Ian Paisley (left) and Gerry Adams: No handshake, but no invective
I was moseying around on Youtube the other night when I came across some clippings from the wonderful BBC series "The Rock n Roll Years," which came out in two installments from the mid-eighties to the early nineties, and charted the politics, culture, and stories of each year from 1956 to 1989 using the soundtrack of the year in question. "The Rock n Roll Years" wasn't just an exercise in nostalgia, for it covered wars, natural disasters, deaths, violence, strikes, and all manner of social discord, along with the preposterous fashions, the absurdities and venalities of politicians, and moments of loony joy.
Anyway, I watched the 1981
episodes, and was immediately struck by how some things hadn't changed (the UK engaged in a war miles from home, in this case the Falkland Islands) and yet how much had (it was striking to realize that Leonid Brezhnev
only died in 1982).
What I'd forgotten was that 1981 and 1982 saw some of the worst atrocities committed in the Northern Ireland "Troubles," that euphemism for the conflict that has killed over 3,000 people. There were IRA bombs, one of which blew up people listening to a band, and ten Irish Republican prisoners
died in the notorious Maze Prison (a kind of proto-Guantanamo) after going on hunger strike, among them Bobby Sands
It's difficult now to convey the depths of despair that we who lived in the U.K. felt at the time about what was going on. The issue seemed so intractable, the polarization of the Protestant and Catholic communities so unbridgeable, and the commitment to violence from Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries so absolute. We thought it was never going to change; and, if it did, it would only get worse.
Twenty-five years later and what do we find? Those arch-enemies, Gerry Adams
(Republican) and Ian Paisley
(Loyalist), are sitting down together, at the same table
, pledging to work together in a devolved Northern Irish assembly. No one can quite believe it
. This is, after all, the same Gerry Adams who pledged to defend armed struggle
. This is the same Ian Paisley who called the Pope the Antichrist
. These two men symbolized the division, dissension, violence, hatred, and emnity of the two communities for each other for thirty years, and there they were, side by side. And so the "Troubles" come (we hope) to an end. After Bloody Sunday
, after the Birmingham Pub Bombings
, the attack on the Tory Party Conference in 1984
, after Internment
, and after Omagh
. After all that, peace still has a chance.
The history of English designs upon Ireland is a long and bloody
one, and I for one have no interest in keeping Ireland divided. The lesson I draw, however, is larger than Ireland and England. If Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley can agree to sit down and work together, in spite of the ideological gulf between them, committed to peace and the ballot box, after nine hundred years of hatred, then why not Ismail Haniya
and Ehud Olmert
or Sunni insurgent and Shia militiaman in Iraq? Impossible! you say! Intractable! you lament. Too much history! you indicate. Never gonna happen! you cry. That's what I thought. That's what we all thought. And yet. . . .