Britain Struggles With The Good Friday Agreement And Peace In Ireland

On January 23rd, 1973, the United States’ president, Richard M. Nixon, described the multiparty treaty in France which ended the Vietnam War as “peace with honour“. The Paris Peace Accords reflected a widely held belief among American politicians and generals that the conflict in the south-east Asian territory had entered an indefinite phase of military stalemate, one that could only end through a negotiated settlement requiring compromises on all sides. In reality, of course, the north Vietnamese authorities in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the proxy Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) would use the agreement as a mechanism to expand their influence across the country, eventually overwhelming the beleaguered Republic of Vietnam as its US backers withdrew their active support.

Nixon’s somewhat optimistic description of the French-brokered deal was both praised and reviled in Washington, and beyond. Many saw the settlement as an act of surrender, an admission that the United States of America and its allies had been defeated in the field by a mixed insurgent and conventional force directed by Hanoi, aided by the USSR and others. Some viewed the agreement as a stab in the back, one caused by failures on the American home-front not the war-front, coupled with a lack of will to take the battle to the enemy, regardless of the cost in lives or the consequences for the country’s international standing.

In recent years there have been some attempts by conservative authors and journalists in the US to refashion the history of the Vietnam War. They have sought to present its history not as one resulting in an inevitable defeat or a compromise settlement but as a sort of moral victory. In this ideological scenario the conflict was a necessary one, a contest which held the line against the spread of communist infiltration around the globe, and a reaffirmation of the domino effect theory. Having proven its willingness to feed its young men into a mincing machine of flesh and bone to protect its “Western values”, having sacrificed billions of dollars for no physical return, the US – they argue – had dampened and curbed the ambitions of the Soviet Union and China. Under this logic, the Vietnam War ended in the 1970s not with an accommodation or a failure for Washington but with a victory, a reaffirmation of America’s way of life, where no wrong was done but that self-inflicted against the American people by weak leaders.

An Active Service Unit of the Irish Republican Army
An Active Service Unit of the Irish Republican Army sets up a vehicle-checkpoint, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994 (Image: © Rory Nugent, used with permission)

The so-called Irish-British Troubles, the conflict which tore apart the United Kingdom’s legacy colony in the north-east of Ireland from 1966 to 2005, likewise ended with a negotiated all-party settlement that grew out of a military stalemate. The Belfast or Good Friday Agreement signed on the 10th of April 1998 brought to an end some thirty-two years of war in the disputed region, primarily between the insurgent Irish Republican Army (IRA) on one side and the conventional UK Occupation Forces and their terrorist proxies on the other. Sinn Féin, representing the IRA and its community of supporters, with other parties from the Irish nationalist and British unionist electorates, as well as the governments of Ireland and Britain, signed up to an interim deal well-short of its original stated aims. It moved from a formative policy position where it sought an immediate unitary all-Ireland thirty-two county socialist republic free of institutional relations with the UK to an internal power-sharing arrangement in the Six Counties, still under nominal British sovereignty, with all-island bodies and full recognition of Irish national rights within the disputed territory.

The UK, meanwhile, agreed to further erode its sovereign control over “Northern Ireland”, a process already started with the unionist-reviled Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. This placed the Six Counties in a half-way house between the two island nation-states where the only options were the newly negotiated status quo or an end to partition and rule from Dublin. From publicly declaring that they would never “talk to terrorists” successive governments in London, both Conservative and Labour, had moved to open negotiations, placing the representatives of the Irish republican movement on an equal footing with their British opposite numbers (and this following years of covert discussions). The United Kingdom had formally recognised, as had their opponents, that both sides were locked in a violent stalemate and that hitherto unthinkable compromises were required to achieve a lasting peace. From freeing political prisoners to demilitarisation, from institutional reform to disbanding paramilitary policing, the UK moved in unison to steps partly dictated by its one-time enemy.

This, at least, was how the Good Friday Agreement was presented at the time and for many years thereafter. It was “peace with honour”, an accommodation where there would be, in the contemporary words of the two national governments, “no winners and losers”. However in recent years the British political classes, aided by many right-leaning journalists and academics, have attempted to rewrite the end of the “Long War”, alleging some sort of victory for the United Kingdom over its insurgent enemy. From carefully nuanced speeches by prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of Labour, and even David Cameron of the Tories, we have moved to the present incumbent of Downing Street, Theresa May, with her flippant claims that the UK had “defeated” the Irish Republican Army in the late 1990s, despite all historical evidence to the contrary. Such talk is dangerous in the extreme because it leads to ill-informed decisions at the highest levels of government and diplomacy.

The 1998 deal and several subsequent accords resulted in a “soft border” around the Six Counties or perhaps more accurately a type of “soft reunification” with the rest of Ireland. It made the supposed boundary between north and south an irrelevance, as the UK’s control over the partitioned region became more about sovereignty than authority. As the disastrous consequences of the anti-European Union Brexit vote in Britain become ever-more apparent, the belief among some parliamentarians and officials in London that a new frontier can be erected around the north-east of this country is gaining rhetorical ground. The contemporary myth being peddled by the right-wing press in London, with echoes in the country’s left-wing media, that the IRA suffered a military defeat nearly two decades ago is encouraging a recklessness in policy and negotiations among the inhabitants of Whitehall and Westminster. There is an almost bravura “bring-it-on” attitude emerging in the United Kingdom in relation to the Irish-UK border, as if some people were more comfortable with a bloody insurgency and counter-insurgency than an uncomfortable peace. When one sees premier Theresa May and the “Empire 2.0” nationalists in her Conservative Party, one is reminded of a group of upper-class soccer hooligans chanting dirges about the Second World War during an England-Germany football match, eager for yet another violent trial of strength.

The people of Britain would do well to take note of this summation of the Irish-British Troubles by the establishment commentator, Peter Hitchens, reacting to the death of Martin McGuinness:

Does the Prime Minister actually think about what she says? On Wednesday, just after noon, she told the House of Commons: ‘I would like to express my condolences to the family and colleagues of the former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness.’

Mr McGuinness was beyond doubt one of the heads of Europe’s most successful terrorist murder gangs.

He did not stop doing so because he was sorry. Nor was he defeated. Delude yourself as much as you like, the widowmaker McGuinness was the conqueror of Britain. It is our army that went home. It was our surveillance equipment that was dismantled on IRA orders. The IRA kept their guns. We were the ones who had to disband the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its devastatingly effective Special Branch, because the IRA hated them. It was we, the vanquished side, who released scores of gruesome terrorists from just jail sentences.

It was we, the losers, who granted a de facto amnesty to any such killers we had not yet caught. It was we, the beaten, surrendered side, who had to remove the symbols of our former power, the Union Flag and the Crown of St Edward, from cap badges, flagpoles, official buildings and documents. It was we who agreed to pay the widowmaker McGuinness a salary of more than £100,000 a year, much of which he handed over to ‘the movement’. Why, we even forced the poor Queen to smile at him.

In the end, as we have agreed, we will also hand over a large piece of our sovereign territory to a foreign power. What sort of idiot calls this victory?

Apart from Michael Gove and the other inhabitants of the metropolitan far right, who in the United Kingdom is idiotic enough to believe that a future round of conflict in Ireland will result in a lesser defeat than the one it has already suffered?

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17 comments

  1. It is with resignation, and zero-surprise, that I read this excellent article on the impact of BREXIT on the North.
    For that is what it is. BREXIT is the last, sad, miserable act of an internally collapsing United Kingdom. The Scots are now moving inexorably down the Irish track of history, and are now almost at the edge of the 1918 election, and a final struggle for independence. Wales is dormant, at the moment, but events will eventually force them down the same track. This leaves a bleak reality for the British Government and its future, They are now watching the political suicide of the final remnants of the British Empire. Nothing less. The Irish North is a part of this combined process. What is interesting is that the British elite are simply refusing to face reality, just as the American Right did after Vietnam. Self-delusional does not begin to fit the description of their mind state. Deep inside the London Metropolitan “Bubble” the UK Ruling caste see Northern Ireland as an irritant, as something to be “Dealt with”, not as a place where after a terrible military struggle, some basic, inadequate rights and freedoms have been forced from the UK. Even those “Concessions”, as the UK elite refer to them, are now once again at risk, from near future events.
    The only hopeful sign is that some elements of the Unionist community now realise their predicament, and the utter poverty that is going to arrive after a hard BREXIT and the inevitable hard frontier. The hard line Unionists are also feeling abandoned. So we are now at a very delicate point in our history, where the UK government are trying to establish a political propaganda narrative about the North, (For that is what it must be seen as) to bluster their way through a hopeless negotiating position, at least until BREXIT has happened, and they can then take the gloves off.
    At the same time, there has now arrived a last opportunity to reunite Ireland, before BREXIT, (For afterwards, We will face a rather nasty right wing “Rogue state”, that will cling to the North like the Israeli’s do to the West bank, and for similar ideological reasons. ). There is just this narrow window of opportunity, that lasts until April, 2019, and then slams shut. Then will follow a very hard time for the people of the North. A restart of the War is possible. So this article is to set out this background, to expose, as Fenian Fox has done, the UK strategy, stress the urgency of events, and to ponder what can be done. I think it is an opportunity, if grasped, to force events, during BREXIT, and reunify the state. Firstly, the Dublin Government has got to keep up its surprisingly smart emerging policy of open planning for events, policies about a reunification, deep exploration of the legal elements of the peace agreement and Anglo-Irish agreement, etc, and a counteracting propaganda to the British. With just two years left, before events get a lot grimmer, the Irish voice in all this has to be heard, internationally, and in the UK, promoting the alternative, pressurising the UK in all the international forums, and a very large program of very public debate and discussion in the North, between the two communities. It has to be relentless. Otherwise, after April 2019, 103 years after 1916, we shall all drift into some very harsh events. We have just 24 months left.

    1. Thanks for that comment, Graham. When Brexit bites, when the EU subsidies disappear with no replacement, when cross-border trade becomes an impossibility for small farmers and businesses, then hopefully small “u” folk might reconsider their loyalties.

      1. Thank You. I agree with You. It is the small people who will suffer most, after BREXIT. It is going to be tough, but a major debate needs to be started with the Unionist community. The alternative is to horrible to think about.

      2. The thing is, EU funding is about 600m average a year rounded up, more or less? Yes, not an insignificant amount. However, the UK subsidy is roughly 10 Bn, up from roughly 5 Bn before the economic crisis. The difference is the EU funding goes to politically significant and vocal groups – middle class arts/intellectuals, “ex”-paramilitaries, farmers and the “third” sector (effectively middle class administrators and social activists of one sort or another) – and to a very visible, and in the case of the 6 counties, historically lacking, public infrastructure.

        This means it’s funding, but not that significant in comparison to British subvention – 6% of the value of the British subvention. Some may even be replaced by Westminster, as has sometimes been “promised”. This bring the question, if loss of EU funding is so significant, how is loss of British subvention anytime so at the prospect of unity, tappered or otherwise, foreseen as less of a problem, when on these grounds it is a significantly bigger one, and logically a stronger argument against unity?

        That is, the argument about loss of EU funding I believe is a very dangerous one, unless it can be shown the subvention is not as significant as it is, or there is a plan and results that show its decline.

        Unfortunately, the argument against a continuing issue of and loss of subvention has largely hypothetical so far as far as I can determine:

        1. Public sector expenditure will be reduced through almagamation of services – economies of scale. Although in the negative such almagamation inevitably envisages public sector job loss.
        2. The North will benefit from the trickle down of being part the 26 countries comparador semi-peripheral service economy and tax haven.

        That is, namely a vision of more ‘liberal’ economic model like that of the 26 counties. Hardly, an Irish republican vision.

        Further, in the medium to long term, no Irish republican can really believe dilution and further dilution of sovereignty to the EU is not, just like British jurisdiction, an affront to Irish sovereignty.

        1. But that subvention is already under existing threats from UK government cuts, and was expected to drop by a substantial margin in any case. And that is without Brexit. The economic knock-on of the latter, coupled with the loss of EU funding (primarily to agriculture), will have a serious effect. There is very little evidence that HMG is willing to step in or to maintain funding levels at the present exorbitant rates. Unless we go back to the days of the “security economy” when every fourth or fifth business was supplying or working for the “security forces”, from welders to plumbers, it is hard to see how things will keep going.

          Factor in a hard border, and some type of insurgency and counter-insurgency, however minor compared to previous periods of instability, and things could very easily spiral out of control.

          Certainly there is almost zero confidence in Dublin that Brexit is going end well for Ireland. Even FG have the jitters.

    2. Great comment. I would go as far as this speech being a battle cry. This is a clear call to arms to tear that “large piece of … sovereign territory” back from the “foreign power.” She clearly, unmistakably, and purposely states the absolute, irrefutable right to re-hoist the butcher’s apron, to place the Empire’s symbols of regalia, and to re-impose sentences and prosecutions on those “justly condemned” as members of “terrorist murder gangs.” This is a re-hash of the “we lost because we were stabbed in the back by the politicians,” speech of many right wing organisations in Germany after the first world war, which gave rise to an unspeakable horror less than twenty years later. The absurdity that it concerns territory never legitimately being sovereign English territory, that the indigenous people living there were subjected to English whims for 800+ years, that the majority of ultimate terrorist and murderous depravity was committed by “devastatingly effective” organisations such as the RUC and the “Special Branch” (why not call them “Einsatzgruppen?”), and English troops and armed police occupying this part of Ireland to this day not withstanding. Nationalists in the six counties should be preparing for the very worst, as this is a very clear statement of intentions, especially when considering her calling McGuinness a terrorist murderer at the time of his passing and in public. He was part of a coop government sanctioned by England after all. This is not just Brexit, this is “very well, alone.”

      1. Guess that should be he and his (didn’t pay attention to where the quote ended – sucks getting old). That could be a good thing, of sorts. Of course, he could just be echoing what the leading elite, including the PM, really thinks.

  2. I regard myself as an Irish nationalist and I am certainly not a partitionist, but I say let’s have a hard border – a really hard border. Something tells me that is the very last thing Unionists and their British supporters would welcome in practice. For a start there’s the rather large matter of the huge number of illegal migrants who come south via the soft border. Call me cynical but have a hunch Unionists are only too happy that these folk don’t hang around in “Ulster” too long. As long ago as 2001, Henry McDonald, the ersthwile Workers Party journo and passionate anti-Republican, reported in the Guardian that loyalist paramilitaries were teaming up with Triad gangs to traffic illegal migrants to the south of Ireland. So really it’s surely time Unionist/Loyalist bluff was called about the border. The present situation gives southern Ireiand huge responsibility and zero power.

    1. The risk is from that would be the opposite effect coming into play with on some unionist backwoodsmen who are quite uncomfortable with the invisible border we have now. A significant portion of unionists might welcome a hermetically sealed border around their colony precisely because they have that colonial outlook. Not to mention the reaction from nationalists, north and south.

  3. Thinking the UK was defeated by the IRA is hilarious, it was a stalemate at best.

    Nor will there be a return to violence. Border or not the conditions that lead to the troubles, the systematic discrimination against Catholics and the deprivation of the right to peaceful protest don’t exist any more.

    1. I agree, it was a settlement-through-stalemate, though one slightly in the IRA’s favour. I suspect that this interpretation lies at the heart of Hitchens’ intellectual opposition to the GFA and so on. The peace accords of 1998 and later did not represent an explicit defeat for the UK but it was an admission of failure. Of mission not achieved, to misquote George Bush.

      1. Talk to Provisional IRA volunteers , ( which I do all the time as that’s all my friends and colleagues consists of ) , and they will tell you it was a defeat , the current political leaders of republicanism can dress it up any way they like but the men and women that fought the war know the score .

    2. Would this have been achieved without the armed struggle taking place in tandem with the civil rights demands? I would be interested in all opinions.

  4. big Dog, just wait until the BREXIT takes effect. You will see then how much respect the English stste has for Human rights and civil liberties. I give it six months, after BREXIT, before the violence starts. Thats why it is vital to have a deep dialogue with the Unionist community.

    1. I would be willing to see your bet. I think there is potential in the case of serious economic crisis, and/or visible effects of a border (remember the problem remains it hasn’t gone away…), but at the minute, I believe this view is just a tad hysterical.

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