A long post: you might want a cup of tea with this one.
When the Taoiseach was told the news by the British Prime Minister, they say that his heart actually tightened and he was short of breath. He could have been forgiven if it had been true. England, the PM announced, was pulling out of the United Kingdom. After Scotland’s withdrawal the previous year a wave of introspection had swept south of the border, and suddenly English taxpayers were asking why they were paying billions to a bunch of ungrateful paddies. Enough was enough.
The truth, the PM said, is that we would have pulled out decades ago if it hadn’t been for the IRA. There’s nothing in Ulster for us, but we just couldn’t be seen to give in to the Provos. You know, spirit of the Blitz and all that. But now most English people don’t give a toss. It’ll be like Hong Kong: flag lowered, soldiers in big hats saluting, and that’ll be that. You’ll be the man who united Ireland, the PM said. You can thank me later.
The Taoiseach actually vomited when he was alone. His first reaction had been to beg the Brits not to leave. Where the hell was he going to find €10 billion a year extra to fund the north? Increase USC by two and a half times? But he couldn’t beg, because he knew that both MI5 and the dark shades brigade in Harcourt Street were both recording the conversation, and a leak of the prime minister of Ireland begging the Brits not to leave would get him killed. In Boston, quite literally.
The response in Belfast was actually incendiary. Street parties in West Belfast, rioting to the east. After four days of solid fighting the British Army were once again temporarily deployed.
DUP MPs savaged the PM at question time, but he wasn’t having any of it. Northern Ireland didn’t have a God-given right to English taxpayers money. It was as simple as that.
Opinion polls in England overwhelmingly approved of giving Paddyland back to the paddies. Angry DUP MPs on the BBC and ITV arguing the opposite did little to convince, confirming English viewers with every wave of the bible. A huge march by Orangemen into West Belfast left six dead, and created even more support in England.
In Dublin, the initial euphoria evaporated in days as the numbers started to come in. Aside from the billions needed to prop up the Northern state, the joint Defence/Justice study indicated a need for massive defence spending increases to allow for the PDF to provide support to the PSNI.
Despite the refusal of the DUP to even speak to Dublin about the upcoming withdrawal and how Northern Ireland could be integrated, the British ploughed on, inviting the Irish government to begin deploying Irish troops into the North. With no choice, the first battalions in armoured personnel carriers crossed over the border to much media attention, live on most UK and US news channels. Huge crowds of unionists turned out, waving union jacks and lobbing rotten eggs and fruit at the Irish troops, who had specifically not been issued with live ammunition.
The first car bomb barely damaged the APC, although it did kill the young lieutenant in the turret and nine unionist protesters. The second car bomb, detonated fifteen minutes later in Merrion Square in Dublin just across from Leinster House, happened to explode just as a tour bus passed, killing seventeen American and continental tourists. Then the mob in Belfast attacked the line of APCs, forcing the soldiers to seal themselves inside them. One driver panicked, accelerating into the mob and crushing 12 protesters. Belfast burned that night as British soldiers had to fight off a huge crowd attempting to get at the Irish soldiers inside a British army barracks.
In Dublin, the government met in crisis. The Army man was adamant: the Irish soldiers had been sent in without ammunition to prevent accidental shooting of civilians. But it now put the Irish soldiers at risk. The problem, he pointed out, was that for historical reasons the Irish security forces had little experience or training in the use of non-lethal weaponry like plastic or rubber baton rounds. As with so much in Ireland, our opposition to something had ironically left us only with far worse options, that is, the possible use of live ammunition against protestors.
The intelligence briefing by both the Gardai and Army Intelligence was even more depressing: the British decision to withdraw had united loyalist paramilitaries, and provided new recruits, including many former British Army veterans just back from fighting guerrillas in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s actually worse than that, the minister for foreign affairs reported: both the embassies in Washington and Edinburgh are reporting that fundraising is beginning amongst fundamentalist protestant groups in both countries.
Finance then weighed in. Aside from the eye watering numbers required to fund Northern Ireland in it’s current funding model, Garda and PDF overtime was rocketing.
And that’s before we sharply increase recruitment numbers, the Army pointed out. We have 9000 soldiers in this country, a third of whom are actually deployable. During the height of the troubles, the British had 30,000 in Ulster. And that’s not even taking into account the resources in the mainland UK targeted against terrorism.
Let me be very clear, Taoiseach, the lieutenant general said, leaning forward. His military uniform seemed to transform from its novelty value in a country without a formal military history into something very, very serious. We’re talking 30,000 in Northern Ireland. But if you want the army to assist the Gardaí in the republic as well, with rotation of forces we’re talking 100,000 men and women. And that’s before even considering how many extra specialist-trained anti-terrorist Gardaí we’ll need. He looked to the Garda Commissioner, who nodded her agreement.
Our defence budget is currently €800 million a year. We’ll need about €8 billion a year. Effectively, you’re talking about putting this country on a war footing. The closest comparison I can think of is Portugal trying to sustain its colonies in Angola and Mozambique. This will be a nation at war with the primary purpose of the Irish taxpayer being not to provide healthcare or pensions or social welfare, but to fund a de facto military state. You need to understand that.
The Taoiseach felt the blood draining from his face. His special advisors, party hacks used to the usual point-scoring bunfight nonsense of Irish politics, struggled to comprehend what they were being told. An hour ago one had been having a furious row with a supplier about the size of tricolours to be handed out during the Taoiseach’s ard fheis speech.
The meeting ended with the Garda commissioner and the chief of staff both leaving a thick plan to deal with the short, medium and long term issues for the cabinet to consider. The cabinet balked at the purchasing of rubber bullets and the mobilising of the Reserve Defence Forces. An air of unreality hung over the room. But the decision had to be made.
At five in the morning, the Irish army abandoned their Mowag Armoured Personnel Carriers and clamoured aboard British and Irish helicopters to be evacuated out of Northern Ireland, live on television and to the jeering of the crowds outside the barracks. The images were carried across the world, with UK tabloids delighting in stories of the Irish running away.
In the Irish media and Dail the debate took on that surreal Dance Around The Invisible Elephant air that seems to infect every serious political issue. Every speaker in the Dail spoke in favour of reunification yet attacked the vast costs that were leaking from the government. A Department of Finance proposal for Unity Solidarity Tax, which would increase income tax by about 15%, was not well received.
As usual, a large number of members of the public and their elected representatives wanted to know why the US/EU/UN/IMF wasn’t paying for all this? Another significant group wanted the British get the hell out of Ireland but keep paying for it for historical reasons.
In Britain, support for withdrawal hardened, with the prime minister coming under pressure to pull out faster. One academic on Channel Four News revealed a study that showed that support for withdrawal actually increased every time a Northern Irish unionist went on TV to protest it.
With the deadline for withdrawal approaching the Irish security forces had spent weeks reorienting themselves. Both the Army and the Gardaí massively increased recruitment, and armed Gardai and soldiers were now commonplace across the country. Much to the anger of left-wing protestors waving “No to Irish militarism” signs new equipment including rubber bullets, new armoured vehicles, water cannon and helicopters began arriving, all covered by the media.
Another series of car bombs exploded across the republic, in Cork, Kilkenny and Drogheda, amazingly not killing anybody.
In the media, questions began to be asked by the more contrary of columnists. Do we actually want a United Ireland? But still the political establishment remained firm.
Suddenly, at 1am from the Irish army’s main base in the Curragh in Co. Kildare, it happened, a huge column of 150 vehicles supported by helicopters left the barracks and headed north. All across Ireland, north and south, people were woken by friends to watch the spectacle of what the media dubbed “The Invasion of Ulster”. Unionist protestors mobilised slower than expected, and whilst there was some violence, the vehicles made their destinations, getting ready to prepare for joint patrols with the PSNI and British Army ahead of the withdrawal.
The following morning, the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) declared war on the “Free State (sic) and it’s forces.”
Three hours later, Private Sean Hardy from Leitrim was shot dead by a sniper whilst on a patrol on the Shankill Road. He was to be the first formal Irish casualty of what the CLMC called the Ulster War of Independence.
During the funeral for Pvt. Hardy, as the Taoiseach and President both attended, news came through of a car bomb killing another two Irish soldiers, this time in Derry.
At tea time two Gardaí were shot dead in Cork.
The CLMC claimed all the killings.
The effect of the five security force members on the Irish public was shocking. This was a country that despite its history of terrorism was not used to the idea of its soldiers dying, and certainly not in a pattern that looked like it might be the norm.
The government continued to plead with Northern unionists to meet to discuss how best to manage a new Ireland, but the DUP was concrete on the point. They did not consent to British withdrawal.
Rioting continued in Loyalist areas day after day, with Irish troops firing first dozens then hundreds of baton rounds. Loyalist politicians held press conferences were they waved reams of condemnations from Irish politicians in the past about the used of plastic and rubber bullets in Ulster.
In Galway, an alert Garda spotted two men in a car approaching a Garda checkpoint who then proceeded to smash through, resulting in a soldier riddling the car with bullets, killing the two occupants who turned out to be armed Loyalists with a bomb.
Amnesty International were quick to draw parallels to similar incidents during the troubles of British soldiers shooting cars that tried to ram through checkpoints.
An armed CLMC unit attack on a PDF patrol resulted in a firefight, during which a number of stray rounds penetrated the wooden walls of a small Free Presbyterian church, killing three worshippers. The rioting lasted two days, and Irish embassies in Edinburgh and the US needed heavy police protection from protestors condemning Ireland’s murdering of protestants. A boycott of Irish tourism campaign began.
The budget presented to the Dail in December was unlike any seen by the Irish public. Even with massive borrowing it required tax rises and cuts in non-security spending. The media referred to it as The War Budget. The Economist pointed out that Ireland was now spending more on defence as a percentage of GDP than any other country in the EU or NATO. Opinion polls now showed a majority against a united Ireland. A request from the government to the EU for aid was met with a reminder of Ireland’s sovereign military neutrality.
On New Year’s Day, in Derry, a massive Improvised Explosive Device (IED) destroyed an APC killing the eight occupants. A second one two hours lather badly damaged another APC, killing three of the soldiers inside. PDF investigators working with their British counterparts determined that the weapon was modelled on IEDs used in Iraq, which indicated that recent veterans were part of the CLMC.
In Dublin, demonstrations against the massive social spending cuts, tax rises, and casualties in the North were becoming commonplace.
With a week to go to British withdrawal, a shop-sold €150 drone landed outside Google’s Dublin headquarters in Barrow Street and exploded, shattering windows, injuring dozens and killing two Reserve Gardai trying to clear the street. Another drone was shot down by a quick-witted Garda ERU officer on duty outside Intel’s facility in Kildare.
The CLMC released a statement saying that all foreign investment in the republic would be a priority target until the republic ended its occupation.
A drone, unconnected with terrorism, caused a stampede on Dublin’s Henry street when it appeared over the busy shopping area, resulting in the crushing to death of a pensioner and two children.
The Continuity IRA then announced that it would fight alongside Irish forces to eradicate the “Loyalist traitors of Ulster”, and claimed credit for shooting a lading Loyalist community spokesperson two hours later.
More rioting ensued, with the PDF killing a Catholic teenager with a plastic bullet.
With days to go, the cabinet met in session, with both the chief of staff and the Garda commissioner sitting in.
After six hours of discussion, the Taoiseach addressed the nation.
He had spoken with the British prime minister, he said, and both agreed that the current situation was intolerable. As a result, both had decided that British withdrawal would be postponed indefinitely, and that instead the Irish government would agree to contribute €10 billion to the British exchequer provided the British didn’t leave.
He also informed the country that the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand had agreed to deploy peacekeeping troops under a UN mandate to Northern Ireland.
Across Ireland, armchair Republicans screamed at the TV screen, spilling Dutch Gold and Pringles everywhere.