A long dark shadow is cast over British history by the Troubles in Ireland. Every British government since the late seventeenth century has worked tirelessly to control the Irish story. In our own times, for those of us old enough to remember the last IRA bombing campaign on mainland Britain, London and the BBC – the media wing of the Westminster Conservative establishment – have presented events in Ireland in a deeply distorted manner, leaving most people in the UK confused about what has actually been going on.
When it comes to terrorism, as we are discovering more and more in relation to the Middle East, it serves the purposes of governments like Britain’s to keep the public in the dark as to its causes. In this way terrorism can be neatly reduced to a form of inexplicable violent criminality. Presented as pure barbarism and “evil,” all forms of terrorism can be treated as a wrong having no rights, thus justifying a violent response – “counter-terrorism” – in the name of national security before the electorate. It is obvious, however, that this narrative is too simple. Terrorism is not the same thing as organised crime.
During the 1970s and 80s the BBC and the British government framed the Irish Republican Army and the Troubles in Northern Ireland in such a way that it became almost impossible for the British public to see militant republicans as anything other than monsters. Once they and their struggle were effectively dehumanised, no history or level of understanding was required; they could be neutralised as though they were dangerous beasts – to rapt applause from a relieved population.
What the BBC neglected to inform us of was the catalogue of abuses perpetrated and still being perpetrated against the predominantly Catholic nationalist community by the British government. Gerrymandering and Westminster’s first-past-the-post voting system were used to full effect in disenfranchising Catholics under direct rule. The British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the security services were actively colluding with loyalist paramilitaries to murder nationalists. Unarmed civil rights protesters were shot dead on the streets of Derry by the parachute regiment. The entire province was subject to military rule and people were frequently arrested and detained without charge or trial.
It remains legitimate to say that violence is wrong, but it becomes difficult to condemn it outright when it is carried out in response to routine human rights violations against defenceless civilians under a military occupation. Does such a visceral reaction mitigate the murder of civilians by the Provisional IRA? No, it does not. There can be no argument that war crimes were committed by members of the IRA, and justice for many of these is still out-standing. But this takes nothing from the moral legitimacy of any group of people to take up arms to defend themselves against state violence and foreign occupation.
Four decades ago most of this information was inaccessible to the British public. We were kept in the dark while being fed a version of events intended to gain our support for further acts of violence against the people of Ireland. More recently, with the findings of the Truth Commission and the publication of a number of official inquiries into the behaviour of the British administration in Northern Ireland, a clearer picture has emerged. The British government, especially the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, does not come out of this smelling of roses; thus requiring us to take another look at the IRA in light of what the British government was doing.
Now with Britain using similar tactics of coercion, manipulation, and control in Scotland, as the United Kingdom begins to fragment, more people are beginning to look at Ireland with fresh eyes. When the Scottish unionist press began to speak of the “Ulsterisation of Scottish politics” it started to dawn on the people of Scotland that they too were being framed by a media machine that framed Ireland in the right light to allow the state to kill its opponents.
Scots themselves were not responsible for this so-called Ulsterisation. This is something – a process – the British government does when the hegemonic balance shifts from governance by consent to control by force. This was the piece of the Irish puzzle that was kept hidden from the Scottish public, as it was kept from everyone informed by the BBC in Great Britain.
We come to see that the armed struggle undertaken by the IRA and other anti-British resistance movements around the world is not a senseless crime that sprang from a vacuum. It was a response to the actions of the state, and the British state in Ireland has never been a force for good on the island. When we put the stories of the Provisional IRA and the present day anti-Good Friday dissidents in the context of Ireland’s struggle for independence from Britain – a history stemming back to the late 1600s and the Penal Laws – it becomes logically impossible to recognise, on the one hand, the independence of the Irish Republic and, on the other, to condemn the motives of the IRA.
Some will say that this whole conflict is in the past, and certainly there are many people in the north of Ireland who want nothing more than for it to be in the past. But that the present Conservative government in London is weaponising the old BBC narrative of the IRA and Sinn Féin against Jeremy Corbyn is a sign that both the Troubles and the IRA need to be revised in the British imagination. It seems that the perpetrator is still getting away with deploying lies it has already been caught out on.
Jason Michael McCann