If history is war by other means, is truth the first casulty?

There’s a fascinating exchange on Will Crawley’s Sunday Sequence programme yesterday (begins about half way through). It talks about the Boston College oral history archive (which is still ongoing). Danny Morrison just before the end notes that history, so far as he is concerned is ‘war but by other means’.

If this year’s state papers anything to go by that may be a battle Sinn Fein must brace itself for on a yearly basis.

As luck would have it, history is exactly the subject of Alex Kane’s column in the News Letter today, who has a rather different history in mind (which roughly paraphrased runs something like, “it was constitutional reform wot won it”):

The changes in housing allocation, employment rights, mandatory power sharing, local government reform, equality legislation et al, were either completed or well in hand by the late 1970s. The Stormont Parliament had been prorogued in March 1972 and any return to a unionist dominated administration had been ruled out in the autumn of 1972. And none of this had anything to do with the IRA, however much they would have you believe otherwise.

Yet, all of this raises another very interesting question, namely, why did successive British governments refuse to use their very clear military and intelligence superiority to wipe out the IRA? Well, what long term purpose would it have served? History would suggest that republican terrorists, if knocked down, always regroup, rebuild and reappear again further down the line. Indeed, the end of every phase of the armed struggle, from the first day that British troops set foot in Ireland hundreds of years ago, could have been greeted with the conclusion — “they haven’t gone away, you know”.

So how, Kane asks, did the British get the IRA to go away:

To paraphrase Machiavelli: “sometimes neither death nor shackles will destroy your enemy, so make him believe that he has won”. And as far as British governments were concerned that meant back channel communications with the IRA (which opened within months of the Provisionals emerging) and infiltration of the organisation at just about every level. It also meant convincing Sinn Fein that the only hope they had of Irish unity lay in proving that they could ‘do’ proper politics in the North.

One can obviously question the morality of a strategy which meant that British intelligence was aware of IRA operations and yet chose not to prevent them: but maybe the long term view was that an ‘acceptable level’ of violence would allow Sinn Fein to be steered in another direction.

That direction was towards an answer to the Irish Question – short of unilateral British withdrawal – that all sides could buy into. Yet, at the same time as the IRA was being infiltrated and Sinn Fein mollycoddled, the British were also making it clear to unionists that any political deal – while it would be built around the constitutional guarantee – would involve sharing power with both nationalists and republicans.

It remains to be seen what history is to reckon from these fuzzy dealings… That judgement is more likely to revolve  around what happens next than what has already happened in the fraught, some might say hysterical, days of the 1970s and the 1980s…

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