ANearly 50 years ago, in the early hours of February 2, 1972, the British Embassy in Dublin was ravaged by fire. It was no accident. Huge crowds had gathered to protest outside the beautiful Georgian terrace in Merrion Square throughout the previous day. They cheered as young men climbed onto balconies and smashed a window. They threw gasoline and lit it. A firefight of petrol bombs was triggered by the crowd. People were chanting the slogan they had learned from the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965: burn, baby, burn. The police did nothing to stop the attack.
I was 14 at the time, so I wasn’t there. But some of my older friends were, and I wish I was with them. The assault was organized by the IRA, but most ordinary, peaceful Irish people approved of it. It seemed like the right thing to do, a reasonable response to the massacre the previous weekend in Derry of 13 unarmed civilians by the 1st Battalion of the British Army Parachute Regiment. A woman waiting for a bus in Dublin told the irish time“I felt outraged that the British were doing this and I felt that whatever the good and the bad, they would know how we felt when we burned down their embassy.”
The outrage wasn’t just the atrocity in Derry itself. This is also how the British lied about it, falsely claiming that the paratroopers had come under fire and were protecting themselves from the terrorists. The official Wiggry Inquiry, who essentially repeated this lie, made it clear that the British state had no interest in acknowledging what happened, let alone punishing anyone for what Derry coroner Major Hubert O’Neill, called”outright murder”. In the face of such impermeability, burning down the embassy indeed seemed the only way to let the British establishment know how most Irish people felt.
So 50 years after the founding of the Irish Free State, relations between Britain and independent Ireland were about as bad as they could get. There had been other low points, particularly during the Second World War, when Irish neutrality seemed, to many in Britain, an outrageous betrayal. But relations after Bloody Sunday looked even worse because the massacre was one episode – albeit a particularly disastrous one – in a conflict in Northern Ireland that continued to escalate. (1972 would indeed turn out to be the bloodiest year of the Troubles.) During these months, it was almost as if the two states of these islands were sliding uncontrollably into mutual and violent hostility.
Yet, just eight days before Bloody Sunday, something completely different had happened. British Prime Minister Edward Heath and Taoiseach Jack Lynch had been together in a ceremonial room in Brussels to each sign their country’s accession treaties to the European Economic Community. There are pictures of the two men standing side by side, both beaming with bonhomie. Less than a year after the Dublin embassy fire, the two countries would be close partners in the European project. It is fair to say, moreover, that Ireland owed their place in what was then an exclusive club to their deep economic ties to Britain. On its own, Ireland was too poor to justify a place at the top of Europe. It was admitted essentially in the wake of Great Britain.
It is strange, in retrospect, to see how these two stories played out side by side – one of deep, deep-rooted animosity, the other of intense cooperation; one full of fractures and divisions, the other a common commitment to “an ever closer union” in Europe. In this case, joining the EU has enabled Ireland to wean itself off its dependence on the British economy and achieve much more substantial independence. (One of the many things Brexiters could never understand is this notion that the supposedly oppressive EU could be a pathway for smaller nations out of the dominance of larger neighbors.) But it has also become a school in which the Irish and British governments have learned to work. very closely and respectfully together.
This experience, in turn, made possible the joint choreography of the 1990s, the carefully calibrated steps that culminated in the 1998 peace accord. In 2011, when the Queen became Britain’s first monarch in a century to visit southern ireland, it really felt like this good neighborliness had become a permanent condition, that British arrogance and Irish rage were on display in a museum of historical curiosities.
This illusion of permanence has been shattered by Brexit, not only by the loss of the common ground of EU membership, but also by the refusal to consider the consequences for the island of Ireland. Many Brexiters still see these consequences not as the inevitable results of their own choices, but as some sort of Irish plot to thwart them. There’s a corner of their minds where Brexit would have been a resounding triumph if the damned Irish hadn’t messed it up with their backstops and protocols. Overt attempts by the Johnson administration to tear up agreements on the Irish dimension of Brexit have revived that old specter, Perfidious Albion.
And yet, we should remember 1972. Even at that terrible nadir, the stakes were far too high for Britain and Ireland to allow their relationship to deteriorate into toxicity. Two little things brought them together: history and geography. The two great islands of our archipelago can no more escape each other’s fate than Great Britain can float in the Atlantic far from Europe.
Maybe there are even ways to understand each other better. Some slow learners in Britain have discovered, after only a century, that Ireland is an independent country with its own national interests and relations with Europe. The Irish have discovered that they do not have the monopoly on these islands of identity crises and binary tribalisms. It is new for Ireland to feel like the most stable and secure of the states in the archipelago and new for Britain to face the turbulent aftermath of a nationalist revolution. It may take us some time to get used to these new features. But in far worse circumstances, we found ways to face new realities together.