Wednesday, March 09, 2005


The Northern Bank Robbery and the Peace Process

Fascinating article on the Northern Bank robbery, from the Observer

When I originally wrote my article "The Structure of Terrorist Movements", my plan was to follow it up with two sequels; First, a recent history of the IRA, and second, a piece on international terrorism. My overall intent was to challenge Eric Raymond's "Anti-Idiotarian Manifesto" on what I saw as its one flaw: the lumping together of terrorists and their supporters as one undifferentiated enemy.

What I found when I tried to write my summary of Northern Irelands terrorist war was, first, that people had spent years doing serious research on this, and I didn't have time even to read what they'd written, never mind improve on it, and second, that on many important issues, the real facts simply aren't known.

There is at least a good reason why the facts are so unclear: It was necessary during the peace negotiations for both sides to present the settlement to their followers as a victory. Each side recognised the other's need to do this, and were therefore prepared to disguise the cold facts in places.

So, of necessity, what follows is not the factual summary I originally envisaged. It is much more an opinion piece, describing what I believe has happened in Northern Ireland since 1992. Almost every statement I will make can be challenged.

First claim: the war is over, and has been since 1998, though it was not clear at the time. Violent incidents have occurred since then, notably the Omagh bomb which killed 29 in August of 1998. They will continue, but they are no longer the acts of a coherent political movement. They should tail off over the years. The individuals involved may have links to mainstream republicanism, but that mainstream, including Sinn Fein, no longer depends on them. Sinn Fein has almost completed the movement to being a purely political, rather than terrorist, organisation.

The reason it is over is that the IRA rely on support from a large section of the Northern Ireland population, and if they return to terrorism now, they will not have that support. Their former supporters have tasted peace, and they like it.

That does not quite mean the IRA lost. A united Ireland is not on the cards for next few decades, so in that sense the Good Friday agreement was their surrender. It was by no means an unconditional surrender, but the final settlement was one that any British Government would have taken since the 1970s. The only meaningful concession made by the government was the prisoner release programme, and the IRA had not been fighting for 30 years just to be let off for fighting.

It could also be said, in the same way, that it is the hard-line unionists that lost. After all, it is they who rejected Sunningdale in 1973, by their strike. Ahern described the Good Friday agreement as "Sunningdale for slow learners".

The IRA was given enough for it to save face. Their prisoners were released, which was the key concession needed: their loyalty would not allow them to give up the struggle while their comrades were still imprisoned. The power-sharing structure put in place for Northern Ireland was no more than what was set up in 1973; its acceptance marked a climbdown by the hardline Unionists who had destroyed the 1973 arrangement. The disarmament part of the agreement was woolly enough that the IRA will be able to hang on to most of their guns until they go rusty.

The important, and very difficult, question is: how did this happen? I must have heard half a dozen theories:

Theory 1, my own from the mid-90s: the IRA were tricked. The cease-fires of the early 1990s were intended to be a minor exercise of gaining international sympathy, and possibly significant concessions, at no cost at all. The backfired because the popular base in Northern Ireland soon adjusted to peace and was unwilling to support a return to conflict. As I wrote in the earlier article:

The key motivations are loyalty to the community as a whole, ("Supporting Our Boys"), peer pressure, a sense of grievance, a desire for revenge, and pride -- an unwillingness to personally or collectively lose face.

It is significant that these are, intellectually, not very good reasons. The fact is that terrorist movements rarely improve the lives of those they claim to represent, and rarely achieve their political goals. Peaceful political activism, or a more conventional coup d'etat, are usually more likely to succeed than terrorism.

If this is correct, there is a heavy psychological inertia against giving up support for terrorism, but it is much easier not to restart once the struggle has come to a pause.

Thus, once the ceasefire had been in place for more than a year, it would become difficult for the terrorists to mobilise support among their sympathisers.

Theory 2: The IRA won.

Contrary to my assessment, some have said that the confict ended because the IRA found a way to hit the British Government where it hurt – by attacking London’s financial district and other economic targets with large fertiliser bombs. The Baltic Exchange bomb in 1992, according to the insurance industry, caused a cost in damage greater than the whole history of the Provisional IRA up to that point.

The strongest point in favour of this argument is the timing: the secret talks between the Major government and representatives of the IRA started during this campaign. The weakness of the theory is that the British Government never gave up anything it wasn’t already offering, and had offered in 1973.

To my mind this line of argument strengthens Theory 1: the IRA could have gone into talks believing they had pressured the Major government into a settlement, and not realised until too late that they had given up the momentum of their campaign for no guaranteed benefit.

Theory 3: Intelligence

Various British intelligence agencies had penetrated the IRA to a significant degree. This resulted in operational coups such as the Coalisland ambush of 1987 (Guardian), where 8 IRA terrorists were killed attacking a police station, and the Gibraltar incident (BBC) in the following year, where three terrorists were controversially shot dead while preparing a car bomb attack. Other operations also failed less spectacularly.

Some commentators believe that this series of operational failures were what prepared the IRA for negotiating a ceasefire.

Theory 4: counterattacks

I’ve no links or facts to back this up, but I’ve heard it said that what brought the IRA to the negotiating table were the terrorist attacks against them by Loyalist organisations, the UFF and UVF. While these organisations have a long history of paramilitary violence, the story is that in the 1990s they targeted their attacks on senior Sinn Fein and IRA members, and that that is what defeated the IRA.

Whether this is true or not, the fact that the idea is circulating is significant. The official government line has always been that these groups are proscribed terrorist organisations. There have, however, been frequent allegations of collusion between them and the security services. It seems beyond dispute that there were contacts at a low level, and that sympathisers in the RUC and/or Army intelligence passed information to Loyalist terrorists. I have not seen any evidence that this went high up, or was actual policy, but to someone who believes theory 4, if it was a policy, then it was possibly a successful one. Depending on their point of view, this may mean that they think it should have been policy.

Theory 5: money

Amusingly, I just saw a link to this theory, described in Monday’s Times. The author suggests that the IRA effectively became institutionalised by its increasing wealth and (only partly criminal) economic activity. There are shades here of Austin Powers: "I believe if we shift our resources away from world domination and focus on providing premium quality coffee drinks, we can increase our gross profits fivefold."

To me, the theory is more entertaining than likely, but there could be a grain of truth in it, in that the immediate material causes that triggered the troubles in the 1960s have faded out. In the early 1970s you could say that the largest obstacle to prosperity for Northern Ireland's catholics was their status at the time as de facto second class citizens. By the 1990s, with both the UK and the Republic enjoying unprecedentedly healthy economies, by far the greatest obstacle to prosperity for everyone in Northern Ireland was the continuing violence.

The bank robbery also kind of fits with this. Why deploy your resources trying to take out police stations or army barracks, when the banks are where the money is? Sinn Fein's leaders have government offices, TV appearances, control over a business empire and a realistic chance of even greater political rewards. There's not really any way back from that. A united Ireland can wait another generation or two.

What are the lessons of all this, for, say Iraq? I'll probably return to the question in the future, but one point that might be relevant is this: The terrorists usually cannot be appeased, but sympathisers can sometimes be won over by a combination of strength and compromise, and if you win over the sympathisers, the conflict can in the long run be won.
The IRA won hypothesis workspretty well if you treat them as individuals rather than a group primarily committed to aunited Ireland.

As an individual Gerry Adams has, as you pointed out, got major financial resources. He & his friends also have a very strong chance of sometime becoming NI's First Minister. In terms of what inspired the original "Troubles" they have also, I am glad to say, ended (arguably in some areas reversed) the 2nd class status of Catholics.

The long term future of Ireland is going to owe more to the fact that Irelnad's astonishing economic performance means that they now have a per capita income higher than the UK & substantially higher than the North. Bombing Ulstermen into union was never going to work but bribing them may work, if not for them, for their children.
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