What the U.S. Can Learn from the History of Northern IrelandRoundup
tags: Northern Ireland, Troubles, Sectarianism
Andrew Sanders is an assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University San Antonio and the author of The Long Peace Process: The United States of America and Northern Ireland, 1960-2008.
As Americans debate the future of police reform in Congress, in city councils and in the streets, President Trump has insisted on escalating confrontations, deploying the Park Police and National Guard to help fortify the streets of Washington, D.C. This show of force ended up including the release of a form of tear gas on peaceful protesters and then troops standing guard at the Lincoln Monument.
But increasing policing in this fashion and sending in troops as reinforcements has historically been the action of a desperate government out of alternatives, or the act of a strongman leader seeking to assert power over citizens. This is particularly problematic when the police lack the universal support of all members of a society, and more so when the police stand accused of using deliberate and deadly force against a particular demographic within that society.
This was the case in Northern Ireland a half-century ago. Violent clashes between civil rights marchers and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), a predominantly Protestant police force, began in late 1968 and continued into the summer of 1969, leaving Catholic civilians dead and Catholic politicians hospitalized. The Northern Ireland government requested the assistance of the British Army in August 1969, and British soldiers ended up remaining in Northern Ireland until 2007. The Northern Ireland case reveals how escalation of security operations only serves to exacerbate existing tensions and grievances. Further, it shows that insufficient political reform will undermine the situation, and that police reform must be multidimensional to secure broad legitimacy in the eyes of the communities it serves.
As troops deployed, British Home Secretary Jim Callaghan assured members of Parliament that the measure would be temporary. Instead, Operation Banner, the British code name for the deployment to Northern Ireland, became the longest operation in U.K. military history. Many Catholic areas initially welcomed the soldiers, who were seen to be protecting them from Protestant mobs and the police. Relations soon soured, however, as troops, conditioned to aggressive counterinsurgency operations across the collapsing British Empire, conducted searches, raids, patrols and imposed curfews on Catholic areas without reciprocal actions in Protestant areas.