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        Perspective: The TroublesBlood and Brexit

        Published 23 December 2019

        The Troubles is the name given to the bloody war between Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland, a war which began in the late 1960s and ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In a tiny country of a million and a half people, over three and a half thousand were killed in the Troubles. Almost fifty thousand were seriously injured. Nick Laird, a Northern Irish novelist and poet who experienced the inter-communal violence as a teenager, writes that unless care is taken, one of the consequences of Brexit might be the resumption of violence.

        Last year, Nick Laird and the director Brian Hill I made a BBC documentary, “The Life After,” which simply allowed a few of those who had suffered the loss of loved ones in the Troubles—partners or children or siblings—to speak about their experiences.

        The Troubles is the name given to the bloody war between Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland, a war which began in the late 1960s and ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The Nationalists or Republicans, who were mostly Catholic, wanted Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and unite with the Republic of Ireland. The Unionists or Loyalists, who were mostly Protestant, wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.

        In August 1969, following a series of bloody attacks by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and counterattacks by the Protestant paramilitary groups the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defense Association (UDA), the U.K. government sent the British military to impose order. The British army was perceived as supporting the Unionists, and soon became the main target of the Nationalists.

        The IRA also conducted several terror attacks in England.

        Nick Laird, a Northern Irish novelist and poet who experienced the inter-communal violence as a teenager, writes in the New York Review of Books that no one ever recovers from the kinds of losses the people of Northern Ireland have suffered during the Troubles:

        According to a 2012 study, Northern Ireland has the highest levels of mental illness in the UK. In 2008, 39 percent of the population of Northern Ireland reported experiencing a traumatic event relating to the Troubles. As with all such public admissions, the real figure can be presumed to be substantially higher. A 2015 analysis showed that childhood trauma stemming from the conflict has been a major factor in the development of psychopathology in Northern Ireland. Related to these factors are extremely high rates of suicide, by far the highest in the UK. Northern Ireland is also a world leader in the use of anti-depressants (at almost three times, say, the rate of England). Corresponding to that are high rates of abuse of all kinds, and addiction to drugs and alcohol. The Northern Irish are world-class drinkers.

        He notes that in a tiny country of a million and a half people, over three and a half thousand were killed in the Troubles. Almost fifty thousand were seriously injured.

        Laird writes that “Every evil act I’ve ever seen committed was done in the name of identity.” He notes that the original series of Brexit proposals, advanced by former Prime Minister Theresa May, called for creating an economic border on the border between the Irish Republic, which will remain in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which would leave the EU as part of the United Kingdom. The reintroduction of a “hard” border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland threatened to ignite Nationalist passions.

        Laird says that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposal to move the border from the island of Ireland to the Irish Sea, is already inflaming Unionist resentment.

        There may yet be another twist:

        Ironically, the arrogance of [David] Cameron [British prime minister 2010-2016, who pushed for the 2016 Brexit referendum] and [Boris] Johnson—in conjunction with the self-defeating stupidity of the DUP [the Democratic Unionist Party, the leading Unionist part in Northern Ireland] —may well do what a hundred years of killing couldn’t. Ireland was partitioned in 1921 and it may be that next year, or soon after, a border poll is held that will bring about a United Ireland.

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