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What Can We Learn from Northern Ireland to Help Defeat Islamic State?

Some might say that the British Army attributes its perceived strategic success in the early days of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts to tactical-level soldier patrol competence derived from persistent COIN and CT operations during the 30 years of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. This tactical success possibly led to strategic arrogance as American senior military leaders were politely “educated” by their British military counterparts on the art and science of both COIN and CT in the early days of Global War of Terrorism (GWOT) campaign following 9/11. Initially, Americans listened intently to the British. However, the British failed mission in the Brown-Basra incident when the British cut a deal with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Basra Mahdi Army which led to the British leaving Iraq and resulted in the Americans discounting British advice. Later the US re-took Basra. Some would argue that Helmand Province, Afghanistan, represents another similar example. However, does the British experience in Northern Ireland still merit study? Is it relevant to the Islamic State challenges of today?

Tactical lessons derived from initial British exploits in Northern Ireland are arguably largely redundant, but some might argue that the conceptual and ideological relevance is as valid today as it ever was. From 1969 to 1999 more than 3,500 people died violently in Northern Ireland which is an average of about 2 a week, week after week, for the 30 year duration of the conflict. Statistics can prove anything of course, but the loss of over 2,500 people on 9/11 in New York maybe suggests that this small war insurgency on a small island is less significant. However, when assessing the relative populations of Northern Ireland and the US, had a similar small war insurgency occurred in America the death toll would have been over half a million. More significant is that 1 out of every 50 people in Northern Ireland was injured during the same 30 year timeframe meaning 30,000 from a total population of about 1.5 million. The American equivalent total would have been about 5 million.

If the volume of “The Troubles” alone suggests its relevance for further study, notwithstanding tactical lessons which are now arguably outdated, a quick look at the conflict might help determine its true enduring strategic value to COIN and CT theorists and analysts, and its potential application to Islamic State.

Whether one views the roots of conflict through the lens of anthropology, sociology or international relations theory, grievance is commonly considered the key and is deep rooted in the economic, social and political landscape within the context of history and geography.

For Northern Ireland a sociological approach seems to fit and in so analyzing the origins of “The Troubles” the writings of sociologist Rodney Stark would place the rise of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) from 1969 logically within social movement theory. Stark has greater relevance because he based his work on the analysis of the US Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The point being, for a social movement to form and have traction, grievances nested in economics, society and politics, and vested in history and geography, have to remain unmediated. NICRA was fighting for their grievances to be mediated. As their efforts failed to draw change, coupled with over-reactions from the police and Army, NICRA started to use violent repertoires.

The creation of Eire (Ireland) occurred in 1921 after what was a revolutionary war – The Irish War of Independence – which began in 1919 following World War I and arguably took advantage of the opportunity presented by diminishing British global influence at that time as the Empire began to collapse. The mainly Catholic-Republican Irish wanted freedom from British rule and used armed politics to achieve their ends. Michael Collins commanded to victory the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Ceding power the British government carved the island of Ireland into what they called a north and south retaining the six counties of the north to form Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom which consisted of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) plus Northern Ireland. Primarily Protestant-Loyalist, the majority of the people of the resultant Northern Ireland, wanted to remain part of the UK.

A British soldier arrests a youth in Derry on Bloody Sunday. (Fred Hoare/Belfast Telegraph)
A British soldier arrests a youth in Derry on Bloody Sunday. (Fred Hoare/Belfast Telegraph)

Relatively speaking things were generally quiet until the late 1960s when NICRA (broadly Catholic and broadly Republican) came to prominence. Their aims were to: (1) defend freedoms, (2) protest rights, (3) highlight abuse, (4) achieve freedom of speech, assembly and association, and inform the public. Based mainly in Derry (Londonderry) in the Bogside– “Free Derry” to some – the group collided with the government in 1969 during the Battle of the Bogside where clumsy police action emboldened the movement into the IRA as barricades were rushed and the British Army called in to establish order as the police lost control. The Battle of the Bogside left 10 dead and over 700 injured. Immediately afterwards, 40 NICRA members joined the IRA. It was at this point that real momentum gathered as Irish Republicanism (Freedom Fighter) was re-adopted as the ideology for the cause.

It was arguably not until 1972 when the culminating point truly occurred and during extensive civil protest British Army Paratroopers opened fire against unarmed protesters killing 13 on what became known as Bloody Sunday. It was shortly thereafter that the IRA renamed Official IRA (OIRA) and went into ceasefire mode as the more militant Provisional IRA (PIRA) splintered and began a new campaign of terror which has generally been the body of available literature and essence of studies of this small war insurgency. Up until today, Northern Ireland remains part of the UK and those initial grievances – updated by the IRA from NICRA in the 1960s and from British action going back many centuries – remain to some arguably unmediated.

As violence bled into politics in 1999 “The Troubles” officially came to an end and the UK Government ceased military activities under Operation BANNER. PIRA on ceasefire splintered into the Continuity IRA (CIRA) active from 1994 and the Real IRA (RIRA) from 1997. Like PIRA and OIRA before them, CIRA and RIRA want the same thing, a united Ireland under Irish rule. As recent as 2013, lawless actions continue.

The reason some suggest that these groups continue to wage their campaign of violence is because – as far as they are concerned – their grievances have not been mediated. Grievances do not have to be legal to be felt. Good enough is that they have them, legal or not, which makes mediation most challenging. But the simple reason the IRA and derivatives have “not gone away” is because the grievances remain.

Expanding this theme one stage further, a Guardian article published the view that the Irish Police colluded with PIRA in 1989 to murder two Protestant-Loyalist Northern Ireland senior unarmed policemen. Although some may be curious why the Ireland Police would collaborate with what is essentially a para-military insurgent of a “foreign” country, the point is that the original grievance of the whole community on the island of Ireland (Eire) was that they wanted their own country. Like Catholic-Republicans in Northern Ireland and many from Eire (Ireland), the grievances remain unmediated. Eire (Ireland) ultimately seeks a united country with all Irish under one flag. The island of Ireland’s grievance remains unmediated too.

If we apply the theme of the problem of unmediated grievance more broadly and review Islamic State, it is clear we are in big trouble and that we should expect a length of campaign and casualty figures that will dwarf “The Troubles” and their relative, comparative numeric impact in the US. As Clausewitz said, the statesman and commander must decide what war they are fighting and not confuse it as something it is not. The Islamic State wants to establish a Caliphate to obliterate modern day borders across the Middle East and also to conduct the business of the state under their version of Sharia Law to defend the Muslim community, or umma, against infidels and apostates.

If we insist on staying engaged of the region they seek to own, which arguably we must, then their grievance is our very existence. The 1996 movie, Independence Day, included a relevant and haunting scene when fictional US President Thomas Whitmore, played in the movie by Bill Pulman, asked a captured alien: “What do you want us to do?” The alien replied: “Die. Die.” Even the IRA came to the negotiating table! The Islamic State will not and the quicker we realize that fact and comprehend that the fight with them is to the death, the quicker we can get on with it. The growing tendency of nations to see that Islamic State will not go away, spearheaded in an air-strike sense recently by Turkey in retribution for a murdered Turkish border soldier, is a step in the right direction.

As some policy commentators and scholars have already posited, World War III has already started. The enemy is evil and is Islamic State. Their unmediated grievance is the fact we remain alive. Time to act!