Twenty five years ago today in Kent, UK, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) detonated a 15-pound bomb within the Royal Marine Music School. The blast killed 11 members of the Royal Marine Band Service, and wounded 21. Most of the victims were teenagers. The attack holds resonance for the age and number of the victims and the location. To this point, the majority of IRA bombings had occurred within Northern Ireland.
At 8:27 AM, the explosion rang out over the calm suburban area. It was powerful enough to be heard two miles away. The three-story building collapsed, trapping victims beneath rubble. By 8:30 PM, the local police had confirmed ten dead and were missing two, feared dead and buried beneath the rubble. The eleventh casualty came one month later; he died in the hospital from his injuries.
The PIRA saw itself as the true successor to the original Irish Republican Army (1917-1922), and often referred to itself, and was referred to, plainly as the IRA. Beginning in 1969, the PIRA launched a campaign against British rule in the north. The attack on the Marine School came in the 20th year of British occupation of Northern Ireland.
This particularly bloody memory of the long and violent era of Northern Ireland’s occupation provides a lens for current conflicts. Taking a look back, we can see that while treaties have been signed and troops removed, there is still incredible tension in Northern Ireland, stemming from divisions imposed by the British Empire.
Following partition, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland faced institutional discrimination. Employment and public housing discrimination caused many North Irish Catholics to immigrate. Those who stayed formed a Civil Rights movement (their marches were frequently interrupted by loyalists.) Civil unrest began to boil over in the mid-1960s as Irish Catholics in the North drew inspiration from the American Civil Rights movement.
Northern Ireland erupted in August 1969. “The Troubles” began with the Battle of Bogside. Irish Nationalists in Derry, Northern Ireland, threw stones at a parade of "Apprentice Boys" (a protestant fraternity). Massive rioting broke out in Derry and spread over the whole of Northern Ireland August 14-17. The PIRA established itself as a defence force for the Catholic minority in these days.(The IRA would gain far more political clout following the Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1972, during which the British shot 26 peaceful protestors, killing 13.)
The Battle of Bogside and subsequent rioting inspired the British Armed Forces "Operation Banner" - the occupation of Northern Ireland. Operation Banner began in August 1969 and ended in July 2007, making it the single longest campaign by the British Armed forces (at nearly 38 years).
Following the The Good Friday Agreement, construction of "Peace Lines" by the British government in the cities of Northern Ireland increased exponentially. Peace Lines are massive concrete walls dividing nationalist (Catholic) and loyalist (Protestant) communities. Through the early 2000s, construction of peace lines boomed. the British began building walls in 1969 but, as they planned to remove troops, decided it was necessary to double down. Walls have been built most extensively in Belfast, but also Derry, Portadown and several other urban centers.
Discussions have surfaced for the potential removal of peace lines in Northern Ireland. The North Irish Executive branch of government has planned for the removal of all peace lines by 2023. However, the issue is still contentious. Many in North Ireland support the walls as necessary for security.
A conflict defined by fear has no easy solution. The failure to defend minority rights in the North created divisions that democracy could not solve. Referendums and polls of North Irish continually establish that the majority is loyal to the UK and unwilling to join the whole of Ireland. However, the North Irish Catholics often boycotted these referendums so as to call into question their legitimacy (much like Crimea).
The bombing in Kent, The Bloody Sunday Massacre and all acts of violence perpetrated by the PIRA and British Armed Forces created deep mental scars in The UK and Ireland. They rationalized general fear on both sides. Today, the North is not separated so much by institutions as it was before occupation; instead self-segregation divides cities, along with the cement barriers.
Garrett Connolly is an editorial intern at Warscapes
Image via Logos Books & Records