Apart from the visible return of a spectre that never truly went away, the return of violence to Northern Ireland leaves the British government with a precedent deficit. Whole careers are now based on the idea that the “peace process” in Northern Ireland is the paradigm by which all other conflicts can be solved. Godwin’s law states that the first person in an argument who cites the Nazis or Hitler loses. I am wondering about setting up a comparable law in counter-terrorism discussions with regard to Northern Ireland.
At present, through groups like Conflicts Forum and Forward Thinking, the former Northern Ireland minister Michael Ancram travels around cosying up to terrorists, citing his credentials in Northern Ireland. The non-Muslim Islamist (and former MI6 man) Alastair Crooke manages to blur the lines between diplomacy and advocacy using the same delusion. Other ex-spooks, known and unknown, are doing the same. And most famously, Tony Blair – biggest beneficiary of all – is peace envoy in the Middle East largely on the strength of his contribution to peace in Northern Ireland.
Even before the recent killings, the premise was flawed. By its logic, the best that the West will be able to hope for from the Palestinian people is that they can produce a Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams. Going on the Northern Ireland precedent, we should have to wait until the moment when the bloodiest-handed terrorist that Hamas can produce takes a step forward and says he wants to negotiate. At which point we welcome him and help him to become Deputy First Minister of some kind of future Palestinian state.
As recent events remind us, the claims of the peace process in Northern Ireland itself are unproven – but they are also unhelpful to the point of uselessness. Despite its bloodthirsty thuggery and wearisome sadism, the IRA never had in any of its manifestations a desire to annihilate the British state. It did not desire the extermination of the British people. It did not seek through its charter obligations to rid the world of Britishness in general or the British people in particular. Hamas and other Islamist groups seek all of these things regarding Israel and the Jewish people. The room for negotiation on these matters would strike me as, at best, slim.
Over the 30 years of “the troubles”, there were a number of significant occasions when the IRA could have been defeated. There had been spectacular successes for British forces, such as the taking-out of a whole IRA unit at Loughgall in 1987. Other occasions arose in each decade from the 1970s onwards.
The IRA came to the table saying they wanted to negotiate when they had already been made operationally incapable. By the early 1990s, barely a bomb could be planted or a plot hatched without it becoming clear that the British security services were aware of it as soon as the IRA high command was. In the years since, it has become clear that the line between these two forces was unclear, to put it at its mildest. From Gerry Adams’s driver to the head of his internal “discipline” squad, the IRA had been infiltrated and made near-redundant.
Yet despite effectively gaining victory, the government never pressed home its advantage and failed to take the opportunity to strangle the IRA, not at birth but at the moment when it was comparatively vulnerable. This mistake is now again returning to haunt us. The conflict is said to have been “resolved”. It should have been won.
But Northern Ireland, this most historically atypical instance, is now thought to be the norm. Historically, conflicts do not end because both sides decide on some kind of a stalemate. Almost without exception, they end because one side wins and one side loses. Equally important, the side that wins knows that it has won, and the side that loses knows that it has lost.
And so in the British establishment vision, all modern conflict is expected to be played to a mutually-agreed stalemate. It is one of the reasons why a tiresome call now goes up in this country the moment any conflict begins: “Ceasefire.” Gordon Brown and most other British politicians could be relied on during the recent Gaza operation to request a ceasefire straight away. Given that Hamas was being pretty successfully smashed by Israeli forces, a ceasefire should have been the last thing any enemy of terrorists would ask for. But the call goes out nonetheless and any army fighting a war can be certain that unless it achieves its objectives within hours of the start of conflict, British politicians will call for a return to the status quo ante as the most desirable objective.
When wars are brought to an end prematurely and with no clear victor, it is not the victorious end of war that is achieved, but – as we are currently being reminded – a false and unnatural peace.