When the general consensus declares a decade to be hip again, the difficult truth that a ten-year period is not a self-contained entity in which everything and everyone adhered to a specific train of thought forces the fashionista to cherry-pick the highlights. Therefore, whenever the 1960s are in vogue, we get mini-skirts, Beatle hair and hippie threads; we don’t get 60s-themed fancy dress parties with guests turning up dressed as Vietnamese peasants with their napalm-fried flesh hanging off. The 1970s have been periodically dipped in and out of for the last twenty-five years, but again it’s a very narrow vision of afro wigs and platform soles. At one time, this could be attributed to the fact that those quick to embrace the image weren’t actually there; post-Yewtree, it could be down to a need to pluck the positive from a barrage of retrospective negativity perpetrated by hypocrites who actually were there.
One aspect of the 1970s from a British viewpoint that could do without being revived is one that spanned the whole decade and beyond, only officially ending a couple of years away from the dawn of the twenty-first century. Whilst the dress sense of its practitioners during their 70s peak seems unlikely to be seen on the catwalk this summer (unless a top designer decides tank-tops are chic), the activities of Irish Republican dissidents have slowly edged back onto the periphery of the headlines.
With Sinn Fein politicians having held prominent posts in the Northern Ireland Assembly since its inception and former IRA bigwig Martin McGuinness having gone so far as to play host to the Queen, any resurgence of old-school Republicanism does seem reminiscent of Japanese soldiers still hiding out on remote Pacific islands because nobody told them the Second World War was over. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of non-sectarian political systems that followed in its wake has served to transform Northern Ireland for the better in the space of a generation, and the PR that has promoted Ulster in the last fifteen years has been almost wholly positive. Anyone old enough to recall even the 80s will remember how no national news bulletin was complete without the announcement of another callous assassination on the streets of Belfast or Londonderry or in those rural outposts the British Army referred to as ‘bandit country’. Thankfully, casual murder in Ulster no longer forms part of the daily headlines.
However, this is a corner of the United Kingdom where some communities remain physically divided by huge Berlin Wall-like edifices given a collective name that Donald Trump’s team might consider when it comes to their plans for Mexico – Peace Lines. Erected to replace the makeshift barriers of burnt-out cars and old furniture hastily shoved together at the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, the Peace Lines separate Catholics and Protestants in the notorious interface neighbourhoods of Derry and Belfast. Some are as high as 25 feet, some are as long as three miles, and – rather remarkably – more have been built since the Good Friday Agreement than before it. They both represent and perpetuate an Us and Them mindset that continues to fester in the poorer quarters of Ulster despite the progress of the past couple of decades, building on the bigotry passed down the generations to communities on both sides of the divide.
It’s no real surprise that the worst excesses of Nationalism live on in such neighbourhoods; I doubt there’s much else that can provoke passion when former Republican heroes like McGuinness are seen lording it up at Stormont. Most would be of the opinion that McGuinness has done his bit for the Cause, but if your daily existence revolves around the limited opportunities on offer in a sink estate as bad as any in mainland Britain – with the additional grim feature of a 25-foot wall greeting you first thing on a morning – the sight of Martin McGuinness being driven in a Ministerial limousine en route for tea and scones with Her Majesty probably feels less relevant to Republicanism than a mural marking an incident that occurred in the seventeenth century.
The various IRA splinter groups that have continued to operate on a small scale since the Provos decommissioned their arsenal have often filled their time either controlling the illegal drug supplies in and out of Northern Irish cities, indulging in bank robberies and petty crime, or simply ‘policing’ their areas with the same ruthless notions of law enforcement that are characteristic of the dark days of the 70s. Recent attacks on individuals in Northern Ireland have sounded distinctly paramilitary in nature; when someone is shot in the legs, one cannot help but remember the horrible punishment known as ‘knee-capping’.
The language used by the group calling itself ‘The New IRA’ – a method of distinction presumably along the lines of what distinguishes The Seekers from The New Seekers – has a ring of the bad old days about it and yet also possesses an inherent and curious quaintness that renders it almost comical, declaring its members are ‘determined to take the war to the age-old enemy of our nation’. One could positively wince at the clichés. Just as some political parties seem happier in permanent opposition than in government, there are clearly many disgruntled diehards in Ulster who will never accept what is good for the province as a whole and can only relate to what makes their lives feel fulfilled, thriving on chaos rather than submitting to order.
That their activities have apparently caused the threat of mainland Republican attacks to rise up the charts for the first time since the 90s must have made their day and vindicated their futile attempts to drag the British Isles back forty years. Expecting this deluded little outfit to compete with the blood-chilling professionalism of the new kids on the terrorist block, however, is a bit like watching the corner shop take on Waitrose. The majority of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland have moved on. As have the British troops that provided the paramilitaries with their violent raison d’être. Wake up and smell the century, chaps.
© The Editor