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The state of the Union

What can ‘Brits Out!’ mean today when Britain has withdrawn from Northern Ireland emotionally and spiritually, if not physically?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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If recent events have confirmed the degeneration of Irish republicanism, then they have also exposed the dissolution of British rule in Northern Ireland.

The audacity of the Real IRA’s attack on the Massereene army barracks and the Continuity IRA’s killing of a policeman in Craigavon is matched by – indeed, is dependent upon – the absence of any meaningful displays of British military prowess in its former most jealously guarded colony. We have the Zombie IRA on one side – the death rattle of Irish republicanism – and on the other side British forces too uncertain or scared to make a display of their ‘right to rule’ Northern Ireland. So who does rule the Six Counties today?

For me, one of the most shocking things about the Real IRA’s gun assault at Massereene was the revelation that the barracks were being guarded by a civilian security force. Members of the Northern Ireland Security Guard Service (NISGS), armed with 9mm Browning pistols, stood at the entrance to the barracks, but failed to open fire when the unarmed British soldiers (and two pizza delivery boys) came under attack by the Real IRA. The NISGS, a 450-strong force founded in 1998, is mostly made up of former private security guards or retired soldiers who have been trained (or retrained) by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in weapons handling. Its civilian members are banned from wearing combat fatigues, instead donning light blue uniforms in order to present a ‘softer image’ at British army barracks across Northern Ireland (1).

In effect, the British state has outsourced security for its own soldiers to a civilian service. This creates the bizarre, tautological situation where enlisted soldiers remain in Northern Ireland but for no clear reason other than to stay in their barracks and be protected by civilians employed to ‘deter terrorist infiltration of, and attack on, military establishments’ (2). The political and media discussion of the two dead soldiers is revealing, too. They are presented, not as ‘defenders of the realm’, but as unwitting victims who were let down by their guards. Unable to imbue the soldiers’ presence in Northern Ireland with any political logic or moral authority, the media instead tell us that they were simply young men who joined the army to ‘make some money’; one of them ‘really wanted to be a footballer’ (3). This suggests that the military itself is now infected with a mercenary culture, where enlisted soldiers also have a fairly perfunctory relationship with old ideals of ‘duty’ and ‘occupation’.

Even the soldiers’ future military plans are discussed as something akin to social work. They were about to leave Northern Ireland to carry out ‘humanitarian reconstruction work in the war-torn country of Afghanistan’, says the Belfast Newsletter; Brigadier George Norton said the young men were ‘sharing a meal together’ before going on a ‘dangerous and difficult six-month tour in Afghanistan’ (4). We’re left with the distinct impression that these soldiers were doing nothing political or even militaristic in Northern Ireland; they were just there, chilling out, eating pizza, before moving on to do something ‘humanitarian’ in Helmand. The use of civilians to protect soldiers, who are held up as victims who simply wanted to help out in Afghanistan, speaks to a profound crisis of purpose in the British military.

This view of the soldiers as not-really-soldiers, but simply young men who happened to be in the Six Counties, became clear in the manner in which their bodies were brought home. The British authorities caused outrage among some squaddies in Northern Ireland by refusing to give the two soldiers a ‘ramp service’, which involves covering their coffins in Union Jacks and carrying them up a ramp into an RAF Hercules aircraft, and instead putting them in ‘two hermetically-sealed steel containers, covered with bubble-wrap, and placing them in the hold of a civilian aircraft along with the passengers’ luggage’ (5). So the soldiers were protected by civilians in life and transported alongside civilians in death. According to military sources, the MoD banned the ramp service for ‘political’ reasons, fearing that an ‘overtly military’ event would give the impression that Britain is still at war in Northern Ireland (6).

This seems an extraordinary disavowal of interest by the British state. In the name of not provoking a reaction from Sinn Fein or republican communities, the British authorities risked upsetting their own military personnel – some of whom complained that ‘to send the soldiers’ bodies back to the UK as freight is outrageous’ (7) – by effectively hiding the dead soldiers away and banning any glimpse of the British flag. Where these were effectively soldiers-in-denial during their stint in Northern Ireland, hidden in barracks and guarded by civilians, they were granted a ceremony-in-denial after their deaths, snuck back into Britain with a minimum of fanfare. Shortly afterwards, the MoD took the decision to ban a post-Iraq military parade in Belfast, ‘because it would pose too great a security risk’ (8).

Some will argue that these are simply either practical measures – the winding down of heavy security in order to avoid provoking a reaction – or cynical measures designed to present Britain as a disinterested party in Northern Ireland when in truth it still rules the roost. There is truth in this. Some of the new, civilian-tinged institutions, most notably the NISGS, emerged at the end of the 1990s. Following the enforcing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which committed the IRA to disarming and also called on the British government to demilitarise aspects of its presence in Northern Ireland, there was a process of ‘normalisation’ in policing and military matters. It is also true that, through the peace process, the British have sought to assume the moral highground by presenting themselves as the ostensibly neutral and high-minded arbiters of peace between warring Irish factions: Catholics and Protestants. However, the outsourcing of military authority and the disavowal of British interests also speaks, more profoundly, to a crisis of legitimacy within British state institutions.

Consider another little-reported response to the splinter IRA attacks: the decision to outsource authority for patrolling the city walls of Derry to a private security firm. Following the publication of a military document that says ‘identifiable military personnel’ are at risk of further attacks, the Police Service, formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary, has said it is ‘too dangerous’ for its officers to open and close Derry’s security gates (9). Indeed, it has been revealed that the police stopped operating the gates six weeks ago, following reports of an ‘increased threat’, and left it to City Centre Initiative wardens to take over the operation. Now Derry City Council has put out a tender to local private security firms to patrol and control the city walls, pleading with someone – anyone – to ‘ensure the effective day-to-day management of the security gates’ (10).

In short? The forces of the state have responded to an increased threat by effectively abandoning their posts. During ‘the Troubles’, keeping control of the security gates of a city like Derry would have been a key strategic and political goal of the occupying British forces and their local police allies. Now, despite the fact that the threat is far lower, military authority over the walls of Derry is being sold off to the highest, and hopefully bravest, bidder.

All of this is far more than a practical or slyly political initiative. There is monumental symbolism in the British state’s outsourcing of military authority, of coercion itself, in Northern Ireland – that territory where for 25 years the British elite devoted immense military resources and manpower to its jealous defence of its state authority and state integrity. Modern bourgeois states have traditionally centralised the means of violence. As Janice E Thomson writes in her book Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe, ‘state-builders’ sought to ‘extract coercive capabilities from other individuals, groups and organisations within their territories’, leading to a situation where ‘control over violence was centralised, monopolised and made hierarchical’ (11). In recent years, however, states have willingly broken up their monopoly on violence. Washington hired private security guards for some of the toughest, riskiest operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; and now the British authorities hire civilians and security guards to protect parts of Northern Ireland from the threat of terrorism.

This exposes a crisis at the heart of the British elite. In the past, it was in the Six Counties more than any other place that the British state fought to defend its integrity, deploying militarism, internment, repression and censorship to defend its interests against the challenge of Irish republicanism. Because Northern Ireland was treated as a special colony, one that was explicitly integrated into the state itself, no challenge to its political status could be brooked. Now, the dissolution of even military authority in Northern Ireland, the inability to present soldiers as soldiers, the shamefacedness about the British flag and military parades, the risk-aversion and responsibility-shirking of the Police Service, speaks to a state that doesn’t know what it stands for, or why, or whether its integrity is worth defending or displaying. Such military confusion follows the British government’s earlier political insistence, at the start of the peace process, that it has no ‘selfish, strategic or economic interest’ in Northern Ireland (12).

On the other side, of course, Irish republicans no longer uphold the Irish people’s interests either; they’ve abandoned their claim of sovereignty over Ireland. Where Northern Ireland was for 25 years torn apart by a clash of wildly differing British interests and Irish republican interests, it is now held together – patchily and flimsily – by the absence of real interests, by the absence of any desire to rule or meaningful claim of sovereignty, by the disavowal of both old-style British rule and aspirations to Irish nationhood. It is built instead upon stalemate and exhaustion; it is peaceful-by-default. This raises important questions for those of us who long argued that Britain’s presence in Northern Ireland was a barrier to democracy. Is it any longer enough to say ‘Brits Out!’ when the British have effectively already withdrawn, at least emotionally and spiritually if not entirely physically? Surely we need a new politics.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. This is a longer version of an article first published on Slugger O’Toole. Visit Brendan’s website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

No continuity in Northern Ireland, by Mick Hume

IRA splinter groups: ghosts from history?, by Brendan O’Neill

Northern Ireland: policing self-esteem, by Brendan O’Neill

The Zombie IRA, by Brendan O’Neill

Read more at spiked issue: Violence in Ireland.

(1) Review into Northern Ireland killings highlights lax security, The Times, 10 March 2009

(2) Review into Northern Ireland killings highlights lax security, The Times, 10 March 2009

(3) Tributes to IRA ambush heroes, The Sun, 9 March 2009

(4) Massereene murders: PM visits scene, Belfast Newsletter, 8 March 2009

(5) Murdered soldiers’ bodies flown home from Northern Ireland without ceremony, Daily Telegraph, 14 March 2009

(6) Murdered soldiers’ bodies flown home from Northern Ireland without ceremony, Daily Telegraph, 14 March 2009

(7) Murdered soldiers’ bodies flown home from Northern Ireland without ceremony, Daily Telegraph, 14 March 2009

(8) Midland soldiers denied parade because of security risk, Birmingham Post, 16 March 2009

(9) Security concerns over city gates, BBC News, 13 March 2009
(10) Security concerns over city gates, BBC News, 13 March 2009

(11) See Mercenaries in Iraq: Dogs of Indecision, by Brendan O’Neill

(12) Downing Street Declaration, 1993

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World

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