Britain should not fear ‘an honest approach’ to past sins, says historian

Mistakes in dealing with terrorism in Northern Ireland are being repeated elsewhere, argues Prof Richard English in a new book

From his eyrie in Belfast, academic Richard English has studied terrorism on his doorstep during The Troubles and afar in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and elsewhere for more than three decades.

Throughout, the same mistakes are made again and again by states responding to terrorists, the Queen’s University Belfast historian argues in his latest book, Does Counter-Terrorism Work?

Often, states make matters worse, be it the scale of the Israeli attacks on Gaza after the October 7th massacres, or the British “dirty war” against republicans and nationalists in Northern Ireland.

“It’s short-termism. People think about what’s happening now, rather than about thinking long pasts and long futures. We should think about those long pasts and long futures,” argues the academic.

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Bar the “pernicious legacy” of the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan, the retaliation by states – such as the post-9/11 war on terror – has changed history more than terrorism ever did, he says.

Whether in Gaza or Northern Ireland, it is “tempting always to have goodies and baddies”, English says, which though “comforting” denies “the much messier reality”.

Some British actions during The Troubles, says English, were “not only deeply wrong in themselves, but deeply degrading for the reputation of the United Kingdom, not just in Northern Ireland, but more broadly”.

Though he cites examples where British security figures “colluded” with loyalist paramilitaries, who were sometimes Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers, English does not accept that every British response was equally motivated.

“I don’t think that’s true. I think there was much done in counterterrorism that was about saving lives and that it was done with the intention of preventing human suffering.”

Looking at the Kenova investigation into the IRA’s Stakeknife informer, commonly known as Freddie Scappaticci, English says it is clear that the double agent did “more harm than good.

“There has to be an honesty about how many lives were saved and whether the lesser evil was chosen, or the greater evil,” he says, though intelligence gathering “saved a lot of lives.

“If you’re saving more lives than you’re losing, then you can justify some difficult choices. My point, though, is that we need to assess outcomes honestly.”

The compromises made by the IRA in the 1990s before and after the Belfast Agreement were “made more likely because their violence was contained”, denying them victory.

“Part of the business of the peace process was the containment of paramilitary violence, so that the pragmatic leadership in the IRA decided to opt for peace process,” he says.

Strong counter-terror actions soothe the public and help politicians win or hold power, but fail in the end: ‘The French found this out with Algeria, the Israelis with Palestinians, the British found it out repeatedly in Ireland’

Under the Legacy Act, all legacy inquests not completed by May 1st must transfer to the new investigative body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, headed by the former Northern Ireland lord chief justice, Sir Declan Morgan.

However, past British sins including loyalist/UDR collusion should be recognised as reprehensible and unacceptable, English argues: “Not only did it do huge damage to the UK’s reputation, it was in itself an appalling transgression of justice.”

The legacy legislation, uniquely opposed by every Northern Irish political party, has won “virtually no consent” despite London’s arguments that it is needed to protect ageing soldiers.

Arguing for London to be more confident about facing up to the past, English says paramilitaries were “far more guilty of extensive and egregious human rights transgressions” if “you look honestly at the record”.

“An honest approach will not leave it [Britain] in the dock more than others. I don’t think it does any state good to try to cover up things that shouldn’t have happened. A more open approach would be in everyone’s interest,” English says.

The Irish experience holds lessons for today: “In the early 1990s, when the Israel-Palestine process was going well and Northern Ireland was going badly, people would have said peace would happen there first.”

However, the underlying problems between Israelis and Palestinians today must be probed once the current crisis is over, including the prospect of “a two-, or even possibly three-state solution”.

The scale of Israel’s response threatens its future relationship with Washington: “Opinion in the United States is changing, and Israeli politicians and people are noticing that.”

Nothing will change while Binyamin Netanyahu remains in power, however: “The current Israeli government is not going to change, but a post-Netanyahu government simply can’t have cycles of this kind of atrocity.”

Israeli must show that it is not just thinking purely in terms of Israeli self-defence but also that “it is looking to try to recreate some kind of dialogue, some kind of relationship-building”.

Arguing for “ethical” counter-terrorism, properly overseen and accountable, he says: “The less ethical and the less moral counterterror policies are, the less effective they are.”

None of this means that a state cannot respond strongly against enemies, and justify it later: “The more selective it is, the more targeted, the more proportional it is, the more likely it’s not only going to be ethical, but to be effective.”

Usually, however, states exaggerate what military action can achieve: “That has caused huge harm in the past, and I think it’s going to cause harm for all of us in the years in the future.”

Strong counterterror actions soothe the public and help politicians win or hold power, but fail in the end: “The French found this out with Algeria, the Israelis with Palestinians, the British found it out repeatedly in Ireland. It was learned by the United States after 9/11. My regret is that [it] has to be learned again each time,” says English, who has previously written highly regarded histories of the IRA and Irish nationalism.

In a world where authoritarianism is on the march and democracies are under threat, English argues that it is now more important than ever for democracies to distinguish themselves from others.

“[They] have to abide by the rule of law and not alternate between extremes that give space for terrorists to justify themselves. Stress the things that make liberal democracies the precious kinds of community they are.”