On Thursday, the United Kingdom goes to the polls in a snap general election called by Theresa May in what could turn out to be a fatally flawed strategy to show she has a mandate to negotiate for a hard Brexit.
It is an election no-one but May wanted. It is nothing but an arrogant attempt to manipulate the narrow majority who voted to leave the European Union in last June’s European Referendum and to copper fasten the Little Britain mentality that marks out the Tories.
It is a risky strategy. And one which she may well lose. As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for – you might not like what you get.
Last Saturday night’s murderous attack in London, where seven civilians were brutally killed before the three suspected terrorists who had attacked them were themselves shot dead by armed police was the third attack in Britain in as many months. On March 22, Khalid Masood, a 52-year-old Briton, drove a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing three people and injuring at least 50, before emerging from his vehicle and fatally stabbing a police officer. On May 22, a bomb was set off outside an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester by 22-year-old Briton Salman Abedi, killing 22.
The armed struggle becomes armed propaganda
Gerry Adams, former IRA leader and Sinn Fein President once said, ‘The tactic of armed struggle is of primary importance because it provides a vital cutting edge. Without it, the issue of Ireland would not even be an issue. So, in effect, the armed struggle becomes armed propaganda.’
On the morning of August 27th, 1979, two Irish plainclothes detectives watched through binoculars as Mountbatten’s boat, the Shadow, silently sailed past them. Suddenly the silence was shattered by a massive explosion. Lord Mountbatten and most of the others on the boat were killed instantly. That afternoon Parachute Regiment trucks drove to an army base at Newry. Their route took them past Narrow Water, on the shore of Carlingford Lough, marking the boundary between NI and the Republic. As the rear vehicle passed by a trailer, an IRA team detonated an 800lb bomb. Simultaneously an IRA unit on the southern side of the Border opened fire. A civilian, Michael Hudson, was killed in the crossfire. Six soldiers were killed. Several more Land Rovers and two helicopters arrived. As a Wessex helicopter took off to ferry injured soldiers to hospital, a second 800lb bomb was detonated, killing 12 more soldiers. It was the Paras’ biggest loss since Arnhem. The significance of the IRA’s coup was soon scrawled all over gable walls in Belfast and the Bogside: “Thirteen dead and not forgotten, we got eighteen and Mountbatten.” It was an echo of the graffiti that appeared after Bloody Sunday when British soldiers had boasted, “We got one, we got two, we got thirteen more than you.” It was payback.
Why are you calling me from New Zealand?
The next day one journalist rang the Sinn Fein press office to ask why did the IRA kill a helpless old man. With chilling economy, the press officer replied ‘Why are you calling me from New Zealand?’ Margaret Thatcher had just been elected as Conservative Prime Minister. The man expected to become her first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Airey Neave had been assassinated by the Irish National Liberation Movement shortly before the election.
Barely two years after the murder of Lord Mountbatten, the IRA developed a new tactic. In 1981 ten IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland went on hunger strike to starve themselves to death in what became a showdown between the prisoners and the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. One hunger striker, Bobby Sands, was elected as a Member of Parliament during the strike, prompting media interest from around the world. The strike was called off after ten prisoners had starved themselves to death—including Sands, whose funeral was attended by an estimated 200,000 people. The hunger strikes transformed the political context of Northern Ireland, radicalising national politics, and was the driving force that enabled Sinn Féin to become a mainstream political party.
As Sinn Fein Publicity Director, Danny Morrison, told the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (annual conference) later that year, ‘Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland? Punishment is directed above all at others, at all the potentially guilty. Twenty years earlier, in August 1971, the British government had introduced internment without trial in reaction to the IRA campaign. As Michel Foucault pointed out in ‘Discipline and Punish’, ‘The guilty person is only one of the targets of punishment. For punishment is directed above all at others, at all the potentially guilty.’ The introduction of internment in 1971 was followed by the bloodies year of the troubles, 1972, when 497 people were killed in the Troubles – almost ten a week. Internment had indeed been directed at all the potentially guilty and turned out to be a powerful recruiting sergeant for the IRA.
At least 3,000 people should immediately be sent to internment camps
After all the years of the Troubles, after three thousand plus deaths, after the tens of thousands injured, crippled and traumatised, after the entire tragic legacy of austerity, death and division, you might think that we had learned a lesson from history. But predictably enough, the third terror attack in as many months led to immediate kneejerk calls for internment without trial to be immediately introduced in Britain. A Muslim ex police chief from Scotland Yard, Tarique Ghaffur, said that there are ‘thousands of suspected terrorists in the UK who should be placed in internment camps, as the threat of terrorism in the UK has reached an unprecedented level.’ At least 3,000 people, he said, should immediately be sent to internment camps.
A militarisation of security is what radicals want
It was left up to a former Police Head of Counter Terrorism in Belfast, Jim Gamble, one of the most senior former police officers in the UK, to put the argument in perspective. He wrote in the Huffington Post this week: ‘Putting soldiers on our streets cannot be the answer. It sends the wrong message and a militarisation of security is what radicals want. It feeds into the myth that we are about oppressing others, appears desperate, and the symbolism of images of troops on our streets being edited and broadcast around the world feeds fanatics’ fantasies.
‘Business as usual is not what they want to see, so let’s force feed it to them? They want to see division, and work hard to hide behind and within a community that are no more responsible for their terror than the Catholic and Protestant communities living in Northern Ireland were for the IRA and UVF. This is about terrorists, individuals who use violence for their political ends. Only the fool with no knowledge of terrorism would associate criminal acts with a faith or community. ‘The real value in British policing, and what we lacked from a large section of the community in Northern Ireland, was consent. We lose that now at our peril.’
The first results of the General Election will start to come in around midnight on Thursday evening. Most commentators believe that Theresa May, far from getting the victory she believes she is due, will in fact haemorrhage votes to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, who has been closing the gap between Labour and Conservatives in the polls. The most likely outcome is a much-reduced Tory majority, in a state already deeply divided by the narrow victory of the Leave side in the Referendum. Regardless of the result, the immediate future looks bleak. We have already seen an increase in hate crimes throughout the United Kingdom, particularly in the North of Ireland, which is the only region in the UK which shares a land border with another state, the Republic of Ireland.
And the spectre of violent Irish republicanism continues to stalk the North. Last week Irish police charged two dissident republicans with possession of a cache of explosives in Dublin. The explosives were expected to be used to stage a paramilitary ‘spectacular’ in Belfast to coincide with the General Election. As Gerry Adams pointed out all those years ago, the tactic of armed struggle provides a vital cutting edge. The armed struggle has indeed become armed propaganda. The real shame of this election is that little will change. The post Trump, post Brexit west will continue to condemn the deaths of children in Manchester, while refusing to condemn them in Syria. Theresa May will continue to pursue arms deals with Saudi Arabia, regardless of the price that must be paid by others. And the British people will continue to sleepwalk into disaster.