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Feehery: The lesson of Irish history

Britain’s King Charles III and Queen Consort meet with members of the public during a visit to Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland, Sept. 13, 2022. As King Charles III arrived in Northern Ireland for the first visit since his mother’s death elevated him to the throne, the voices of Belfast offered a sharp reminder of the country’s complicated bloody political realities. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

You can learn a lot from Irish history. 

In the aftermath of the Easter Rebellion of 1916, the British unwisely executed several of the Irish rebels. What was initially seen by most Irish as the annoying action of fringe actors would become a romantic revolt that electrified an entire populace and would lead to the Irish Free State.  

The Biden administration seems to be making the same mistake in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot. Instead of calling it what it was, an unfortunate day of mayhem and violence, Democrats have tried to play it as an organized insurrection. By over-reacting, the Justice Department is making martyrs of a bunch of fringe actors.  

In Ireland, history never dies and is never forgotten. The fact that the declining British empire still retains control over most of the Ulster province makes it awfully hard for Irish nationalists to forgive and forget. 

It has been a quarter-century since Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Clinton, along with former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine), brokered the Good Friday Accords, and like most peace agreements, this one has had its share of ups and downs. Brexit threw a monkey-wrench into the jerry-rigged agreement, meant to bring the IRA in from the cold and stop the vicious sectarian violence that raged in the island for the last couple centuries.  

But Brexit also laid bare a real truth. The British have no business being in Ireland. It’s not just a matter of settling old historic scores. It is also a matter of practical reality. Most Irish, in both the South and the North, want to remain part of the European Union, while a majority of the English voted to leave. Whatever awkward agreements that the EU and the UK have used to paper over the differences, the cleanest solution would be a united Ireland. And demographics being what they are, Irish Catholics have the votes to not only occupy the first chair in the Northern Irish assembly, but the votes to finally unite Ireland.  

The threat of new violence from unionist paramilitaries is the chief reason that Ireland is not united today, that and a reluctance from politicians from the Republic who don’t necessarily want to push the point for domestic political reasons. Most Irish citizens don’t care that much about the North and certainly don’t want to pay a huge price for Irish unification. They are much more worried about the high cost of housing, the worsening energy crisis and the lingering impact of the COVID-19 shutdowns.

Having travelled to the North extensively over the last four years, I have a special appreciation for the concerns of the unionist community, who used to worry about the overwhelming influence of the Catholic Church and now worry about Ireland’s near-total rejection of religion of any kind. The cultural gap between the two communities is vast and seems to be getting larger, and those cultural differences make it hard for a seamless integration of the economies of the North and South. The unionists love their British pound while the nationalists fully embrace the Euro, for example.  

Getting to peace and reconciliation is a very difficult thing, as we are learning here in the United States. America was seen as the essential player in pushing the nationalists and the unionists to the bargaining table. Now, the Irish look at the George Floyd riots and Jan. 6 and wonder if they should be coming to the rescue of a hopelessly divided America.  

Later this week, there will be a series of events, including the American Ireland Fund dinner and the House Speaker’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day Lunch, where Catholics and Protestants, Sinn Fein and Democratic Union Party representatives, Republicans and Democrats, will all get together to celebrate Ireland and America’s special bond with both Ireland and the United Kingdom. The hope is that both the Irish and the Americans can learn from Irish history and chart a path forward that leads to long-lasting peace and prosperity for all sides. We can all learn a lot from Irish history. One lesson is that ongoing conflict is bad for everybody.

Feehery is a partner at EFB Advocacy and blogs at He served as spokesman to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and as a speechwriter to former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).  

Tags Biden Brexit Clinton Easter Rebellion of 1916 European Union George Mitchell January 6 Northern Ireland peace process Reconciliation Tony Blair

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