The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: March 19, 2004
Canceled elections in Northern Ireland raise questions about democracy-building in Iraq
By ASHLEY MERRYMAN
Its been several months since I returned from a summerlong stay in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but Im still having a bad case of culture shock. It comes every time I hear any news about Iraq.
Because theres something different about watching news of the latest shooting of a soldier in an Iraqi terrorist attack after youve spent days hanging out with Irish Republican Army -- IRA -- or Ulster Volunteer Force -- UVF -- paramilitaries who have spent the last 30 years taking potshots at British soldiers. Its different to hear about armed patrols on the streets of Baghdad when it wasnt too long ago there was an armed soldier standing not too far from the restaurant where I was having dinner. Its different to read reports of a bombing in Iraq after a summer when I had to take the long way home because of seven bomb threats in a single day, when I couldnt reach anyone in an government building because of yet another bomb threat, when I interviewed police about what it was like to be stoned by people while they were on patrol, when I interviewed the people who throw the stones.
And most of all, what is really different was that I was living in a society that sees itself in the position of the Iraqis.
There are the occasional reports that keep coming out saying Americans are increasingly hated abroad, but the reports dont usually say why. I did, however, hear it in Belfast. With the intelligences claims of weapons of mass destruction unproved at best, what remains for the justification for taking over Iraq is of course that we freed Iraqis from a tyrannical dictatorship with the promise of democracy. In Belfast, all summer long, every time President Bush or Prime Minister Blair made such a statement, people on both sides of the peace walls started to laugh. It mattered not if they were unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic. The reaction was the same. They put their hands up in the air and cried, Excuse me, Mr. Blair! Whens our turn for democracy? How are you going to bring democracy to the Middle East when you have ended it in the U.K.? Many months ago, Blair suspended the elected assembly of Northern Ireland, reestablishing the British Parliaments direct rule over the region. He canceled elections for a new assembly, without any indication of when or if elections would be held. Elected legislators were summarily stripped of their posts; they uncomfortably spent the remainder of their terms giving out business cards that stated that they were members of a legislature that no longer exists. Those who were the duly appointed ministers were reduced to mere lobbyists for the duration of their terms while absentee members of the British Parliament act as figureheads for the government ministries and civil servants that run the show.
Now, Blairs actions were not per se unreasonable. With unionist politicians at each others throats over the continued viability of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement wrought between the unionists and nationalists, theres an ongoing concern that the Ulster Unionist Party will splinter, or at least that David Trimble, Nobel Peace Prize winner, will be ousted as party leader. Therefore, in a strategy commonly referred to as Save David, elections were canceled and werent rescheduled for months, until an agreement was reached with the IRA that it would decommission more arms (in hopes of resuscitating Trimbles flagging support).
But the election and the IRAs actions were too late. And what was feared has come to pass. Extremists on both sides of the peace walls were elected, including those who have vowed to end the Good Friday Agreement and those who have declared that its the Good Friday Agreement or nothing (meaning, a return to war). So the answer by the British government is that elections may be meaningless: Since the parties wont be able to form a government, they may simply wait and hold another election, hoping for a better result next time.
The powers that be threw out a standing government once a powerful opposition began to arise. They canceled elections. When elections were finally scheduled, it was because a small group of armed resisters said they would lay down weapons; it had little to do with restoring democracy to those from whom it was taken. Once the people elected the wrong candidates, the British decided that they probably shouldnt seat that government and may try again to get people they can work with.
The decision is understandable, and politically shrewd. But how is this democracy in Northern Ireland different from democracy in Iraq under Saddam Hussein? Wasnt Hussein elected? Didnt Iraqi citizens vote for him in order to maintain a peaceful existence? If there had been a viable candidate running against him, wouldnt he have simply canceled the election?
We have to admit that such governance is a rejection of democracy. When our only ally in the war on Iraq is acting as a dictator in his own land, we must be careful when we use claims of freedom and democracy as the sole justification for our actions. And we must be mindful that, similarly, we cannot exhort others to follow our democratic lead as long as we dont follow it ourselves. Thats what people of Belfast said as they protested against President Bushs visit to the region last summer. They refused to listen to a president lecture them about the need for peace when he was ordering the bombing of nations.
But there is another aspect to the way people of Northern Ireland relate to the Iraqis which causes me greater concern, which trigger the constant flashbacks to Belfast whenever I turn on the evening news.
Early on in the Troubles, the IRA was on the verge of disintegrating; people joked that IRA stood for I Ran Away. Then the British government instituted policing and security policies that were considered so outrageous that they galvanized the Catholic residents of Northern Ireland into action. The first of these policies related to the imprisonment of political prisoners, their arrest and subsequent treatment. Under a policy known as internment, suspected terrorists were imprisoned without trial and for undetermined periods of time. They were held in poor prison conditions. Allegations of constant interrogations, beatings and other forms of maltreatment swirled around the prison walls.
The other key British policy was the introduction of the British army as a security force that occupied Northern Ireland as if it were a conquered foreign land. At the same time, the local police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), abandoned policing to become an army-led antiterrorist force that later gained international infamy for brutalizing the populace in the name of antiterrorist efforts.
Unionists and nationalists both agree these policies were the best recruitment tools that the IRA had ever had. Those who had previously derided the IRA took up arms. Foreign nations that had condemned the IRA as terrorists began to see the British as the oppressors.
In 1972, the British government had interned more than 500 prisoners.
The United States has thousands of detainees. Some in Iraq. Some in Guantanamo. And some are without counsel, without charge, without sentence.
Of course, the American and British armed forces dont patrol their own people as though theyve been conquered. They are patrolling people they have actually conquered. However, that distinction isnt necessarily reassuring, particularly when the attacks against U.S. troops and other officials have confounded the experts as to how to secure the area. The British have solicited retired members of the RUC to go police Iraq. The rationale is that they have a unique expertise in antiterrorism and cooperation with the British military. Thats undoubtedly true. Ill even add that they have admitted expertise in riot control as well. But that ignores the fact that the RUC had such a bad international reputation that its total reconfiguration was essential to the peace process. Perhaps that wont be a problem because the bad press for the RUC was always that it beat Catholics when it did not touch the Protestants. In Iraq, nearly the whole population is Muslim, so everyones going to be fair game.
The most famous civil rights law firm in Northern Ireland has filed wrongful death lawsuits against the United States on behalf of Iraqi families with members killed by U.S. soldiers. The law firm was chosen because of its unique expertise battling governments that abuse individuals human rights.
And Im wondering for how long will we use the existence of a small group of armed resisters as the litmus test for whether or not an entire people will be able to take part in the establishment of a democratic government.
My friends in the paramilitaries nod knowingly when bombs in Iraq go off, saying that the Iraqis are taking pages out of their old playbooks. They tell me that America will be in Iraq for 30 years.
No, Iraq isnt a new Vietnam. But Baghdad could be our Belfast.
Ashley Merryman is a lawyer and writer in Los Angeles, working on a book about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 2004
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