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The Troubles: Will Brexit Take Northern Ireland Back to ‘71?

71-the-troublesAll the turmoil surrounding the recent Brexit vote brought to mind a movie that we watched on Amazon Prime not too long ago. The 2014 independent film was simply titled 71, referring to the year 1971 which was in the midst of a political conflict called “The Troubles.” Although the Troubles mainly took place in Northern Ireland, it spilled over at times into parts of the Republic of Ireland, England, and even mainland Europe. Known internationally as the Northern Ireland conflict, the Troubles were marked by years of guerrilla warfare. The conflict began in 1968 and is considered to have ended three decades later with the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement of 1998.

The main issue at the time of the Troubles was the constitutional status of British-ruled Northern Ireland, the six counties that remained part of the United Kingdom when the rest of Ireland gained its independence. The Irish Nationalists/republicans living there, who were mostly Catholics and considered themselves Irish, wanted to be part of a united Ireland. The Unionists/loyalists, who were mostly Protestants and considered themselves British, generally wanted to keep Northern Ireland within the UK.

Another matter of contention was the relationship between these two religious communities. The Roman Catholics (Irish Nationalists) were being discriminated against by the Protestants (British Unionists) that dominated the government and police force. During the Troubles, there was a great deal of animosity between the two groups. The years 1970 through 1972 saw an explosion of sectarian violence centered around Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, peaking in 1972 when nearly 500 people, just over half of them civilians, lost their lives in the Troubles.

In the movie, a young British soldier named Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is accidentally abandoned by his unit following a riot on the streets of Belfast in 1971. The new recruit must survive the night alone and find his way to safety through an unfamiliar and hostile city where he is unable to discern friend from foe. To complicate matters, he lost his weapon and is unarmed. Private Hook is helped by a boy from the Protestant paramilitary, as well as two Catholic good samaritans. Even though he is injured, he can’t rest and has to keep moving after learning that he is the target of two IRA members in a struggle for power. The whole movie is extremely intense with a sense of dread throughout and features some graphic, disturbing, and emotional scenes. But it provides a realistic view of the poverty, fear and violence that people had to live with in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. This movie is recommended for older teens and adults, especially history students and military buffs.

To better understand the movie, it will help to learn more about the Troubles.

The main participants in the Troubles were republican paramilitaries such as several Irish Republican Army (IRA) groups (particularly the Provisional IRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA); loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA); British state security forces – the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC); and political activists and politicians. The British government’s position was that its forces were neutral in the conflict, trying to uphold law and order in Northern Ireland. But the Nationalists regarded the British as forces of occupation and/or partisan combatants in the conflict.

Back in those days there were regular news reports of terrorism in Northern Ireland, and those terrorists were mainly associated with the Provisional IRA. While the older IRA had embraced non-violent civil agitation, the new Provisional IRA was determined to wage an armed struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland. Bloody Friday is the name given to the bombings by the Provisional IRA in Belfast on July 21, 1972. At least twenty bombs exploded in Belfast during a space of eighty minutes, most within a half hour period. Most of them were car bombs and most targeted infrastructure, especially the transportation network. Nine people were killed, including two British soldiers and seven civilians, while 130 were injured.

In their efforts to defeat the IRA, there were many incidents of collusion between the British state security forces (the British Army and RUC) and loyalist paramilitaries. This included double agents and informers, soldiers and policemen taking part in loyalist attacks while off-duty, providing weapons and intelligence to loyalists, not taking action against them, and hindering police investigations. The Glenanne gang—a secret alliance of loyalist militants, British soldiers and RUC officers—carried out a string of gun and bomb attacks against Catholics/nationalists in an area of Northern Ireland known as the “murder triangle”.

Although the number of active participants was relatively small, the Troubles touched the lives of many people in Northern Ireland. It’s estimated that approximately 3,600 people were killed in the conflict, of whom 52% were civilians, 32% were members of the British security forces, and 16% were members of paramilitary groups; 107,000 people suffered some physical injury as a result of the conflict; and 500,000 people were directly affected by bereavement or trauma as a result of the conflict.

The stress resulting from bomb attacks, street disturbances, beatings, murders, security checkpoints, intimidation, and the constant military presence had the strongest effect on children and young adults. Besides living in a war zone, vandalism was a major problem and there was chronic unemployment along with a severe housing shortage. Many people were homeless after having their houses burnt down. There were 10,000 vandalized houses in Belfast alone. Most of the vandals were aged 8-13, as there was little parental supervision of children, and teenage alcoholism was also a problem.

The Troubles were brought to an uneasy and fragile end in 1998. The peace process consisted of a truce by most paramilitary organizations, the complete decommissioning of the IRA’s weapons, the reform of the police, the withdrawal of the British Army from the streets, and the gradual easing of the border between the two territories with the dismantling of military border posts, as agreed by the signatories to the Belfast Agreement (commonly known as the “Good Friday Agreement”). This Agreement restored self-government to Northern Ireland on the basis of an equal sharing of power between the Nationalists (Irish Catholics) and the Unionists (British Protestants). In spite of the Agreement, there has been sporadic violence by anti-ceasefire republicans over the years (as recently as 2015), although not supported by the previous antagonists.

Now what does all of that have to do with today’s political situation?

The Brexit vote doesn’t bode well for Northern Ireland’s stability. Once again we have the question of Northern Ireland’s status within the UK. In Northern Ireland, 56% of the citizens voted to remain in the European Union (EU), while the rest of the UK voted to leave. After all those years of violence in Northern Ireland, EU integration was critical to the peace that has prevailed in the region since the 1990s. Thanks to the EU, Northern Ireland has received billions in funding to attract tourist, IT, and film production industries after decades of economic stagnation. Northern Ireland has been able to remain under British rule while enjoying free commerce and unencumbered travel to the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the EU.

One important part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement states that Northern Ireland will remain within the UK unless a majority of the Northern Irish electorate vote to join a united Ireland. In the aftermath of Brexit, Nationalist leaders in Northern Island have vowed to break its ties with the UK if that is the price to keep the nation connected to Europe. On the morning following the Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness, had already called for a vote on pulling Northern Ireland out of the UK and uniting it with the Republic. Britain’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland may call such a vote at any time, according to the Good Friday Agreement.

“The British government now has no democratic mandate to represent the views of the North in any future negotiations with the European Union and I do believe that there is a democratic imperative for a ‘border poll’ to be held,” McGuinness told national Irish broadcaster RTE. However, Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster told Northern Ireland’s Radio Ulster, “There is no way even if there was a border poll that it would be in favour of a united Ireland.” If the Protestants and Catholics go back to arguing about which country they should be a part of, rather than just how to share power, the result could be devastating for a population still recovering from three decades of division.

Then there is the problem of border controls. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that will have a land border with the EU. The 310-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will likely need to be policed when Britain leaves the EU, although the extent to which this will be enforced is not clear. Given the area’s history, Belfast journalist Kathryn Gaw says the reintroduction of physical checkpoints along the border “would instantly undermine a hard-won peace, and the psychological impact alone would be catastrophic. A return of those barricaded towers and armed checkpoints will stir up emotional memories for many Northern Irish people who witnessed years of violence in border towns… and there is a very real fear that they may lead to a resurgence of dissident activity. Let’s not be naive – terrorism still exists across the province, and the paramilitaries are just waiting for an excuse to relaunch their bitter campaigns.”

Watch 71 and you’ll see why the general public hopes that doesn’t happen again. The movie doesn’t take sides but provides a firsthand glimpse into them all – Irish and Brit, Protestant and Catholic, the old-guard IRA and the radical Provisionals. The movie can be somewhat confusing as you’re not always sure who is on which side, especially when military spies are involved. But that’s exactly what the commanding officer says to the soldier at the end: “It was a confused situation. In these circumstances, what you saw, what you think you saw, can be a very different thing to what actually happened. Do you understand?” This dark and gritty drama won several British, Irish, Scottish, and international film awards.

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