Republicans are taking exception to the Belfast City Council's resolve to have a parade past the City Hall next weekend as a mark of appreciation of the service given by Irish soldiers in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is an unremarkable fact. The Army made grave mistakes in Northern Ireland. Innocents died as a result. Republicans, in particular, suffered at the hands of the Army during the IRA campaign. In the end it was called off with its objective not attained. They like to claim that this represented victory in the ‘war’.
But to the Army, it was not a war, in the sense that its personnel were not engaged with a uniformed enemy backed by a rival nation state. It was a guerrilla rebellion; and, in its course, the IRA used civilians freely as cover and often slaughtered them in the process. Facing this strategy, which over years was developed with supremely callous sophistication, the Army found itself — as the IRA knew it would — under grave difficulty. It was not trained to fight a guerrilla war and had to re-train. Its weapons were the heavy-calibre stuff designed for the battlefield. So the Army went to battle with one arm tied behind its back. On the rare occasions when it was unloosed, such as in the counter-ambush of the IRA at Loughgall in 1987, the outcome was clear-cut. It was no contest.
But the difficulty was to fix a balance. The republicans had to be convinced that they would not be allowed to render Northern Ireland ungovernable.But the severity of the Army's assault would be counter-productive if it went beyond this; for each side knew that ultimately there had to be parley — and a parley would be slow to happen if the cup of bitterness on either side were allowed to overflow. The Agreement represented the fruition of the process: each side settled for half a loaf.
In those circumstances, neither side was satisfied. The republicans' object had been to compel British negotiations with Dublin on Irish unity. Most of the supporters of the Army would have preferred the luxury of normal parliamentary government at Stormont. So it was quite predictable that the strange governmental machine which was devised would turn over unevenly. As things stand, it sorely needs the lubrication of mutual goodwill. In other words, having settled for half a loaf, each side must show willing to make the best of it.
That is why the counter-demonstration to be mounted by Sinn Fein on Sunday will do neither side any good. There is some irony in the context of the occasion. The Army's role in both Iraq and Afghanistan has divided the nation to an extent not seen since the Suez debacle of 1956.
If Tony Blair knew his history, he might have hesitated before sending British troops to either battlefield. Even ignoring the cooking of the books on WMD in Iraq, he sold his support of Bush too cheaply. He should have demanded sight of Bush's post-war programme for Iraq. Then he would have found that — incredibly — there was none. As for Afghanistan, the British have always underestimated the Afghans as a foe. In 1841 they rose and massacred an entire British army of 4,500 as it retreated, starving, to India, 90 miles through the snowbound mountain passes from Kabul.
While attempting to parley before the retreat, Sir William Macnaghten, the British resident in Kabul, was murdered and his remains brutally dismembered. Lady Elizabeth Butler's celebrated painting in the Tate Gallery of the exhausted Army medic, Dr Brydon, riding into Jalalabad, the lone survivor, is the mortifying memorial to that disaster. The Macnaghten family home is still at Dundarave outside Bushmills, Co Antrim, and Sir William's commemorative tablet is on the wall of the parish church. His Irish cousins, the three Connolly brothers, also died on the North-West Frontier. So, too, did the three Pottingers from Co Down, one of whom, Eldred, was to succeed Macnaghten as resident at Kabul. So Sunday's parade has a rich lineage in these parts. But the Afghans as a people have never united except under one standard — a joint hatred of foreigners interfering in their tribal affairs.
“What?” exclaimed the recently-retired Governor-General, Lord Bentinck, in 1838, when he heard that an army had been launched against them by his successor, Lord Auckland. “Auckland and Macnaghten gone to war? The very last men I should have expected of such folly!”
But the route to India was hotly contested by European rivals; and the British had most to lose. The outcome, though, was never in doubt. Then as now?