Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Armies and Civil Rights Protesters Just Don't Mix

So, after 12 year and almost £200,000,000 spent, the Saville report is finally complete and published. Its conclusions are clear. The victims were innocent and the shootings could not be justified.

It seems an awful lot of time and money to put into a review of a 38 year old event but, regardless of the questions around how long it took and how expensive it was, the report probably is a necessary step in the reconciliation process in Northern Ireland.

For me, one message comes out clearly from this report and from recent events off the coast of the Gaza. That is that armies and civil rights protesters don't mix.

The difficulty for governments facing civil unrest is that there normal police forces are usually not equipped or trained to deal with well organised and intense violence. That was certainly the case in the early 70's in Britain. The army were sent into Northern Ireland to quell the violence on both sides of the troubles. Indeed, it was concern for the catholic/nationalist minority that contributed to the then Labour government deploying the army in the first place. Subsequent governments maintained and strengthened the army's presence as the violence escalated as the nationalist community started to regard the army as an occupying force and turned on them.

I'm not going to pretend I know enough about the Troubles to pass judgement on whether the army deployment was right or wrong, but Bloody Sunday and the recent Israeli flotilla incident do highlight the consequences of placing trained, armed killers amongst hot headed, fanatical activists.

Our natural sympathies are for the "unarmed" protesters. Of course, "unarmed" usually means no guns but sticks, knives, petrol bombs, stones etc, are usually involved. And whatever the rights and wrongs on both incidents in Derry and off the coast of Gaza, you have to feel for the young men put in positions of danger with live weapons in their hands being confronted with a mob of "unarmed" but violent protesters. These guys are trained to fight against an enemy, and yes, they are trained to deal with civilians, but they are also trained to kill when they feel sufficiently threatened. So it should be no surprise that this is often the outcome in these situations.

The miners' strike in the 80's taught the authorities a lot about dealing with violent protests and I think our police are now immeasurable better prepared to cope compared with the late 60s/early 70s. However, such was the intensity of the violence in Northern Ireland I doubt even our modern police could have coped and we would still deploy the army if the same unrest was happening today.

At the end of the day, if you are going to throw rocks and try to break through a barrier defended by armed men, you are taking your own life in your hands. I'm not saying any of the dead on Bloody Sunday were armed with anything other than a deep desire to protest against a draconian internment policy. But the army were duty bound to stop them marching through a loyalist area and specifically to stop the march altogether as it was illegal at the time to march (as it was seen as being deliberately inflammatory to the other side - which usually they were). Just as, having decided to have an exclusion zone off the coast of the Gaza Strip to help stop the smuggling of weapons for Hamas terrorists to use against Israel, the Israeli military had to stop the flotilla as it was breaking their government's rules.

People felt strongly that these rules were wrong and oppressive and challenged them. In my opinion, in both cases, the feelings were inflamed by political beliefs, and probably by terrorist organisations, that polarised the views of the protesters and drove many to act violently towards their "oppressors". Had nothing gone wrong, in either case, no doubt the army could have contained the situation without loss of life and they should have done. But things do go wrong. People make the wrong decisions, there's chaos and confusion everywhere and people get frightened. Frighten people will use their weapons and, tragically, that often ends up with deaths and injuries to innocents in the area as well as those actually attacking.

It's right there's been an enquiry, I'm glad we know the individuals killed are innocent. But lets not have a witch hunt for the soldiers involved at the time. Certainly question the operational decisions made on the day but, really, that should only be for lessons to be learnt for similar situations in the future.

And governments need to think long and hard about deploying military personnel to police civilian unrest as, almost inevitably, that leads to events like these that ends up just inflaming a bad situation and making matters worse for everyone. If you can't avoid deployment, then deal with events like these quickly and honestly or otherwise allow your enemies to use them as recruiting sergents.

1 comment:

  1. I hate how people refer to the near civil war in northern ireland as "the troubles".