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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.

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