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Resisting Occupation: From Northern Ireland to Iraq

StoryDecember 19, 2003
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Veteran journalist Ed Moloney, who has been reporting on Northern Ireland for two decades, draws numerous parallels between the situation in Iraq and Northern Ireland. [includes transcript]

Five days after the announcement of the capture of Saddam Hussein, Reuters is reporting that the U.S. has banned all forms of protests against the U.S. occupation around Saddam Hussein’s birthplace of Tikrit.

After a recent rally in support of Saddam Hussein, U.S. military vehicles and tanks raced through the streets. One of the vehicles broadcast a recording of the U.S.-backed regional governor in the area. His message was “Any demonstration against the government or coalition forces will be fired upon. This is a fair warning.”

According to Reuters, all demonstrations have been declared illegal in the province. Iraqis face a year in jail for participating in a protest. And any Iraqi civil servants or teachers who participate in protests will lose their jobs.

Reuters reported one U.S. military officer warned a local Iraqi in Tikrit not to organize any protests, The U.S. officer said ” Let me make something very clear. If our ears and eyes see and hear you are connected with demonstrations, and anti-coalition activities you will be going to jail for a very long time.”

  • Ed Moloney, a veteran journalist who has been reporting on Northern Ireland for two decades. He is co-author of “Paisley” (1986), an unauthorized biography of Ulster Protestant leader Ian Paisley and more recently “The Secret History of the IRA” (2002). He has been Northern Editor of The Irish Times and The Sunday Tribune and has written for a wide range of newspapers. In 1999, he successfully defeated an attempt by Scotland Yard Commissioner Sir John Stevens to force him to hand over notes of an interview with a source who alleged an official cover-up of the murder of a Belfast solicitor. In that year he was elected Irish Journalist of the Year.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After we spoke about events in Northern Ireland, after the program, we had a conversation about the similarities he saw between Ireland and Iraq. This is what Ed Moloney had to say.

ED MOLONEY: The similarities sometimes sitting here in New York watching events unfold in Iraq, looking at the way people here in the U.S. responding to those events, the parallels between what is happening now and what happened in Ireland from the start of the troubles onward are sometimes so uncanny that it’s weird. And, I think there are very important lessons there for the U.S. and for people here about what to expect from this conflict. There are obvious differences, but there are some similarities. For example, one of the similarities is that as the U.S. went into Iraq expecting and, indeed, in some cases receiving a very positive welcome from the population, who saw them as–in one way or another–liberators or at least some of them saw them at liberators. You had a similar situation in Northern Ireland. When the British troops into Belfast and Derry and elsewhere, they were viewed certainly by the Catholic population as liberators. People who had come in to rescue them from violence and the oppression they were experiencing at the hands of their government, the unionist government. The similarities are there.

Equally both situations went sour very quickly. In ireland, through all sorts of — for all sorts of reasons too complicated to go into, the Catholic population moved and turned against the British troops in a matter of a few months. Something very similar appears to be happening in Iraq. There are large elements of the population who may at the start have been, if not enthusiastic about the American presence, at least neutral and prepared to give it a chance, now, apparently moving with some force and vigor towards a sort of hostile attitude towards the U.S., and in both sets of circumstances, what happens when that occurs is that the military resistance, the violent resistance, is given a boost because people start to join organizations to hit back.

The reason why in Ireland the Catholic population of Belfast and Derry moved against the British troops was because they found themselves on the receiving end of violence meted out by the British troops against them and they wanted to strike back. Looking at what’s happening in Iraq, it seems to me, for example, examining the conflicting accounts that are coming out of Sumara, something appears to have gone badly wrong there. People who were involved on the receiving end of U.S. violence in Sumara are going to want to hit back. There’s only one way that you can hit back, and that’s to join up, get a gun in your hands and a bomb in your hands and start using those weapons against the troops.

So far from from — from pacifying or increasing support for U.S. presence in Iraq, there are actions in ways which are so uncannily similar to what happened in Ireland back in the 1960 — late 1960’s and early 1970’s. It’s happening the negative and reverse impact. That means that you’re in for — one awfully long occupation of Iraq.

Let’s just look at some of the basic facts and figures. British troops went into Belfast and Derry in August, 1969. They’re still there. in 2003. At the height of the troubles, there were 30,000 troops stationed in Northern Ireland fighting against the I.R.A. The population in Northern Ireland was merely 1.5 million people. The British troops spoke the same language as the natives. They didn’t maybe understand the culture but at least they could understand what they were saying. That doesn’t apply with the Americans in Iraq. In Iraq, the U.S. has a force of, I believe, about 140,000 troops and the population of Iraq–in other words, the potential for a recruitment for opposition terrorists or guerrillas — is, I think, 40 million or thereabouts. So just do the math; it’s simple. There’s no way that 140,000 troops in the situation where the local population is moving against and becoming more hostile to the U.S. troops are going to be able to hold the thing down. And, you are going to be in there for an awful long time. If Britain was in Northern Ireland for over 30 years in a small, tiny conflict with a small population, and, you know, the I.R.A. came from a much smaller base than 1.5 million. The Catholic population in Northern Ireland is only 600,000 or 700,000 strong. So, the number of potential recruits was actually very, very small and finite. It was close to Britain and they spoke the same language and they couldn’t defeat the I.R.A. How on earth are the Americans going to defeat the Iraqis?

AMY GOODMAN: What is the attitude in Northern Ireland toward what’s happening?

ED MOLONEY: I think, a lot of people are looking at what’s happening in Iraq: We have been there and we have the t-shirt. We have a wardrobe full of t-shirts, in fact, and you guys are in for a very tough time there. And, of course, the lesson from Northern Ireland, the other lesson, that applies from Northern Ireland, to the Iraq situation, is that at the end of the day, the British — all of the force that the British could bring to bear against the I.R.A., all of their intelligence resources, all the money that they could spend, all of the spooks and spies that they could recruit, at the end of the day, didn’t make any difference at all, because the violence was organic. It was coming from deep within society and you cannot — you can defeat the Baader-Meinhof gang, you can defeat the weathermen because they’re not organic violence. They’re not organic organizations. organizations like the I.R.A. and, I suspect, the Iraqi resistance are organic organizations, and they are, I think, almost–they’re almost impossible to defeat by conventional military or counter subversion methods.

At the end of the day, if there is a solution to Northern Ireland–I suspect there is a solution to Northern Ireland–it’s one of compromise, but it’s also essentially a political solution. It’s not one that was won or secured by military victory or military defeat. It was achieved by political settlement. The same thing is going to have to happen, I suspect, at the end of the day in Iraq. That means that very difficult choices are going to have to be made at some stage, and whether people are up to that remains to be seen. For example, in Ireland, in order to get this political settlement, erstwhile gunman and terrorists, people who were reviled and banned from the radio waves and television stations in Britian and Ireland for the best part of 20 years, people like Gerry Adams have been brought into the political system and treated as equals. I’m not saying that necessarily exactly the same thing is going to happen in Iraq, but if you are forced at the end of the day to embrace a political settlement, then those are the sort of things that have to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true that a few months ago Catholics in Northern Ireland flew Palestinian flags and Protestants flew Israeli flags?

ED MOLONEY: Yes, but that’s been there a long, long time. There’s been an identification on the Catholic side, on the I.R.A. side, with the Palestinians, and with the Israelis on the unionist side. And, they see themselves as occupying very similar positions albeit in different circumstances. And, I think, you know, the same thing is happening, I suspect, now with the war in Iraq — that the Catholic population is identifying with the Iraqis and the unionists along with the British are identifying with the Americans. So, that’s not a surprise, no.

AMY GOODMAN: Then, of course, you have Britain itself involved in both conflicts.

ED MOLONEY: Yes. Absolutely. And that — that in itself is a very interesting phenomenon because the — you know, it’s — I’ve heard it said that the British in Iraq are bringing their years of experience in Northern Ireland in the way that they are handling their part of Iraq, and you think back at what the British did in Northern Ireland to sustain, indeed, even create, and certainly nurture the I.R.A. over the years because of the violence they meted out. You said, if that’s what they’re doing in Iraq, if they brought the same methods that they used in Belfast and Derry and they’re using those methods in Basra or wherever it is in Iraq that the British are stationed, then the Americans have more trouble on their laps because this thing is going to last forever. These armies and these soldiers only know how to behave in one way, and that’s with extreme brutality. At end of the day, brutality is counter productive. It creates anger, and an overwhelming desire to strike back. And that’s what’s happening in Iraq now. Look at the level of violence from May when the Americans allegedly had brought this, the hostilities, to an end and George Bush landed on his aircraft carrier. Look at the violence then and the violence now. It’s grown. Why has it grown? It’s grown because people want to hit back and they’re joining up in these organizations. And, incidentally, in exactly the same way as the Americans have said that what is happening in Iraq is the product of foreigners coming in from outside–exactly the same thing happened in the early days of the troubles in Ireland, that the British said it’s — it’s people coming across the Irish border that are bombing Belfast or it’s people who are is been paid money–foreign gunmen, mercenaries are being paid money to shoot British soldiers. Exactly the same sort of nonsense, total nonsensical stuff. It’s said for basically the same reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ed Maloney, a veteran journalist who has been reporting on Northern Ireland for two decades comparing Iraq and Northern Ireland.

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