The Irish author Fintan O’Toole has drawn attention to a sad fact of British politics brought to light by Brexit. Not only do the British—meaning mostly the English—public not care about Ireland, but they hardly concern themselves with Northern Ireland, including the population there who consider themselves British. Brexit was conceived and propagated as if Ireland and its people did not exist. Now we see, more clearly than before the 2016 referendum, that Britain’s EU membership formed the foundation for the peace and stability that have prevailed since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, an accord that settled the lengthiest civil strife in Ireland’s history.
While Britain was in the EU, questions of identity that had been murderously divisive faded into the background. Protestant unionists could live fully within a British world, Catholic nationalists within an Irish one. (Regardless of heritage, the Northern Irish can receive passports from both the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland.) But now that Britain is out of the EU, there has to be a border between it and the rest of Europe, including the Irish Republic. From the beginning of negotiations on Brexit, talk of a land barrier in Ireland has been anathema, with many fearing it would provoke a new round of violence.
The solution has been to keep Northern Ireland in the EU common market and to erect a customs barrier between it and Britain in the Irish Sea. That arrangement is enshrined in the Northern Ireland protocol worked out between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar, then the Irish Republic’s Taoiseach, in October 2019. As of this writing, it’s become difficult to find some cherished British products on the shelves of Northern Irish stores; Marks & Spencer, facing 120,000 pages of customs forms a week, has announced that it will be delisting holiday items like beef and bone-marrow pie. Hobby gardeners can’t find favorite seed varieties and prices have doubled on beloved rose plants.
With good reason unionists fear that Britain has abandoned them. In County Tyrone, a mural featuring a masked gunman appeared: “Our forefathers fought for our freedom and rights; no border in the sea or we continue the fight.” Even moderates agree it’s an absurdity to be divided from one’s own country by a customs barrier. In a riot in April—probably provoked by loyalist paramilitaries—youths set a double-decker bus on fire at one of the interfaces to Catholic Belfast. It was the first such incident in a quarter-century.
What the future holds is a mystery. The Good Friday Agreement calls for a referendum on Irish unity (known as a “border poll”) whenever the (British) secretary of state for Northern Ireland believes there is a majority in the north and south favoring a united Ireland. This need only be a simple majority—50 percent plus one. But what if most unionists oppose unity with Ireland and lose the vote? Thanks to Brexit, we would then be back to one of Europe’s most vexing nationality problems: suddenly, against their will, Northern Irish Protestants would be citizens of a country they consider foreign.
Two recent books on Northern Ireland, Liam Kennedy’s Who Was Responsible for the Troubles? and James Waller’s A Troubled Sleep, remind us how we got here and help us see what might come next. Kennedy and Waller are both leading authorities on the subject, and their books combine rigor with absorbing, elegant prose and a sense of moral purpose that is rare in academic writing.
Waller, a social psychologist, has been asking for decades why some divided societies produce violence while others don’t. Soon after the Good Friday Agreement, he began visiting Northern Ireland with school classes and recently spent a semester as a visiting professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, interviewing witnesses from both sides. Before delving into his research, Waller shares an insight from the psychologist Henri Tajfel, who pondered the ramifications of social identification while a captive of Nazi Germany (Tajfel survived because he was categorized as a French POW rather than as a Polish Jew). While studying at the Sorbonne after the war, Tajfel discovered almost no pretext was needed to split one group of people into mutually suspicious halves. As an experiment, he arbitrarily divided his students in two, and before long they began preferring members of their own group—as well as discriminating against those on the outside.
For people outside Ireland, the divisions in the Irish North likewise seem arbitrary and trivial. Unionist and nationalist communities not only speak the same language but do so with the same accent. Both are overwhelmingly non-observant Christians, indistinguishable by race and sharing a deep, common history—a history they understand very differently. Waller surveys the salient contours of this difference. According to nationalists, the Irish were victims of centuries of British aggression, including theft of land, expulsion of native elites, and the transplanting to Ulster of Protestants loyal to the colonial regime; Northern Ireland consists of six counties carved from Ulster in 1921 in order to assure Protestant domination (the remaining twenty-six counties became the Irish Free State). Into the late 1960s, the regime in Belfast gerrymandered and discriminated to make sure Catholics remained second-class citizens. According to unionists, their forebears civilized Ulster by fostering liberty and opposing papist obscurantism. The most visible expressions of this “culture” are yearly parades featuring men in bowler hats, deafening drums, banners of William of Orange, and bonfires that sometimes feature the burning of the pope in effigy.
The Troubles proceeded as a chain effect. In the late 1960s nationalists organized a civil-rights movement to demand equality, but the Protestant response, often aided by the police (the Royal Ulster Constabulary), was so violent—burning out Catholics from enclaves in Derry and Belfast—that London sent soldiers to keep the peace. Yet after being sent to ransack Catholic homes for weapons, the troops favored Protestants more and more openly. Then, in the Bloody Sunday massacre of January 1972, British paratroopers shot to death fourteen Catholics protesting peacefully in the streets of Derry.
This is one of Waller’s “inflection points”—moments at which violence either escalated or went in a new direction. Outraged by the impunity with which British forces used violence against Catholics, volunteers streamed into the clandestine IRA, providing soldiers for its campaigns against “British interests” (like British-owned department stores) and British officials, including off-duty policemen and soldiers. A more transformative inflection was the hunger strikes of the early 1980s. Ten IRA inmates starved to death in a vain protest to secure status as political prisoners, including the poet Bobby Sands, who had been arrested after an attack on the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry. The spectacle of men dying for their convictions made Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political arm, so popular that it began winning elections, thus gaining an incentive to pursue its goals by peaceful means. By the 1990s Sinn Féin leaders also had to acknowledge that campaigns of terror could not solve the problem of Irish partition.