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Targeting Civilians: Settlers, Human Shields, And The Wars In Algeria And Ireland

The Nation has published a review of Zohra Drif’s acclaimed autobiography, Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter, where the author Bill Fletcher Jr. asks the provocative question: should the civilian settlers of a colonial power – or their “loyalist” descendants – be a legitimate target in a national liberation struggle? The answer, as you might expect, is a complex and morally ambiguous one, whether those doing the targeting are state or non-state actors.

Despite this, some universal characteristics can be found in a number of countries and regions which have experienced colonisation:

Algeria was among those colonies of Europe that could be defined as “settler states” or “settler colonies.” These were colonies where the Europeans not only controlled the territory and seized its resources but where there had been a conscious decision to settle Europeans. Other such settler states included Ireland, Kenya, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, South Africa, Palestine/Israel, Canada, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

There are many noteworthy things about settler states. One is how often God is referenced, as having allegedly given those territories to the European settler population. That was particularly true in Ireland, South Africa, Israel, and the United States.

A certain type of crusader or missionary zeal has been an aspect of the Anglo-British presence in Ireland for centuries, the echoes of which can be found in the more extreme forms of ideological unionism on the island (hence the Reverend Ian Paisley’s infamous claim in 1981 that his Scots and English ancestors had brought civilisation to a land of cave-dwelling savages).

During the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s through the mid-1990s, the Irish Republican Army generally took great pains to distinguish hard targets (military or government targets) from soft targets (civilians). This did not mean that civilians were not killed—there were some horrendous exceptions to this policy—but rather that they were generally not the targets of military activity. This, in fact, distinguished the IRA from the loyalist paramilitary organizations, which disregarded the soft target/hard target distinction and were quite comfortable attacking nationalist/Catholic civilians. Such an approach made it difficult for the British to successfully portray the IRA as terrorists, though the British media worked overtime in support of the London government on this issue.

The example of Ireland also illustrates an additional complication. During the Troubles, the British would establish military installations in or near civilian establishments, which I witnessed first-hand in 1988, during a visit to Northern Ireland. This meant that if the IRA were to carry out a military attack on a British installation, there was a good chance that civilians would be killed or injured, and the British could describe the attack as an act of “terrorism.” The fact that the British created this situation was generally missed by the media.

The ubiquitous use of “human-shields” by the United Kingdom’s military and paramilitary forces in the north-east of Ireland, for both fixed installations and mobile patrols, remains one of the rarer discussed aspects of the former conflict or Troubles. Though, arguably, it was also one of Britain’s most successful counterinsurgency tactics for securing footholds in otherwise dangerous or hostile areas.

Fortified British Army base in Ireland uses Irish residents as human shields against attacks by the Irish Republican Army, 1980s

The heavily fortified military observation post which once squatted on the reinforced roof of the twenty-storey Divis Tower in nationalist West Belfast, was a prime example of the UK using Irish civilians to protect the lives of its soldiers. At one stage some 2500 men, women and children lived in the shadow of the few dozen troops occupying the steel and concrete structure, and the requisitioned 19th and 18th floors beneath, providing a twenty-year buffer against insurgent attacks by the Irish Republican Army. Which turns the question of anti-colonial forces targeting settler or settler-descended populations on its head.

The ministers and generals in London who adopted the human shield strategy in the 1970s did so precisely because they viewed local populations in the Six Counties in terms of “natives” (nationalists/republicans) and “colonists” (unionists/ loyalists). In this context, the lives of the former were of negligible value except where they served an immediate or long-term politico-military purpose. Hence, equally, the United Kingdom’s precipitous and willing descent into a “Dirty War” to protect its embattled holdout across the Irish Sea. This resulted in a range of policies against the non-belligerent “indigenous” community, from the use of army death squads to collusion with loyalist terror gangs, with the intent of curtailing popular support for the insurgency (in the case of the local, state-backed Ulster Defence Association or UDA, this also meant a decades long refusal by successive UK governments to ban an allied terrorist grouping).

Of course, after hundreds of years of settlement and interaction, clear-cut lines between domestic and alien populations in Ireland no longer existed by the latter half of the 1900s (if they ever did, at least following the initial settlements of the Medieval era and the plantations of the 17th century). Contemporary 1960s’ Algeria, though similar to the segregationist Six Counties in many ways, had a more explicit and recognisable schism due to visible ethno-racial differences between groups rather than the ethno-religious split between two otherwise outwardly identical – and frequently intermixed – communities in the same country.

In targeting members of the minority unionist population, albeit while in the uniform or service of the British occupiers, the Irish Republican Army was in many ways targeting a segment of its own people. And a significant one at that. Which adds further complexity to the question asked originally. If, as most republicans would argue, engaging in attacks against non-combatant civilians is wrong, regardless of the historical or communal circumstances, what happens when those you claim as your own act on the enemy’s behalf? Including targeting you and yours?* An anti-colonial liberation struggle then takes on the aspects of a civil war (as, arguably, happened in German-occupied France during 1943-45, particularly when the Vichy regime sought to suppress its domestic enemies and rivals. Though this contest was to become a true internecine conflict).

However, and here be the rub, there are certainly some among the pro-union minority in north-east Ulster who think of their community’s history in terms of preordained conquest and settlement. To the point of seeing an almost biological division between unionists and nationalists, a separation that transcends shared characteristics. That feeds into, and from, loyalist notions of ethno-cultural and religious supremacy. Of “Britishness” being eminently greater and more prestigious than any rival form of nationality, here or across the world. One which could not countenance sharing a territory with an ethnicity inferior in language or custom. Or, for the want of a better description, “the natives”. Hence, Brexit and the distinct possibility of a partition 2.0, a “hard border” outcome sought by many in the Democratic Unionist Party. Or a return to the colonial and segregationist certainties of old.

*Note: The implementation of a Vietnam-style “Ulsterisation” policy by the UK in the 1970s further blurred the line between legitimate and non-legitimate targets. Were locally recruited part-time soldiers and police officers combatants or civilians? If killed while wearing their occasional uniforms was that an act of war? Whereas an out-of-uniform death represented a war crime? What category did the civilian employees of the Occupying Power fall into? Were judges, prosecutors, prison warders, civilian searches or even census takers justifiable targets if the colonial state could not function without them? If viewed one way, they were collaborators, perpetuating the occupation and conflict. If viewed another way, they were loyal and law-abiding citizens going about their ordinary business.

15 comments on “Targeting Civilians: Settlers, Human Shields, And The Wars In Algeria And Ireland

  1. There is nothing “complex” or “ambiguous” about the likes of Kingsmills, unless of course you want to patronise someone because they are oppressed, thus virtuous and have no agency to make moral/ethical decisions of their own.


    • Sure, though even that infamous deed is better understood when contextualised within the events of 1976 in mid-Ulster. Needless to say, that does not offer an excuse or a justification for the massacre. Merely an explanation of possible cause-and-effect (or tit-for-tat, as some would have it). The complexity and ambiguity does exist, even if one disagrees with much of it. For instance, Tommy McKearney has offered a thoughtful explanation for the IRA targeting of part-time UDR and RUC men during the conflict, targeting that could be – and frequently is – argued as “sectarian” in nature. The military intent and the more communal-influenced motivations behind that strategy are both complex and ambiguous.


      • Actually it doesn’t begin to explain what “moral ambiguity” lay behind the planned execution of the workmen who were Protestant and the sparing of one who was Catholic. As Ed Moloney recorded about that incident in his interviews “It’s a lesson you learn quickly on the football field, if you’re fouled you hit back”. Whatever “military intent” or “thoughtful explanation” lay behind these actions, I don’t believe you can or should seriously argue they are more “morally ambiguous” than those massacred on Bloody Sunday or Loughinsland by the nefarious Other. The Americans had a wonderful dehumanising politically correct word for the targeting of civilians in Vietnam: “enemy infrastructure”, the reasoning behind that was internally sound though I don’t think anyone here would debate the morality of it.


        • I don’t disagree. When I said the ambiguity does exist I was referring to things more generally, rather than specific instances of explicit attacks on civilians (Kingsmill, Enniskillen and so on). Hence the reference to part-time UDR and RUC men. Were such figures legitimate targets? And if so, when? In uniform or out of? Armed or unarmed? Ordinary warfare makes no such distinctions, as such (commandos kill unarmed soldiers in barracks, etc. The French Resistance killed off-duty unarmed German soldiers, uniformed or otherwise. As well as Vichy police officials and police/militia officers). I’ve added a footnote discussing this because of the differing views on such questions.

          The outright murder of innocent civilian workers is easier to identify as immoral and reprehensible. Other cases shade into grey and are worth discussing.


          • john cronin

            Algeria and Norn Iron is not a good analogy. When the Algerian War kicked off in the fifties, there were 11 million people in Algeria: ten million Arabs/Berbers and one million Catholic European colons ( half of whom weren’t even Frogs, but Spaniards, Italians, Maltese, etc) The Europeans were a tiny minority. The Ulster Prods form 20% of the total pop of Ireland and also form a regional majority.

            France only went into Algeria in the 1830s, and only started sending large numbers of people there in the 1870s: a lot were refugees from Alsace, lost to the Germans, or political prisoners dumped there after the suppression of the Paris Commune. In 1870 there were probably only about 100,000 French in Algeria. In 1950, the vast maj would only have been third generation. Albert Camus’s family would be a classic example: his paternal grandparents were from Alsace-Lorraine and his ma’s parents were illiterate Spanish peasants.

            The average Antrim Orangeman’s folks have probably been living there since the 16th c. There was no, absolutely no intermarriage in Algeria. Intermarriage has been going on in Ulster for four centuries: as is obvious from the surnames.


            • In fairness, no analogy is perfect but the similarities are quite stark, albeit within a tighter time frame. You have the general history of invasion, occupation, colonisation and annexation. Similar occurrences of indigenous ethnocide and displacement. The implementation of a segregationist system in favour of the colonisers and their descendants. The legal incorporation into the occupying polity (so that Algeria became a region of metropolitan France as Ireland became a part of the UK with the Act of Union). And so on.

              The Pieds-Noirs were at least 10% of the population in Algeria, while Protestants in Ireland were just under 25%. However Protestant does not equal unionist/loyalist. Which is where difficulties come in as some Roman Catholics were also pro-UK. With the Pieds-Noirs things were rather more clear-cut. Though the issue of the Harkis complicates things again in a very Irish way.

              The differences are certainly there in the Irish/British and Algerian/French situations but also plenty of instructive similarities.


              • john cronin

                The Moslem population of Algeria went from about two million to eleven million under French rule. I doubt that would have happened under native rule. Them clever DWEMs inventing penicillin and hospitals and maternity clinics and med schools and stuff.


  2. French look different from Arabs and Berbers.


  3. The “Ulster Unionists” are on a hiding to nowhere in the long run though. From a ‘mainland’ POV they’re just as much ‘wogs’ as the ‘Catholics’. At best comical, at worst Neo-Nazis. The whole business is just another chapter in the old imperial game of Divide & Rule.


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