Archive for the ‘NI’ Category

I have recently been reading David McKittrick (et al)’s Making Sense of the Troubles. An interesting point, which I wasn’t aware of before, is their contention that the late 70s and Roy Mason’s tenure as Northern Ireland secretary was an important turning point. In fact, you could make an interesting comparison with Iraq in 2007-2008.

Mason’s policy was to forget about further top-level negotiations, after the collapse of the Sunningdale agreement, and focus on security and economic issues in the hope that progress from the bottom up would bring the conflict parties back to the negotiating table on better terms. In fact, during his tenure, there was a dramatic drop in the rate of killings that was never reversed. This is the hub of McKittrick’s argument – having surged in 1971 and peaked in 1972-3, levels of violence stayed very high until 1977 and then dropped to a new, much lower average level.

The British government in this period tried various expedients. The military used more special forces, and integrated their intelligence systems and those of the police and security services. Overall, there was a deliberate effort to project the whole war as a law-enforcement problem (very much a theme of US and Iraqi government propaganda during the “surge”), and to launch as many criminal prosecutions as possible. They tried hard to recruit informers and to make use of supergrasses.

McKittrick and his co-authors argue that there was a sort of cycle-of-recruitment effect at work – terrorism caused recruitment into the loyalist terrorist organisations, whose violence caused further IRA recruitment, which led to more military intervention and more loyalist violence. They further argue that this cycle was broken or at least slowed down in the late 1970s – whether the government was succeeding in providing security or not, it at least reduced the demand for unofficial, privatised violence. The government also tried hard to recruit potential paramilitaries into its own forces, and demonstrated that it was willing to use force against loyalists as well as republicans (they argue that the failure of the 1977 loyalist strike was important). This is all quite familiar.

However, the drop in violence was an over-determined event. There was a major change in the IRA leadership and strategy, which emphasised holding out for the long term and eventually led to an increased emphasis on the ballot box. (The parallel with the Sadr movement stands out.) There was a major protest movement demanding peace, which is another way of saying that the people were unwilling to tolerate so much violence any more.

Although this turning point meant much less violence, it didn’t solve anything in and of itself. And it involved quite a lot of state violence in itself – especially during interrogations. This Musings on Iraq roundup is telling – rather than gunbattles and mass bombings, the war continues with a low-level assassination campaign. In Northern Ireland, the best any security solution could ever do in the absence of a political solution was to hold the levels of violence down around the post-77 average, with a very significant cost to society as a whole.


Finally, we have the best possible argument against the dire Counter-Terrorism Bill. Unfortunately, it’s one that by definition we couldn’t have had before last week’s pornographic nightmare of a vote. It’s a sort of recursive critique. Think about it – by far the worst feature of the damn thing is the awful “concession” that Parliament gets to vote up or down on the detention of individuals. It was bad enough when this was meant to be a sop, only becoming active after the poor devil had already been in the clink for weeks, but the text the Commons passed foresees that the vote would have to be taken in a timely fashion. It would actually have practical consequences.

This is a constitutional obscenity – the legislature pretending to be the executive (deciding how much of a terrorist threat exists) and the judiciary (deciding on a case of habeus corpus). It’s also almost self-refuting; the whole Government line on this has been that we need to pass some draconian and hopelessly ill-thought out legislation motivated by panic now, so we don’t do it after a major terrorist incident. Originally, they argued that the bill was as it was because, in the event of its use, it might not be practical to convene Parliament quickly. Which makes a degree of sense, after all, if somebody just blew it up. But now, the bill intended to deal with the case that Parliament could not act requires Parliament to act.

Then there’s the question of evidence – the whole point is that the police would supposedly not have enough time to gather the prima facie evidence required to charge the suspect, but the Bill requires the government to put evidence it won’t actually have, all other things being equal, before the House. Which could also have bad consequences for the chances of any trial that resulted. And what if the evidence was the special secret sauce of SIAC?

And the horror of putting someone’s essential liberty in the hands of politicians concerned with re-election, on what would probably turn out to be a party-line vote, shouldn’t need explaining. But all this is a bit theoretical.

Since last week, however, we can say – how could anyone trust the people responsible for passing the Counter-Terrorism Bill to decide on whether some poor fool is locked up or not? Robert Spink MP? The Reverend William McCrea? Nigel Dodds, who appeared on the radio before the vote to state that he considered it a matter of principle, but he hadn’t made his mind up yet? Shaun Woodward, who continues to deny he offered the Paisleyites a deal, although Mark Durkan says Woodward offered his SDLP colleagues one? Whoever it was who offered Diane Abbott the Governor-Generalship of Bermuda, and Keith “Are you still here?” Vaz a knighthood? Geoff Hoon? I tell you, it’s the perfect argument.

I wonder, in the event of the bill being activated and some bewildered Dewsburyite’s fate riding on the vote, what
precisely the Government whip would be willing to pay for a vote for continued detention? An ambassadorship? Access to the Government Art Collection? Straight to the Lords? An audience with Jacqui Smith? No, that would surely be reserved for the waverers. If not the suspect themselves. (Note: I’m indebted to Viz‘s Eight Ace for the title.)

This looks like a must-read; Kevin Myers’ personal history of 1970s Belfast, complete with fundamentalist landladies, Provos concerned about the morality of using a condom in the initiator for a carbomb, the only civil war in history where both sides were receiving welfare benefits from the same government, the UDA as the only terrorists in history to have a regimental blazer, and the unpleasant but undeniable fact that so many people Myers knew were enjoying the war.

This bit specifically got my attention:

While Catholics were discriminated against by the Stormont civil service they were admitted into the then imperial civil service, run from London. This included the Post Office telephone system, which recruited and trained many Catholics, who became the most sophisticated electricians in Northern Ireland; some of them were in the IRA, whose bomb-makers became the finest of any terrorists in the world, while the loyalists, supposed inheritors of Ulster’s great engineering traditions, continued to make what were in essence big fireworks.

You want historical irony? You want the sociology of technology? Right there. In a sense, nothing could be more appropriate for a bunch of reactionaries like the UDA than that precisely their aims – making damn sure no taigs got above semi-skilled in the shipyard – were actually sabotaging their military effectiveness. As for so many places up north, the second industrial revolution – electricity, chemicals and all that German stuff – was never particularly welcome.

Which is why, perhaps, this guy may have been more of a threat than I’d otherwise have thought. I mean, who hasn’t called John Reid a tyrant? But it’s this bit that’s more interesting; he’s a BT electrician. ISTR the Operation Crevice team were trying to recruit BT linesmen at one point; not just to chop the wires, perhaps.

It’s been a weird political week, no? There was “Loyalist” (scarequotes included because my definition of loyalty doesn’t include shooting fellow citizens, constables & c) nutbag Michael Stone’s public freakout-cum-terrorist attack on Stormont. I haven’t laughed as much in years – seriously, ten years ago this would have meant blood in the streets, all 39 Brigade leave cancelled, Belfast burning. These days he gets pistolwhipped with his own gun by a woman who isn’t even officially a security guard and publicly ridiculed. It’s progress of a sort. Slugger was of course all over the story, and has the details on his motive: apparently he wanted to be put in a cell for his own safety. It’s also progress that you can barge into Stormont with a gun to get yourself arrested, rather than simply shot.

I rather liked the commenter who suggested that the whole thing was an exercise in performance art by the amateur painter Stone, designed to mock the NI politicians’ desperate efforts to get the world’s attention.

Much more depressing is the death of Alexander Litvinenko. The Viking catherd has details on polonium-210 and comments that it was “a curiously elegant and vicious assassination method”. Indeed. The horror of it should be argument enough against the notion that he administered the poison to himself to discredit Vladimir Putin. Suicide-bombers, after all, go out in an instant, and self-immolation (Buddhist/Prague style) is both easier to arrange and more publicly theatrical. And where would he have laid hands on enough of the stuff? Any theory of his assassination must first climb the mount improbable of his killer having access to something found only in quantity in a nuclear reactor or linear accelerator, and in a form pure enough to be handled safely and innocuous enough to be administered easily.

Steinn points out that, at least within the US, small quantities of it are on open sale, but the amount required to kill would have cost $500,000, not to mention being a very noticeable sale. George “Dick Destiny” Smith points out that half a gram in a capsule would reach 500 degrees Celsius – “Litvinenko was cooked from the inside”.

There is something about this story, though, that almost makes the suicide theory plausible – the rainswept November streetscapes of London and the doomed radioactive exile wandering towards death through the flickering mobs of Christmas shoppers. There have always been exiles and foreign secret policemen conspiring in obscure corners of the city, and Litvinenko’s death is almost uncannily fitted to the genius loci. I am reminded of “The Professor”, the prototype suicide bomber and proto-fascist in Conrad’s Secret Agent, who carries an explosive charge triggered by a pneumatic bulb in the sleeve of his jacket, ready to blow himself up if arrested. In conversation with a comrade, he lets slip that the fuse is not instant – twenty seconds must elasp before the explosion, to the comrade’s utter horror and astonishment.

But a suicide-weapon that means not seconds, but weeks of irreversible radiation sickness, is innately improbable. The Government, of course, is desperately hoping against hope that it was anyone, anyone but Gazprom the Russians.

Over at Slugger, they are discussing an alleged proposal from the UDA that the government give it £1 billion to end its campaign of violence and convert itself into a legal organisation. At one level, you’d be forgiven for spitting coffee on your keyboard at such shameless blackmail. But there is a valid point here. What do you do with a private army when its time has passed?

There are a couple of historical courses. One of them is to integrate it into the regular armed forces of the state. This has been pursued by among others Finland, France, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the Republic of Ireland itself. The degrees of success vary widely. De Gaulle took the decision to disband the Resistance and recruit its members into the regular French army in August, 1944, thus avoiding the possibility of a private army continuing to exist after the war and also putting an anchor out to windward against any other generals wanting to be king. He was probably also concerned that a Resistance persisting into the postwar would be essentially communist, just like it had been during the war. However, having lost power, he found that his future political career couldn’t do without the Service d’Action Civique private intelligence service/goon squad.

Finland chose between two rival rebel armies, one nationalist and one communist, had a brief civil war, and then had some trouble integrating the remaining communists into the new army, not to mention more trouble between the German-trained Jäger and the rest, but eventually managed it. South Africa decided to integrate the ANC’s bush fighters into the old SADF as a new National Defence Force, which worked out at least in the sense that there was no trouble. (It worked out far less well in terms of force readiness, and released a troublesome population of mercenaries onto the market, though.)

Zimbabwe had one of the worst experiences of this kind. The ex-Rhodesian army, ZANU-PF and ZANLA were all meant to be merged into one British-trained army. General Rupert Smith describes what happened after that in The Utility of Force, which I promise I’ll get round to reviewing. The British advisers suggested that the new force should standardise on the Rhodesians’ equipment, as this would mean ammunition would have to come from the central arsenal, and therefore any violence between factions could be shut off by denying it bullets. The Rhodesians refused to hand their arms to their ex-enemies, and so the force was built up with the Soviet-type weapons the guerrillas handed in – for which the ammunition was widely available on the black market, and which the parties held illegal stocks of. This meant that the ZANU was able to form another brigade (the 5th) outside the terms of the agreement, with which it proceeded to crush the supporters of ZANLA.

Eire, having had its civil war, suffered problems with the heirs of the contending parties (the Army and the Citizen Force) for years, although it didn’t amount to a serious threat to the peace. So, it can work, but a) it’s difficult and b) the requirements are complicated. In Northern Ireland, the reaction of the Republicans to a proposal to put more UDA men into the army is something we can all do without. (Not to mention that the Royal Irish Regiment is being reduced in strength.)

Another option is to demobilise it. This requires the consent of the demobilised just as much as integration, and they may have security and/or identity concerns that call for some sort of successor organisation. It also places a challenge on society to reintegrate them, not least to create jobs. A notable example where this was done, proved difficult, and eventually succeeded is Israel.

There’s also the option of permitting the organisation to live on in different form. The UDA seems to be aiming for a mixture of 2 and 3, turning itself into some sort of non-armed political entity and paying off its soldiers. This one doesn’t have a very good record – disarmed freikorps and einwohnerwehren were the first organisational underpinning of the Nazi party, and rearmed pretty damn quick whenever it was asked of them. And the Kärntner Heimatdienst in Austria has been a nuisance ever since its creation.

Sometimes, though, there are only the options people let you have.