A grim lesson from Ulster
By KATHLEEN OCHSHORN, Special to the Times
Published June 24, 2007
Americans can learn a lot from what the British did in Northern Ireland. Not all of it is good.
After a gap of nearly five years, the elected government in Northern Ireland resumed its duties last month when a power-sharing arrangement between Protestants and Catholics was finally successfully negotiated.
This is good news - the ability of opposing sides to profit from peace and work within democratic processes for the good of the province.
But the long-negotiated path to peace in the province was hampered - not helped - by the ugly history of British counterterrorism policies, including sweeping detentions, forced confessions, secret courts, prisoner abuse and undercover collusion with paramilitary groups. These counterproductive policies increased sectarian division and certainly delayed the tentative political peace now in place.
So, as America looks to the example of Britain, its rare ally in Iraq, let's hope U.S. leadership still has time to learn the right lessons of history - not the exact wrong ones - in the so-called war on terror.
Pressure to convict
The Troubles that began in the 1960s in Northern Ireland came about when Catholics, long victims of discrimination in education, employment, housing and voting, agitated for civil rights and met firm resistance from elements in the Protestant establishment. Violence erupted on both sides.
Of course the conflict had deep roots. Ireland was partitioned in 1921, when the southern 26 counties gained independence from Britain and the six other counties remained part of the United Kingdom. Fifty-three percent of the population in the north is still Protestant, descendants of the English and Scottish settlement begun in the 16th century. Most consider themselves British and want to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Most of the Catholic population consider themselves Irish and would prefer reunification with the Republic of Ireland.
When British troops went to Northern Ireland to quell sectarian fighting in 1969, they were soon seen by most Catholics as siding with the Protestants, in much the same way that U.S. troops in Iraq favored Shiites over the Sunnis they feared were still loyal Baathists. In both instances, sectarian tensions were aggravated.
After Bloody Sunday in 1972, when the British army shot and killed 14 civil rights marchers and wounded another 13, the Irish Republican Army stepped up violent resistance to British rule.
In 1974, in the aftermath of the IRA's Guilford and Birmingham pub bombings in England, which resulted in 19 deaths and 236 injuries, Parliament hastily passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act, allowing detention for up to one week without charge. At the time, a British army spokesperson declared the IRA "virtually defeated."
But pressure to obtain convictions in those pub bombings resulted in innocent people being sentenced to jail. Prisoners were interrogated for a week and some signed confessions. The most infamous case concerns the Guilford Four, depicted in the Irish film In the Name of the Father. Gerry Conlon and others were freed after 14 years when their lawyer finally unearthed their evidence confirming their alibi for the night of the bombings in government files. An attached note read, "Not to be shown to the defense." The Birmingham Six, accused in the other pub bombing, won an appeal after serving 17 years. These cases were tried publicly, with juries. Jonathan Bardon points out in The History of Ulster that these wrongful verdicts became "a propaganda coup" for the IRA.
Suspects held in secret
New antiterrorist legislation in Britain allows for detaining suspects for 28 days, a policy Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has advocated for the United States. These long detentions without charge can increase the likelihood the innocent will confess while the guilty go free. Of course those termed "enemy combatants" by the United States can be detained indefinitely.
Another policy, lengthy internment without trial, also heightened tensions in Northern Ireland. From 1971-75, nearly 1, 981 were interned; all but 107 were Catholic. At the time a Royal Marine officer said, "It has, in fact, increased terrorist activity, polarized further the Catholic and Protestant communities, and reduced the ranks of the much needed Catholic moderates." Twenty years later, Kevin McNamara, former Northern Ireland spokesman for the British Labor Party, called internment, "a constant reminder of the greatest political error made by any government in the handling of an emergency."
The United States has also made internment a cornerstone of security policy since 9/11. First, more than 5, 000 people, most of them Muslim men, were detained in the United States. Not one of them has been convicted of terrorism.
An unknown number of suspects have also been detained by the CIA at secret locations. The detainees in Guantanamo, like prisoners in Northern Ireland, have used hunger strikes to protest their detention, though the United States instituted forced feeding early on.
Britain has also used tribunals much like those at Guantanamo. Thousands of terrorist suspects in Northern Ireland were tried in these Diplock courts, named for Lord Diplock who recommended their creation in 1973. Like the U.S. military tribunals, they allowed for no jury or civilian review, indefinite detention and the admission of secret evidence. But there was no death penalty.
Four years after Diplock courts were introduced, the Sunday Times of London reported that 94 percent of these cases resulted in convictions, most by admissions of guilt made during interrogations. Thirty lawyers who routinely defended in the Diplock courts signed a letter stating that "the ill-treatment of suspects by police officers with the object of obtaining confessions is now common practice."
In the early 1970s, British security forces developed the so-called "five techniques" for use in Northern Ireland: hooding, wall-standing, subjection to loud noise, withholding of food and drink, and deprivation of sleep. These techniques have also been used by the United States, though the U.S. military prefers loud rock music to white noise. However, the guidelines developed by the U.S. Justice Department in 2002, which allowed for near-deadly force such as waterboarding, went far beyond anything written by the British.
One of the most damaging techniques of counterterrorism used in Northern Ireland involved undercover operatives working with paramilitary groups. Brian Nelson, an army operative, worked closely with the Protestant paramilitary group the Ulster Defense Association, and 29 people on his list were shot and killed, though even British police investigators now say most were not terrorists. In another case, Freddie Scappaticci, an IRA man who was reputedly involved in the killing of 40 to 50 suspected informants, is now believed to have been on the payroll of the British for decades.
This history of extrajudicial killing has implications for current U.S. policy. Seymour Hersh reported in 2004 in the New Yorker that the United States was proposing what one Pentagon informant called "pre-emptive man hunting" in Iraq, much like the counterinsurgency operation called the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War, when thousands of Vietnamese were assassinated. It looks like such a policy is already in effect in Iraq. Recently the New York Times reported on nightly raids performed by Special Operations to kill or capture leaders of the Sunni insurgency, Shiite militias, or al-Qaida of Mesopotamia, though Richard Shultz, a terrorism expert at Tufts University, was quoted as saying, "My own view is that they still have to solve the intelligence problem."
In counterterrorism, Britain and the United States share a history. These are the tactics of totalitarian regimes, not liberal democracies. Such policies do much to foster real terrorist threats and undermine human rights around the world.
Kathleen Ochshorn teaches Irish literature at the University of Tampa.