Wednesday, March 16, 2005

More on British vs. American attitudes to terrorism

Following this old piece of mine, an article in today's Times does much to help explain to Americans precisely why Britain has the attitude it does towards this whole "War on Terror" malarkey. I don't usually like Simon Jenkins much, but this is spot on.

I'll post the whole article in a comment in case it goes to the subscription site at some point.


Blogger Nosemonkey said...

March 16, 2005

Poor Gerry Adams. All that work for peace and now snubbed by America
Simon Jenkins
It is now convenient for everyone to regard the IRA as 'criminals' not terrorists
JUST IMAGINE. The British Prime Minister celebrates Ramadan by inviting Osama bin Laden to Downing Street for a cosy chat about the Middle East peace process. When America protests, Tony Blair points out that al-Qaeda has never attacked Britain and besides he has a large Muslim electorate to keep happy. Then suddenly Mr Blair discovers that al-Qaeda has raided a bank and killed someone in cold blood. The welcome to Osama is promptly withdrawn and five Muslim sisters are invited instead.

No, the parallel with the White House’s treatment of Sinn Fein this week is not exact. But it serves to demonstrate how baffling Britons find America’s attitude to terrorism in Northern Ireland. After being fêted for years at Washington’s St Patrick’s Day bash, Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, finds himself persona non grata. His old friends, Ted Kennedy and Pete King, slam their doors in his face. He is a pariah.

Mr Adams has every reason to feel aggrieved. He has laboured long, if not hard, to bring Irish republicanism into the political fold. His conversion from terrorist to ballot box politician has been hailed by London, Dublin and Washington. The ostensible reason for this week’s snub was no more than a bank raid, of which Mr Adams appears to have known nothing, and a dime-a-dozen killing in the Short Strand enclave of Belfast. What is new? Nor does the Great American Explanation, 9/11, apply here. Mr Adams was welcomed last year and the year before.

When the White House first invited Sinn Fein to its party ten years ago, I suggested to a presidential aide that this would seem odd to many Britons. Mr Adams was manifestly a major force within the Provisional IRA. His organisation had killed some three thousand Britons and tried to wipe out the entire British Cabinet, not once but twice. To put it mildly he was hardly fit to be a bosom pal of a president. Besides, delicate peace negotiations were under way between John Major and the paramilitaries.

I received a long lecture in realpolitik. This word terrorist should not be bandied about, said my friend. All oppressed peoples naturally turn to violence when politics fails them. Britain had mishandled Northern Ireland. Along with Iraq and Palestine, it was one of many troublespots which Bill Clinton would seek to resolve. Inviting Mr Adams to the White House was the strategy of engagement.

In my view Mr Major was a more courageous peacemaker in Northern Ireland than any prime minister (or president) before or since. The last thing he needed in 1994 was for Sinn Fein/IRA to play the American card. A White House aide might call an occasional terrorist bomb “the price of hegemony”. The fact was that for two decades Irish-Americans had financed gunrunning, racketeering and “social work” (such as knee-capping) in Northern Ireland. How would America feel, I replied, if Britain showered favours on anti-American terrorists?

Outsiders have been meddling in Northern Ireland since the start of the present troubles 35 years ago. It got nowhere. Presidents Clinton and Bush have visited the Province and been photographed. Emissaries such as George Mitchell and Richard Haass have come and gone. Nobel prizes have been distributed. The de facto “ceasefire” negotiated by the Major Government has held, but most observers felt that by the early Nineties the lust for violence was waning.

Paramilitary bosses were ageing and their members grown rich on cross-border smuggling, robbery and money laundering. As charted last month in The Times, the IRA is regarded by MI5 as “one of the largest and richest organised gangs in Europe”.

There has been no devolution of power to any Northern Ireland assembly. Local participation in government has been frozen out by London’s direct rulers. Ulster politics has drifted to the extremes. As long as local communities are not allowed democracy and thus the evolution of conventional politics as elsewhere in Europe, there will be no lasting peace, only further polarisation. A sort of equilibrium is sustainable, but only until a new generation of wild men emerges.

As for the Good Friday agreement of 1998, it remains what it always was, a monument to terrorist appeasement. Frantic to please Mr Adams, Mr Blair set free the murderers who planted the Brighton bomb and fired the Downing Street rocket. Criminals who blasted and gunned their way across Britain, killing more civilians than ever in peacetime, are sitting back home with their families.

In talks with Mr Blair in 1997-98, Mr Adams and his colleague, Martin McGuinness, never wavered from the central objective of the IRA throughout its history: to free its members from jail and never surrender weapons. It won more. It manoeuvred Mr Blair into undermining the moderate leadership of David Trimble and thus prevented the Unionists from regaining power in the Province. By playing long, Sinn Fein/IRA proved that terrorism works. The British may not have been driven from Northern Ireland, but Good Friday made the IRA rich and Mr Adams electorally potent. Who now remembers Ulster’s SDLP?

For years British governments played supertough against IRA terrorism, without success. They had used detention without trial and tortured prisoners at Castlereagh barracks. They had “shot to kill” and let Bobby Sands die on hunger strike. By general consent the strategy did not deliver peace. But nobody dreamt that a future prime minister would capitulate so completely to the IRA, and set every Ulster terrorist free.

To this day the IRA maintains its private arsenals. It visits awful punishments on its own people, as graphically seen in the McCartney killing. It thought nothing last week of offering to kill McCartney’s murderers on request, and “warned” the McCartney sisters for dabbling in politics. Such lawlessness daily terrorises Northern Ireland’s urban communities.

Yet Mr Blair does not call this terrorism. He has extended to Sinn Fein/IRA exceptional civil liberties — including freedom from jail and freedom to bear arms. This is in stark contrast to the liberties he is withdrawing from Muslim terrorist suspects.

Robert McCartney’s killers are well-known to the police, as doubtless are the IRA’s revenge gunmen. Known too are the bank robbers, the financiers, the armourers, the “mister bigs” of the IRA. Known too are the drug dealers and protection racketeers of the Loyalist community. Every book on violence in Northern Ireland lists these people. Yet where are Charles Clarke’s house arrests and control orders?

The White House response to the Northern Bank raid and the McCartney killing is extraordinary. American intelligence, fed by MI5, has known for decades that the organisation that Mr Adams represents runs every kind of criminal racket and shoots and beats its own people. What is new? The answer can only be that it is now convenient for everyone to regard the IRA as “criminals” not terrorists — and Muslim extremists as terrorists not criminals. When the IRA were terrorists, the American Establishment treated them as de facto freedom fighters, even when they tried to murder its best friend, Margaret Thatcher. Now they are mere criminals, they are beyond the pale of hospitality.

The truth is that all political violence is putty in the hands of the great god, hypocrisy. Organised terrorism in Northern Ireland is no less grim to its victims for being familiar and, of late, less widespread. British politicians have tried the big stick and are now trying the big carrot. They offer negotiation and appeasement. When the men of violence continue to misbehave, robbing banks and killing people, they are rapped on the knuckles. London cuts their parliamentary allowances and Washington snubs them at parties.

The Muslims at whom Mr Clarke is aiming his new Prevention of Terrorism Act should be so lucky. Like the Irish of old they are about to feel the full force of Britain in repression mode. It will not be nice.

3/16/2005 12:12:00 pm  
Blogger bebynnag said...

I can see they are coming from on this point. Personally, I would strike parallels with Gerry Adams and Yasser Arafat personally.
But I think the attitude towards IRA and Gerry Adams has changed within the US since the planes hit New York and Washington. Ted Kennedy, an old friend of the Republican movement has lost his patience with IRA and Sinn Feinn.And many others as well.

What I find funny though about this is seeing Gerry Adams, an Irish Nationalist and leader of Sinn Feinn (translated Ourselves Alone) celebrating the most important day in Ireland in America. Is it just me, or is it a bit ironic ?

3/16/2005 09:46:00 pm  
Anonymous -ronnie in new orleans- said...

It's not really hypocrisy, it's just reality.

As a French-Spanish Catholic with no historic or emotional stake in the situation in Ulster let me try to explain some of the problems that arise when you equate Arab terrorism against the US with Britain's problems with Ireland; and with expecting a proportional reaction from our government.

I don't think Brits in general have a real appreciation of the pure hatred, rancor, dislike, disdain, disgust, and just plain unfriendly feelings that many, and maybe most, Irish-Americans have for England. You could spend oceans of electronic ink explaining and deconstructing many of the arguments used to justify this dislike, but it won't change many minds. We have a large Irish Catholic population in New Orleans, one of our major old city areas is called the Irish Channel, but I had never really felt the weight of this animosity until I grew up and got into discussions with friends and acquaintances of Irish descent about issues related to the troubles.

It is also true that although many of the claims made regarding systematic genocide, forced starvation, and other government sponsored acts of slaughter are often exaggerated or untrue, Britain spent about 350 years or so cultivating this hatred by treating Irish Catholics as less than human. You got where you are the old fashioned way; you earned it. I don't think the same can be said for the US history with the Arabs. As a matter of convenience we have just become the hated symbol and religious whipping boy for the existence of Israel. If we would have attacked Tel Aviv instead of Baghdad all references to the Great Satsn would have disappeared as quickly as Europe's Jews.

I've been in a bar where people of Irish descent clapped and cheered when hearing of British ships being sunk in the Falklands. I've heard well educated people assert that Irish Catholics starved while the English refused to unload the grain ships sitting in Irish harbors, or sold the food on the European market... of orders given to British soldiers to crush the heads of Irish babies. And this is the "G" rated list.

At the local Celtic bar in the French Quarter rebel songs are sung with passion and meaning. I love the music but references to a "Thompson gun" sort of spoil the atmosphere. The music is good but the theme can really get tiresome. British friends come often to the bar with me because they like Celtic music, and comment that "nobody cares about that stuff anymore" though one of them did say the amount of it sung during the show was "sort of extreme." Wish it had been. Come back next week.

And this is in Southern, Conservative, Red State Louisiana. The Irish here are almost all Democrats, and represent a good portion of the Kerry support in the city during the last election. These are the folks the Brit media seems to think has all of the good sense and political nuance. Let me assure you they are not well intentioned toward Britain. Judge for yourself if that's good sense.

And there lies the problem. This is a visceral political issue for these folks, and they represent a substantial voting block, one that any politician, especially a Democrat, offends at his peril. Give some kudos to George Bush... he snubbed the IRA and in so doing forced the hand of Ted Kennedy, who would have looked to be a boot licker if he would have entertained Adams. The pull of the old hatreds is so great, however, that other members of the Kennedy clan did visit with Adams, I'm sure to tell him to lay low until the heat is off.

Is the IRA a terrorist organization? Of course.
Are they a bunch of armed criminals? Yeah.
Is Sinn Fein a political front for a gang of thugs? Sure.
Is Gerry Adams a murdering scumbag with a slick image? Absolutely.
Should SF/IRA be banned from fundraising in the US and have all of their assets seized? Yep.

But George Bush has only so much political capital to spend, and I doubt he will find it prudent to invest a large portion of it into an issue as peripheral to US interests as the Ulster/IRA/SF/GB problem, which most Americans who aren't Irish don't care about anyway. The most he can do is keep up the symbolic gestures. It will have some effect. I would sum up the prevailing independent opinion over the years as "they deserve each other."

I hope that's changing and I think it has to some degree. The stupid criminal acts by the SF/IRA coalition are having an effect on US public opinion since they can equate it to a criminal organization rather than a terrorist group. Americans are familiar with government limiting and punishing criminal organizations. It is all to the good that this is the way it is presented. Americans have long ago separated Italians from the Mafia, and the pursuit of the criminals no longer stigmatizes all Italians by association. Painting the IRA criminals as criminals is neither inaccurate or dishonest and will serve to separate the current crop of mobsters from Collins and Childers, as well as from good ole Paddy down the street. They're more like Capone. These guys are not insurgents, freedom fighters, or latter day avengers. These guys give rebels a bad name. They're just common crooks.

Up the Irish!
And the rule of law.

3/17/2005 12:55:00 am  
Blogger Churl said...

Nosemoneky, I think that it's fair to say that between them, Simon Jenkins and Ronnie have pretty much hit the nail on the head.

There is somethings I would like to add:

Which is this: I do a lot of Medieval re-enactment/Living History, and the attitude of some Irish-Americans and Scots-Americans on Living History forums displayed towards the people of these Isles (as the Irish put it) is sometimes little short of amazing - many, in the case of Scotland, take some convincing that people in Scotland don't wear head-to-toe tartan all day every day, we don't travel from place to place on haywains along rutted muddy tracks and that we're not engaged 24/7 in Clan Warfare. It's similar with the Irish - an Irish re-enactor friend has told me of how he now "Plays dumb" whenever an american tourist is at one of his group's events - he can't trust himself to speak, as they come out with some amazingly patronising ideas about the Irish - such as all Irishmen perpetually fighting the British redcoats (yes they do expect Redcoats!), of pretty Irish Colleen dancing on every street corner... I think you get the picture. yet these kind of comments can come from even the most intelligent of people, and they are usually not meant harshly, indeed, if anything they see this as being a part of their lives in modern America, and are dumbfounded to find that this isn't the cae in Scotland or Ireland! These are also the same people who will tell you that, in 1969, Britain annexed Northen Ireland from the Irish Republic! Alistair Cooke, in his 'Letter from America' would regularly refer to this, even sometimes pointing out that even top White House officials who were pro-British believed this!

3/17/2005 11:15:00 am  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Churl - thanks to my dayjob I'm partially responsible for US misconceptions - I am a staff writer and part of the editorial team of a magazine aimed primarily at anglo-/britophile Americans, which is a bestseller over in the States.

It has long been a rule of thumb to give them the impression that this country is filled with nothing but pretty cottages and castles. When people appear in the sick-makingly quaint photos, they are generally only seen in period dress.

Hardly a surprise that when they venture across the pond they get a tad confused... It's my fault, though...

3/17/2005 04:12:00 pm  

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