I will always remember the troubles/war in Northern Ireland and the pervading feeling for years that it would never end. I grew up at that time, though herself says I never grew up at all! Anyway, there was the constant bombings as well as the tit-for-tat killings coupled with impromptu riots, hunger strikes and political stagnation.
In the Republic of Ireland we had a media ban on republicans while in the UK, successive political leaders restated their policy of never talking with terrorists. Even then, one man’s terrorist was another man’s freedom fighter but what was plain was that no side in the conflict would speak to any other side. Dublin was not really talking to London, the Irish police were not talking to the RUC nor the British police. Irish army units on the border could see British army units but neither communicated with each other. In the North the many warring factions never uttered a word to one other. On the Republican side, the provisional IRA hated the official IRA and both parties despised the INLA. Loyalist terror groups didn’t care much for each other either.
Several times while in hot pursuit, British army land rovers sped down unapproved roads and crossed the border into the Republic only to meet a joint Irish army police roadblock. As there was no political framework or recipe agreed to deal with these delicate situations, to avoid a firefight with casualties to both sides, a kind of common sense prevailed on the ground that allowed both parties to save face. What we know for sure is that no shots were exchanged between the armed forces of the two countries and the British tended to plead ignorance to a border incursion, which the Irish accepted with manners and then the British turned around and crossed back.
There are rumuors too, (and these are unconfirmed even today), that sometimes the party being pursued arrived at these roadblocks in the Republic first. Outnumbered and outgunned, they tended to surrender to the Irish army on the spot. The rumour has it that there were three possibilities at that point. Some Gardai and army personnel were sympathetic to the IRA so if the arrested party were lucky enough to meet these kind, they were quickly squirreled away to be set free later with no formal report of the incident being lodged. More likely though they meet uniformed persons from the South that wanted them locked up in Portlaoise prison. The third possibility was that with the, (illegal), arrival of a British army patrol on our territory, the pursued were handed quietly over to them by the Irish to be taken back to Northern Ireland. Neither side would have reported this naturally.
The point though is that the whole horrible edifice that was that conflict need not have dragged tragically on for thirty years. But the opposite of war is peace and for peace to happen there needs to be dialog. When warring parties will not even talk to one another the only alternative is continued warfare because nobody wants to surrender no matter how harsh things become. War de-humanises and unimaginable atrocities always follow. The level of civilian savagery we saw all over Northern Ireland in those years was hard to take. Margaret Thatcher stood defiantly in London and proclaimed, (justifiably), “We will not be bombed to the negotiating table.” That statement taken in isolation was, on the day, understandable and correct. But it also meant the war continued and innocent people died in the name of an illusive victory.
It only began to change slowly when back-channels began tentatively to communicate. Whenever the press got wind of any of these meetings they castigated the parties involved, the talks ended abruptly and all went back to war with renewed vigour. In the end, it took both warring factions, a Canadian mediator, both Governments, several senior religious figures and the American President to get a shaky agreement over the line with much opposition remaining from several other dangerous parties. But we have a kind of peace today in Northern Ireland and thank God for that.
Instead though we have sanctions against Russia and calls to boycott that country whenever the opportunity arises. American and NATO troops are gathered all along the borders of Russia in many western countries in the biggest military build-up since WW2. The Russians have responded in kind and the navies from both sides are playing cat and mouse in the oceans of the world. Like Ireland and the UK at the time, possible conflict is being ramped up with little in the line of relevant communication taking place. It is like a blueprint for war and these things only need a very small spark to return a violent conflagration in days. Remember Gavrilo Princip and Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo anyone? A Bosnian Serb shoots an Austrian Archduke and the world went to war. Indeed, the result of that world war led to another even bigger one just twenty years later.
So despite the symphony of criticism directed at Donald Trump, I am glad that he and Putin talked in Germany last week for two-and-a-half hours. Perhaps, just perhaps, as a result of that, a possible unfortunate incident in Syria where Americans kill Russians or the other way around, won’t set in motion a train of events that nobody can stop. The nature of war is to escalate until it is out of control and carnage reaches every corner of the globe.
Surely no thinking person wants that? We do need to talk because you don’t make friends with your friends – you make friends with your enemies.