Letter: Violence as a political weapon in Northern Ireland

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Sir: Conor Cruise O'Brien ('Barring the road to civil war', 29 October) might have underlined yet another incoherence in the present government's attitude. It is inconsistent of the Government to declare that it cannot come to the negotiating table with Gerry Adams because that would mean yielding to IRA blackmail, yet at the same time to act on the often-stated premise that, if Britain disengaged from Northern Ireland, there would immediately be 'a huge escalation of Unionist violence against Catholics', which is, of course, yielding to Unionist blackmail.

Granted that Gerry Adams's decision to carry Thomas Begley's coffin was abhorrent to many, his relentless demonisation is just as misguided: after all, he is entitled to believe that his primary duty is not to the British public but to his power base, from which he cannot afford to isolate himself if he wishes to help in peacemaking.

Dr O'Brien seems to believe that the latest round of the 'Troubles' began with the IRA's 1971 offensive. Some would date it from the wrecking of the non-violent Civil Rights and Housing Action campaigns by Unionist activists in 1968 and 1969 (the bombing of Belfast Waterworks, the Dungannon ambush, etc) when the IRA was a spent force. The first British soldier was killed by an IRA bullet in February 1971, but the first RUC policeman to die was hit by a 'loyalist' gunman in October 1969.

So far violence seems to have profited only the Unionists, who have succeeded, over a quarter of a century, in preventing any political solution contrary to their interests.

Internment is effective only if one accepts the present Home Secretary's belief that the more people are locked up, the fewer are left outside to do mischief; but so long as the security forces allow mad dogs to boast of killing 'Fenians' by the dozen, there is no guarantee that they will lock suspects up as even-handedly as Dr O'Brien wishes. History should have taught him by now that mere repression never works and that today's terrorists are tomorrow's negotiators and leaders.

Yours faithfully,


London, SW9

30 October