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Chilcot said brokering of deal by British Army in Iraq with enemy militia was 'a humiliation' - in Northern Ireland it was known as peace process

Anyone who dared oppose Tony Blair's appeasement of the IRA was labelled an enemy of progress, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 08/07/2016

Lord Chilcot’s report criticised Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq
Lord Chilcot’s report criticised Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq
Tony Blair and George Bush were behind decision to invade Iraq

According to the AA route planner, the distance between Belfast and Basra is 4,062 miles, or 6,537 kilometres if you're one of those traumatised, metric-friendly young people who are now apparently too embarrassed to go out in public after the UK voted to leave the EU.

The symbolic distance between Britain's political strategy in those two places is much smaller, as Sir John Chilcot's contentious report into the Iraq war shows.

So far public attention on the report has concentrated on the decision to go to war - dodgy dossier and all - as well as the aftermath of the conflict, when the nation-building that was meant to follow the ousting of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein failed to materialise and the region was left to stew in its increasingly noxious sectarian juices.

Chilcot, however, also goes into how the war was conducted from 2003 onwards, not least the situation in Basra itself, where badly equipped British forces found themselves coming under unexpected pressure at the hands of local militias.

Such was their "dominance" of the area, says the retired civil servant in his two-and-a-half-million-word report, that the UK was forced in the summer of 2007 into making a deal with the terrorists to exchange prisoners involved in the killing of British soldiers in return for a promise of a reduction in violence.

Sounds familiar.

Though what's surprising is not that British forces cut a deal with ruthless extremists, but that Sir John Chilcot is so scathing in his verdict of that decision.

"It was humiliating that the UK reached a position in which an agreement with a militia group which had been actively targeting UK forces was considered the best option available," he writes.

In Basra Chilcot may call this humiliation.

In Belfast it's just known as the peace process.

Here, the British Government didn't even have the excuse that it was on the back foot against the terrorists. By the time the Belfast Agreement was being negotiated by the likes of Gerry Adams the IRA and loyalists - drained of popular support and riddled with informers - were the ones under terminal pressure, but the Blair administration still bent over backwards to offer 'get out of jail free' cards to those who'd killed soldiers and civilians. And not simply to four of them, as in Basra, but hundreds.

That, too, was seen as "the best option available", and anyone who argued at the time that this was the wrong course of action were left to feel as if they were the real barriers to peace.

They're still regarded as such by many. In the past week Michael Gove - who was eliminated from the contest to be next Tory party leader yesterday after coming third in the final ballot of MPs - was painted as little short of a fanatic for once writing a pamphlet called The Price Of Peace, which criticised this appeasement of the Provisional IRA.

Professor Brendan O'Leary, who advised the Labour Government in the run-up to the peace agreement, even called Mr Gove "dangerous for the future of north-south relations and for future British-Irish relations".

That's pretty amazing, when you think about it. A serving minister in the British Government is openly branded a threat to the national security of two countries simply for believing that the IRA got off lightly in negotiations and for saying, as Mr Gove did on TV last weekend: "I am glad about the peace process in Northern Ireland, but, looking back, I think it could have been handled in a different way."

Goodness, lock him up immediately for daring to have a different opinion to the Blairite majority of the day who clearly, as Chilcot has shown, had all the answers to how to make peace and avoid war. Not.

Gove actually used the same words back in 2000 that Chilcot is using now about what happened in Basra, describing the deal to release convicted killers in return for a promise to behave in future as a "humiliation of our Army, police and parliament".

What's the difference?

In a way, what happened here is worse.

The British Army in Iraq was being asked to make difficult decisions in an impossible situation for which it had too little time to prepare, in a region that it didn't fully understand.

Westminster had the benefit of decades of intelligence and research that should have allowed it to tactically out-manoeuvre local paramilitaries on the Falls and the Shankill.

Instead, it was the boys in balacalavas who often seemed to be calling the shots. Iraqi gunmen were released in Basra, but at least those who were still on-the-run at the time didn't get letters of comfort from Her Majesty's Government, assuring them that they could come home at any time without fear of prosecution.

Nor did the British Government sign an internationally binding treaty guaranteeing the terrorists a permanent seat in government as a reward for not being naughty again.

Gove and others believed that there was another way.

We'll never know for certain if they were right, because the Blair Government took a different path.

Maybe a future Chilcot-style report into Westminster's policy in Ulster will criticise that choice as humiliating, too.

What we do know is that the famous pacifist Martin McGuinness is now sitting in his Deputy First Minister office up on the Hill at Stormont, piously ticking off the British Government for not fighting Saddam's fire with daisy chains, group hugs and impromptu choruses of Give Peace A Chance.

What, like you did, Marty?

This blameless, modern-day follower of Mahatma Gandhi's creed of passive resistance even had the cheek to tweet this week: "Still can't fathom how Tony Blair who made such a valuable contribution to peace in Ireland joined George W Bush in the disastrous Iraq war."

Maybe he just thought he could win and that the deaths of so many civilians was worthwhile collateral damage if it got him what he wanted?

Does that sound familiar, too, Deputy First Minister?

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