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10 January 2008 Edition

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Don't mention the war

Question: When is a war not a war?
Answer: When it is being fought by the British government.
The suggestion that the British state may be asked to formally acknowledge that it fought a war in Ireland raises intriguing possibilities. It arises in the context of the preliminary deliberations of the Consultative Group on the Past. The ability of the group to act in a non-partisan manner is compromised by the fact that it was established by the British Government – one of the main protagonists in the war in Ireland. Perhaps it is for this reason that the tentative suggestion of a British Government acknowledgement has arisen in a bid to seem more impartial.
Whatever the motivation of the suggestion it would cause huge problems for the British Government. From time immemorial successive British governments have maintained the fiction that their wars in Ireland were not wars at all but legitimate police actions against insurgents who were criminals under the law. The difference was not and is not just semantic. It meant, for example, that many prisoners who would otherwise have been treated as prisoners of war were executed, given long prison sentences, exiled and, in our own time, subject to harsh criminalisation regimes leading to prolonged protests, including the 1981 Hunger Strike in which ten republican prisoners died.
If the British government were now to acknowledge that it had in fact fought a war in Ireland the whole foundation of its defence for the occupation of our country would crumble. For this reason it is highly unlikely that any such proposal will be formally made by the Consultative Group, let alone accepted by a British Government.
What can and should be expected is for the British Government to tell the truth about the role of its forces – the British Army, the RUC, the espionage network – and the forces they sustained and colluded with – the unionist paramilitaries. It can and should acknowledge the truth about collusion and about the many murders by British Army and RUC personnel for which no member of the crown forces was ever charged, let alone convicted. In stark contrast many hundreds of IRA volunteers were jailed for their part in the war.
There will never be across-the-board agreement on what happened during the war in Ireland. But what is needed is agreement on acknowledging the role of all combatants, on the need for truth for victims and survivors without any hierarchy, and on the vindication of human rights so that the tragedy of war in Ireland can never recur.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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