Why Northern Ireland was Never "Balkanised
One person was seriously wounded by gunfire and six policemen were hurt in clashes when after the match rioting erupted in the ethnically and religiously split city.No, the trouble this time didn’t take place in Belfast nor Londonderry, but in the Bosnian city of Mostar and occurred between Croats and Muslims, after Croatia lost to Brazil in the 2006 World Cup. Most Bosnian Croats see neighbouring Croatia as their homeland and support the Croatia national team rather than Bosnia.
Police said a large group of fans smashed cars and the windows of nearby buildings in a city square, which was a frontline during the period of the recent Troubles.
A group of youths from the other side of the divide confronted them and police intervened.
Police said there was considerable damage in the overnight violence and 26 people were arrested.
You can probably see certain parallels with the situation back in Northern Ireland and obviously different football team affiliations has caused similar violence on occasions. But too often, the "Balkans=Northern Ireland" comparison is used unthinkingly by lazy journalists, who can’t be bothered reaching beyond the obvious for their metaphors. The scale of the mass-murders, the ethnic cleansing and other related war-crimes which took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo during the 1990s, makes the tragedies of our own thirty years of troubles pale into insignificance.
There are many other, less obvious differences between the two situations.
If we were able to travel back less than thirty years to 1979 and compare everyday life in Yugoslavia with that which existed in Northern Ireland, we would see that, superficially at least, the former was a country which had been much more successful in coping with the religious and ethnic differences amongst its citizens.
In Northern Ireland, the Troubles were ten years old and the ethno/religious centuries-old hatred was manifesting itself in a never-ending cycle of bloody violence. For a tiny country, with a population of just over one and a half million, to be capable of spawning enough evil men and women to cause events like La Mon, the Abercorn, McGurk’s bar is shocking; the fact that these evil men and women got enough tacit support from their communities to enable them to continue their campaigns is an even worse indictment of the collective morality.
Northern Ireland had never been a “mixed” community, the vast majority of people lived, worked and played amongst their own kind. Mixed marriages were rare, integrated schooling non-existent. And whilst there was optimism in the 1960s that maybe one day, normal class-based politics would arrive in the Province, it very much turned out to be a forlorn hope. By 1979, the IRA’s economic campaign had effectively destroyed the country’s industrial base and any potential tourism industry. Not surprising then that the unemployment rate was the highest of any region in Western Europe. Domestic politics was a sick joke (not much change there, then) and unaccountable direct rule from Westminster was the only practical way to govern the Province. Most tragically of all, divisions at a ground level between the two communities were the deepest that they had been at least since the formation of the State.
In contrast in 1979, the Yugoslavs appeared to be riding the crest of a wave.
Amongst the younger generation in the more cosmopolitan cities and towns like Belgrade, Novi Sad and Sarajevo, a distinct Yugoslav (as opposed to Serb, Bosniak,Croat etc) identity and even nationalism had been forged. Out of a total population of twenty-two million, over three million were in either a mixed marriage or were the children resulting from such a partnership. In the most mixed regions, such as Voivodina and even Krajina, the different ethnic communities lived, worked and played together; Serbs bought holiday homes on the Croatian coast, Slovenes and ethnic Magyars white-rafted together in Montenegro.
Economically as well the country thrived, with Tito’s decision in the 1948 to break with Stalin and the subsequent expulsion from Cominform proving to be a masterstroke. Western financial aid rolled into the country and more importantly Washington supported the loans from the IMF and World Bank that would prop up the country’s economy and build up an infrastructure that was unrivaled in the region. With the loans also came a form of liberalisation that was unparalleled anywhere else in the Eastern Bloc. Tito was the first to adopt the attitude,(later followed by Kadar in Hungary), that “whoever is not against us is with us”, a laissez-faire approach, which led to Yugoslavs enjoying, not only much more domestic freedom, but also the right to travel and work in the West.
Yet, despite all these outwardly positive signs, within ten years of Tito’s death, not only had the Federation started to fall apart, but the first of three vicious wars had begun between the various ethnic groups that had previously lived together, reasonably peacefully and harmoniously for over thirty years since the end of World War Two. Within the space of over ten years, the whole region had descended into an orgy of ethnic conflict not seen in Europe since 1945; in Bosnia-Herzegovina alone, it is thought that over 175,000 lost their lives. Huge population movements of threatened minorities took place in Croatia, Bosnia and later Kosovo with the ethnic cleansing of whole communities where different groups of people had lived together often for centuries.
So, the eventual scale of the conflict which occurred in the former Yugoslavia obviously dwarfs that which took place in Northern Ireland during the period 1969-1996. But like Northern Ireland, its roots lay in ages-old national and religious enmities and again, like in Northern Ireland, it had periodically exploded into bouts of blood-letting at different crisis-points in the country’s history.
But given this one similarity between the two regions, why, relatively speaking, was the bloodletting so much more severe in this part of the Balkans than in Northern Ireland?
I think the answer is pretty clear.
Unlike in the former Yugoslavia, the central controlling power (i.e. the British government) in Northern Ireland and its armed forces, by and large, played a heroic role in keeping the two warring sides apart. Milosevic, on the other hand, used terrorists such as Arkan, Karadzic and Seselj to carry out a proxy war against the Croats and Bosniaks; they were organized, directed and supplied with weaponry from the Belgrade authorities. The JNA (the former federal Yugoslavian army) also openly fought alongside the Serb paramilitaries in both Bosnia and Croatia. Without this substantial support from the centre, it’s hard to believe that the ethnic Serbs in both Bosnia and Croatia would have had the capability to carry out the various attacks and subsequent atrocities that they inflicted and which provoked the other ethnic groups into an ever-spiralling round of retaliation.
If at any stage, the Westminster government had played the same role as Milosevic and effectively allowed it's armed forces to join with the UVF,UDA and the other loyalist gangs in an all-out onslaught against the Republican terrorists and more importantly, the areas they operated from; then I’m convinced that we would have had a civil-war every bit as bloody as occurred in Bosnia.
That's not to say that on occasions, collaboration did not take place between certain elements of the British military and both loyalist and republican terrorists. It's also not to condone in any way the murders of innocent people that such collusion caused. But despite the immoral actions of individuals within the armed forces, the long-term aim of the British government and its military forces was always pure and simple, the defeat of the various terrorist groups with the least possible citizen casualties possible.
Republicans will of course argue the validity of this last statement, but think back or ask how bad things were in Northern Ireland in 1979; how bad the inter-communal hatred had become, how many ruthless and psychopathic murderers were operating on both sides, how many atrocities were taking place on a daily basis and answer the question, what or whom prevented Northern Ireland from having its own Srebenica or Sarajevo?
A Belfast IRA Volunteer:
"Maybe you can't bomb a million Protestants into a united Ireland but you could have good fun trying."
Johnny Adair, the loyalist terrorist:
"Kill 'em all. Let God sort them out"
1. "Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement": MLR Smith
2. "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon": Rebecca West
3. "Milosevic": Adam LeBor
4. "The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War": Misha Glenny
5. "A Long Long War: Voices from the British Army in Northern Ireland 1969-98"
CAIN Web Service (Conflict Archive on the INternet):
"This site contains information and source material on 'the Troubles' and politics in Northern Ireland from 1968 to the present."