The year is 2022. Trump is in his second term. The second incarnation of his administration is more assertive about social conservatism than its predecessor. The New York Times editorial board has ordered its reporters to push the cultural leftist agenda hard, focusing on fringe racist and violent right-wing groups.
One day, the international desk gets a phone call from Dublin. It’s a prominent liberal journalist from The Irish Times. “You need to pick up a copy of The Irish Times today,” he says. “We’ve just done a full spread article on the new Loyalist paramilitary groups. These guys are Trumpists, but way more radical and violent. They’ve just bombed a Sinn Fein LGBT rally. America needs to know what’s going on here.” The journalist says that the new Loyalist paramilitary groups are well-armed, well-trained, willing to use violence, and staunchly socially conservative. Their opponents—those calling for a united Ireland— are from the far cultural left. To American ears, the Loyalists sound almost identical to Bible Belt evangelicals when they talk about social policy; but their actions look like the most feverish manifestations of the liberal political imagination.
This is fiction, of course. But it is likely that something similar will happen in the coming years. Now that the British government has effectively dumped the Democratic Unionist Party and agreed to accept a deal that makes Northern Ireland a separate economic jurisdiction, Irish republicans will push hard to unite Ireland. But given the social changes that have happened in the past four decades, this will not mean trying to unite a Catholic state with a small Protestant minority up North. Rather, Irish republicans will be attempting to pull a socially conservative Northern Ireland into the arms of an aggressively secular South.
The tension is already building on both sides. In mid-October, The Belfast Telegraphthat DUP leaders were trying to ease tensions in the community. The Ulster Defence Association, one of two major Loyalist paramilitary organizations, said rather ominously that they would “wait and see.” This month, a cross-border task force embedded within the Loyalist and republican communities issued a report that Brexit could trigger more violence. Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have a leash on the paramilitary organizations, and so one or two acts of serious violence could easily spark revenge attacks and the Troubles could return.
Even though the South is no longer staunchly Catholic, it will still see the Northern Protestants as aliens. This social conservative minority will likely be viewed as more of a threat to secular Dublin than it ever was to Catholic Dublin. Doctrinal and tribal differences aside, Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants breathed the same air: that of Christianity. Uniting Ulster Protestants with Southern secularists is a different matter, more like mixing oil and water.
In other countries—notably the United States—these two species can exist in relative peace and harmony (so far, anyway). But the situation will be different in the new Ireland. For one thing, the Loyalists have a long history of paramilitary activity and violence and can easily fall back into bad habits. Many of those who took part in the Troubles are still alive—some are not even that old.
Most important, however, the Loyalists will be completely isolated. Westminster wants nothing to do with them. The British politicians see them much as the Irish secularists see them, and the British press echo this sentiment whenever they get the chance. Many in the nationalist-populist Brexit constituency have simply forgotten about this part of their country. The only time they hear of it is when their old ultra-Loyalist grandfather rants at the Christmas dinner table. Given this level of isolation, the clear culture threat represented by the South, and the history of paramilitary violence, it is by no means improbable that the Troubles will start afresh.
Another difference this time around will be how the rest of the world views the Troubles, especially in the United States. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, Americans saw the Troubles as a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. This was not altogether wrong— although by this stage the “Catholics” had become far more socially radical than their New York donor base would have cared to admit. Karl Marx was far more popular among the Irish republicans post-1960 than was the Catechism.
But the new Troubles, if they come about, will be viewed through the lens of the culture war. Indeed, this could well be the first “hot” culture war that we have seen in the modern Western world, and could become an international media spectacle. The cultural left never tires of searching out right-wing terrorism. Usually they must settle for a crackpot or two, a barely coherent manifesto, and a rage-induced murder spree. But the new Troubles would be far more than that.
Westminster’s sidelining of the socially conservative DUP could lead to the rise of a well-established terrorist organization, with an ideology shot through with social conservatism. Their enemy—the Irish state—will be a member of the Global Network of Social Justice in good standing. If this conflict occurs, it could prove important beyond its own small region. It could become a rallying point for people around the world whose hatred for one another is becoming increasingly difficult to contain through civilized procedures and mechanisms.
I have called in the past for a rapprochement between pious Irish Catholics and Irish social conservatives and their unlikely counterparts among the Ulster Protestants. If things get hot up North, this will be the most credible path to easing the tensions. But it would also require a change of government in Dublin.
John William O'Sullivan writes from Dublin, Ireland.