Monday, December 27, 2004

Considering the Counterfactuals in Northern Ireland

I mentioned recently that I was writing an evaluation of the book Losing Control by Paul Rogers, professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University. This overlaps with some of the discussion at Frank's , where our old friend the lethal passive voice has made an appearance "...a lot of lives were lost..." This turn of phrase, relating events without apparent human causes e.g. "bank managers had their families kidnapped and threatened with death" is long familiar with anyone forced to listen to spokesmen for "the republican movement".

I've often wondered as to whether there was an end to the conflict which didn't involve the distasteful step of political negotiations with the IRA. This is probably a solution which would have appealed to most Unionists, vindicating a view of the conflict as being a simple case of good contending with evil and perhaps precluding the need for any reform to the province's system of government. Many citizens of the Republic also have problems with the IRA's violence; perhaps a body of opinion at least as large as Sinn Fein's current electorate are strongly hostile to any coalition involving them.

For his part, Paul Rogers, dismisses as "liddism" the view that conflicts such as that in Northern Ireland or more generally can be dealt with using police and military action without attending to what he contends are their direct causes, namely economic inequality and environmental limits. I think that there are plenty of examples to the contrary that indicate otherwise.

In Ireland, both north and south, the IRA had four phases of conflict. Only one, the 1916-1922 Anglo-Irish War, and even that ended in partition, resulted in anything other than an unambiguous defeat.

The Civil War saw Republicans face military tribunals, summary execution and unacknowledged extra-judicial killing by the government.

During the "Emergency", internment was again used to control the IRA, many of whom had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Others went on to seek support from Nazi Germany. Some, such as Frank Ryan, did both; Ryan may have found himself subject to the uniquely persistant persuasion of the Germans after he was caught in France after the German invasion, but the link is stain on the IRA's reputation ever since.

The border campaign of the fifties again saw internment, this time carried out simultaneously on both sides of the border, and ended in humiliating failure, with much of the movement changing to a more socialist direction, ascribing the defeat to the futility of violent sectarian nationalism not rooted in solving the social problems of the working class.

(This period also brought about the most self-parodying of traditional Irish rebel songs, honouring Limerick IRA man, Sean Sabhat of Garryowen. These ballads follow a rigid convention, narrating how pure and noble patriots are cruelly martyred at the hands of perfidious Albion. Somehow, the lyrics of this one always makes me laugh, telling as it does of Sabhat being undone by the unprecedented treachery of their intended target in a border RUC station, "...the sergeant foiled their daring plan, He spied them thro' the door.")

Was the IRA, in its Provisional incarnation defeated? Not completely, but it was undoubtedly contained. If I had to choose a turning point, it would encompass the period between 1986 and 1992. The capture of the arms shipment on the Eksund scuppered the Provo's plan for an Ulster-version of the Tet Offensive, the surprise holiday-time attack by the Viet Cong on the Americans. That may have been fortunate for them. It doesn't seem to have occurred to the geniuses on the Army Council that Northern Ireland is not richly endowed with vast jungle canopy for guerrilla armies to hide under and no safe haven for retreat and resupply existed by then in the Republic.

Death squads, operating with some degree of support from within the security forces, created considerable pressure not just on the IRA but on Sinn Fein by assassinating activists and their families.

The centralisation of the IRA structure made the organisation more vulnerable to infiltration, with suspected intelligence failures apparent in the ambushes of IRA members attacking in Gibraltar and in Loughgall.

Adding to growing defeatism was the increased questioning of the legitimacy of the IRA's violence. As an increasingly political organisation, Sinn Fein felt the pressure from the high-profile butchery in Enniskillen, in the bombing of the Shankill Road and the deaths of two children in Warrington.

As well as the White House, the Congressional leadership of Senator Kennedy and Speaker Tip O'Neill squelched for the IRA as both the UK and US faced terrorism around the world, especially in the Middle East.

Over time, violence was increasingly directed either towards powerless victims among Catholics or targets in Britain, with economic damage prioritised over inflicting casualties. By the second ceasefire, both the team who bombed Canary Wharf in February 1996 and their sniper had been imprisoned.

Overall, it's perhaps a polite and useful fiction that the IRA were victorious in their "war".

Rogers gives other examples of popular insurgencies, all eliminated by states responding with violent repression rather than negotiation or economic or environmental reform. The Fujimora administration ended the rebellion of the Shining Path. Insurgents in Egypt and Algeria faced uncompromising crackdowns: Unrestrained violence by the rebels eventually alienated the public and even middle-class Islamists, leading to the isolation and defeat of the militants, as the French Arabist Gilles Keppel describes in his book Jihad.

Withdrawal of support from outside powers seems to have played a vital role in successful revolutions in Cuba, Nicaragua and Iran. For example, while Khomeini’s innovative ideology mobilised Iranians, the collapse of the Shah’s authority over the army and the perception that America would not use force to support him were crucial Fred Halliday writes.

Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and other states may be repeating these experiences, as economic instability and disgust at casualties among the domestic population weakens the support for anti-government forces fighting their own national governments, while credible outside support remains firm, even in the absence of significant reform.