Editorial from Irish Political Review, February 2008

Northern Ireland; Indonesia
Was It War?

There is at present a dispute going on about whether there was war in Northern Ireland from the 1970s to the 1990s.

As we recall it, the British Army was deployed in the streets of Derry and Belfast in August 1969 by the Government of the state to take the place of the forces controlled by the subordinate Government at Stormont—the RUC and the B Specials. A new IRA came into being in the North during the Winter of 1969-70, the Provisionals, and it declared war on Britain in the Summer of 1970. The established IRA of the period before 1969, the Officials (also known as the Stickies since, as a sign of modernity, they replaced the Easter badges that were pinned on the lapel with a badge that could just be stuck on) also declared war on Britain while asserting that its war was different in kind from the Provo war. The Officials declared that their war was a National Liberation War against Imperialism, while the Provos were engaged in what was in essence a local sectarian war.

The Stickie argumentation was not entirely groundless. The Provos, in their substance, arose out of the mayhem to which the dysfunctional 'Northern Ireland state'—in fact the Six County variant of the British state—led in 1969, while the Stickies were essentially an anti-Treaty group. But the difference, in practice, told in favour of the Provos.

The Stickies' anti-Treaty war was conducted in a medium of ideological fantasy and was unsustainable. It was called off after a series of fiascos.

The formal split between the Official and Provisional Republican movements occurred on the issue of participating in the Free State Dail. The Sinn Fein leadership at the Ard Fheis early in 1970 carried a motion to participate and those who dissented withdrew and called themselves the Provisionals.

This formal ground of division went against the division of substance that had already occurred on the ground in the North.

The 'Officials'—to give them their name slightly ahead of time—had been disarming the IRA in 1968-69, and expelling people who dissented from that policy. But in August 1969 they issued statements, about what their disarmed army would do, which helped to provoke the Loyalist pogrom, leaving the populace helpless in the face of the pogrom.

A new military movement then sprang up amongst people who had been on the receiving end of the pogrom and who had not until then been connected with the Republican movement, and it was joined by those who had been expelled or had lapsed from the Republican movement in 1968-9, and whose outlook was anti-Treatyite. This alliance of old anti-Treaty Republicans and new Republicans produced out of the internal realities of the Northern Ireland state' lasted for a number of years, after which there was a parting of the ways, with the formation of Republican Sinn Fein.

The Stickie motion to enter the Free State Dail, combined with Stickie rejection of Provisionalism (as it was called) on the ground that it had essentially to do with Northern affairs, and condemnation of the demand to abolish Stormont (the Stickies wanted to retain it), ought logically have led to a disbanding of the Official IRA, and a line of development somewhat like Fianna Fail and Clann n Poblachta. But it didn't. The Stickies were intent on being revolutionary. So they fought their own war in a medium of ideological fantasy for a few years. Then they called it off and went through a series of metamorphoses culminating in what we see today as Eoghan Harris, Proinnsias de Rossa and Pat Rabbitte.

They built themselves into the structure of the Free State from the mid-seventies onwards as the ultimate anti-Provos, while at the same time gaining recognition from the Soviet Communist party as its counterpart in Ireland on a par with the Communist Party of Ireland. They looked to Sir Nicolai Ceaucescu of Rumania as a herald of the future, and were on close terms with the leaders of North Korea and the German Democratic Republic. When Ceausescu was overthrown and the Soviet system unravelled in 1989 they remade themselves yet again.

We don't know that the Official IRA was ever disbanded. It was actively threatening people only ten years ago, and strong representations to politicians who by then were disclaiming all connection with it seemed to have an effect on its conduct.

But who is there to appear and take responsibility for its doing at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that certain well-intentioned people seem to be hell-bent on setting up?

Peter Hain, before his fall, "said the government could not tell the people of Northern Ireland how they should deal with the past. 'Only the people themselves can try to answer that question', he said" (BBC news). But he knew very well that "the people themselves" is only a figure of speech without any corresponding reality in the public affairs of a democratic, or even a pseudo-democratic, society which functions through division. So he set up an Independent Consultative Group, co-chaired by Denis Bradley and the retired Protestant Archbishop of Armagh, now Lord Eames, to deal with it.

Britain itself never deals with such things. It always 'moves on'. When others do dreadful things Britain usually says that they must confront the truth about themselves in order to be able to move on. But in its own affairs Britain knows that confronting the truth about itself would be disabling and would prevent it from moving on. So it just moves on.

During the past five years it has played a part in wrecking a viable state in which most people had lived reasonably satisfactory lives before war was made on it in 1991, and in which life lived under sanctions between 1991 and 2003 appears good by the standards that have existed since the wrecking of 2003. Three quarters of a million innocent civilians, at a conservative estimate, have been killed as a consequence of the wrecking. But Britain is intent on 'moving on' as usual, and implementing the Gospel maxim of letting the dead bury the dead.

The circumstances of a slaughter were so notorious in one instance that it had to go to trial. The verdict, delivered in late January, was described as a whitewash by survivors, who were 'seeking closure' as we say in these parts. Of course it was a whitewash. That is what courtmartials are there for when the reputation of the Army is at stake.

There will be no 'closure' for Iraqi victims of the wilful destruction, by means of invasion, of the functional Iraqi state. They will just have to shrug it off while Britain moves on to other things.

The matter of Truth and Reconciliation was raised in Parliament a few years ago—and was stamped on by Michael Mates, who had been a Northern Ireland Office Minister, and who understood what would be involved if it was to be undertaken in earnest. The British State was not going to present itself at a Commission as a guilty party confessing its misdeeds in return for absolution.

The British State is of course the guilty party in general, and the major guilty party in particular. It made a woeful arrangement in 1921 for the governing of this integral part of itself, and then when it took over direct administration in 1972 it organised the terror system that Bradley and Eames have been given an insight into—an insight which has shocked them.

We were not surprised that Lord Eames proved to be an ignorant innocent. That is what Anglican Archbishops in Ireland should be. But we were shocked that Denis Bradley was shocked by what he saw in the glimpse he was given into the findings of the Stevens Inquiry.

What seems to be at issue in the dispute over whether or not what went on between the Provos and the British Army was war is collateral damage. If it was a war, collateral damage must be allowable, but not if it wasn't. And in addition it seems that archaic notions about war persist in Unionist culture. War consists of men in uniforms, drawn up in ranks, shooting at each other—a notion that became obsolete in 1940 at the latest.

In the memoirs of a laicised priest who decided to do his bit for Britain in the 2nd World War there is an account of how, having done his basic training in 1940, he was trained how to creep up behind people in the dark and slit their throats with a knife. That was the British method of warfare in France from June 1940 to June 1944.

The Provo war was a declared war carried through to a Ceasefire and a peace settlement. It is argued that the war aims were not achieved in the peace settlement. That is often the case with wars whose character as legitimate wars is never disputed. The declared British war aim in 1939 was to uphold the integrity and independence of Poland. Although 20 million people were killed in that war, a peace settlement was made in 1945 without Polish independence. And the territorial integrity of 1939 Poland has never been restored.

The SDLP view seems to be that, if it was a war, it was not a necessary war. How many wars are necessary? There was no necessity for the British declaration of war in 1914, which led to 50,000 Irish deaths, and which is now being glorified by Somme celebrations. Twelve million died. And the British war aim of establishing universal democracy and upholding the rights of small nations was not realised. The first state to discard the British war aim at the end of the war was Britain itself, when it ignored the 1918 Election result in Ireland and set about governing the country by naked force.

The SDLP maintains that what was achieved through war could have been achieved long ago without war. So why didn't the SDLP achieve it? Why did it not pursue an evolutionary line of development in a relationship with willing Unionists? Why did it welcome Faulkner's 1971 offer of development through Parliamentary Committees, only to pull out of Stormont immediately afterwards? Because it lacked the quality of leadership needed for an independent course of action.

Then in 1974 it had a power-sharing arrangement in the North, and a Council of Ireland conditional on withdrawal of the Dublin sovereignty claim. When the Dublin Government said in Court that the sovereignty claim stood, there was a surge of Unionist opposition to the Council. The SDLP might have saved power-sharing by deferring the establishment of the Council, but it refused to do so, and the entire Sunningdale arrangement fell.

Both of those instances demonstrate that the SDLP did not have it in it to pursue a course of action independently of Sinn Fein and in opposition to Sinn Fein. We supported it in both instances until it gave way in both.

After 1974 all the SDLP represented was a possibility by which Whitehall could make an oblique deal with Sinn Fein. That is more or less what happened in 1998. But the SDLP blew its opportunity in the implementation of the deal.

Whitehall responded to the war as a war in the first instance by introducing internment, which was a war measure. It was later said, by the SDLP amongst others, that it was internment that caused the war. that is ideological memory. The war was on before internment. The SDLP withdrew from Stormont immediately after welcoming Faulkner's proposal of Parliamentary Committees—on the excuse of an Army shooting and internment, even though the responsible body was Whitehall, not Stormont. It then took part in the anti-Internment agitation, with its necessary implication of criminalisation.

The Provos, who were the only statesmen around, knew how to profit both from the anti-Internment agitation and the consequent criminalisation (demanding the restoration of the political status which was ended by the ending of internment).

The contention that the war was unnecessary for the achievement of what was achieved by the war is a debating point pitched at a very remote level of abstraction from actual events.

General Suharto

General Suharto died in late February. The Irish Times published a very mild, self-effacing comment on the event.

The BBC remarked that up to a million of his opponents were killed by his regime. The first half million were killed straight off in the coup which brought him to power in 1965. The British Ambassador to Indonesia, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, was one of the engineers of the coup. That very high-powered trouble-shooting Ambassador was posted to Ireland a couple of years later, and it is a reasonable presumption that he had a hand in the manipulation of Jack Lynch. When Major McDowell of the Irish Times approached 10 Downing Street during the crisis of 1969, it ws Ambassador Gilchrist who was instructed to develop the contact.

Gilchrist and Suharto saved South-East Asia from Communism by killing half a million people—so it was said. Suharto then governed Indonesia as one of the free world's elder statesmen, and the half-million were forgotten as necessary casualties of Progress, with no agonising over the necessity of it.

The end came in May 1998 when—

"protests against Suharto's 32 year old reign became a popular uprising against his corrupt, repressive and family-dominated administration. Indonesia had been crippled by an economic crisis sweeping the Asia Pacific region. Its currency… had plummeted, banks had collapsed. On May 1st government had raise prices of cooking oil and fuel to meet conditions set by the IMF. This alone made an explosion inevitable."

That's Conor O'Clery in the Irish Times on 28th January. He does not mention where this economic crisis of the Asian Pacific came from.

It came from the new surge of globalism made possible by the ending of the Cold War. States within the Western sphere had been given considerable latitude to make protectionist arrangements during the Cold War, but now the US wanted free access for its capital everywhere and it subverted the regime of the biggest of its client states—supporting for that purpose Megawati Soekarno, daughter of the President who was overthrown in 1965.

President Mahatir of Malaysia resisted demands to open his economy to Western capital. The Irish Times ran its little witch-hunt against him—supporting the agitation against him by the Muslim fundamentalist free marketeer Anwar Ibrahim. Mahatir held out. The economic crisis sweeping the Asian Pacific region did not sweep Malaysia. And now the Irish Times forgets.

General Suharto was a respected statesman in the Western media until 1998. Some time after his fall he visited London. Jeremy Paxman reported on BBC's Newsnight that "that old thug Suharto" was in town.

The dogs know when to bark.


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