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.
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.
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?