15 March 2005

The IRA can be defeated

In comments to Brian’s piece on the IRA (which links to here - thanks Brian) I see the re-occurrence of that old canard that the IRA cannot be defeated by military means alone.

Yes it can.

It has to be.  If democracy cannot defend itself against its enemies then it is doomed.  Now, I might have all sorts of doubts about democracy but it’s the best thing we have right now and a damn site better than the fascist alternative of the IRA.

The strongest objection of the opponents of force is the claim that we tried it in the early 1970s and it didn’t work.  Well, certainly something didn’t work.  But that was not the first IRA campaign.  There were others notably in the 1920s, 1940s (yes, really) and 1950s.  They were all defeated.  So, the question has to be: what was different about the 1970s?

First of all, there was the disbandment of the B Specials.  This led to a loss of intelligence and it becoming much harder to patrol the border.

Secondly, there was the creation of no-go areas - areas which the police did not enter and where the IRA could operate with impunity.  This allowed the IRA to organise effectively.  It also further deprived the security services of intelligence.  This meant that when internment was introduced many of those who should have been detained were not and many of those who shouldn’t have been were.

Thirdly, no pressure was applied to the Irish government.  This meant that the IRA was allowed to organise in the south.  It also meant that when internment was introduced it was introduced only in the North and not in the South.

Fourthly, the UK government progressively watered down internment after Bloody Sunday I.  I can’t quite remember the details but I seem to remember they got the courts involved and released a whole bunch of people.

Despite this (and this is one of the great secrets of the early 1970s) and even in its watered down form, internment was working.  How do we know this?  Partly, because then-IRA member Sean O’Callaghan says so and partly because of the numbers of dead.

The claim is often made that internment acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA.  If that is true why is it that on previous occasions on the introduction of internment violence had gone down and not up?  If it is true how come the number of dead went down in 1973?  Where were all these eager, young and freshly-trained terrorists?

Defeating terrorism is an ugly business - a lesson we are currently relearning - think Guantanamo Bay, think Abu Ghraib.  But it can be done.

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