Duke of Mountbatten, the Queen’s uncle.
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