Northern Ireland: Crewe Alexandra versus Manchester United?

I’ve been asked by Prospect magazine to write a response to Dean Godson’s lengthy analysis of the winners and losers in the Peace Process(™). But before I do, I’d like to get a measure of what Slugger readers make of it. To that end, I’ve cut and pasted some of the highlights below: though the whole piece is definately worth reading, especially for the policy wonks among us. I’d be grateful for your responses (remembering, of course that little rule about playing the ball, and not the man).The main bugbear is this seemingly endless touting of the peace process as a template for use in other areas of conflict:

In their own peculiar way, the Troubles and their aftermath became the defining national security experience for the postwar generation in Britain–much as the first world war was for Eden and Macmillan, or the second world war for Heath and Callaghan. Of course, most of the dramatis personae this time round never donned a uniform. But this squalid little war, conducted over the constitutional status and governance of the most cussedly unfashionable part of the Kingdom–and which seemed utterly sui generis for much of the time after the start of the Troubles in 1969–has suddenly become a trendy template for conflict resolution across the world. There is now something of an “international ideology of Northern Ireland.”

In essence, he argues, the recipe comes down to this:

One could have drawn many lessons from the Troubles, but what has come down now, after nearly four decades, is that the moderates in such conflicts haven’t got the “credibility” to “deliver.” Only the extremes can make agreements stick. And to do that, you need to suck them into negotiations and make them an integral part of new arrangements. That means offering generous inducements–often to pretty nasty people. The extremes thus win, but in the process apparently cease to be quite so extreme.

But, he notes, there has been some singular gaps in the general thinking about what actually went wrong with British policy over the thirty year period of the Troubles. Not least in one of its most controversial ‘big ideas’ early on, Internment:

I have yet to meet a single politician, mandarin, policeman, soldier or spook who has examined in any depth why internment failed once on the island of Ireland in the 20th century, in 1971, but succeeded there at least three other times–and what the reasons for those differing outcomes might be. It is now taken as axiomatic that it can’t be done, and perhaps the conventional wisdom is right, especially in the era of the Human Rights Act. But the issue is surely serious enough to merit deeper investigation–considering that the British state is confronting a new kind of terrorist threat that is far more lethal than anything the Provisionals threw at it over 30 years.

Kenneth Bloomfield, perhaps the ablest of the local Northern Ireland civil servants during the Troubles, casts valuable light on the internment debate of 1970-71 in his second volume of memoirs A Tragedy of Errors: The Government and Misgovernment of Northern Ireland (Liverpool University Press). First, he reminds us of the context of internment: had it not been introduced in the face of the Provisionals’ burgeoning campaign, there would have been an explosion of retaliatory loyalist violence. He also notes that when such action was being contemplated, the Heath government failed to ask the proper questions of the old unionist-dominated Northern Ireland government. What efforts were being made to secure the co-operation of the republic? What was being done to ensure that the measure was directed against terrorists on both sides, so that it was at least seen to be equitable? And what was the quality of their intelligence?

Even so, he is generally unimpressed by the capacity of senior British civil servants to ‘think’, even as he admires their capacity to ‘do’:

…one of the most fascinating qualities of the British mandarinate is the banality of its historical and intellectual analysis–combined with a superlative practical tradecraft. Such skills were honed for particular purposes during multiple late imperial retreats. The present marquess of Salisbury–who served on the cabinet’s Northern Ireland committee under John Major–describes this mindset as “the ruthless use of residual power to relinquish that very power altogether.”

In a sense, therefore, the Pat Finucane Centre (founded in memory of the murdered republican solicitor), is right to criticise the army’s history of Operation Banner as signifying an imperialist mentality. The British did behave like colonialists–but, critically, like late colonialists rather than high imperialists. They superimposed on Northern Ireland a model of self-extrication that was appropriate for colonies, where the white settlers amounted to no more than 10 per cent of the population: the army would hold the ring till the politicians cobbled together something that would enable impoverished
postwar Britain to pull out in a dignified fashion. All the movement was always in one direction, towards a diminution of a British role. Whether this model was appropriate for a part of Britain where around 70 per cent of the population was pro-British (at least at the start of the Troubles, when pro-union Catholics are included) is open to question.

Few of these British panjandrums had much affection for the Provisionals as people, and certainly none of them had any liking for republican violence. But most subscribed fairly uncritically to the notion of “50 years of unionist misrule” from 1921-72. In their eyes–as revealed by the unclassified sections of Operation Banner–“bigotry” was deemed largely to have been a Protestant phenomenon; and the desire to remain part of Britain, shared by many Catholics, Alliance party members and power-sharing unionists such as Brian Faulkner and David Trimble, is portrayed as evidence of unyielding rigidity (even though it was specifically upheld in the Good Friday agreement). These officials, whether in or out of uniform, adhered to this analysis even after they came to the conclusion at some point in the mid-1970s that withdrawal was not an option–if only because the Irish Republic could not absorb the place.

In essence, the major part of Godson’s argument comes down to this: that the great victory of Northern Irish nationalism was to convince the British, and anyone else who was listening, that they were the singular victims of an unedifying and repressive Unionist regime. This, he argues, was powerfully internalised, even by the agency that was sent out to face the IRA and others in the field:

The army, like so many “Brits,” succumbed to the charms of what the historian Liam Kennedy mockingly called the MOPE–“most oppressed people ever.” Indeed, JJ Lee–scarcely a revisionist historian–once came across a glorious quote from an editorial in the Irish Press, the semi-official Dublin government newspaper, in 1943: “There is no kind of oppression visited on any minority in Europe which the six county nationalists have not also endured.” Yet on any global scale, the Stormont regime bore no resemblance to French Algeria, the American deep south, apartheid South Africa, let alone Nazism (Bernard Levin actually made this last comparison). The genius of northern nationalists after 1969 was to sell the story that something terrible was going on in Ulster–which was causing huge collateral damage to the reputation of right-thinking Englishmen. Many British soldiers and officials believed that the Prods, at some level, had it coming to them–and this conditioned their response to republican violence.

He concludes:

One of the most amazing aspects of the Troubles is that this record remains such a source of pride to the British state. After all, Northern Ireland is about the last place where we still are a superpower. Consider what cards we held: the largest single deployment of British troops, the most professional regular army in Europe, amounting to 30,000 men at the height of the violence; the Ulster Defence Regiment/Royal Irish Regiment, a 6,000-strong local militia, described by General Michael Jackson as among the best troops he came across in his career; 13,500 officers in the RUC, one of the finest gendarmerie forces in the world, whose alumni now train policemen for counter-insurgencies the world over; big MI5 and, in the early years, MI6 stations; GCHQ expertise; total air and naval dominance; control of the public expenditure pursestrings for the staples of daily life, including all welfare payments; and the support of a substantial majority of the local population. Despite
all of these advantages, the Troubles were a score draw: it’s a bit like the Manchester United board deriving pleasure from the fact that Crewe Alexandra came to Old Trafford and didn’t actually win. In this case, we didn’t win in Northern Ireland because we didn’t want to win–not least because we didn’t know our own history.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty