I suppose I can understand why people are glad when they see Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sitting down together and consenting to “power sharing” in Northern Ireland—and just in time for Good Friday, too, as if to consecrate a Protestant-Catholic brotherhood just on the verge of the various feasts of the resurrection. But the phony photo-op still made me want to spew. There will be no return to life for the thousands of people who were murdered in these men’s quarrel, and it seems indecent to me that we should be thanking them for their mercy in calling off the bloodshed, let alone calling it off on condition that they alone are declared the winners.
What has been achieved by this cynical sit-down? An agreement to divide the spoils of Ireland’s six northeastern counties and to refrain from flagrant homicide while doing so. Well, all that and more was on offer four decades ago. In fact, a better idea—that of a nonsectarian politics that shed no blood—was on offer as well. It was inscribed on the noble banners of the civil rights movement that marched in Derry in October 1968, and it was fought for in the parliaments of London and Dublin. The main force that opposed it initially was led by Ian Paisley, a brutish Calvinist street thug with covert sympathizers in the police force. The main force that opposed it eventually was the Provisional IRA, which gladly accepted the sectarian challenge and which preached the insane idea that Irish Protestants could be bombed into some deranged concept of a Fenian republic. The British laws of libel forbid me to tell what I heard when I was a young reporter in the pubs and back streets of Belfast, but I’ll put it like this: Both Paisley and Adams know very well of things that happened that should never have happened. And both of them, in order to arrive at that smug power-sharing press conference, have had to arrange to seem adequately uninformed about such horrid past events. Both have been photographed carrying coffins at political funerals—funerals that were at one time the main cultural activity in each of their “communities.” One day, their private role in filling those coffins will be fully exposed. In the meantime, they are the recognized and designated peacemakers. If you can bring yourself to applaud this, you are a masochist clapping a well-matched pair of sadists.
I will admit that there was a time when I thought that a united Ireland, or even a reformed Northern Ireland, could not be arrived at by peaceful means. For one thing, the Paisleyites seemed able to thwart every initiative for change, often by resorting to extraparliamentary and paramilitary means. It even seemed at one stage that one could define the armed Republican movement as a “response” to this. But that was over a quarter of a century ago. By the time the tit-for-tat intercommunal killings began and car bombs began to be randomly exploded in English cities, it had long become plain to everybody that no progress on these lines was even remotely thinkable.
So, what did all those Irishmen and Irishwomen (and Englishmen and Englishwomen) get killed for? Mostly, if the truth be told, they were slaughtered for no reason at all, or murdered by gangs bent on extortion and profit, or simply gunned down or blown up because they were, say, walking to the wrong school at the wrong time. I repeat: There is nothing in the latest Northern Irish agreement that was not easily available to both sides way back in 1967 or ‘68. And in the meantime, a whole province of a European country has been subjected to terror, clerical madness, and economic and social retardation that will take yet more decades to repair.
How can Paisley and Adams face the families of the victims and tell them that it was all for nothing and less than nothing? The answer to this poignant question is that they don’t have to, because we are all so pathetically grateful for their forbearance that we are now willing to hand them control of the region that they have so desolated and profaned.
It would be nice to be wrong about this, but I don’t think for a single moment that such gangsterism could have hoped to be so successful in a civilized world had it not been identified with religion. Paisley happens to be the leader of an extremist Protestant church as well as a political party, and Adams is the leader of an ostensible political party and also, allegedly, of a guerrilla movement with no respect for human life, which the New York Times used to refer to with exquisite discretion as “overwhelmingly Catholic.” (I never know whether it’s the “overwhelming” bit or the “Catholic” bit that makes me laugh the most.) Shall we just say that it was without the overwhelming disapproval of these two characters that power drills on kneecaps were used as a means of coercion, and that children were taught hatred, and that explosives were left lying around in such a way as to achieve the most carnage?
If we were discussing Baghdad or Basra here, we would be tut-tutting, rightly enough, about inter-Islamic fanaticism. Yet Paisley is commonly referred to as “the Reverend,” and is safe in his pulpit at the Martyrs Memorial Church on Ravenhill Road in Belfast, where I have often heard his frenzied incitements. Meanwhile, Adams is not unwelcome on Roman Catholic premises in New Jersey, New York, and beyond. Blessed, then, are the peacemakers. May Easter week and Good Friday bring unconfined joy to all concerned.