Parallels Between Northern Ireland and America: Can a Nation Born of Violence Ever Find Peace?

ByLawrence Sampson

This weekend in Derry, Northern Ireland, two bombs exploded in the city center. The “Real IRA,” a splinter group of the well known Provisional Irish Republican Army, has claimed responsibility for both attacks. The Provisional IRA formally disarmed in 1998 and officially backs the Good Friday Peace Accords, in place since that time. However, some dissidents never agreed to the peace process or are unhappy with developments since that time. They continue to wage their own conflicts, having split from the PIRADissident groups have become more active in recent months and are a source of growing concern.

All of this begs the question: Can a nation-state born of violence experience life without it? It speaks as much about political reality as it does the human condition. War gets glamorized in art and history, but the carnage it wreaks on the human psyche is impossible to describe. You can only understand it if you’ve known it firsthand. This is not meant to renounce violence as a means to an end, as often violence is the only option available to those wishing to shake off the yoke of colonialism. To paraphrase a quote from Michael Connolly, a hero of Ireland’s struggle for freedom, “I hate the English because violence is the only option they’ve left us.”

We are however left with a maddening sense of reality that violence is the embodiment of Pandora’s box, once opened impossible to contain.  While an unfortunate necessity in many liberation struggles, violence often spirals out of control and continues long after the tangible goals are met. After 800 years of fighting for freedom, will Ireland ever be a country without bombs and guerrilla warfare?

Most American Indians can tell you first hand of the litany of violent campaigns conducted on Indian land over the course of the last generation. While mainstream America and the world believe hostilities ended with the onset of reservation times, every Native American knows the Indian wars are not over. Mini campaigns of violence, complete with military-grade automatic weapons, commonly waged for the natural resource reserves found on or under Indian land, are an ongoing reality for America’s first nations. Out of sight and out of mind of most of America’s populace, the federal government and multi-national corporations wage low-intensity conflicts and use extreme measures to pressure tribal governments into capitulating their natural resource assets. Armed conflicts at Pine Ridge, Gustaffsen Lake, and Kanesatake Indian communities are just a few of the armed battlefields of the last generation.  I have seen firsthand the effects of this ongoing entropy, and know how difficult it is to experience any real tranquility, be it political, personal, or otherwise. As a product of this reality I suffer the question, will my people ever know peace?

Some years ago I was fortunate to visit the Glencree Peace and Reconciliation Centre south of Dublin, Ireland, while it was still under renovation from an old British Barracks. Its founder, Ian White was a visionary in the areas of peace building and post war reconciliation. I will never forget one thing he said to me, “Some people think you can fight war, and then one day declare peace and just expect it to be so. That’s impossible. You must wage peace with at least as much vigor as you waged war, and perhaps for just as long.” I reflect on his words often when I hear of ongoing conflicts, whether they be in Belfast, or Palestine, or Pine Ridge. The transition from war to peace is as much personal as it is political, as much psychological as it is tactical. Accordingly, the pathway from being an old warhorse to a peace builder is fraught with difficulties impossible to describe.

Chief Joseph, the great warrior once said upon his own surrender “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” As a political prisoner who was never allowed to re-enter his homeland I wonder if he ever regretted surrendering. Emiliano Zapata said “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” This causes me to wonder if any warrior ever really retires to see peace on a personal or national level. I consider as well the current victims and purveyors of violence in modern Indigenous conflicts around the world. Whether violence can be the path to peace is yet to be fully realized. For some it appears to be impossible to put down the gun. For the rest of us, time will tell.

David Bailey contributed to this article.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons