Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Why we should be worried violence could erupt again in Northern Ireland

A loss of faith in peaceful politics can lead to renewed terrorism, argues Malachi O'Doherty

They hated Thatcher and said their first thought, when they heard of the bombing at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, was that supporters of the miners might have done it
They hated Thatcher and said their first thought, when they heard of the bombing at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, was that supporters of the miners might have done it

By Malachi O'Doherty

The best reason for remembering the Troubles period is to work out the danger of a recurrence. I'm not sure that a lot of the recent work has been much use. The weakness in Peter Taylor's appraisal of the period is that he views it as a war. He sees the IRA as an army which ultimately could not be defeated, locked in combat with the British army which could not be overcome.

The IRA itself views its campaign in the same way; grounds enough, I'd have thought, for doubting it.

The recent opening of documents related to the first talks between Sinn Fein and British government officials shows Martin McGuinness offering this precise description of the supposed stalemate.

I'm a revisionist. I get that word thrown at me as an insult, but I see no harm in assessing received ideas of the past and reconsidering them.

My take on the IRA campaign is that it was not really a war at all, if a war is a trial of strength with another army.

The simple fact is that if Britain had declared war on the same terms the IRA had, it would have deployed resources which the IRA could never have matched.

This isn't to say that they confined themselves only to legal measures.

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Special Branch asked for legal guidelines and was refused them by governments which didn't want to define parameters for action precisely. But there were limits to the brutality.

The GOC Henry Tuzo, we now know, proposed that IRA enclaves might be attacked with Carl Gustavs (mortars).

Secretary of State William Whitelaw's televised announcement before Operation Motorman in 1972 was originally proposed as a warning to non-involved civilians to flee to escape the bombardment that Tuzo thought was required to invade the no-go areas.

A British army that was left free to fight a war as Tuzo intended, with little regard for the safety of civilians, would have annihilated the IRA.

The IRA was a protest movement using murder and sabotage the way a tenants' group might throw a dead rat at a landlord. It had no power to overwhelm the British and drive them out.

Nor did it have the capacity to manage the territory in the event of it being vacated by the enemy.

The only course open to it in the end was the one it took, to build a political movement that could realise some measure of power when the killing stopped.

The objective of the IRA campaign was to veto any political progress other than on its own terms yet it was only in the latest stage that the prospect of participating in a remake of the politics here became possible. Had it stopped earlier it could have been safely ignored by the other parties.

Which is to say that there was a logic to what it did.

One of the biggest questions over the campaign is why it was tolerated, even indulged by part of the Catholic community.

The IRA may have been indulged by some precisely because it was not fighting a credible war, was not going to overthrow the government and replace it. There was a limit to the threat it actually posed.

It is not plausible that people really saw the IRA as defenders since they were always going to be safer when the campaign stopped.

Simple fear was part of it. The IRA killed those it accused of reporting its activities to the police so there was a lot to be afraid of. But there was also a degree of empathy that often fell short of full approval.

This indulgence was then more easily defended when the state or the media effected a moral outrage that enough people didn't feel they were entitled to.

There will be times when people who don't support violence at all will say something like, 'well, you can understand why they did that'. Or, 'he had it coming to him'.

We have all heard comments like these from friends who would never actually have endorsed those attacks themselves.

The killing that leaves people with a sense of satisfaction, even secret and shameful, will not be as vehemently condemned as the killing that wholly appals.

Many unionists and even some in the SDLP were ambiguous about the shooting of Gerry Adams in 1983, arguing that he had brought it on himself.

The poet Brian Lynch has written about how people in a newsroom he worked in cheered the news of the Aldershot bomb.

A society is in a precarious position when a lot of people will respond to murder like that.

Those who will use violence for political ends can build a support base, or at least be tolerated, when they can persuade even detractors that they are at least no worse than those they attack.

So, if we are looking for lessons from the Troubles there are some obvious ones.

Such as that when people lose faith in the functioning of government, opportunities arise for those prepared to use violence to grab power and influence.

Practically every eruption of violence in Ireland since the United Irishmen has followed a sharp loss of faith in peaceful politics as a mechanism for change.

That experience should worry us today.

In the mid-Eighties I was hitchhiking in England and got a lift from a bunch of lads in a van. They were English. They had no knowledge of or interest in the Troubles. They were not IRA supporters, but they thought that the bombing of the Tory party conference was a great thing.

They hated Thatcher and said their first thought, when they heard of the bombing at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, was that supporters of the miners might have done it. And that would have pleased them. These are the kind of people the state has to reach when the bombing starts, the sneaking regarders, the ones who would never have placed the bomb themselves but are somewhere between grimly understanding and plain glad.

They are the ones who create space for the insurgent.

And they are the ones the state fails to reach when it treats the bomb as an act of war rather than as a gesture of protest.

Britain is ripe for mass protest now, and in that atmosphere there will be more people than usual who would nod approval if it went too far. If that happens we will need a clear headed understanding of how violence emerges out of bad politics, not superficial myths about war and stalemate.

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