It seems today is the end of an era which has lasted longer than I have been alive. At midnight tonight the British Army ends its operation in Northern Ireland after 38 years of anti-terrorist operations. (Belfast Telegraph or The Guardian)
Despite the recent media-led impression that terrorists are all Islamic, from west-Asia, and only started attacking the west in the last decade, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland have a history of horrific atrocities that were committed by both Catholics and Protestants. For decades Policemen were shot in their living rooms in front of their families, suspected informers were made to “disapear”(The tale of Jean McConville can break the stoniest heart), joyriders were shot dead, teenagers were brutally beaten for having girl/boyfriends from the wrong side of the street etc. As well as this, “low level” terror, the mainland UK in the 1970s and 80s was continually subjected to IRA bomb attacks. The Houses of Parliament were mortared (1991), the Conservative party conference in Brighton was blown to pieces (1984), over 700 soldiers were killed (mostly off duty) and scores of civilians were killed and maimed. As a child in the 70s, I can acutely remember why we have no bins at train stations and why “suspect package” announcements are a regular occurrence.
Anyway, after 38 years, it seems that the worst is now over and the process of normalisation can begin. The soldiers are no longer going to patrol the streets (although I recall it has been a while since they did anyway) and the overt signs of military oppression have been dismantled (such as the observation post on the Divis tower and the watch towers in South Armagh).
It would be nice to think that lessons have been learned, and the mistakes made (of which there were many) would not be repeated again. The government have comissionned studies into the troubles for this very purpose.
Sadly, it seems that, as always, the memory retention of the public is short and politicians are fickle enough to go where ever public opinion drives them.
Countless (certainly more than I intend to link to here) studies show that some of the government’s actions provided massive amounts of support (and volunteers) to the IRA cause. The most cited example was the horrendous internment policy. The CAIN study group has an excellent summary of internment, and pretty much all the research supports the idea that prior to this heavy handed tactic, PIRA were a “smalltime” organisation, playing second fiddle to the “Official” IRA who were much more disposed to peace talks and power sharing. By interning people (on both sides of the sectarian divide) without trial for indeterminate periods of time, the government provided the ammunition for the more militant wings (PIRA and the UVF) to overwhelm the objections of the more peaceful groups and increased the violence on a massive scale. As can be easily imagined, the increased violence lead to an increased security response, which in turn continued to alienate the communities and provided the impetus for more violence. The circle continued for three decades.
Now, hindsight is always 20:20 and I know enough of history to know that trying to second guess “what ifs” is something best left to fiction authors. However, it remains a strong possibility that, had the government allowed the moderates to dominate the thugs (rather than giving credence to the violence is the only option routine), the troubles would have been over 2o or more years ago.
Before any rightwingers get confused here, I am not suggesting a cowardly capitulation. In the late 1960s, the Catholics wanted better representation in government and they wanted the police to stop oppressing them. After 38 years of violence they now have better representation in government and the police are mixed. While I don’t for one second think either side could be described as “having won,” the fact remains that the Catholics in Northern Ireland now have what the Official IRA were calling for in 1968.
Despite this, it seems the recent peace on the mainland primed the public for another terrorist group to cause outrage. Despite the “lessons” from the troubles it seems that the public are crying out for a repeat of all the mistakes made in the 1970s and the government / police are more than happy to repeat them. Every “debate” about the extended detention without charge laws seems to begin with “we are not talking about a return to internment” but I cant for the life of me work out what is different. Can any one explain it to me?
Detention of a specific class of prisoner, who will almost certainly share a cultural and religious background with a significant (yet minority) portion of the UK population will do nothing to engender that population with a trust of the “state” and a feeling of “Britishness.” In reality, people who have family members detained for two months without charge are almost certain to become alienated and distrustful — providing a fertile recruiting ground for the jihad-calling headcases. When you factor in the risks inherent of police detention (injuries from other prisoners, accidents and stress related conditions) it is probable that when the first detainee dies in custody (of purely innocent and natural causes) the conspiracy theorists will have a field day and the terrorist cells will have a recruiting bonanza. We saw recently how the police can be poor at controlling evidence (Dr Haneef for example), so why should anyone assume that the intelligence required to trigger a “terrorist detention” would be any better?
Worryingly, hidden amongst the joys of the end of the troubles, there are some sneaky powers being rolled out. For example, from the Belfast Telegraph:
But at the same time, legislation goes into effect giving soldiers here the power to stop and question anyone about their movements – and hold them indefinitely until they answer.
People refusing to identify themselves or answer questions about their movements could be subject to a Â£5,000 fine.
The PSNI is also granted the power tonight – even though the Cabinet rejected them as unacceptable for police in the rest of the UK.
The Government acknowledged last night that the role of the Army will be ” slightly different to that in the rest of the UK”.
A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office said the special powers are necessary because the Army could still be called up to support the PSNI.
Despite what some people tend to believe, Northern Ireland is part of the UK. Is this a sign of the future for the mainland? [tags]Law, Civil Rights, Society, Culture, Terror, Fear, Legislation, Civil Liberties, Northern Ireland, Troubles, Anti-Terror Legislation, Catholics, Protestants, Islam, Government, Media, IRA, UVF[/tags]