Belfast’s Troubles echo in today’s Washington
I’ve seen this film before — and I didn’t like the ending.
Violence roiling a society. Soldiers on the streets. Lawmakers in fear that their colleagues will conspire to harm them.
The insurrectionary violence of Jan. 6 ripped away an assurance that many Americans felt — that such strife occurs in other places, not here.
Those of us who come from some other places feel a painful thud of familiarity and a growing dread of what may be to come.
I was born in Belfast in 1974.
The conflict in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles was by then — depending on when exactly you date its start — four or five years old.
By the time the worst phase of the conflict ended with the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, more than 3,600 people had been killed. Those deaths overwhelmingly took place in an area with a population of 1.9 million — roughly the same as Nebraska.
In some ways, the contours of The Troubles are very different from the current American moment. Rival national identities and naked religious sectarianism loomed large.
But there are huge and ominous similarities.
The biggest is a grim equation that holds true everywhere — incendiary words lead to incendiary deeds.
During my youth, the most dangerous demagogue was the late Rev. Ian Paisley.
Paisley was a fundamentalist Protestant preacher and an ambitious politician.
His appeal was built on three often-repeated claims: the majority Protestant population of Northern Ireland was being undercut by a subversive minority; the “plain people” were being sold out by a traitorous establishment elite; and he alone could save them.
Paisley’s politics were overtly religious, his speeches often leaning on scripture. He would no more refer to “Two Corinthians” than he would endorse gay marriage. He once led a campaign against the decriminalization of homosexuality. His slogan was “Save Ulster from Sodomy.”
But in his willingness to stoke tensions, to encourage paranoia and grievance, the comparisons with President Trump are striking.
Once, before The Troubles had taken full hold, Paisley addressed a crowd in a working-class Protestant neighborhood. He called out specific addresses and, according to one authoritative biography, yelled out, “Do you know who lives there? Pope’s men, that’s who!”
A riot ensued.
More than 20 years ago, I reported on a confrontation between marchers at a Protestant church on the outskirts of the town of Portadown and Catholic residents of the nearby Garvaghy Road.
It was like a medieval scene. At night, the Protestants would amass by their thousands, spilling across the church’s graveyard and into the country roads and fields. Law enforcement blocked them from moving toward the Catholic area.
Paisley warned of an imminent “settling day.”
“Anybody here who has any imagination knows what is going to happen,” if the Protestants were not let through, he said. Men clustered around him cheered.
A few days later, Protestant paramilitaries firebombed a nearby home. Three young boys, Richard, Mark and Jason Quinn, were murdered. They were 10, 9 and 8 years old.
The day before they were to be buried, Paisley came back to speak to the militant Protestants. I watched him roaring into the night air. As a rabble-rouser, he was prodigiously talented — and terrifying.
Paisley denied any responsibility for the violence, as he always did. Across decades, he would disavow the deeds he helped incite.
Every so often, I’m asked by American friends about growing up during The Troubles. I’m always leery of over-dramatizing my personal experience.
By the standards of Belfast people of my generation, I escaped lightly.
The things I remember with a shiver are matters of stress not death: Childhood nightmares of gunmen emerging from dark trees; the friend of my father’s whose back was pockmarked by the scars of bullet wounds; the compression of the air as my Dad and I sat at our dining room table and a bomb went off a couple of miles away.
Almost everyone knew someone who had been bereaved. Almost everyone knew someone whose daily routine involved checking under their car for a bomb or scanning the street for danger.
Now America is edging toward the same kind of ongoing catastrophe.
On Thursday, Rep. Peter Meijer (Mich.), one of the 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach President Trump, told MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson, “Many of us are altering our routines, working to get body armor. … It’s sad that we have to get to that point. But our expectation is that someone may try to kill us.”
Earlier in the week, three Democratic lawmakers, or members of their staff, suggested that their political opponents could be putting them in mortal danger.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) said she believed GOP lawmakers had facilitated “reconnaissance” tours the day before the riot.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said that she had felt endangered, even at a supposedly secure extraction point in the Capitol complex, for fear that Republicans would give up her location to the mob.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s (D-Mass.) chief of staff said panic buttons had been ripped out of her office by persons unknown.
I have lived in the United States since 2003. For at least 10 years, I’ve told friends about my worries that widespread political violence would ignite here.
It’s too late for those warnings now.
The question is now whether the violence can be quenched. If it is not, do not underestimate how long or how ruinously it could rage.
My Dad is in his 80s now. He sometimes tells a story of a casual conversation with an older woman in Belfast just as The Troubles broke out.
How long did he think this strife might last, she asked him.
Maybe a year or two, he guessed.
“My God, I hope it’s not that long,” she said.
It lasted 30 years.
The flames are burning in America now.
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