Hotel Europa in Belfast must be one of the most shot in modern history. The times I spent the night in that besieged fortress in the seventies and eighties was an anthill of spies and journalists exchanging information in all directions, false or almost always interested. I was able to decipher six different intelligence services in that hotel surrounded by wires and with their phones punctured in rooms with hidden cameras.
In Ulster there was a civil war between Protestants and Catholics or, rather, between Protestant paramilitaries and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which raised an open confrontation with the British state, which had deployed thousands of soldiers in the province of Northern Ireland.
The more than 3,500 deaths from IRA terrorist violence were the nightmare of all London governments until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, accepted by London and Dublin and most northern political forces. from the south.
For the first time since the island's political partition a hundred years ago, Protestant political parties won the election with a commitment to be an inseparable part of the United Kingdom. They were a majority and, in addition, they drew an imaginary but real and radical line of separation with the Catholic minority. I remember an interview with MP and Rev. Ian Paisley in his Belfast office. My contempt for Catholics was so great that, being Spanish, he described me as a "papist"; he got up from the table, dashed a line on the floor with a cane, and asked me to ask him questions from more than two feet away.
Intolerance and hatred were the currency of exchange between the two communities. Ireland was the nightmare of Victorian England, it caused the fall of governments in London by the famous home rule, which never satisfied anyone. The Easter Rising of 1916 resulted in the summary execution of its top leaders. Éamon de Valera was saved from being born in New York to an Irish mother and a Spanish father. Then came the Civil War of 1921 and the separation of Ireland from the empire with the partition of the island, with six of the nine counties of Ulster becoming a Protestant-majority British province, much richer. and stronger than the Catholic minority.
In Edgar Morin's latest book, Lessons from a Century of Life, he says that one of the lessons that has been offered to him for more than a hundred years is to see that the permanence of the present does not exist, nor does it predict the future. There are no still photographs in the villages. Human history, he says, is relatively intelligible a posteriori but always unpredictable a priori.
No one had predicted that Sinn Féin would win the local elections in Ulster. For years, Sinn Féin was presented as the political arm of the IRA and a possible interlocutor for resolving the conflict. The most unexpected thing is that the victory in the province of Northern Ireland did not come from a campaign for a referendum to unify Ireland, but the central axis was the promise to fight the high cost of living. He has not won with the nationalist demands, but with the social ones.
The winner, Michelle O’Neill, will not hold a referendum on unifying the island, but as Ernest Renan said about Alsace and Lorraine, we will never talk about it but we will always think about it. The unexpected paradox is that an election in the British stronghold of Ireland puts the possibility of the hitherto unthinkable unification of the island on the Irish collective imagination.
The British difficulties are the Irish opportunities, it was said in the nationalist circles of Dublin, before and after the independence of 1921. The historic victory of Sinn Féin has not obeyed Irish sentimental or patriotic issues. It has been one of the many consequences of Brexit, led and executed by Boris Johnson, who boasted that living outside the European Union would be better.
But the poorly and historically exploited Republic of Ireland is richer than the British province of the north of the island. Belonging to the EU has been a key factor for a party with European unity on the horizon to win for the first time. England is leaving Europe, Ulster is looking for long-term Irish unity, and Scotland is waiting for a new referendum. To date, Brexit has been a mistake and a bad deal.