Published in Issue 126 of The Leither, my article entitled 'What's the next step on Ireland's rocky journey?' about the Emerald Isle's tangled history and the threat of the return of a hard border.
Around 1.5 million Scots are of Irish heritage. My own father was born in Monaghan, in what was then the Irish Free State. Over the centuries, whole families have emigrated, seeking better lives, or fleeing poverty, pogroms, and political persecution. The events that had the greatest impact on stoking this diaspora were the famines of 1740-41, when nearly half a million died, and 1845-52, when a million more perished.
Untangling the roots of Ireland historic grievances would be impossible, least of all Northern Ireland's 'Troubles' of 1969-1998. But that final date as of immense significance. It marks the point when the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was implemented. This signified a line being drawn on the past, so people of every political and cultural persuasion might feel compelled to look forward to. Power would be shared in Stormont, cross-border institutions set up and paramilitary arms decommissioned. 71% of Northern Ireland's electorate voted Yes to the agreement, as did 94.3% of the Republic's. Only the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) opposed it.
My memories of visiting relatives in the north in the 1970s and 1980s include roadblocks manned by gun-toting soldiers or police, and armoured vehicles trundling along the red bricked streets. Shopping in Belfast city centre meant negotiating turnstiles and being frisked by squaddies. But all this could be classified as a minor inconvenience compared to the experience of huge swathes of the native population during the Troubles.
Conflict had been festering ever since the British state partitioned Ireland on the basis of his sectarian headcount in 1921, guaranteeing the ascendancy of the Protestant majority in the six northernmost countries, and discriminating against Catholics in employment, housing and education. Catholic ghettos were epitomised by poor housing, the inhabitants denied the same voting rights as their Protestant neighbours by constituency boundaries (the infamous policy of gerrymandering.) The rise of the nationalist civil rights movement in the late 1960s was countered by loyalist mobs. In scenes reminiscent of Kristallnacht, rioters burned down scores of Catholic homes and businesses. The British Army was eventually sent him to protect Catholics, and was welcomed with tea and sandwiches. This honeymoon period would be short-lived.
In a poignant 2018 BBC documentary 'My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me,' TV presenter Patrick Kielty described his frustration that the GFA, an integral part of which was a seamless Irish border, has been exposed to risk. Ten years before the peace deal, when he was 16, his father was murdered by loyalist terrorists.
The earliest victims of the Troubles included two Protestant civilians shot dead by the British Army, and Victor Arbuckle of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the first uniformed man to die, murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force. Since then 3,500 have been killed and 50,000 have become casualties. A further 150 have died at the hands of dissidents since the GFA.
Channel 4 recently aired a compelling documentary, The Ballymurphy Precedent. This gave a disturbing insight into the way British security forces tarred an entire community with the same brush, decades before any peace initiatives. In 1971, soldiers of the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, entered nationalist Ballymurphy in West Belfast, intent on smashing makeshift barriers and searching for weapons. 11 civilians were gunned down. (1st Para gained more widespread notoriety for the murder of 28 civil rights marchers in Derry months later, in what became known as Bloody Sunday.)
Their commanding officer, Captain Mike Jackson, claimed the slain were all gunmen. Family members have always rigorously denied their loved ones had paramilitary connections. Indeed, locals were critical of the IRA for withdrawing from the estate as the paratroopers were preparing their assault. When the relatives were given access to official reports they found contradictory statements. One of the deceased, Joan Connolly, was a 44-year-old mother of eight. It was claimed she had been manning a machine gun post, Another victim, Hugh Mullan, was a Catholic priest, shot while waving a white cloth as he administered the last rites to a casualty.
The relatives have been seeking justice for nearly half a century. In 2016, an inquest was recommended by the Lord Chief justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Declan Morgan. DUP leader Arlene Foster deferred funding: a decision condemned by Amnesty International.
The latest twist in Ireland’s long chequered relationship with the mainland has been Brexit. Whatever the motivations of any of those in Great Britain who demanded the UK leave the European Union, you wonder if the return of a hard Irish border weighed heavily on their decision. Conservative arch-Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg has accepted border checks "as we had during the Troubles" would need to return.
In a poignant 2018 BBC documentary My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me, TV presenter Patrick Kielty described his frustration that the GFA, an integral part of which was a seamless Irish border, has been exposed to risk. Ten years before the peace deal, when he was 16, his father was murdered by loyalist terrorists.
Perhaps the likes of Mogg and former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage are more concerned with this fact: at the start of 2019 (coincidental to the Brexit deadline), all EU member states will have to apply the Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive. This will crack down on Mogg, Farage and their wealthy donors. Post-Brexit, as long as their money is safely secreted into untouchable offshore accounts, why should they care about Ireland’s border any more than many of their Great British countrymen ever have?