Despite the violent past and toxic present, Britain and Ireland can still relate to the gangs that | connect, not deprive Fintan O’Toole – Archyde

ONEAlmost 50 years ago, in the early hours of February 2, 1972, the British Embassy in Dublin opened devastated by fire. This wasn’t an accident. A huge crowd had gathered all day before the pretty Georgian terrace in Merrion Square in protest. They cheered as young men climbed over the balconies and smashed a window. They poured some gasoline into it and lit it. A volley of petrol bombs was fired from the crowd. People chanted the slogan they learned from the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965: Burn, Baby, Burn. The police did nothing to stop the attack.

I was 14 then, so I wasn’t there. But some of my older friends were there and I wish I had been with them. The attack was orchestrated by the IRA, but most ordinary, peaceful Irish people agreed with it. It seemed like the right thing to do, a reasonable response to it The massacre by 13 unarmed civilians by the 1st Battalion of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment last weekend in Derry. That’s what a woman who was waiting for a bus in Dublin said Irish times: “I was outraged that the British should do this and I felt that regardless of right and wrong, they would know how we felt when we burned down their embassy.”

The outrage wasn’t just the atrocity in Derry itself. It was also the way the British had lied about it, falsely claiming the paratroopers had come under fire and were protecting themselves against terrorists. The official Widgetery request, who essentially repeated this lie, made it clear that the British state had no interest in acknowledging what had happened, much less punishing anyone for what Derry coroner Major Hubert O’Neill called: “pure unadulterated murder“. In fact, given this impenetrability, burning the embassy seemed the only way to tell the British establishment how most Irish people felt.

Thus, 50 years after the creation of the Irish Free State, relations between Britain and independent Ireland were as bad as can be. There had been other lows, notably during the Second World War when Ireland’s neutrality struck many in Britain as a scandalous treason. But relations after Bloody Sunday seemed even worse because the slaughter was an episode – albeit a particularly disastrous one – in a conflict in Northern Ireland that was still escalating. (1972 would actually turn out to be that bloodiest year of riots.) It almost felt during those months as if the two states on these islands were slipping unchecked into mutual and violent hostility.

But just eight days before Bloody Sunday, something completely different had happened. British Prime Minister Edward Heath and the Taoiseach Jack Lynch had been together in a ballroom in Brussels to sign his country’s accession treaties to the European Economic Community. There are images of the two men standing shoulder to shoulder, both beaming with bonhomie. Less than a year after the embassy fire in Dublin, the two countries would be close partners in the European project. It’s also fair to say that Ireland owed their place in what was then an exclusive club to their deep economic ties with Britain. Ireland alone was too poor to justify a place at the top of Europe. It was essentially approved on Britain’s coattails.

Looking back, it’s strange how these two stories ran side by side – one of deep and ingrained animosity, the other of intense collaboration; one full of fractures and divisions, the other a common commitment to an “ever closer union” in Europe. How it happened allowed membership in the EU Ireland to free itself from dependence on the British economy and achieve much greater independence. (One of the many things Brexiteers have never been able to understand is this notion that the supposedly oppressive EU could be a way out for small nations from the dominance of larger neighbors.) But it also became a school in which Irish and British Governments learned to work very closely and respectfully together.

This experience, in turn, made possible the collective choreography of the 1990s, the carefully calibrated steps that produced the 1998 peace accord. Until 2011, when the Queen became Britain’s first female monarch in a century Visit Southern Ireland, it really did feel as if that good neighborhood had become permanent, as if British arrogance and Irish fury were exhibits in a museum of historical oddities.

This illusion of permanence has been shattered by Brexit, not only by the loss of the common ground of EU membership but also by a refusal to even think about it the consequences for the island of Ireland. Many of the Brexiters still see these consequences not as the inevitable consequences of their own decisions but as some sort of Irish conspiracy to thwart them. There’s a corner of her mind where Brexit would have been a raging triumph by now if the damn Irish hadn’t spoiled it with their backstops and protocols. The open trials of the Johnson administration break the agreements on the Irish dimension of Brexit have revived the old specter Perfidious Albion.

And yet we should remember 1972. Even at this terrible low, the stakes were far too high for Britain and Ireland to allow their relationship to deteriorate into toxicity. Two little things forced them together: history and geography. The two great islands of our archipelago can no more escape each other’s fate than Britain can drift away into the Atlantic Europe.

Maybe there are even ways we can understand each other better. Some slow learners in Britain have discovered after just a century that Ireland is an independent country with its own national interests and ties to Europe. The Irish have discovered that they do not have a monopoly on identity crises and binary tribalisms on these islands. It is new for Ireland to feel like the more stable and confident state in the archipelago, and new for Britain to grapple with the stubborn aftermath of a nationalist revolution. It may take some time for us all to get used to these innovations. But under far worse circumstances, we have found ways to face new realities together.

Fintan O’Tooles neuestes Buch ist We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958

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