If the last several days of small-scale rioting in Derry has proved anything, it is the ability of violence – whatever the political or communal motivation – to quickly resurface in a region where intermittent armed conflict has been the norm since the second decade of the 20th century. Of course, one could argue that the clashes between nationalist youths in the city and officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the United Kingdom’s armed police force in the Six Counties, were motivated in part by thuggish sentiment. Teenage boys and young men, out of school or out of work, in an area of high employment and endemic social problems pushing back against the visible representatives of law and order during a week of warm weather. To this could be added the incentive or organising spirit of locally-strong Irish republican groupings who advocate militant opposition to the UK’s continued occupation of the north-east of the country.
However to dismiss the recent riots as entirely the work of “hoods” and “dissidents” is to deny the past and present reality of Britain’s legacy colony on the island of Ireland, a contested territory perpetually on the edge of crisis and consistently blighted by violence from within and without. In the absence of a fair and equitable peace or in a time of extreme political uncertainty, which Brexit and the rise of Greater English nationalism has given us in bucketfuls, the Six Counties will always return to its default setting of communal strife. To paraphrase the recently resigned UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Boris Johnson, in his rejection of Theresa May’s proposed compromise deal with the European Union, you can’t polish a turd.
So we should treat with extreme caution the words of those commentators and specialists who confidently predict that a “hard border” in Ireland, born of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU, will not revive the so-called Troubles or violent conflict which disfigured the north-eastern part of the island from 1966 to 2005. They may be right, in so much as that war is over, never to return. But a war, a physical and political contest of some sort between communities or parties, could still be triggered if the Brexiteers, the europhobics and hibernophobics, the ultra-nationalists and empire revanchists, in London get their way.
And for any who doubt such a pessimistic scenario, look at the events in Derry and Belfast over the last week: from limited rioting, arson and intimidation by young nationalists and unionists, to organised attacks by the militant anti-British New IRA and the militant pro-British UVF, to indiscriminate paramilitary assaults against Sinn Féin and terrorist negotiations by the DUP, to community events celebrating or calling for sectarian discrimination and murder, to the heavy-handed tactics of the PSNI and the suspected presence of covert UK military personnel, all taking place while Britain’s government stumbles from crisis to crisis, beset with factionalism and Trump sycophancy, uncaring of what happens in its colonial powder keg across the Irish Sea.
In truth, whistling pass the graveyard of the Troubles, however well intended, will not exorcise the ghost of violence or keep it bound to its unquiet grave. It just makes it all the more likely to return.