Friday, July 29, 2005


Terrorism part and present

I was working for the MOD in London in the very early seventies when the Troubles first hit the heights of murder and mayhem in Belfast and elsewhere. I recall I used to be a bit nervous travelling home after work in that mausoleum in Whitehall at which I suffered daily. My route home entailed a few dark subways and I used to hurry along them quickly with a slight sinking feeling between my shoulder blades and a feeling of relief once out the other side. Some of my colleagues worked on the Troubles; they were incredibly tight lipped about it and one refused to talk to me as he suspected I might be a security risk- he was probably right as I've always found it hard to keep secrets. But they always tended to be bullish about their success, claiming the IRA were just a small distance from being defeated. It proved not to be.

Now we hear the IRA have stated the war is over. Is it? This is the big question for the Unionists and they are already questioning the terms of decommissioning and other possible lacunae in the statement. What about crime? will that cease? what about regret? does the iRA regret the 2000 plus deaths for which they must take some resonsibility? The question which interests me is: was it worth it? All those deaths, all that misery and fear? Complete unification of Ireland is still the aim of nationalists but the immovable fact of one and a half million protestant unionists makes this dream unachievable: they have shown they will fight tenaciously to prevent this. And just when we thought Ian Paisley was close to bowing out, we hear the same sawing tones emanating from his son, Ian junior.

So devolved government with an assembly in which Sinn Fein is the second largest force is not a bad achievment to show for the last three decades. But Wales and Scotland have achieved the same without violence- so why was the bombing and murder necessary? Republicans would possibly argue that in the case of Northern Ireland entrenched prejudices were such that the loyalist majority would never have budged without it. And that is hard to refute. Certainly the civil rights of catholics were suppressed for decades by protestants in Ulster who saw democracy merely as something to be adapted to their own purposes. One could go on to argue that devolution would not have been such a relatively painless democratic process without the threat of violence which the Ulster experience had articulated.

The problem with violence is that it replaces existing prejudices with a whole new set of them, concerning the bestial nature or worse of the 'enemy' plus a set of scars caused by bereavment which will take generations to mitigate. Violence has almost certainly made the situation worse; a slow democratic route might have been much longer but it would have been infinitely preferable. British history shows that the march of liberal reform, which was initiated in the eighteenth century, steadily wore down the status quo supporters and overthrew it piece by peaceful piece.

The whole process casts some light on the other terrorist issue. Will the radical muslims dig in for several decades? Yes, is the likely answer. Will they eventually seek to make contact and negotiate? there is no guarantee as we are sill unsure what they actually want to achieve. How long will the struggle last? Many many decades I would hazard, maybe the whole of this century. We might look back on the troubles as merely a little ocal difficulty before the real struggle began.

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