I caused a bit of entertainment last week by suggesting there was such a group as “Secular-Progressive-Moderate” alongside “Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist” and “Catholic-Nationalist-Republican”. As I self-identify with this group, it is perhaps appropriate for me to challenge it at least as often as the other two. One area in which it consistently falls down is in its reading of the “Troubles” – a grotesque period in our history about which, only now, we are beginning to find out (have confirmed) some truly disturbing aspects.
Most Progressives were, perhaps, surprised by revelations that the Garda had colluded in the IRA murder of two RUC officers in 1989; they were probably similarly shocked by the idea of a murderous British Army gang hunting down unarmed IRA suspects in West Belfast in 1972. The point is that neither of these “revelations” is remotely shocking to those who have a clear take on just how horrendous the Troubles were. Indeed, I have had private conversations with people who have such an understanding in which we took both of these “revelations” as read.
Even at that, there is a tendency to dismiss collusion or outright murder by the State (regardless of which State) as down to a few “rogue elements”. Certainly, blatant collusion with the IRA to murder RUC officers or the establishment of a murder gang by the British Army are at the extreme end of the spectrum. However, the idea that these were just “rogue elements” may be comforting, but it is not true.
The difficulty some Progressives have (and to some extent some Unionists have with regard to the British State and some Nationalists with regard to the Irish State) is that they believe the Northern Ireland Troubles were solely down to a breakdown in relations between Protestants and Catholics, and that therefore the State (or States) were engaged solely as neutral and impartial actors whose sole objective was restoration of law and order. Again, this is a comforting notion, but it is not true.
The role and objective of each State cannot be fully described in a single blog post, because they are unbelievably complex. Suffice it to say that each State had its own objectives, motivations and internal culture; and indeed that each State apparatus was divided just as much as the general population on either/any side was. For example, the UK had all kinds of other concerns – maintaining discipline on what was nominally its own territory while promoting peace and democracy in its former colonies (in which law and order also broke down on many occasions); defending its Borders during the Cold War (and ensuring that Irish Republican terrorists could not act as proxies for rogue regimes or even Communists); finding things for its soldiers to do post-decolonisation; maintaining strong relations with the United States despite the Irish-American lobby; keeping major cities and economic investments (not least the City of London, nuclear power stations, new motorways etc etc) in Great Britain secure; limiting the cost to the Treasury of Northern Ireland; and so on and so on. Throw in that the Conservatives had a strategic interest in keeping Unionists at least vaguely onside, and that Labour had a keen interest in the Irish vote in major British cities (not least London itself), and there were even partisan politics at play too. Even a cursory glance at that cursory list would establish, beyond dispute, that the UK’s interests extended well beyond merely playing a patient and impartial role as a peace keeper. So complex was the situation, that the mere principle of the Rule of Law was on occasion sacrificed – no doubt deliberately and often systematically – for what was perceived as the State’s greater good. So we should be in no doubt that lives were sacrificed too. And we need be in no doubt that the Irish State had a similar range of concerns, a similar delicate balance, and that it too determined that principles and indeed lives could also be sacrificed during the “Dirty War”.
After all, what greater sacrifice of principle was there than the decision to elevate terrorists to senior government positions while leaving their victims behind to queue up for their shopping alongside people who killed and maimed their loved ones? We can stick our fingers in our ears if we like, but that is what we agreed to in 1998 – and you know what, we were probably right to agree to it. But it does not make our past less murky, and it does not make the Troubles less grotesque.
Programmes on the “Disappeared”, on the “Military Reaction Force”, and now the Smithwick Tribunal should be a wake-up call to anyone (“Progressive” or otherwise) who liked to think the Troubles was just a bit of a shoot-out in certain parts of Northern Ireland – and there should be no doubt there is more where those came from. Northern Ireland’s Troubles were a lot more than a breakdown in relations among people within Northern Ireland; they were an all-encompassing, grubby and vicious conflict in which both States were directly active and self-interested participants and in which lots of innocent people got killed and injured for lots of not-particularly-good reasons. That, right there, is the past we are supposedly trying to “deal with”.