Iraq: Lessons from Northern Ireland
Peter R. Neumann shows the relevance of ‘The Troubles’ to allied policy in Iraq.
The American-led occupation of Iraq is now in its tenth month, and despite the capture of Saddam Hussein, things are not going according to plan. The Americans have lost almost 200 troops by hostile fire since President Bush declared major hostilities to be over. For the British, the tally can thankfully still be measured in double-digits. Still, something has gone wrong, but what is it? How can we prevent Iraq from becoming what American commentators have at times called a ‘second Vietnam’?
Britain’s early experience in Northern Ireland offers some useful lessons. This is not to say that the situation there, or indeed was, the same as now in Iraq. When Harold Wilson’s government sent troops to Northern Ireland in August 1969, it was not to fight a war but to use them as peace-keepers. Moreover, Northern Ireland, unlike Iraq, was a consenting as well as internationally recognised part of the United Kingdom, which is why the Irish Republic never succeeded (and indeed rarely tried) to bring the issue to the attention of the United Nations. In that sense, Northern Ireland has never been an occupation; nor did it provoke the notion of civilisational conflict. Still, there are similarities, the most significant of which is that in both situations British troops were deployed not only to keep the peace, but as part of a wider undertaking to reform and re-build the government and institutions of an independent (or, in Northern Ireland, semi-independent) country.
Lesson 1: Don’t Fear Commitment
The failure to take the imperative of nation-building seriously was Wilson’s principal mistake. In 1969, many members of the Cabinet conceptualised the conflict in historical terms, and both government and media seemed certain that – however benign – the Irish would soon come to resent the ‘occupation’. Indeed, as recently released Cabinet papers reveal, the Defence Secretary, Denis Healey, warned that ‘we should be once again in the 1911-14 situation’, when the British government’s attempt to introduce Home Rule in Ireland had almost triggered a civil war.
The idea that to get involved in the Irish conflict was to take over an open-ended commitment, and one from which Britain could only emerge badly damaged, was widespread. Hence, while the government pretended that it wanted to bring about a peaceful settlement, its ultimate priority was to get the troops out. As the (then) Home Secretary Jim Callaghan confessed, ‘I said I wanted to be a catalyst for peace … At the back of my mind, of course, I still did not want Britain to get more embroiled in Northern Ireland than we had to.’ In military terms, it was not considered necessary, therefore, to set up an intelligence-gathering operation, nor was it essential to confront the troublemakers, at least as long as they stayed within their own areas.
The consequences were disastrous. In accordance with its non-confrontational doctrine, the Army allowed the IRA to set up ‘no go’ areas in which the organisation recruited freely. By early 1971, when the conflict had escalated, this – and the absence of any up-to-date intelligence – meant that the Army did not have the information necessary to distinguish between ordinary Catholics, youthful rioters and members of the IRA. To penetrate the terrorist strongholds, the Army had to resort to large-scale cordon and search operations, which alienated the population but achieved little in terms of finding the real culprits. Ultimately, London’s obsession with a ‘swift exit’ led to the introduction of internment without trial which – when implemented in August 1971 – shattered the image of the British government and supplied the IRA with more recruits than it had ever had since the Anglo-Irish war of independence in 1919-21.
In Iraq, there is no such commitment crisis yet. After all, it was a war of choice, with a long-term programme of regime change and nation-building as its objective. Still, there are signs of ‘occupation fatigue’ already. American support for the war dropped from almost 80 per cent (at the start of the campaign) to less than fifty shortly before the capture of Saddam. The Washington press reports that President Bush has repeatedly declined requests for more troops, and that – on the contrary – he seems determined to pull out as many Americans as possible in a crucial election year. While, from a political point of view, the American government’s attempt to distance themselves from what is happening in Iraq may be understandable, the example of Northern Ireland shows that to deprive the coalition forces of necessary resources, or even to hope for a ‘swift exit’, will not pay off. Indeed, hoping for a ‘quick fix’ might – paradoxically – make the coalition’s mission more difficult to terminate.
Lesson 2: Don’t Ignore the Threat
Another, if related, problem is that of threat assessment. In Northern Ireland, the government’s perception of reality was guided by wishful thinking, that is, the hope that the ‘Irish nightmare’ would soon be over. For example, by the end of October 1969, violence on the streets had almost completely died down. Callaghan noted, accordingly, that the atmosphere in the Home Office had become ‘much more relaxed’. And as late as March 1970, Wilson’s official representative in Belfast, Oliver Wright, told journalists to ‘cheer up! Things are better than you think.’ However, at this time, the conflict started to change.
In the hitherto peaceful Catholic areas of Derry and Belfast, riots became a feature of everyday life, and, in contrast to the previous months, the rioters turned against the Army as soon as the soldiers arrived on the scene. As the (then) president of Sinn Fein confessed, it was part of the IRA’s strategy to maintain some tension, and re-direct the anger of the Catholic youths towards the British troops. In his own words, the IRA were trying to control violence ‘so that when it occurs it will not be wholly useless’. The British government, however, preferred to interpret the outbreak of violence as a series of isolated incidents with few (if any) political implications – a combination of excessive drinking, long evenings, boredom and ‘a taste of excitement’ on the part of the Catholic youths. In April 1970, Callaghan told parliament that ‘there is no new sinister conspiracy of which I am aware’.
By mid-1970, the contradictory effects of London’s misguided assessment became obvious. The Army continued to engage in peace-keeping, when really it should have started to fight a counter-insurgency campaign. As recently released Cabinet papers reveal, even as late as December 1970 the Ministry of Defence set up a committee ‘to establish the allocation of responsibilities … in the event of a return to normality’. In fact, it took the Conservative Defence Secretary, Lord Carrington, until February 1971 (when the IRA was a fully established force with several hundred members) to acknowledge in private that ‘a situation approaching armed conflict was developing’.
If the coalition in Iraq is to avoid the long war of attrition with which the British were faced in Northern Ireland, they have to stop talking about ‘pockets of resistance’. Political leaders have to accept that there is stiff resistance to the occupation, and that a concerted campaign of counter-insurgency is necessary in order to re-establish law and order, even if this makes a swift end to the occupation impossible. Furthermore, not only is it necessary for governments to appreciate the reality, but also to communicate it to the wider public. Indeed, only if the public understands that much of the current ‘resistance’ is a problem of terrorism will it be possible to refute the notion that all ordinary Iraqis resent the presence of the coalition’s troops.
Lesson 3: Don’t Forget about Politics
The third lesson from Northern Ireland is not to forget the primacy of politics. In August 1969, British Cabinet members were clear that the disorder had arisen because of the supposed onslaught by ‘the Orangemen’, and that Northern Ireland was in urgent need of constitutional reform. However, the more London became involved, the less was the government’s appetite to take on this seemingly impossible task. What started out as a genuine push for the reform of sectarian power structures thus ended as little more than a show for the domestic press.
Callaghan seemed to become, in the words of his biographer, a ‘major league performer showing the parish-pump locals how to run their affairs’. Yet, in reality, he failed to press for any substantial reform of Unionist majority rule, and even before most of the promised reforms were on the statute book, he declared in October 1969 that the Stormont administration had ‘done its part’. In Cabinet he was even more frank: any action that would weaken the Northern Ireland prime minister (and thus delay the departure of British troops) was to be stopped! Despite the enthusiastic welcome for Callaghan in Derry’s Bogside, he had nothing to offer the Catholics. In that sense, London allowed a power vacuum to emerge that was waiting to be filled. For most Catholics, the traditional answer to this question lay in Irish nationalism, and, from early 1970, the IRA was able to mount its military campaign on the seeds that the British political strategy had sown. Significantly, instead of positive political change, the most visible sign of London’s intervention – the British Army – came to symbolise the continuation of Unionist rule. As the independent MP for Mid-Ulster, Bernadette Devlin, pointed out in April 1970, ‘The British Army is a military organisation, and it is not the duty of a military organisation to change the situation of a country politically or socially’.
The same is true of the British Army in Iraq, or indeed of any army anywhere in the world: modern armed forces carry out political orders, and they are therefore bound to be idenified with the political cause they serve. If the momentum for political reform slows down, the coalition armies will inevitably come to be seen as symbols of repression and occupation (if that is not already the case). Hence it is absolutely essential not to shy away from the task of creating a fair and equitable form of government in Iraq, however difficult that may seem.
The lessons from Northern Ireland are simple enough. If the coalition wants to succeed in making Iraq a ‘beacon of democracy’, its military campaign has to be determined by the principles of honesty, fairness, and – most importantly – perseverance. Indeed, if there is any one lesson to learn from Northern Ireland, it is that ‘short-termism’ never pays, and that there is no such thing as a ‘quick fix’ in nation-building.
Dr Peter R. Neumann is a research fellow in International Terrorism at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is the author of Britain’s Long War: British Strategy in the Northern Ireland Conflict, 1969-98 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
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