'The thought would turn my stomach. I will not talk to people who murder indiscriminately.' That is how then Tory prime minister John Major responded in parliament on 1 November 1993 to suggestions that his government should talk to representatives of the IRA. Similar words about 'not conceding to terrorists' came from every British prime minister in the previous two decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. But as Major spoke eight years ago, his government was already in secret discussions with IRA leaders.
Those talks were part of a process which led last week to tremendous hopes for peace in Northern Ireland following the IRA's announcement that it will destroy its weapons. Yet in endorsing George Bush's self styled 'war on terrorism' Blair is refusing to learn anything from the moves towards peace in Northern Ireland. The politicians' soundbites and media headlines that we heard about the IRA for three decades-'psychopaths', 'evil terrorists', 'criminals living off drugs money', 'mass murderers'-are now being dutifully trotted out about Osama Bin Laden and the groups that look to him.
There are great differences between Bin Laden and the IRA. Even the British government never claimed the IRA committed or planned such huge civilian casualties as the US state holds Bin Laden responsible for in New York. But there are similarities in the way British governments responded to the IRA for 20 years and how the West says it must deal with terrorist threats from groups in the Middle East today.
In both cases we have been told:
- There are no political reasons behind terror attacks. They are merely the work of 'evil men' and to even consider what motivated them is 'to excuse murder'.
- Military force and police repression will end terrorism. The 'men of violence' are isolated and can be crushed.
- Any suggestion of addressing the grievances raised by the terrorists themselves will merely strengthen their hand, lead to further violence, and is the behaviour of those who 'appeased Hitler in the 1930s'.
- The chance of peace in Northern Ireland has depended, among other things, on British governments progressively abandoning every one of these fake arguments.
The British state knew from the beginning of the Northern Ireland 'Troubles' that the IRA was a response among Catholics to brutal oppression at the hands of Unionists. The Provisional IRA emerged only after anti-Catholic mobs-members of the Orange Order, RUC police force and B-Special reservists-had rampaged through Catholic areas in the summer of 1969.
Thousands of Catholics were driven from their homes in one of the biggest forced movements of people in Europe since the Second World War. That was the response of Unionist bigots to a peaceful campaign for civil rights by Catholics, who were treated as second class citizens. Britain had kept hold of the six counties of Northern Ireland in 1921 when the rest of Ireland gained independence.
Northern Ireland was to be, in the words of its first prime minister, 'a Protestant state for a Protestant people'. The Provisional IRA was formed in 1970 to defend Catholic areas from attack. The Unionist government, its allies in the Tory government in London, and the British army lashed out with a wave of repression against Catholic working class communities, where the IRA was based.
In August 1971 they introduced internment-locking people up at random and holding them without trial in 'interrogation centres' where they were tortured. On Bloody Sunday in January 1972 paratroopers fired on an anti-internment march in Derry, killing 13 people.
Internment and Bloody Sunday drove a flood of recruits into the IRA. The British government, which took over direct control of Northern Ireland in 1972, responded with yet more repression, which in turn brought a new generation of IRA recruits. And so the vicious circle continued.
In May 1976 the Labour government went further in trying to deny the political roots of the conflict. It removed political status from IRA prisoners. It called its policy 'criminalisation' of people it knew were motivated by political reasons. Assassinations of Republicans by the RUC (or Loyalist groups it tolerated) and the SAS increased.
The IRA responded with counterterror-sometimes, as with the Birmingham pub bombings, killing ordinary working class people in the process. Republican heartlands were sickened by the pub bombings, but continued violence by the British state and a refusal to dismantle anti-Catholic sectarianism ensured continued support for the IRA.
All the while the British government refused to consider the roots of the conflict, and said army and police action could 'root out the terrorists'.
A chance to break the cycle came in 1981. IRA prisoners began a hunger strike to win back political status. Support for the hunger strikers soared in Northern Ireland. One of them, Bobby Sands, was elected to Westminster in a parliamentary by-election.
A massive media attack took place. The Daily Star said, 'Since the hunger strike began 59 days ago, Sands and his allies have manipulated the situation as a cynical propaganda exercise. That is the real purpose behind the present campaign and it is one that no British government can tolerate.'
Margaret Thatcher refused to 'concede to terrorists'. Bobby Sands and nine other prisoners died. The bitterness in Northern Ireland did not go away. There was a surge in recruitment into a reorganised IRA. Thatcher and other ministers boasted that 'Northern Ireland is as British as Yorkshire'.
Privately the British army admitted that it could not destroy the IRA militarily. But that remained the public stance of the government. Behind the endless talk of a 'war on terrorism', however, key figures in the establishment knew they had to find some way of addressing the political roots of the war.
Tory Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke announced in a key speech on 1 November 1989, 'It is difficult to envisage a military defeat of the IRA. 'If, in fact, the terrorists were to decide that the moment had come when they wished to withdraw from their activities, then I think the government would need to be imaginative in those circumstances as to how that process should be managed.' Almost a year to the day later he went further, saying:
'The British government has no selfish or strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. Britain's purpose is not to occupy, oppress or exploit.' It was a statement that could have been made 20 years earlier at the start of the war. When Brooke did speak it got an instant reaction from the IRA. It announced a three-day ceasefire over Christmas. And in January 1991 a British government go-between met Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness in Derry. Far from 'encouraging the men of violence', those moves led to the IRA declaring a ceasefire on 31 August 1994.
But the Tories' reluctance to challenge the Unionists, who wanted to limit any power sharing with Catholic politicians, meant that formal talks were constantly delayed. That intransigence pushed Republicans back towards armed struggle with the Canary Wharf bomb in February 1996.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were elected to the Westminster parliament in the 1997 general election, demonstrating rising support for Sinn Fein. The offer of 'inclusive talks' led to another IRA ceasefire in July of that year.
It has held for the last four years, despite constant efforts by Unionists to hamper the implementation of agreements.
The war in Northern Ireland has claimed 3,000 lives over the last 30 years. Refusal to acknowledge the roots of the conflict and treating the IRA as 'murderous psychopaths' led only to a renewed spiral of violence. Violence diminished when the British state admitted that the IRA had an enduring base of support, and when it made even limited moves, such as the current peace process, towards addressing the discrimination Catholics suffer.
That process is about reaching an accommodation between politicians representing Catholic and Protestant 'communities'. It can reproduce the sectarian division that is built into the Northern Ireland state. But it does provide a space for working class people, Catholic and Protestant, to fight for their interests and against sectarianism.
In stark contrast to this, Bush and Blair declare that a 'war on terrorism' is the only way to deal with Bin Laden, the organisations that look towards him, and al-Quaida.
These two world leaders ignore the fact that the support for Bin Laden and such groups comes from deep rooted anger at the injustices in the Middle East. The answer lies in dealing with the sources of injustice by:
Providing justice for the people of Palestine.
Removing military backing for the Israeli state.
Pulling out the 5,000 US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia and ending US domination of the oil resources of the Middle East.