The United States and the Irish conflict
Submitted by George Callaghan…
One New Year’s Day 1801 Ireland and Great Britain merged to form a single realm. The United Kingdom was created because two parliaments had voted to amalgamate the two islands into a single state. Not everyone in Ireland approved of the Act of Union. However, for decades there was no violence in relation to this.
In 1858 the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was founded in New York. The IRB was dedicated to starting an uprising in Ireland and sundering the Union with Great Britain. Their goal was that Ireland would become a republic. It was part of a general movement towards separatism by many ultra nationalist European groups. The United States grants free of expression under the 1st Amendment to the constitution. What the IRB were proposing was sedition in the United Kingdom. But it was legal in the United States. The UK and the United States had cordial relations at the time. They had fought the Opium War together. You might think that they fought in a filthy cause. But it still proves the point that the two countries got along well. It was an unfriendly act of the US to permit an organisation to exist that was proposing to start an armed conflict in another sovereign state. The UK had made concessions to the United States on the Canadian border. The British were doing everything to be friendly. You might be inclined towards Irish nationalism or republicanism. It is a respectable position. Its goals were achievable by peaceful and lawful means. Nationalist organisations were legal in Ireland. They contested elections and from the 1870s onwards they won many elections. The United Kingdom was one of the freest countries on earth in terms of freedom of expression and the right to vote.
There was much rancor in Ireland over the famine of the 1840s. The Great Hunger was a natural disaster that caused the most unspeakable suffering. The government provided relief but it was not enough. Some Americans sent aid and this saved lives.
What was the American Civil War fought over? It was fought to maintain the Union. President Lincoln was crystal clear about that. The Confederate States of America also rammed home that point. The issue in contention was whether states were entitled to secede or not. The United States successfully preserved the Union. It is true that the southern states wished to break away for a particularly wicked reason – to hold African-Americans in bondage. But as we know the border states – Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri etc… had slavery in 1861 yet remained in the Union when the civil war erupted.
If the US is allowed to maintain its unity so it the United Kingdom. America insists on this principle for itself. Yet many Americans would abrogate that self same principle in relation to the United Kingdom. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. A sovereign state such as the US or the United Kingdom is absolutely entitled to quell an insurrection.
After the American Civil War the United State was awash in guns. It was also full of demobilized war veterans. These battled hardened men were looking for a new fight. Some of these Irish-Americans intended to use their new found military skills to attack the United Kingdom. In Ireland so far as we know most people were pro-Union. Every MP elected in Ireland was either a Conservative or a Liberal. Both parties were committed to maintaining a full union with Great Britain. There were no opinion polls. Not every man was allowed to vote at the time due to property qualifications. That was also true in much of the United States well into the 1960s. At the time Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. No government doubted that. The US recognized the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
During the American Civil War some representatives of the Confederate States of America (CSA) came to London. The CSA was made up of eleven southern states that broke away form the United States. The UK Government did not recognize or help the CSA. However, some British companies sold arms to the CSA. The United State was angry about this. This is bizarre. The US has a second amendment right to bear arms. This did not preclude the CSA. No one was ever charged with carrying guns as part of the Confederate Army. Nor was the importation of arms subject to licence. The UK was simply allowing Americans to exercise their right to carry arms. But if the United Kingdom was abetting a revolt against the US who started it? The United States had harboured a group intent on causing a blood conflict in the UK.
You may know the schoolboy doggerel ‘Though with the North we sympathized it must not be forgotten/ With the South lay stronger ties and they were made of cotton.’
In the late 1860s the IRB in the United States attacked Canada. They were repelled. Canadians celebrate this as the start of their nationhood. Some of the invaders called themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Members of the IRB returned from the US to Ireland for the 1867 rebellion. The US authorities were aware of this and did nothing to stop it. It was a crime. The IRB had no right to start a war. They were not a government. Ireland was not a sovereign state. The US permitted this organisation to attack an empire with which the US had normal diplomatic relations. The UK did not have a law saying anyone could have a gun. The IRB openly stated their intent. The revolt was a complete flop. This was because the majority of the populace was opposed.
Through the late 19th century many IRB men went to the US. The IRB carried out acts of terrorism in Ireland and Great Britain. This was despite the UK and the United States co-operating on many issues and jointly running some Chinese ports.
In the First World War the IRB planned a revolt in Ireland. They were in league with Germany which was the UK’s enemy. Even after the sinking of the Lusitania and the killing of many Irish civilians the IRB was still pro-German. If Germany had won it is likely that it would have been annexed.
In 1916 there was the Easter Rising in Dublin. The IRB was at the centre of it. The IRB was increasingly superseded by the Irish Volunteers who came to be known as the IRA. It had minimal public support and was swiftly defeated. The Crown showed the most unexampled mercy. Of the 1000 or so men who had committed high treason in time of war a mere 16 were executed. No other country would have been so gracious during a life and death struggle. This was an era when the United States used the death penalty promiscuously for crimes less than murder. In this era black men were routinely lynched in the United States. Yet IRB propagandists said that the UK was ‘brutal’.
In 1917 the United States declared war on Germany. This was due to Germany repeatedly sinking American merchant ships and encouraging Mexico to launch an unprovoked attack on the US. IRB groups in the United States had been in cahoots with Germany despite Germany deliberately killing American civilians. Even after the US went to war against Germany the IRB and IRA did all they could to undermine the Allied war effort. They discouraged men from enlisting in the British Army.
The President of the United States at that time was Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s grandparents came from Ireland and Wilson rejected Irish nationalism. Should Ireland be part of the UK or not? The president said this was an internal British matter for the UK to decide.
As soon as an armistice was signed between the Allies and Germany ended the IRA began to kill members of the Crown Forces. Remember the war was strictly speaking still on. Hostilities had been suspended and not ended. The police and the British Army arrested thousands of IRA men. They were interned. It was not until almost two years into the conflict that any IRA men were executed. By this time hundreds of police officers, soldiers and civilians had been killed by the IRA. Once again the Crown Forces had been very clement and restrained. The Crown Forces fought the IRA and in engagements IRA men were killed. Any sovereign state has the right to quell an insurrection.
Many Irish-Americans sent money to the IRA. These same people had overwhelmingly backed the Union side in the American Civil War. The American Civil War was specifically about a unit within a sovereign state not being allowed to secede. It was about secession. The IRA also called for secession. The United States and the UK were trying to preserve the Union in both cases. It was staggeringly hypocritical of so many Irish-Americans to betray the very principle which they had upheld in the United States. The American Civil War was not about slavery in the beginning. Abraham Lincoln and his government said that a hundred times. There were slave states in the North during the Civil War. It was only after the Civil War that the US Government abolished slavery.
The IRA did not observe the Geneva Convention. They did not wear uniforms or carry weapons openly. They unleashed a reign of terror. Anyone suspected of supporting the Crown could expect to be beaten up and have his house burnt down. Hundreds of people were shot dead by the IRA and said to be spies. Most of the victims of the IRA were Irish. The IRA engaged in a vile campaign of internecine sectarian slaughter. The IRA’s Protestant analogue was the Ulster Protestant Association (UPA). The UPA shot dead blameless Catholics in the Wee North. In Cork the IRA turned Tory Top Lane into a charnel house. The IRA burnt down many buildings and did its damndest to wreck the economy.
The conduct of the Crown Forces was not inculpable. In irregular conflicts counterinsurgent forces are usually bad. In relation to the usual ethical standards in such situations the Crown Forces behaved well. Nevertheless, even if you think that the Crown Forces committed serious wrongs there is no doubt that the UK was doing what every sovereign state is entitled to do: quell a revolt. In putting down a rebellion one cannot do so in a Salvation Army manner. It requires real force. The trick is to hit the right people and it is incredibly difficult to get this right. The security forces aimed to be the bane of the IRA. The IRA had a measure of popular certain especially in particular counties. It did not approach the near universal level that republican mythmaking would have you believe.
Yet there can be no comparison between the Crown Forces and the IRA. The former was fighting legally and the latter were not. It was inevitable that mistakes were made. There was some malfeasance by a small number of members of the security forces. The authorities tried to discipline the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) and the British Army but did not succeed in every case. Acts of indiscipline by members of the Crown Forces were seized upon by irresponsible elements in the American yellow press and hugely inflated. Their objective was to demonise the Crown Forced and be of assistance to the IRA. In that regard they achieved a very considerable measure of success.
A loyalist organisation existed in the North called the Ulster Protestant Association (UPA). The UPA killed hundreds of Catholic civilians and a few IRA men. The IRA also engaged in sectarian warfare. The IRA was almost exclusively Catholic. It killed hundreds of Protestant civilians. So much for the IRA being anti-sectarian. Was this Irish unity? But many people in the US donated money to the IRA despite it being a violently anti-Protestant and Anglophobic organisation.
In 1921 there was a treaty between the UK and the Irish republican movement. The major portion of Ireland left the UK and became a dominion within the British Empire. The South of Ireland was given the constitutional title ‘the Irish Free State’. It was analogous to the position of Canada. Sinn Fein (the Irish republican party) agreed to the partition of Ireland. The Irish Parliament was entirely made up of Sinn Feiners. It ratified the treaty agreeing to partition.
Michael Collins was Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator. He treacherously broke the agreement. He sent more guns to the IRA in Northern Ireland to continue the IRA’s bestial attacks against civilians. Collins’ duplicity and mercilessness horrified even his comrades in arms.
The South of Ireland devolved into civil war in 1922. The republican movement split. 75% of people voted to accept the treaty. 25% of them rejected it. The IRA fought against democracy. Shockingly some Irish-Americans backed the IRA which was fighting against the settled will of the Irish people. The Irish Free State fought against the IRA. The Free State was far tougher on the IRA than the Crown had been. The Free State executed at least 77 IRA men in ten months. The Crown had executed 24 in two and a half years. Most of these IRA men were executed without any trial whatsoever. The Crown always granted a man a fair trial. Even the IRA did not dispute that the UK authorities had given people fair trials.
The Irish Government regularly carried out extra judicial killings as well and used torture on a grand scale. But we hardly hear anything about this. Why? It is anglophobia. The aim is to paint the English as sadists and to whitewash wrongdoing by the Irish Government.
The IRA had caused several years of conflict in Ireland. It took decades to recover. The IRA remained a banned organisation in the South of Ireland as well as the North. The Irish Free State (the South) was more or less independent. The IRA continued to kill Irish policemen and assassinate politicians well after the civil war was over.
The IRA actively supported the Third Reich in the Second World War. It also sought assistance from the Soviet Union. Despite the IRA backing the Nazis some Irish-Americans still looked kindly on the IRA.
In 1949 the Irish Government broke the 1921 treaty and declared a republic. The UK generously accepted this. As Dublin had reneged on the treaty then London would have been entirely entitled to hold itself absolved of its undertakings according to the same. Irish nationalists often resort to the racist trope ‘perfidious Albion’ yet it is nationalist perfidy which pervades the chronicles of Irish history.
Through the 1950s the IRA carried on a terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland. It was easily defeated by the police (the Royal Ulster Constabulary). The IRA received very little support from the Catholic community. Irishmen from the north and the south volunteered for the British Army in large numbers. The UK was America’s Cold War ally. It was an outraged that a few Americans should have abetted these attacks on America’s NATO stalwart. The UK was one of very few democratic countries in the world. But certain Irish-American groups still raised funds for the IRA and calumniated the UK.
In the 1960s the United Kingdom was one of the most desirable places to live in the world. This is why there was an influx of people from other Commonwealth lands and the Republic of Ireland. There was publicly funded healthcare, publicly funded higher education and a generous welfare system. None of this was true I the United States. The UK had very low unemployment. All adults over the age of 21 were permitted to vote regardless or race, religion or ethnicity. Citizens of the Republic of Ireland and Commonwealth countries were granted the right to vote in the UK. This was much more democratic than the United States. At that time African-Americans were lynched for attempting to exercise the rights ‘guaranteed’ to them under the US Constitution.
Despite the United Kingdom assuring the blessings of liberty to the people of Northern Ireland there were ill-intentioned people there and in the United States who vituperated the UK. They disseminated stinking lies claiming that it was not democratic.
The drawing of constituency boundaries is usually contentious. Nationalists in Northern Ireland and claimed it was due to the way in which such boundaries were drawn. At local elections only householders and spouses thereof were permitted to vote. As the Catholic community tended to have more children and not to be so affluent this meant that some Catholic adults could not vote in local elections. But they could vote in Westminster elections.
The Unionist Party was the most popular party in Northern Ireland. Its backers were mostly Protestant. American sociologist found that in 1969 5% of the Catholic community voted unionist. Some Catholics voted for the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Only about 60% of Catholics voted for some nationalist or other. Only around 0.5% of Protestants voted nationalist. The Unionist Party tended to reward its supporters. That’s politics! It is seldom edifying. Tell me the same does not take place in the US!
Racial and religious discrimination is a worldwide problem. It existed in the UK too. But as even the IRA’s court historian Tim Pat Coogan said the situation was worse in the Republic of Ireland. Jobbery, pork barrel politics and nepotism were the mainstays of Irish politics. Likewise, the Irish-American politicians who calumniated the UK were usually Tammany Hall Tepee types.
In 1969 a conflict erupted in Northern Ireland. Again, the IRA turned to people in the US for funds and arms. They received them. The IRA espoused a far left ideology. This was anathema to most Americans. But the IRA still got what it wanted from its bigoted supporters in the United States. Many of these people in the US were completely ignorant. In the 1970s of them told the Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards ‘there are British tanks in Dublin.’ Miss Dudley Edwards said ‘You mean Belfast and it is armoured cars.’ The American woman insisted ‘no in Dublin and it is tanks.’ There had been no British tanks in Dublin for 50 years!
The UK was very helpful to her American ally. The US military was and is granted bases in the United Kingdom. The US Navy has a base at Derry in Northern Ireland. The Crown Forces learnt that certain American sailors were actively assisting the IRA. A most celebrated young Irish historian Dr Edward Burke has proven as much. Let us be fair. It was only a tiny number of US military personnel who engaged in terrorism against their British allies. Nevertheless, the UK soon asked the Americans to leave Derry. They did.
The republican terrorist organisations were the IRA and the INLA. They were both far left. These were the sort of organisations that the US would never tolerate at home. They were Marxist and funded and armed by the USSR.
There were romantic notions of the resplendence of the revolutionary struggle. The very unlovely reality of the conflict was seldom brought home to these armchair heroes. The complexity and the sectarian aspect of the conflict were not widely understood in the US. Few people in the United States realized that the Irish Government had agreed to partition. Indeed in 1925 when offered some of Northern Ireland the Irish Government had turned it down. In 1941 Churchill has offered to give Northern Ireland to the Irish Taoiseach in return for joining the Allied cause. He declined.
It was staggering to see the nerve that some Americans had to say the Northern Ireland was not lawfully part and parcel of the UK. The United States accredited an ambassador to the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There was a US consul in Belfast – accredited to the British Government. It was asinine and dishonest to pretend that Northern Ireland was not legitimately and legally an integral portion of the British State.
The UK was a faithful ally of the US. The UK joined NATO at its inception. British soldiers fought alongside their American comrades in Korea, Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, the Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. The Republic of Ireland did not lift a finger to help the United States. But your average American would not know that.
The Crown Forces had rules of engagement. After 1972 the hooding of suspects was forbidden. The US still hoods suspects. The British Army had a very good record of ethical conduct in Northern Ireland. Irishmen volunteered for the British Army all through the Troubles. Republican civilians berated the Crown Forces because they knew that the soldiers and police officers were so disciplined and gentle that they would do nothing.
The British Army was not above criticism. One disgraceful episode in Derry took place in January 1972. In the US people made a meal of this. The UK apologized for the incident after the most exhaustive investigation of all time and paid huge compensation. The US military has carried out numerous large scale massacres in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet no such contrition is forthcoming from Uncle Sam.
The Irish Government was against the IRA. Dublin strove to maintain a decent relationship with London. It was very difficult. The IRA was a huge problem for the Republic of Ireland (the South). The IRA killed over 100 people in the Republic, robbed banks, kidnapped people, burnt down buildings and dealt drugs. The Garda Siochana (Irish Police) had a severe headache trying to contain the IRA. In the 1970s the Republic of Ireland seemed to be in a pre-revolutionary stage. Some people thought the state was close to collapse. American money for the IRA exacerbated all these problems.
The gallantry and the humanitarianism of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was marvelous. Northern Ireland was the most dangerous place in the world to be a police officer. The RUC were occasionally obliged to use force.
The Ulster Defence Regiment also served the public in providing security. Their valour and professionalism were also splendid. They suffered hundreds of dead. They very, very seldom killed even IRA men such was their restraint.
The UK last used the death penalty in 1964. The US still has states that execute people. America is alone in the Western world in doing so. The United Kingdom has a far, far better human rights record than the US.
The United States has mass incarceration. Its trial are often unfair. Racism is prevalent in the policing and the judiciary. US police shoot dead hundreds of people a year. It is nauseatingly hypocritical of Americans to traduce the UK whilst such huge scale systemic injustices play out in the United States.
The British were so ruth and treated even murderers so well. In the US innocent black men were fried in the electric chair.
The UK upheld liberty. People had freedom of speech and of association. Such liberties were guaranteed in the UK. Northern Ireland was not one bit oppressed by the UK. It was oppressed by the IRA, the INLA and their loyalists mirror images – the UVF and UFF.
The UK was lenient to a fault. Sentences handed down to terrorists were very mild. The death penalty was never used. Internment was phased out in 1975. The courage and the humanity of the courts and the Crown Forces are second to none. The British Army and the RUC are names resplendent in eternal glory.
It is true that a handful of members of the UDR and RUC moonlighted as loyalists terrorists. They were given short shrift. They were soon apprehended and awarded lengthy gaol terms. The record of the security forces is not absolutely faultless.
By contrast the brutality and injustice of American courts, prisons and the police is notorious. The US also kidnapped even children from Afghanistan and locked them up without trial nor charge in Guantanamo Bay. Some people have been held incommunicado there. Men have been kept confined there for upwards of 17 years without trial. It is a shrieking outrage. How then can any American have the temerity to calumniate the United Kingdom. The UK is know for its fairness and mercy.
In the 1980s the IRA was an ally of Gaddafi. Gaddafi was an avowed enemy of the United States. He orchestrated attacks on American civilians. Despite this the IRA’ backers in the US did not desist from funding their darlings.
There are tens of millions of Irish-Americans. Many of them are wonderful people. Ronald Reagan is one of my least favourite US presidents. Yet he must be given his due. He was an Irish-American who recognized that the IRA was the worst of Ireland and not the best. He used a St Patrick’s Day speech to denounce the criminal and anti-democratic violence of these sectarian bigots. He also railed against the IRA’s loyalist equivalents. There were Irish-Americans who supported the constitutional nationalist cause. It is an honourable one that I happen not to share. There was a quarter of eminent Irish-American politicians who opposed the IRA. They threw their weight behind the SDLP which was a nationalist party which peacefully campaigned for a united Irish Republic. Nevertheless, this was still transgressing into the domestic politics of the United Kingdom. Foreigners are not allowed to donate to American politicians. But Americans donate to foreign politicians. It is flagrantly illogical. In the UK parties are not allowed to accept donations from outside the EU. Americans are not allowed to join UK political parties. But there is an exemption for Northern Irish parties. This is a grossly illogical and unjust exception there designed onto to help the SDLP and Sinn Fein. In the US no politician is permitted to accept anything of value from a foreigner. Yet Americans will donate to foreign political parties. Once again the unfairness, stupidity, hypocrisy and arrogance of it is beyond belief.
Finally, in the 1990s the conflict came to an end. The Crown Forces had emerged victorious. Some Americans opposed the ending of the conflict and still sent money and guns to splinter groups of the IRA which planned to continue the conflict. It is obloquial that certain members of the Irish-American community did not acquaint themselves with the facts and assisted these terrorists who were outlawed by the Irish Government. This attempt to be uber Irish was unparalleled in the harm it did. This was sentimental self-indulgence turned to malice. It was also backstabbing America’s ally. Historical illiteracy, arrogance and malevolence characterize the discourse of IRA supporters.
The tragic Irish conflict would have been much smaller and ended much sooner were it not for certain Irish-Americans maintaining it. They fueled the flames. There were many wise and moral Irish-Americans who oppose this pyromaniac attitude. The US Government did not do this but it did not do enough to stop funding and arming terrorists.
The United States has proved herself time and again to be an unfaithful ally. She has let the UK down on multiple occasions. So many others have cause to feel betrayed by the United States. Ngo Dinh Diem, the Cuban anti-communists, Van Muong, the Laotians, the Cambodians, the Taiwanese, the Samozas in Nicaragua, the Shah of Iran, the Lebanese Christians, the mujahideen, Saddam Hussein, the anti-Saddam rebels in southern Iraq, the Kurds, the anti-Taleban Afghans, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Egyptian democrats – they have all been thrown to the wolves by America. You might think many of these were rotten causes. If so why was the United States backing them? Nonetheless these people put their trust in the United States. But they were left to their fate when they became inconvenient for Washington.
The US has laws against foreign terrorism. Many organisations are proscribed. It is American to outlaw terrorist organisations and to forbid incitement to crime. It would be entirely in keeping with the US Constitution to have banned these organisations. In fairness the US Government latterly outlawed the IRA and its other guises. Yet somehow arms and money managed to get through.
There are many amiable and honest Americans. The United States has praiseworthy aspects to its constitution, its culture and its contribution to world politics. The US Government made efforts to stem the flow of arms and weapons to terrorist. In the early days these were largely pro forma. Unfortunately, the influence of certain members of the Irish-American community on Ireland and Great Britain was decidedly baleful.