Troubles were grotesque, and “States” were not impartial

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”.


3 thoughts on “Troubles were grotesque, and “States” were not impartial

  1. chris roche says:

    Mulroney says: Re Troubles and Irish America. Hollywood has to date made 47 IRA movies, the English film industry has made 25, Nazi Germany 7, and the ROI 10. Posterity simplifies everything; in a few generations the IRA will be the 7th Cavalry and the English regiments will be the evil Indian tribes. Mr Parsley should grasp reality and admit that NI is the Badlands and that the unionists are the uglies and the Nationalists are the handsome good guys. Perception is reality, and the pro-English lot in NI are perceived as being nonentities __ name one UVF movie?

  2. martyntodd says:

    There is no doubt that the Troubles brought out the worst in nearly everyone in North Ireland, some clergy excepted.

    A look at the decade before and after the 1798 rebellion reveals that there were similar issues then. There were paid informants on both sides, sectarian killings, atrocities, reprisals and summary executions in this period. We are far enough away from then to see these aspects of another “dirty war” without personal painful memories. In time, and it will take perhaps a generation, the raw hurt of victims of the Troubles will surely fade, rightly or wrongly.

    There was good that came from the 1798 rebellion, not least the Act of Emancipation. It is very important that we all ensure that similar massive change for good results from the Troubles. This is what most people now expect and what too many people do not see the current political structure and power base in North Ireland delivering. Our biggest threat is not the resolution of the past conflict but the disillusionment of the electorate in the ability of the Assembly to provide a better future for all our children

  3. The Listner says:

    Whatever the complexities of the violence in Northern Ireland, what is essential is that individuals are afforded the opportunity of meeting and seeing each other as individuals, good, or bad, with whom they can choose, or not, to have common endeavours. This is easier for the well to do, and the middle social economic families, but not out of the question for those further down the spectrum. Education, and hopefully increasing living standards will play a part. It is essential that children mix more within the education system. If you know someone whilst you are both children, and you share childhood, it is very likely you will always be friends. Whatever your religion, or none, whatever your political views, between yourselves there will be a loyalty.

    If people are separated it is so easy for them to be identified as nasties, it is easy for myths about religion and political aspirations to arise. Separation is dangerous, we all know the perjoritive descriptions for individual groups in NI. Once the use of such names become common, it is easier to discriminate, and dare I say it, to kill. Hence it was in past wars, such as from the allied perspective the Germans were Krauts or Huns, and in the Korean War the enemy were the “Gooks”. I have met a veteran of that war, who witnessed thousands of Chinese being mown down by machine gun and anti-personel tank shells, as they (the Chinese) massed towards the allied position. After the battle the allied soldiers were satisfied they had defended themselves and killed those who were the threat, however it was only when they hooked in some of the bodies, through the wire, and examined the quilt uniformed corpses, and discovered family photographs and other personal effects that they realised these bodies were of real men, with families, in fact humans, after all. Thus unless we forgive, from our own stand points, wrongs of the past, and work hard at togetherness, we risk repeating our stupid and inhuman mistakes. Do not dwell on the past, just hold out the hand, and those without rancour will arrive over time at common solutions. In this process the Assembly will reflect the people.

    There is an old saying, “Look after the pennies and then the pounds will look after themselves” so if each looks after their own relationships, then politics will eventually follow suit.

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