Opinion: recent comments about a lack of affinity in the Republic with the plight of northern nationalists do not stand up to scrutiny

By Darren Litter, Queen's University Belfast.

Barrister, media personality and Derry GAA great Joe Brolly recently set social media alight with some comments taken from a longer interview. Brolly asserted that the Northern Ireland Troubles saw the emergence of a southern orthodoxy whereby "nationalists in the north were to blame".

He was then joined by one-time MP and long-time rights activist Bernadette McAliskey, who argued that "the northern Catholic was and still is looked on by the southern state as not worth the trouble". The words aroused a strong sense of approval among a considerable demographic within the north; many of whom feel that southern Irish society did indeed 'fail' them.

Without question, there was - and to a degree still is - insufficient understanding within Ireland of the plight (and that is the appropriate word) of the northern Catholic population after partition. There is a tendency to see the violence as being sprung by the Provisional IRA, neglecting the fact that war had effectively been declared by loyalists in May 1966 – over three years before the PIRA's formation – with Catholic civilians John Scullion (28) and Peter Ward (18) killed in the proceeding weeks. A British intelligence officer of all people – who engaged in an important critical dialogue with the late Martin McGuinness in 1991 – later described "the apocalyptic experience of thousands of Catholics fleeing in terror as their homes burnt, our very own example of ethnic cleansing".

But it is quite a leap to construe this as the south and its government feeling no sense of affinity with oppressed northern people, or that it essentially condemned them. In reality, Prof Michelle Dillon's analysis of the 1973 Irish Mobility Study indicates the vast, vast majority of southern Ireland endorsed the nationalist position on Nothern Ireland.

Most southern Catholics identified housing discrimination (94%), the influence of the Orange Order (94%), internment (92%), and the activity of the UVF (87%) as the biggest catalysts for the Northern conflict. The PIRA was seen as much less of a cause (67%), and it would be inaccurate to say that it was without support in the Republic, with their former director of intelligence Kieran Conway counting "stockbrokers, bankers, journalists, government officials, a person from the DPP's office, a couple of guards" among his sympathetic contacts.

At no point was there ever a scintilla of the notion that the north was 'not worth the bother'

Nonetheless, it is clear that a considerable majority of southerners were critical of the PIRA and wider republican violence and it is this, rather than blanket rejection, which forms the feeling of historical alienation among a certain northern cohort. As with most northern Catholics, the southern Irish could see the logic of the civil rights movement as a response to the situation faced by the minority there. But they could not see the proportion or moral justification in endlessly bombing and shooting British soldiers, and more especially policemen, civil servants, and members of the public. Prof Niall Ó Dochartaigh quotes poet Desmond Egan: "two wee girls were playing tig near a car… How many counties would you say are worth their scattered fingers?".

Undoubtedly, there was a touch of pious Irish Catholic sensibility in some of this – perhaps accounting for the sense of elitism some northerners attribute – but it was also practical. For many southerners, removed from the passions of the NI "hothouse", the activities of the PIRA gave credos to people like the Reverend Ian Paisley and their destructive 'othering' of the nationalist population.

Moreover, the PIRA made it plain that the south was no more redeemable than the ‘Orange State’, that it was the ‘Free State’ and equally culpable for the continued existence of partition. In 1972 and 1976, Garda officers Samuel Donegan and Michael Clerkin were killed by IED explosives, wantonly left by the PIRA along the Irish border and in a farmhouse in Co Laois.

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From RTÉ Archives, Tom McCaughren reports for RTÉ News on the burning of the British embassy in Dublin in 1972 in protests over Bloody Sunday

The entirely separate matter of the PIRA campaign notwithstanding, southern Ireland was outraged by the experience of northern Catholics. In 1969, Taoiseach Jack Lynch sought a multilateral United Nations intervention, and the British embassy in Dublin was burnt down by 20-30,000 people in February 1972 in response to the events of Bloody Sunday.

The problem was that British policy at the time was one of absolute 'internalism', with the British foreign secretary Michael Stewart telling his Irish counterpart Patrick Hillery in the run-up to the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ that Irish were representatives were "outsiders" to the situation. Dr Garret FitzGerald was the subject of a frenzied response by elements of the British government merely for visiting areas of the north on a fact-finding basis during the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement period.

While Sunningdale's failure engendered a lasting ill-feeling between Britain and Ireland – with contact within the European Economic Community for a time being the only respite – the Irish government continued to dedicate enormous resources to fulfilling their responsibility to northern Catholics. The party of northern nationalists, the SDLP, in many respects became an arms-length body of the Department of Foreign Affairs. The DFA’s best and brightest were typically deployed into the Anglo-Irish Division, the section of the Irish government dealing with the NI issue.

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From RTÉ Archives, Jim Dougal reports for RTÉ News on the progress of the Anglo-Irish Agreement

The DFA's Sean Donlon and Michael Lillis had Irish-American power brokers like Senator Ted Kennedy and Speaker Tip O'Neill onside by 1979, while their colleague Dermot Nally worked diligently with the enlightened British cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong to prize the British government out of its remaining territorial instincts. At the European Council meeting in Milan which secured the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald told British prime minister Margaret Thatcher that the north had been the site of the largest forced movement of population in Europe since the Second World War.

The Irish government doubled-down on bettering life for northern Catholics, firstly with Taoiseach Charles Haughey who in 1987 began the government’s critical dialogue with Sinn Féin through the intermediary Fr Alec Reid. It has unfortunately been overlooked in favour of British influences, but this was consolidated in the 1990s by the Government trio of Seán Ó hUiginn, Paddy Teahon and Tim Dalton, who at one point met SF on a weekly basis. Ó hUiginn – often being mistaken as too 'green' - maintained the view that "the people of Northern Ireland have not determined their own environment", and therefore "had to be absolved, to a very considerable extent", including the so-called (wo)men of violence.

This laying of the foundations, as it were, also extended to the unionist community, with Rory Montgomery, himself from an Ulster Protestant background, engaging key Ulster Unionist figures such as Reg Empey, who remarkably is reported to have said Irish officials were "more honest and more reliable" than their British opposites. This is not to mention the negotiation of the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, where the sheer linguistic battling by the Irish delegation resulted in the codification of "no [British] selfish strategic or economic interest".

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From RTÉ Archives, John Hume appears on Today Tonight in 1981 to discuss the Derry riots and Bobby Sands' hunger strike

The 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was the culmination of these decades and decades of efforts by Irish representatives; which like John Hume, in some cases contributed to periods of ill-health. There were constant long drives to places like Coalisland and Portadown to better represent nationalist opinion (without personal security, and in Irish-reg cars, no less). At one point, staff in the Anglo-Irish secretariat in Belfast were "obliged to make their wills" when they were the subject of an 18,000-strong violent loyalist protest. This of course does not come close to the suffering of the people of the north, but the point is that the Irish government endeavoured to become closer to this experience rather than refuse any part in it.

The two great nationalist gains of the B/GFA – the North-South Ministerial Council, and the elimination of the RUC – both owed to the effective strategizing, delegating, and resolve of the Irish government. "Six-plus" was the mantra in regard to the areas to be covered by the NSMC, and critical to the achievement of this was "exhaustive" internal negotiating exercise the Irish side did in advance. This allowed them to credibly present a "maximal" position (56 areas), causing the UUP's John Taylor to famously say he "wouldn’t touch it with a forty-foot barge poll" but which had the effect of making the actual Irish position more acceptable (12 were agreed).

The vast, vast majority of southern Ireland endorsed the nationalist position on Nothern Ireland

To British dismay, the Irish government also successfully pushed for the creation of the NSMC to be situated within the UK-Irish treaty, which, as Prof Brendan O'Leary observes, subjects it to "joint and co-equal jurisdiction", a clear distinction from its Sunningdale predecessor (and an important one in light of recent DUP actions). This preparation and clear vision of success was equally evident in the policing context, with figures such as the current Irish Ambassador to Canada Eamonn McKee crafting a terms of reference that would underpin the transformation later overseen by the Patten Commission (as Patten himself intimated). McKee, who previously forensically deconstructed the Widgery Report, in response to which Tony Blair initiated the Saville Tribunal, had no qualms in making it clear to NI colleagues that the prior draft policing text "fell well short" of what was needed.

Partition was not the making of people in NI, but nor too was it the making of the generations of Irish ministers and officials who bore witness to the Troubles. They could not simply undo it, or unleash ‘Armageddon’ by deploying military personnel or, as Thatcher seemed to at one point contemplate, relocate northern Catholics into the south.

But most importantly of all, it was not within the gift of the Irish government to impart the wisdom of the intergovernmental, binational solution the British government would only come to collectively accept in the 1990s. With the support of the Irish people, all it could do was try to hasten this, all the while attempting with foresightful British colleagues to make progressive steps in between. At no point was there ever a scintilla of the notion that the north was 'not worth the bother'. In fact, quite the opposite was clearly true.

Darren Litter is a PhD Candidate in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ