OP-ED: Ireland: Can Nonviolence Prevail Through Generations of ‘Troubles’?

By Stephen Quirke

It’s hard to write about nonviolence in Northern Ireland when so much violence has happened and so much of it has been glorified, even sacralized. Growing up as a Catholic in Ireland, as I did, you are presented with one outlook and one outlook alone. Obey the word of God and love thy neighbor, unless he’s a Protestant.


For my generation and the ones before and ever after, the creation of a free Irish Nation and a unified island is a dream worth fighting for. Countless men, women and children fought and laid down their lives so that their children might have a chance at peace and freedom.


Some of the leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) are regarded as some of Ireland’s greatest heroes. Michael Collins, James Stephens and Charles Kickham are names that every school child knows. Heroes all!


The IRB staged the 1916 Easter rising which formed the Irish Free State and later became the IRA but in the infancy stage it was a much more ideological than military organization. My great grandfather has an IRB medal. It was awarded to him for bravery to the cause of Irish Freedom. It has pride of place in my Uncle’s farmhouse in Ireland. The medal was handed down to him from his father. His father’s father received it for being part of a guerilla style ‘flying column,’ in the late 1800’s. The actual recognized act was the physical dismantling of a stone bridge that was used to cross a river between a British Army garrison and a local town and regional center.Through many visits to the bridge under cover of darkness, my great grandfather and other members of his brigade chiseled and loosened the rocks and stones in the bridge until finally it was destroyed. A primitive terrorist-type act; is a terrorist act nonetheless, since civilians were likely to be hurt when it collapsed.


For me as an adult, the most striking thing has been the realization that my perspective on violence has been imbued with what I can only describe as a romanticized view. Terrorism is, of course, defined as a crime but by a Jihadist it’s a holy war. Depending on your viewpoint, everything is different. Isn't war then, just as much a crime, depending on your viewpoint? As Kent D. Shifferd writes in his book From War to Peace: A Guide to the Next Hundred Years; sadly, the truth remains, whatever your political stance, Bombs fall on people and objects, not on ideas.


Ireland has a large and long history of violence, driven on by economic factors and under the banner of Religion. Many men served in both World Wars. Another relation of mine took “the King’s Shilling” and fought for the British. Risking public shame and ignominy, some Catholics fought for the crown for no better reason than a wage. The pay was more than any Irish peasant could make and it even afforded men enough to send money home to keep up their own families and farms. Irish fighters also fought in the Mexican-American war of 1846 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick_Battalion) so its clear to see that there is a history of war for many reasons in our Irish past.


Bobby Sands is one of the best-known Catholic martyrs; he died during a nonviolent hunger strike in a makeshift prison nine miles outside of Belfast. He was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. During his hunger strike he became a member of the United Kingdom Parliament but died 25 days after being elected. His nonviolent death caused a new wave of violent riots in Belfast and cemented his image in Republican lore. Every child knew who he was but none was told of why he was in prison first. He was an active member of a military campaign; he was a major suspect in both bombings and shootings. That’s not what you see in the streets though. You see children wearing Glasgow Celtic (the Catholic team in the Glasgow Old Firm) Jerseys with Sands’ name printed on the back. You still see young boys playing and fighting trying to get the ‘Brits out.’


Maggie Thatcher—then the British Prime Minister—made certain that her people all knew that Sands was not nonviolent and that they wouldn’t care if Sands lived or died, as he was no Gandhi. She famously told the House of Commons in 1981 "Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organization did not allow to many of its victims." From our side of the fence it was political martyrdom of the highest degree. The crimes he was arrested for, he would not have committed if there were not a reason to. He was defending his own land.


I was raised to be a staunch Republican, to believe our side and be a good patriot. No one can ever question the cruel foreign rule Britain forced on the Irish people, but not until I became an adult and learned how to think for myself, did I ever question that the way to fight oppression was with violence. The idea behind democracy is to inform the electorate and it clearly works poorly in a pool of information and influence the size of whatever you’re handed down. Education is meant to increase your intellectual inheritance, and, for me, it has as I ponder the best way forward for my beloved homeland.


Loretta Napoleoni covers the point I am trying to make in her book Terrorism and the Economy: “What is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? It depends on the angle from which one is looking.” I can regard my Irish heroes from the past with reverence whilst knowing that there is a better path for our future.

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Stephen Quirke studies at Portland State University in Oregon. This commentary was distributed by PeaceVoice, a program of the Oregon Peace Institute.