Cliff May

Dublin — In 1978, I was a young foreign correspondent assigned to cover “the Troubles,” the conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, between those loyal to the British Crown and those determined to make Ireland a united and independent nation. There were “paramilitaries” on both sides. Terrorism — bombings, assassinations, and other forms of violence targeting civilians for political ends — was among the principal weapons employed. But in at least one way, terrorism was different then: Although I sometimes worried that I might end up on the wrong Belfast street at the wrong time, I was confident that no one saw me as a target. Journalists were neutrals. “Loyalists” and “Republicans” alike were eager to tell me their stories, and have me retell those stories to distant audiences. Without fear, I would sit down with hard men and ask tough questions.

At some point over the years since, new technologies and ideologies brought changes that became obvious when the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl took his notebook and pen to a 2002 meeting with terrorists in Karachi. They had a different approach to shaping the narrative — one that would entail beheading Pearl on camera and posting the video on the Internet. The Troubles wracked Northern Ireland for almost 30 years. More than 1,500 people were killed. In those days, that was a serious number. But early in the new century, nearly twice as many innocent people would be killed on a single day in New York, Pennsylvania, and Arlington, Va. Meanwhile, in Syria over the past year, a conflict with ethno-religious-political undercurrents has taken some 20,000 lives. Perceiving this as an inflationary trend does not inspire optimism.

George Will, the venerable columnist, once cited Northern Ireland as one of the world’s two “intractable” conflicts. The other was what was then known as the Arab–Israeli conflict, today more usually called the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, though in reality it is now Islamist regimes and movements that are most seriously waging what they call a jihad against Israel.

Will was wrong about Ireland. The Troubles ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Two Northern Irish politicians, John Hume and David Trimble, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — a rare occasion on which the awards were actually deserved.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.