Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Armistice Day : Peace in our Time?

Today is the 90th anniversary of the ending of World War One - the Great War. The guns fell silent and peace came to the world. Or not, as the history books are quick to remind us. As has often been said, this was supposed to be the war to end all wars, and yet on our troubled island, the conflict was not long in starting again.

You see, in 1914, Ireland was divided into unionists and nationalists. Some wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and some wanted to have Home Rule - probably the best they were likely to get short of full independence. When the war began, both sides sought to prove their loyalty to the British, and to have leverage over the government when the war ended, so that the British would honour their claims. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Irish Volunteers both signed up to the war effort. Meanwhile, some of the Irish Volunteers stayed behind and launched the Easter Rebellion in 1916.

So on the 11th of the 11th 1918, peace was meant to have arrived. Yet, as we perhaps forget all too easily, Ireland would soon see not one, but two wars within the space of five years.

The December 1918 General Election showed a massive surge of support for Sinn Fein, and those MPs held a meeting in Dublin where they declared themselves to be the Parliament of Ireland - the Dail Eireann. The very same day that the first meeting of the Dail was held, was the day that the War of Independence started, with the murder of two RIC men in Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary. Less than two months of peace, and Ireland was at war.

The British Government moved on with the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which created the two Home Rule Parliaments in Belfast and Dublin. Only the Northern Ireland Parliament ever sat under this Act, as the Dail claimed to be the rightful assembly for the rest of the island.

To return to our main theme, though, it appears that history is repeating itself, as we can learn from the end of the War of Independence. Michael Collins and several colleagues travelled to London to sign the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, which recognised Dail Eireann and also promised a Border Commission to evaluate the final border between the South and the North. Yet Collins, in the end, was not speaking for the whole republican movement - dissidents existed even in 1921.

The Republican movement was split between those who were pro-Treaty, and those who were anti-Treaty (holding out for the whole island's independence). The War of Independence was over, but the Irish Civil War began, and would see two years of bloody conflict.

If anything, this period in Irish history reminds us that yesterday's IMC report is not surprising. The republican movement always seems to divide when there are agreements to be reached. The dissidents are still active. Peace in our time? Let's hope that on this Armistice Day, ninety years since the end of the Great War, Ireland will not be plunged into war yet again by the Real IRA or the Continuity IRA.

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