Friday, February 02, 2007

The IRA, Islamists and Moral Sacrifice

Tony Blair is defending the RUC against criticism for possible collusion. A report by the Northern Ireland police ombudsman has alleged that members of the RUC special branch protected informers from criminal investigations for charges as serious as murder. I think there are two reasons this particular report might be less significant than it is being made out to be and that the more important debate is over the lessons this holds for what it takes to defeat political violence.

Firstly, the police officers accused of complicity have described the criticism as unfounded and challenged the writer of the report, Nuala O'Loan, to bring forward any evidence. While there seems no reason to assume that she is making this up it might turn out the scale or extent of the police involvement is over exaggerated. Until formal charges are brought these accusations should be considered somewhat suspect.

Secondly, it isn't quite as revelatory as is made out. Matthew Teague's article from early last year for the Atlantic highlighted the security services turning a blind eye to Republican informers. Unfortunately the article is only available to Atlantic subscribers which is a shame as the entire thing is utterly brilliant, however, this section should serve to illustrate the point I'm making:

"Fulton knew the voice, and its owner: Scap, one of the IRA's most feared interrogators. Fulton had once helped prepare safe houses for such interrogations, and knew that sometimes Scap's subjects survived.
Sometimes not.

Colleagues called both men "hard bastards"—true IRA boys, mothered by terrorism. They killed for the cause, time and again. But British spies had infiltrated the IRA, spreading deceit and rumors of deceit. The IRA had turned against itself. Scap couldn't say for sure who fought on his side.

The interrogation dragged on for hours. Fulton remained outwardly calm, and denied everything. Inwardly, though, he felt sick. He'd been spying on the IRA for a decade and a half, and he knew that if Scap broke him—if he admitted anything—he'd be a dead man—own a hole," in IRA slang.

So throughout the interrogation, Fulton sat stone-faced, blindfolded, and facing the wall. Double blind. He held tight to his secret: yes, he was a British spy.

But then, so was his interrogator."

That article created a huge stir and involves a very similar 'turning a blind eye' by the security services but did not have the same impact in British politics. I guess its story of IRA moles was a little too embarrassing for the Sinn Fein to make a stink about.

We are responding to these revelations in a similar manner to the way we responded to Republican claims of a shoot-to-kill policy. When people call themselves an army at war with your state, blow up innocent members of your citizenry and run a steady guerrilla war against the soldiers you send in to keep the peace shooting at them with the intention of killing is an entirely legitimate response. Holding the security services to the same standard that is applied to those working in peacetime is to deny them the capacity they need to fight what is somewhere between regular police work and a war and is a recipe for losing. However, we were never willing to defend the SAS and other organisations accused of shooting to kill and accepted Sinn Fein's standard of how a counter-insurgency should be fought. We were, and apparently are, unwilling to accept that it might take moral sacrifices to beat terrorists.

An analogy would seem to be with what is known as turning state's evidence in the United States. A strategy used by every Western country when dealing with organised crime is to give reduced sentences or even immunity from prosecution to those who are willing and able to prove exceptionally useful to more important or more numerous criminal investigations than that they are subject to. Take the example of James "Dick" Liddil who was a bank robber and murderer but was given immunity from prosecution. Turning a blind eye to the crimes of informers is an almost identical sacrifice of justice to giving people reduced sentences for turning state's evidence which is accepted with regular organised crime, far less lethal than the IRA.

It is necessary for the simple reason that crime, and even killing, is what gives credibility in these organisations. Those who are not criminals have no status and, hence, don't have much to tell the intelligence services. For that reason fighting terrorism will require us to deal with criminals and if we do not we are likely to wind up denying justice to far more victims as we prove unable to gather evidence against the rest of the organisation.

This was hugely effective. Teague highlights how the IRA wound up riddled with informers and it was this combined with other security measures which brought them to the negotiating table. The final settlement was not substantially different to that on offer throughout the troubles and the main British cave during negotiations was to release prisoners who would not have been in jail but for the armed struggle. Equally, the idea that Adams and McGuinness are independently reformed characters stretches plausibility. British security services defeated the IRA and, as a result, we are all safer and Northern Ireland has a chance at a better future. It is worth paying quite a price for such a result.

Justice is served because those who inform the security services pay a huge personal price. Teague's article is, in part, the story of the massive risk of torture and death the IRA informants took. In return for helping the police they face a lifelong threat of a violent death at the hands of the Republicans and exile from their community. They have not gotten off lightly.

The debate over whether we are willing to accept sacrifices in justice in order to fight terrorism is important because we are facing a new terrorist threat and may need to make the kind of utilitarian calculations with justice that were made with respect to the IRA again. The Times coverage of the plot to behead a Muslim soldier correctly focussed on how similar this is to the IRA strategy of enforcing community loyalty. New plots are being discovered with such regularity that it appears the problem of Islamist violence will get worse before it gets better. At the moment it is still a rather informal movement of isolated lunatics but this is not necessarily the way it will stay. Particularly if the movement becomes more organised we might find it necessary to make sacrifices in our values, possibly different ones to those required in the struggle against the IRA, in order to protect security and ensure justice is, more broadly, done.

More is at stake as the IRA could, at most, have caused more deaths and us to abandon the Unionists to their fate. While this would have been a tragedy the Islamists have the will to cause, as demonstrated by 9/11 and 7/7, near unlimited destruction and, through crimes like the murder of Theo van Gogh or the threat to Salman Rushdie, attack our most precious values such as freedom of expression. They pose an existential threat to the West as a civilisation. While we should not sacrifice who we are we have to be prepared to do what is necessary to beat them. Balancing these priorities is a key challenge for twenty-first century Britain but striking that balance will require a more honest appraisal of what is, and has been, necessary to defeat terror.

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