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Behind Northern Ireland's latest killings — a drive to stoke old grievances

Demonstrators attend a rally organized in protest at the recent killings carried out by republican dissidents, in Belfast on Wednesday. (Reuters/Cathal McNaughton) Demonstrators attend a rally organized in protest at the recent killings carried out by republican dissidents, in Belfast on Wednesday.
By Kevin Cullen
Globe Staff / March 11, 2009
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Two British soldiers shot dead in Antrim.

A policeman shot dead in Armagh.

Those were standing headlines for many years in the North of Ireland, and they were back this week, the first time in more than a decade, since we all thought this business the Irish call their Troubles was settled once and for all.

But history has shown us that as long as there are British soldiers on the island of Ireland, there will be Irishmen willing to kill them, even if those killers are as isolated and as marginalized as at any time in the nine centuries of the tortured, shared history of Britain and Ireland.

The Irish and the British love irony, and there is no greater irony than self-described Irish republicans doing everything they can to get British soliders back on Irish soil. One of the achievements of the peace process was to demilitarize Northern Ireland, by getting the number of British soliders in the country drafted down to 4,000, from a height of 25,000, this in a place roughly the size of Connecticut. The soldiers who were gunned down Saturday night in the usually sleepy town of Antrim were not armed. They did not patrol the local area. They were merely garrisoned at the Massereene Barracks and were just a few hours away from deploying to Afghanistan when their killers struck.

The republicans who killed them, and wounded the two deliverymen from whom the soldiers were collecting a pizza, are trying to re-militarize Ireland. They want desperately to bring the British Army back onto the streets because they believe that will refuel the sense of grievance that has fed Irish republicanism for centuries and led the most recent incarnation of the Troubles to stretch out more than 30 years.

It is said there is no future in Ireland, just the past happening over and over again, and the tangled history of Anglo-Irish relations has been one of action and reaction, or more precisely overreaction, on both sides, especially the British.

The greatest danger to the peace process today is not the existence of a small band of republicans willing to kill, for they were always there, and they probably always will be. The real danger is the potential reaction, however well-intentioned, of the British government to these highly provocative murders. If the reaction is overzealous, it will play right into the hands of the irredentists, making the past again the most dominant feature of Anglo-Irish relations.

From Belfast to Basra, there is much to suggest successive British governments have in fact learned from the past. There is a body of evidence that would make it hard not to.

The Easter Rising of 1916 would have been seen as a quixotic act of folly by self-appointed Irish revolutionaries had the British government not decided to execute most of its leaders, reversing Irish public opinion, which before the executions had been squarely against the rebels. Throughout the modern Troubles, whether it was Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 13 Catholic demonstrators were shot dead by British troops, or the decision by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 to allow 10 republican prisoners to starve themselves to death, it has been the British reaction to Irish republicans which dictates whether the initial killing of Irish people becomes an isolated tragedy or a lit fuse.

When Northern Ireland exploded in violence in 1969, bringing British troops onto the streets, there were real, genuine grievances among the Catholic nationalist population. Since the state was created in 1920 by British fiat, leaving the six counties of Northern Ireland partitioned from the 26 counties that would form the Republic of Ireland, Ulster Protestant unionists, so-called because of their loyalty to the union with the United Kingdom, treated Catholic nationalists like second-class citizens, systematically discriminating against them in housing, employment and just about everything afforded in a society.

The Catholic civil rights movement of the late 1960s was modeled on that of African-Americans, and the reaction of the unionist government was similar to that of Southern segregationists: Catholic nationalists were beaten off the streets, their legitimate demands for equality ignored. Instead of protecting the demonstrators, the police, nearly all of them Protestant, joined in the beatings. And when extremist unionists known as loyalists marched in to burn the nationalists out of their homes, the police stood aside, and in some cases joined in.

It was against this backdrop that the Irish Republican Army, which had been dormant since its last failed border campaign in the mid-1950s, saw an opportunity. The British troops who first arrived in Northern Ireland in 1969, ostensibly to keep the peace, were seen as saviors by many besieged Catholics. Catholic women brought them tea and cookies. But a resurgent IRA, aided by centuries of republican ideology and a history of British repression, was able to portray the troops as occupiers.

After the prerequisite split among republicans, the dominant group, the Provisional IRA, went on the offensive. The British Army's reaction to this sudden burst of sniping and assassination of its troops - bursting into homes in Catholic areas, ripping up floorboards for guns that might or might not be there, the abuse of local people - left the IRA with a surge in recruits, expanding its reach beyond traditionally republican families, which had been few.

The epitome of British overreaction took place in August 1971, when the policy of internment - locking up suspected IRA men without charge - was implemented. The British dragnet was wide and indiscriminate, and many ordinary Catholic nationalists, those who would never have imagined joining or being sympathetic toward the IRA, emerged from jail with a jaundiced view of the supposed peacekeepers in their midst.

Likewise, the killings on Bloody Sunday in Derry the following year were bad enough, showing a British army that was all too willing to shoot unarmed nationalists when they wouldn't dream of doing the same to militant loyalists. But it was the British reaction to Bloody Sunday that made it a pivotal event. The British government absolved the soldiers and blamed the dead for their own demise, despite overwhelming evidence that the troops had opened fire on unarmed civilians.

Bloody Sunday gave the IRA more recruits than it could handle, and the rage it touched off was like gasoline to a fire. Approximately half of the people who would die in the 35 years of conflict which the Irish call, in their penchant for understatement, the Troubles were killed in the five years that followed Bloody Sunday.

Even as they mishandled the security response at every turn, the British government was more successful in addressing the systematic discrimination that was at the root of the problem. The British Exchequer spent billions building more and better public housing, and it poured billions more into an effort to equalize social spending in Protestant unionist and Catholic nationalist areas. One by one, the underlying grievances at the heart of the Catholic civil rights movement were addressed. A few years after Thatcher's intransigence allowed Bobby Sands to become the first of 10 republican prisoners to starve themselves to death demanding political status, a more shrewd approach saw the British government grant each of the hunger strikers' demands. What unionists saw as appeasing terrorists, successive British governments saw as removing any credible rationale the IRA had to carrying on its fight.

But the elephant in the room remained the people with guns: the paramilitaries on both sides of the religious and national divide, and the British security forces, including the homegrown Royal Ulster Constabulary. They were locked in a three-sided conflict that paid little attention to the outside forces conspiring to end violence as a way to achieve political goals.

Politics in Northern Ireland had been such that compromise was traditionally seen as a sign of weakness and treachery, and it remained that way until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 created the room and institutions for a new kind of politics, where historical squabbles and the more mundane matters of education, housing and policing would be settled with democratic means. The great success in recent politics in Northern Ireland is that politicians have been willing to play to their constituents' best instincts instead of their worst.

This has been seen in the last few days. There were massive rallies today in Ireland, as people took to the streets to show that the vast majority, north and south, want peace. But that has always been the case. The key, dramatic difference in response to the recent killings has been the behavior of politicians.

Peter Robinson, the leader of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and its first deputy leader, Martin McGuinness, stood shoulder to shoulder with Sir Hugh Orde, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and said the gunmen would not wreck the peace and the new political arrangements that underpin it. McGuinness was once the IRA's chief of staff. Robinson was the longtime deputy to the Rev. Ian Paisley, the Bible-thumping fundamentalist preacher-politician whose hostilities toward Catholics in the 1960s helped fuel sectarian hatred.

On Monday, Paisley himself spoke admiringly of a marvelous priest in Antrim named Father Tony Devlin, who with Protestant clergymen led their congregations to the gates of Massereene Barracks on Sunday morning, hours after the two soldiers were murdered. Paisley called Father Devlin's impromptu address near the spot where the soldiers were killed "one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard from any man of the cloth."

Nuance has replaced kneejerk. The calls for Sinn Fein leaders such as McGuinness and Gerry Adams to use more forceful or emotive language in denouncing the killers have been muted, as have those for the British government to respond by calling out the SAS, Britain's commando unit that was used to devastating effect against republican paramilitaries in the bad old days. There have been demands for internment, but few from people of any influence. Increasingly, the most provocative calls come from the fringes of society in Ireland, not its mainstream, a mainstream that now includes elements that only a generation ago were engaged in politically-motivated violence.

The change in Northern Ireland is more than cultural and psychological. Since 2001, the percentage of Catholics on the police force, renamed and reformed, has nearly tripled, to about 25 percent. Stephen Carroll, the police officer who was shot dead Monday, was a Catholic.

But, in Ireland, some things never change.

It has been 12 years since two police officers were shot dead in Northern Ireland, in a small, grim place called Lurgan, the last time republicans killed policemen. An IRA man suspected of involvement in that killing is now suspected of being part of the leadership of one of the dissident republican groups, according to police sources on both sides of the border. He lives in Lurgan and never went along with the political strategy of Sinn Fein and the IRA leadership.

It has also been 12 years since a British soldier was killed in Northern Ireland, and one of those suspected of involvement in Saturday night's attack is the son of a leading republican activist who killed not only members of the security forces but ordinary Protestants before being gunned down some years ago in an internecine feud.

Right now, there are few militant republicans willing to carry on the fight, and there are fewer ordinary republicans willing to give them support, overtly or covertly. But, historically, republicans who subscribe to the theory of physical force against any British presence on the island have never sought a popular mandate. They believe history is their mandate, and they see as hypocrisy people like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness calling them criminals or traitors.

The Real IRA's statement claiming responsibility for the killing of the two soldiers, and ludicrously describing the two pizza deliverymen they wounded as British collaborators, had an unsettling, eerie resonance.

In 1988, the day after the IRA murdered two old men who did maintenance work on the police station in Belleek, a small town in Northern Ireland known for its famous pottery, I sat down in Belfast with Gerry Adams for an interview. I asked him how killing two elderly civilians would advance the cause of Irish freedom.

Adams looked me in the eye for what seemed an eternity, because he is seldom lost for words. He eventually mouthed something very similar to the weasly words of the Real IRA, about how a couple of old men who did repairs at a police station were somehow collaborators with an oppressive, illegitimate regime. But I saw it in Adams' eyes: he didn't believe a word of it.

Turns out, at that very moment, Gerry Adams had been meeting secretly with John Hume, the pacifist nationalist leader who later won the Nobel peace prize, to try to figure a way out of the cul de sac of violence. They would eventually find a path.

To their credit, Adams and McGuinness managed to convince the IRA that their goal of a united Ireland would come about sooner, and with less human suffering, by ending their armed struggle and committing themselves to democratic politics.

But the people who shot soldiers Mark Quinsey and Cengiz Azimkar and constable Stephen Carroll believe they are as justified in using violence as Adams and McGuinness once believed.

And they are waiting, like the rest of us, to see whether history again becomes their ally, or their Waterloo.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen formerly headed the newspaper's bureaus in Dublin and London, and covered the conflict in Northern Ireland for more than 20 years. He can be reached at

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