Outsourcing military authority and the attenuation of sovereignty…

Brendan O’Neill of Sp!ked Online has some thoughts on the strange circumstance by which Massereene Barracks was protected, not by members of the British Armed forces, but was instead contracted out to a private security firm. He argues that by outsourcing its coercive authority in Northern Ireland the Ministry of Defence is signaling at best a casual relationship with the province, at worst it’s serious attenuation of British sovereignty here… By Brendan O’Neill

Recent events have confirmed that there are small groups of mysterious armed men in Northern Ireland who seem largely unrepresentative and unaccountable. Not much is known about them. They appear to spend much of their time behind closed doors, only to be occasionally glimpsed brandishing their weapons.

I refer, of course, not to the Real IRA or the Continuity IRA, but to those private security guards – otherwise known as mercenaries – who are paid to uphold British authority in the Six Counties.

For me, the most striking thing about the Real IRA attack on the Massereene barracks on Saturday night was the revelation that the unarmed soldiers were being protected by armed private security guards. This throws up so many questions that it’s hard to know where to start. Why do soldiers, trained by the state to fight wars, need non-state “hired help” to keep them safe? Since when did mercenaries become part of the story in Northern Ireland? What does it say about Britain’s relationship with the Six Counties that it is willing to outsource authority even for security to private firms?

In the flurry of criticism of the security guards’ failure to use their handguns to fight off the Real IRA gunmen, the monumental symbolism of private firms being paid to protect British Army barracks has been buried. The British now appear willing to outsource coercion itself, traditionally the highest form of authority in capitalist society, to non-state actors – even in Northern Ireland, that patch of land where for 25 years the British devoted immense military resources and manpower, and caused so much mayhem, in their jealous defence of their state authority.

Modern bourgeois states have always centralised the means of violence. As Janice E Thomson writes in her book Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe, “state-builders” sought to “extract coercive capabilities from other individuals, groups and organisations within their territories”, leading to a situation where “control over violence was centralised, monopolised and made hierarchical”. In recent years, however, states have willingly broken up their monopoly on violence. Washington hired security guards for some of the toughest, riskiest operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; and now London employs security guards to protect its own soldiers in Northern Ireland, who are… doing what, exactly? Eating pizza?

The media depiction of the two soldiers at Massereene is striking, too. They are discussed, not as trained defenders of the realm or potential killers for Britain, but as unwitting victims who were let down by their private guards. They just wanted to earn some money, the Sun tells us. Even their future military plans are discussed as something akin to social work: they were about to leave Northern Ireland to carry out “humanitarian reconstruction work in the war-torn country of Afghanistan”, says the Belfast Newsletter. (War-torn by whom, one might ask?) The soldiers are looked upon, not as defenders of the integrity of Northern Ireland, but as a couple of people who were just chilling out as they waited to go and rebuild a bit of Helmand.

It’s hard to find out how many private security guards there are in Northern Ireland. But considering that last year the NIO proposed new rules for “Regulating the Private Security Industry in Northern Ireland”, we can imagine it’s quite a lot.

The Massereene incident unwittingly revealed the peculiar nature of British rule today. British forces have a ghostly presence in the Six Counties; they’re engaged in a kind of phantom occupation. There’s a profound uncertainty as to why soldiers are there: to protect what; to demonstrate what? This strange military situation reflects a broader crisis of political authority in relation to Northern Ireland. It is now 15 years since, in the Downing Street Declaration, the British state declared that it had no “selfish, strategic or economic interest” in the Six Counties. Now it seems to have no military clue, either. Such is its lack of clear interest, of political purpose and internal clarity, that it outsources even military authority to the highest bidder in Northern Ireland.

This is about more than relaxing security in a changed Six Counties. It exposes a profound crisis of the British state. In the past, it was in the Six Counties more than any other place that the British state fought to defend its integrity, deploying militarism, internment, repression and censorship to defend its interests against the challenge of Irish republicanism. Now it has no interests, or at least none that it can define and articulate. It is the crisis of meaning and purpose amongst the British elite which means that even in that “part of Britain” where it fought tooth-and-nail to hold its state together it is now super-casual about military authority and professes to have no interests. The British have effectively withdrawn from Northern Ireland, at least emotionally and spiritually, if not entirely physically.

On the other side, of course, Irish republicans no longer uphold the Irish people’s interests either, and have abandoned their claim of sovereignty over the Six Counties (and the Twenty-Six Counties). Where Northern Ireland was once torn apart by a clash of wildly differing British and republican interests, it is now held together – uninspiringly and patchily – by the absence of real interests, by the absence of any desire to rule or meaningful claim of sovereignty. It is built upon stalemate and exhaustion, peaceful-by-default. It is no longer enough to say “Brits Out!”, since there’s no mass movement to force Britain out and since Britain rules more by default than by clearly defined design or desire. I reckon we need a new language of liberation to reinvigorate the debate, and to put someone’s interests on the table.

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