End of The Troubles
It was a low-key conclusion to the British Army’s longest continuous campaign. On August 1, Operation Banner, the British military intervention in Northern Ireland, was declared at an end. Some 5,000 troops will remain stationed in the area, bu t with the same duties as troops elsewhere in the United Kingdom, principally preparing for action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A dirty war
It’s 38 years since British soldiers marched up the Falls Road in Belfast, the beginning of what was initially depicted as a “peace-keeping” mission, supposed to last only six months. At first, the troops were welcomed by the Catholic minority, who sought protection from attacks by Protestant paramilitaries and the Protestant-dominated local police. But they were soon engaged in a prolonged war with the IRA, and often direct conflict with the nationalist population. Bloody Sunday — January 30, 1972, when British troops shot dead 13 unarmed protesters in Derry — was the nadir in what was often a dirty war, on both sides.
During the course of Operation Banner, some 3,00,000 British troops took part in the campaign in Northern Ireland. More than 700 lost their lives, and another 6,000 were injured. In total, the war in Ireland produced more than 3,600 dead and more than 42,000 injured — in a province with a population of only 1.5 million.
At its peak, the British deployment in Northern Ireland numbered 27,000 troops at more than 100 bases. That number had come down since the Good Friday agreement of 1998, and even before the end of Operation Banner, British troops had not been seen on the streets for nearly two years.
What made possible the final standing-down of the British Army in Northern Ireland was the power sharing agreement reached in May between the British government, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, and the Democratic Unionists, under the leadership of Ian Paisley, for decades the foremost voice of intransigent Protestant unionism. Now, a joint Sinn Fein-Democratic Unionist administration governs the province through the democratically-elected Northern Ireland Assembly, to which a variety of powers have been devolved by Parliament.
The key steps leading to that remarkable development included the IRA’s 2005 declaration of the end of the armed campaign, and the replacement in 2001 of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the communally-dominated local police, by a non-sectarian force. It was only with that reform (still ongoing) that the nationalist population could enjoy equal civil rights. And it was the demand for equal civil rights that had given birth to The Troubles, as the conflict came to be known, in the late 1960s.
In the background larger social and political changes have framed the context of agreement. From the early 1980s, Sinn Fein embraced an increasingly political and democratic strategy, which enabled them to secure representative status at the ballot box. South of the border, the Republic of Ireland underwent economic and social changes that transformed it from a backwater to one of Europe’s most prosperous and liberal societies. The British government came to accept that Ireland, as well as the IRA, had to be part of the solution, and that the war would not end unless the parameters were shifted. Meanwhile, Scottish and Welsh devolution meant that a similar arrangement in Northern Ireland would no longer be anomalous.
It’s hard to recall that in the 1970s and 80s the IRA were as demonised as today’s “terrorists”. Successive British governments vowed publicly not to negotiate with them; Margaret Thatcher banned Sinn Fein from the airwaves in an attempt to starve them of the “oxygen of publicity”; it was a commonplace among British leader writers that Irish terrorism had to be defeated, not appeased.
No alternative to negotiations
But demonisation did not work. In the long run, it actually strengthened the IRA’s popular base in the nationalist community. Nor was there to be any military solution. In fact, it was the recognition of that reality — within both the British military and the IRA — that made a negotiated settlement possible.
For decades, the conflict in Ireland was portrayed in Britain as “intractable” and unresolvable, rooted in an inexplicable mutual hatred of two warring tribes in which Britain was something of a helpless by-stander. The process that has led to peace has exposed just how facile and irresponsible that view always was. Progress has been possible not because “tribal affinities” have been overcome but because there has been an effort to address, concretely, the grievances of disaffected communities, and to empower their representatives.
Lessons from Belfast
Another platitude that accompanied the long war and has now fallen victim to the peace is the assumption what was needed was for moderates in both communities to triumph over extremists. In a sense, the opposite has happened. The moderate Catholic Social Democratic Labour Party and the Protestant official Unionists have been marginalised. Instead, hard-liner Paisley presides in company with his erstwhile “terrorist” arch-enemy, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness. The constituencies represented by the “extremes” have to be involved in and consent to a settlement or there can be no settlement. Attempts to cut a deal over the heads of an aggrieved population will not work. There are lessons here for other supposedly intractable conflicts, including Kashmir.
It’s frequently supposed that politics in Northern Ireland will now undergo a process of “normalisation”. The issues that count in the rest of the country — health care, transport, jobs, the environment — will come to dominate politics here too, and the national question will retreat in importance.
But what pertains today in Northern Ireland would not pass for normal elsewhere in Britain. None of the major British parties organises there or plans to organise there; all the parties involved in the current settlement are defined by their relation to a particular community (nationalist or loyalist); the neighbouring Irish government enjoys a formally recognised role for which there is no comparison elsewhere in Europe.
May not fade away
It’s hard to see why the national question should become more salient in Scottish politics — and everyone agrees that it has — while in Northern Ireland it should be doomed to fade away. However, the context is now one in which the spectrum of options has widened. So although the end of the 38-year deployment of British troops does not signal a resolution of the national question in Ireland, it may herald an era in which the terms and possible solutions of that conundrum evolve in new forms.