Lately, I’ve been reading David McKittrick and David McVea’s Making Sense of the Troubles. I’ve read many books on the Troubles and Irish history generally, so I haven’t rushed to this one, considering it something of a ‘greatest hits.’ Nevertheless, it’s value lies in succinctly locating the various themes and phases of the conflict. In some ways, thirty years, from Civil Rights to Agreement, seems a long time, yet that was what it took for enough groups to recognise compromise was needed.
I am struck particularly by how Unionism worked through the available options. In the early seventies, a minority recognised that power-sharing was the only option, but they were ahead of their time. Sunningdale came too soon for too many. It should also be remembered it was assailed from both sides as Republicans still believed outright victory was possible. The predominant view of Unionism, for a long time, was that Stormont, with a few tweaks, could be restored as was, preferably within the UK, though some advocated an independent state if necessary.
By the nineteen eighties, many had accepted James Molyneaux’s ‘integrationism’; Northern Ireland could be governed by Westminster as a region of the UK. This left parties such as the SDLP with no one to negotiate with, and so the conflict continued. In the nineties, with no end to the conflict in sight, and the atrocities mounting, eventually enough groups were driven to the table.
It took thirty years to accept that power sharing was the best way forward. It is hardly surprising then, that the two largest parties elected to govern, but unable to form a government, took the longest time to come to that conclusion.
The present political climate is very different to the sixties, however, what is most disturbing is the attitude, particularly in some quarters of Unionism, that the Agreement isn’t important. ‘Direct Rule is better’. ‘Sure, what did Stormont ever give us anyway?’
The answer, is almost two decades of peace based not on the absence of violence, but on parity of esteem between political affiliations, guaranteed rights and the constitutional question being put to bed. No one knows what comes next, but it’s a high-risk strategy to set aside power-sharing for the hope of gaining something better, somewhere else.