National Security & Defense

Lessons from Northern Ireland

Aftermath of 1996 bombing in downtown Manchester (Reuters photo: Bob Collier)
Both the Left and the Right misapply the history of the Troubles to our current predicament.

It has been nearly 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, signed in Belfast in 1998 and ratified by voters on both sides of the Irish border six weeks later, brought an amicable end to the Troubles, the long-running conflict that had vexed the island for decades and killed thousands across the British Isles. Since then Britain has enjoyed a period of relative peace, disturbed from time to time by bombings and murders committed by Irish republican fringe groups or radical Islamic jihadists, but mostly putting to rest the shadow of the gunman.

Until now, that is. For many observers, the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London have resurrected the specter of the Troubles. The links are clear enough: The attacks on London Bridge this month and Westminster two months ago remind one of the IRA’s 1993 bombing of Bishopsgate in the City of London, or perhaps the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings; the bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester brings to mind the IRA’s massive attack in central Manchester in 1996. How one views the resurrection of the Troubles, though, depends on one’s political inclinations.

On the left, comparisons to the Troubles fall in line with the general ethos of anti-Trumpism. In the wake of President Trump’s controversial January travel ban, the left-leaning parts of Twitter circulated an image of obliterated storefronts and parking garages in central London after the 1993 bombing. The accompanying caption: “This is London in 1993 after an IRA truck bomb. We didn’t ban Irish people or Catholics, we understood it was just a group of [c*nts].” The travel ban was an overreaction, vastly unwarranted by the circumstances of the time; the British had seen such violence before and confronted it with a steely upper lip. (This analogy conforms to a certain stereotype of the British people to which the American press has recently warmed: that nothing can faze their psyche, that theirs is a nation that lived through the Blitz and will gladly stare down any evil without letting it affect their daily lives.)

On the right, the Troubles are a model to which to return, or at least a period from which we might learn. In this view, the current spate of terror attacks in the United Kingdom is really “Jihadi guerrilla warfare not an issue for law enforcement”; British urban centers will soon resemble Northern Irish cities during the British Army’s long military involvement in the province; the country must recognize that it is now confronting a menace similar in tenacity and violence to that once posed by the IRA and adjust its tactics accordingly. Like the IRA’s long campaign against loyalist paramilitaries and the British Army, the jihadist campaign in the United Kingdom and indeed across Western Europe is likely to involve a plethora of small-scale, locally based attacks, focusing not on the al-Qaeda-style spectacular but rather on the fomenting of fear in everyday life. The anti-IRA playbook should thus be followed again, or at least studied.

Both views contain kernels of truth, but both fall prey to a misreading of history, a selective memory of actual British policy in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. And both sides could use a recounting of the litany of injustices deliberately inflicted by the British government during the conflict. If we are to compare today’s situation with the Troubles, in other words, we must take the comparison seriously.

True, Britain did not impose a travel ban on Catholics. (A ban on Catholics would only have solved half the problem after all: Though Protestant paramilitaries were not quite as violent as their Catholic counterparts, they imposed their fair share of misery, as did the British Army itself.) But human capacities for injustice and governments’ ability to restrict the civil liberties of their citizens extend far beyond the imposition of travel bans.

For instance: in 1971, near the height of the conflict, the British government summarily reneged on the right of habeas corpus and introduced a general policy of internment without trial for suspected IRA operatives. Nearly 2,000 citizens were interned under the policy, which resulted not in lowered levels of violence but rather in massively increased public support for the republicans, making the following year, 1972, the most violent in the conflict’s 30-year duration. Injustices went beyond that: By now, it is relatively clear that the British government authorized the use of torture (or at least tactics that came very close to it). Euphemistically dubbed the “five techniques,” they involved hooding, physical abuse, and deprivation of sleep, food, and water.

Nor were such policies confined to the realm of criminal justice; indeed, they left few families untouched by pain or loss. Throughout the period British security forces — the army and the police force — killed hundreds, a majority of them Catholic civilians. The eleven-year-old Francis Rowntree, killed by a rubber bullet from the rifle of a British army officer, is an emblematic case.

Throughout the period British security forces killed hundreds, a majority of them Catholic civilians.

And the physical legacy of the Troubles still remains. The solution the government devised to defuse constant tensions between the Catholic and Protestant communities was, well, to build “peace walls” between them, massive, ugly structures running for kilometers and rising dozens of feet in the air, starkly dividing the two communities. Some have begun to come down, and the Belfast government has slated them all for deconstruction by 2023, but they have a strange resonance, with many residents fearing their removal could spike tensions and reignite dormant conflicts.

There are two points to be made here, one to the Left and one to the Right. The former is that the true history of the Troubles — not the sanitized version of it present in contemporary historical memory — should remind us that there are far worse things than travel bans, and that to use the Troubles as evidence that societies need not resort to a measure so drastic as a travel ban to prevent terrorism is to engage in nothing less than the worst form of historical sophistry. The historical record reveals that the British government engaged in something far worse. In this regard it would appear that contemporary circumstances have distorted our understanding of the past; to look back at the Troubles and see there only the ostensible success that is the lack of a travel ban is to obscure a much longer and more significant record of trampling on civil liberties, one that imposed a greater human cost and led to far greater death than a travel ban ever could.

To the latter: Comparisons of the current situation with the Troubles are well and good (though probably slightly exaggerated) as far as statistics go, but if that ignoble period in the history of the United Kingdom is to stand as a model for anti-terrorist tactics going forward, we must take a long, hard look at the actual injustices and injuries inflicted then and attempt to learn from them. Would it be wise to undertake something like Operation Demetrius, which resulted in the arrests and internments of hundreds of Catholics in 1971, in the Muslim neighborhoods of Manchester? Should the detained, most of them citizens, then be subjected to the same interrogative techniques as Catholics were in the 1970s? Should walls be constructed around majority-Muslim neighborhoods? Should soldiers be dispatched to patrol Muslim neighborhoods, conduct door-to-door raids, and engage in large-scale profiling on the basis of one’s religion?

If the Troubles will serve as our reference point, these are the questions we must confront. And perhaps in doing so, we may come to see the limitations of practicality and circumstance within which policy must operate.


After the 2016 Election, A Terrorism Gap

Terrorist Attacks & Bathtub Accidents Shouldn’t be Compared

Terrorism & Immigration Facts: We Need a Clear View

— Noah Daponte-Smith is a student of modern history and politics at Yale University and an editorial intern at National Review.

The Latest