As promised two years ago, Operation Banner will end at midnight tonight. When British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland in 1969 some had been serving in Aden so recently that, as Kevin Connolly has reported this morning on Today, some of the posters they displayed asking rioters to desist were written in Arabic. Today, soldiers who've served in Northern Ireland are preparing to get out of Iraq. Is there a moral to this story, I wonder?
From the comment thread below my recent CiF piece about the psychological wounds of the Troubles:
"I should be right in there, writing on this, but do not know where to even begin. My family moved to Ulster in 1963, and myself and my brother lived, as Brits, through the worst of the civil war. Growing up in that , left me with baggage I shall probably never get rid of, and I have tried. It has left my brother with baggage he almost certianly will not get rid of. What baggage? Reactions. The rest of the world does not get freaked out seeing a holdall left on the ground. Nor does it distrust knocks on the door after dark - though I've seen this a bit with Sudanese refugees in Adelaide. Nor has it experienced the panic when you are in a cafe and the waiter quietly mentions to a diner on the next table [that] there's a bombscare. The whole place listens, then runs. Nor does it have fathers who say at dinner that if someone put a suspect device on just one more of the company's vehicles, he'd be more than happy to go and remove it - why wait for the army, they're all hoaxes? Or who talks about the number of bombs that day in Belfast. And taking a short cut and seeing in the rear view mirror, the glass go out of the shopfronts. Most people at work, arrive to paperwork on the desk, but this does not include notes of their personal movements, plus death threats.
What else? As a kid being unable to meet friends because certain groups of kids just did not mix with others and certain parents, including mine, saw to that, probably well-intentioned. No relatives visiting us - we always had to go see them in Britain - them seeing real peril, in day-to-day living. Questioning why we stayed there. Searches at planes still freak me out. I find the routine check of shopping bags almost intolerable, still, after 25 years. My entire family seems to suffer from depression, we have all been treated for it, it still affects our lives...Compared to the killings, mental health is minor, and so got ignored. I recall 2-3 short stories, plays, docos - no more. But if half a million or so had their health advesely affected - that adds up to a massive burden...But it all gets too hard. You know that crap went on, but you can't decide what crap was due to the civil war and what was just the crap everyone has to put up with - it's difficult. Especially knowing nothing but the civil war."
The hot rumour is that Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams will meet today in order to agree a six-week delay before the resumption of power-sharing. It would interesting to know which is the more amazed by the prospect. Such an encounter would, as the Guardian says, break the last taboo of political leaders in the north - one political leader in particular, whose forty-plus years of saying "no" may now be on the point of culminating in the most extraordinary "yes" he'll ever say. Look here for a resume of Paisley's long and unyielding career in Unionism. This is a man so convinced of his own moral, religious and political rectitude he's started his own church, his own party and is now looking into making his own biopic. Not a fellow to compromise easily. Flies on the wall at any sit-down with the president of Sinn Fein can email me any time.
"For Ian Paisley to deliver sustainability, his economic policies need to deliver a financially viable state - or pro-union voters like me (along with moderate Catholics) will vote with our wallets for economic (and political) union with the Republic....If he blows our last chance to deliver a sustainable Northern Ireland, his legacy will be its acceleration into a united Ireland."
"Belfast, Northern Ireland, has put down the guns and opened its arms to the world. The agreement, brokered with the help of the US back in 1997, paved the way for an intensive construction and improvement program. The only sign of 'The Troubles,' as the years of violent sectarian conflict are known, is the extensive collection of wall murals that still adorn both the Falls Road and Shankill neighborhoods. The most appropriate mural said it all: 'Life is too short for this shit!'"
Paramilitary murals are "the only sign" of the Troubles? Depends where you're looking, I think. Yet the fact that so optimistic a tone isn't completely laughable is a sign of the more hopeful times various residents of Belfast told me they are now living through during my recent flying visit there. And the Big Fish? It's a life-affirming sculpture by John Kindness. More here.
I spend yesterday in Belfast where there was much talk of new roads and soaring house prices, of social regeneration and emotional repair. More on all that to come both here and in The Guardian. But as the March 26 deadline for the return of power sharing approaches, wars of words over who should get the credit for progress towards peace and who the blame for the slowness of that progress continue. Ronan Bennett makes the case that Republican good faith has and continues to be unfairly doubted:
"When the IRA declared a 'complete cessation of military operations' on August 31 1994, the response was no less hostile. Adams in particular came in for vicious and sustained criticism, including on these pages. Gerry Adams 'is a coffin-filler strategically deciding to desist from filling coffins', wrote Edward Pearce in 1994. "Even if his heart is in peace, his words and his actions suggest a man who has neither the confidence nor the courage to drive events,' an Observer editorial claimed in the same year. Later Roy Hattersley reflected in the Guardian that 'Gerry Adams is part of the Troubles ... by treating him as if he is essential to a permanent settlement, we glorify intransigence, bigotry and extremism'. It was as though nothing whatsoever had changed from a year earlier when the Sunday Telegraph, for example, declared that Gerry Adams was "one of the ... most formidable enemies to peace in Ireland's bloodstained history".
And here are tastes of the first two reader comments.
"The 'bloody hard' people who inhabit - or rather occupy and colonize - Ireland are the Brits, whose spooks and SAS killers sponsored Unionist terrorists, placed provocateurs like Stakeknife within the IRA...and put bombs in the cars of MoD employees with which they blew up British soldiers, all in an effort to provoke and demonize the IRA. Being famous for their perfidy, the Brits naturally pretend none of this skulduggery ever happened, allowing any bits of it that surface in the news to fall into oblivion behind a curtain of deliberate, studied disregard."
While on the other hand...
"Utter bilge...Sinn Fein have been dilatory in seeking a settlement for over 80 years. To lay the blame for this at the feet of Unionism is to reveal the intent of the author. His idea of a settlement is one that is couched within the terms of Republicanism alone. His twisted view of the process fails to recognise the democratic will of the majority of people in Ulster as having any legitimacy. Our way and our way alone is what he is advocating."
There will be jaw-jaw about the Troubles for plenty of years to come. But if one thing was agreed by all the people I met yesterday, from my cab driver to a woman whose relatives fled to London after one of them fell in love with someone from "the other side", it's that they're grateful that these days there's more jaw-jaw than war-war. Happy St Patrick's Day.