An Unwon War

This summer will see the publication of ‘Resurgence’ – the second and final volume of ‘The Catholic Political Predicament in ‘Northern Ireland.’ It takes up the story where ‘Catastrophe’ left off, in August 1969, the pivotal event in the resurgence of the nationalist community after the catastrophe of 1920-25. From the final chapter ‘Restless in Peace’ (Ch. 18) which deals with current events in Ireland, up to Easter 2016 is the second part of this series :

The famous British jurist, F.E. Smith (Lord Birkenhead), who introduced the 1920 Act into Parliament and prosecuted Roger Casement, once stated that the measure of success in war and “who wins is found in the answer to the question: who is punished? There is no other test” (The Speeches of Lord Birkenhead, p108). At the conclusion of the War the Republican POWs were released and Sinn Fein took their place in government.

The 28 Year War could not be won by the British Army. It goes against the grain for Britain not to win in war, or at least to give the appearance of having won. In 1998 it admitted in effect its inability to win and, by the settlement it agreed, de facto at least, that the War waged against it by the Republican Army was legitimate. But the only sense that can be made of its policies in the years which followed is that it continued hoping to free itself from the concessions it had had to make in order to end the War. The idea is to restore a modified version of the system it set up in 1921, an arrangement more to its liking. Its intention has been to recover the ground, all or in part, it had to concede in 1998.

The first manifestation of this was in the attempts to ‘roll-back’ the policing reforms. This has involved a subversion of the Patten changes, which were intended to introduce a new culture into the police. Under these reforms, large numbers of RUC personnel took golden handshakes, amounting to a half billion pounds in total. Then many of the same people were re-hired under civilian contracts—putting themselves outside the legal requirements of the new policing and the Ombudsman’s authority, while also undermining the Patten provision for a temporary 50/50 recruitment policy to correct the Protestant predominance in the police force.

Further British measures against the settlement included the arrest of pivotal Republicans for alleged IRA activities not covered by the 1998 Agreement—because they occurred after it and were therefore beyond its scope. For instance, Padraig Wilson, an individual who was instrumental in carrying through the Republican transition from War, was charged with the offence of investigating the circumstances surrounding the killing of Robert McCartney—a thing which at the time it was widely demanded Republicans should do. Later he was charged with conducting a Republican internal investigation into the alleged rape of Mairia Cahill (the charge being later withdrawn). Then he was arrested again in connection with the killing of Kevin McGuigan (and released again). There was also the arrest of John Downey, an “on the run”, who had been given a ‘Letter of Comfort’—in effect an immunity from prosecution by the Blair Government.

Gerry Adams was arrested and questioned for three days over the murder of Jean McConville. Ivor Bell was charged in connection with the same offence. When a republican was killed in 2015, the Power-Sharing institutions were brought near to collapse by PSNI assertions that mainstream republicans were to blame, an assertion never backed up by proof. Nor did charges follow—although there were widespread, well-publicised arrests. And in the South Thomas Murphy was arrested for financial irregularities, while Bankers walked away unmolested.

The strategy of embarrassing Sinn Fein with arrests of Republicans was presumably directed towards dividing and fragmenting the Republican base. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the Provos was to hold the Republican movement together, except for some fragments, as they negotiated the Agreement and carried it through. They said at the outset that their great concern was to prevent a repetition in the North of what happened in the South in 1922. And they have succeeded in this for now.

These arrests have been illustrative of the political policing that still remains on the British agenda, mainly concentrating on republican misdeeds in”legacy issues”, whilst ignoring those on the other side, like the Ballymurphy Massacre. And there is a straight refusal to reveal information sought by relatives over killings in the past that the State possesses but wishes to conceal.

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