Northern Ireland, for me and probably for a lot of other largely apolitical people, was rather low on the list of countries I wanted to visit before I die. It's a place that you tend not to think of when you're coming up with holiday plans, like Rwanda, Niger or Iraq. Because personal risk assessment tends to preclude deliberately putting yourself in a situation where you might get caught in the crossfire. Because viewing misery and oppression in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty isn't most people's idea of a pleasant vacation.
Except that Northern Ireland isn't a third-world country. The standard of living is up to that of the rest of the Westernized world. However, it's been so torn by internal strife since its inception that it's difficult to conceive of its inhabitants being able to enjoy fully the luxuries of being a developed post-industrial nation. Despite its member status in the UK, the overarching vision of Northern Ireland to outsiders is one of a divided society constantly under threat of violence.
Michael Collins, one of the Irish republicans who signed the 1921 treaty that divided Ireland into kingdom and republic, said of Northern Ireland: "A large portion of her fair province has lost all its native distinctiveness. It has become merely an inferior Lancashire. Who would visit Belfast or Lisburn or Lurgan to see the Irish people at home? That is the unhappy fate of the North-East. It is neither English nor Irish." His scorn can easily be attributed to his political bias against Britain. Perhaps unwittingly, he makes another point about Northern Ireland. The cultural mix between English and Irish, between Catholic and Protestant, could conceivably produce a rich, colorful, cosmopolitan society. Instead, the sectarian attitudes of a portion of its citizens have produced a tense, unhappy, bitter one, and it continues this way because the militant elements have kept feeding the flames of mistrust.
Our Derry tour guide explained republicanism thusly: an Irish republican is willing to use any means, including violence, to achieve a unified and independent Irish state. A nationalist would restrict him or herself to the avenues of constitutional and peaceful political channels in the hopes of reaching the same end. It's a generalization, but it works fairly well to explain the difference between loyalists and unionists as well (those who favor separatism for Northern Ireland and continued alliance with the British government).
Militant attitudes tend to breed factionalism, as can be seen in the disparate branches of the Irish Republican Army (the dominant Provisionals, the Continuity and the Real) and the Ulster loyalists (the Ulster Defense Association, the Loyalist Volunteer Force and the Ulster Volunteer Force), particularly when the organizations are secretive and reliant on informal networks of trust. Attempts to instigate political change through violence rarely seem to result in the desired outcome for the inciters, which is usually too radical for most of the moderate populace to stomach, especially when they are clearly militarily outmatched. Loyalist paramilitaries probably don't have the arsenal or the manpower to defeat the British Army decisively. It doesn't help that the inciters also rarely seem to have a coherent agenda. For instance, it's ironic that the "loyalists" should be attacking the agents of the government to whom they supposedly proclaim their allegiance.
This, to me, underscores the real intention of paramilitary violence. Whatever political stance a group might take, whatever demands they might make, the agenda is simply to keep the discord going. To open fresh wounds over the ones that never closed in the first place. To ensure that a new generation carries with them a sense of injustice and disenfranchisement, by allowing them to participate, perhaps even before they really understand what they're doing, in some exhilarating destruction. Although on a rare occasion, a violent attack may prove to be the flashpoint for political change, most of them result in retaliatory action of the same ugly, petty flavor as the original. It's a truism to say that violence breeds violence, but until recourse to such means can be shown to be unproductive, paramilitary groups will continue to attract members.
It's heartening that in this case, the government appears to have learned from its past mistakes. The lack of fatalities and the number of injuries sustained by police officers seems to indicate the exercise of restraint and a desire to avoid repeating the kind of mistakes that lead to thirty-odd years of grudge-holding a la Bloody Sunday. The insistence by the chief constable that the Orange Order must face up to its culpability for the rioting helps to send the message that sectarian violence will be considered primarily as a criminal act, not as an agent for political change. There is hope. Perhaps even hope that eventually, Northern Ireland will be able to see its own diversity as a strength instead of a weakness.