Should Americans Support IRA Disarmament?

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"If
every person has the right to defend – even by force
– his
person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group
of men have the right to organize…a common force to protect these
rights."

~
Frederic Bastiat, The
Law
(1850)

In
July 1997, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared a unequivocal
cease-fire as a precondition to being represented in multi-party
negotiations on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. After
months of delay, Sinn Fein, the so-called "political wing"
of the IRA, joined talks in Belfast's Stormont Castle. The resulting
Good Friday Agreement created a new executive and general assembly
to govern the battered province as a devolved jurisdiction of the
United Kingdom, with guaranteed seats on the executive cabinet in
deference to the Catholic nationalist parties. Peaceful co-existence
between the pro-Irish Catholic minority and the pro-British Protestant
majority in Ulster was finally a possibility.

Unfortunately,
it might just be the old-fashioned British love affair with gun
control that brings it all to an end.

Though
the IRA's cease-fire is still being observed and the four-party
executive is governing with relative success, the problem is disarmament.
Since the new government was formed both First Minister David Trimble
and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have been pressuring the IRA
to disarm in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement. The IRA
has balked time and again on this issue, showing great resistance
to turning over its weaponry. Now, Mr. Trimble has threatened to
dissolve the government and return Northern Ireland to direct British
control if decommissioning has not begun by January 18, 2003. Such
a move could well mean a collapse of the Agreement and a return
to the internecine warfare of the past.

Many
Irish republicans are understandably hesitant to part with their
guns. The social unrest produced by Northern Ireland's civil rights
struggle saw hundreds of Catholics driven from their homes in the
late 1960s, causing what at that time was the largest mass emigration
since World War II. The crisis grew to such ferocity that the Irish
Army was mobilized to set up field hospitals and refugee centers
south of the border; there was talk (though everyone knew it was
just talk) of an invasion of the north to protect Catholics from
a virtual genocide. In these early days of "The Troubles"
it was the IRA that defended homes and communities against violent
Protestant gangs and rampaging policemen. Eventually the British
Army was called in to halt the violence, but in the absence of protection
it was lone "Volunteers" standing in churchyards and on
street corners that stopped advancing rioters bent on burning down
houses and murdering Catholics – and they stopped them with
guns.

After
days-long riots and attacks against their neighborhoods in 1968
and 1969, the IRA established "Free Derry" in Londonderry,
Northern Ireland's second largest city, and other such "no-go
zones" in Belfast. These areas would remain "free"
of mobs, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the provincial police force),
and even the British Army1 until the
summer of 1972, when the military occupied the Catholic districts
by force with tanks, helicopters, and massive numbers of troops.
Until that time, men with guns manned checkpoints and watched
over these harried communities.

The
IRA has been responsible for gruesome and unforgivable attacks in
Britain and Ireland; it is practically a model for underground armies
around the globe. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that
the IRA, after essentially disappearing as a political and military
force around 1960, re-emerged in 1969 as a defender of the Catholic
population, not as an offensive military organization. Its members
were welcomed as heroes in the neighborhoods they protected.

The
existence of armed, private groups is hardly unique to Northern
Ireland. They also play a major role in the cultural development
of our own country. In the early days of the American Revolution
private militias formed in defiance of the English Crown to deter
the British Army from encroaching on the rights of colonists. Obviously,
they too took this duty quite seriously. In April 1775, militiamen
in Concord, Massachusetts, fired on a British regiment that had
been sent into the countryside to confiscate suspected stores of
weapons and other military supplies (the people of Boston had already
been disarmed). Routing the soldiers all the way back to Boston,
a private army of approximately ten thousand men besieged the city.
This was the "shot heard ’round the world."

The
first American statesmen were so enamored by the value of an armed
citizenry that Amendment II of the newly-ratified Bill of Rights
enshrined forever the notion of private self-defense. Tench Coxe,
a friend of James Madison, wrote that "every…terrible implement
of the soldier [is] the birth-right of an American… [T]he unlimited
power of the sword is…in the hands of the people."

In
later years American blacks would avail themselves of the right
to keep and bear arms in response to racially motivated attacks
by a discontented white majority. In the early nineteenth century
there existed between the two groups considerable tension over economic
competition, which often exploded into outright hostilities. At
least seventeen dwellings occupied by blacks were destroyed over
a period of four days during the Providence Snowtown Riot of 1831.
In July 1834 mobs attacked churches, homes and businesses of white
abolitionists and blacks in New York, and a Boston mob of several
hundred attacked and beat every black person in reach in August
of 1843. These are just a few examples of the violence some northern
black neighborhoods were repeatedly forced to endure at the hands
of angry white mobs.

The
state's failure to adequately provide for the defense and security
of black neighborhoods inspired some free blacks to arm themselves
and form private militias. In Providence, Rhode Island, the African
Greys were formed in 1821, and an attempt was made by black Bostonians
to introduce a private militia company in the 1850s. Though not
an organized militia group, blacks in a Pittsburgh community nonetheless
acted as part of a larger interracial peacekeeping force to stop
a riot. Fearing mob violence, a black militia guarded around 100
black inmates for two or three nights in Memphis, Tennessee, in
1891, and only after the armed blacks felt the danger had
passed and left the area did the mob come and lynch three prisoners.

During
our own volatile civil rights era it was the Black Panther Party
that rallied around the Second Amendment and revived a spirit of
resistance in northern black communities, encouraging defensive
action against police abuse. In the South, black militias and ad-hoc
associations (National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice's father
belonged to one of them) sprang up to protect members of the NAACP
and CORE, as well as their own neighborhoods, from state and private
violence in the 1960s.

In
light of society's indifference to and participation in the persecution
of blacks, it is clear that black people were more than willing
to defend themselves – and they did it with guns.

History
is replete with examples of peoples' defenselessness without personal
protection. Time and again the presence of firearms has served to
keep "the weak" from becoming "a prey to the strong"
and, if necessary, force has been met with defensive force.

Irish
nationalists, too, are a part of that history, and a new constitutional
government sitting at Stormont Castle outside of Belfast does not
assure an end to the bloodshed that has so stained Northern Ireland's
eighty years of existence. Far too many Catholics in Ulster have
seen the result of relying for their safety on a majority that hates
them. The pogroms of the 1960s and the later brutality of the British
Army is still fresh in their minds. Thus the old Belfast slogan,
"God made the Catholics, the Armalite made them equal."

Still,
the IRA and other armed groups did receive fair representation in
negotiations and should be expected to seek all future political
change through peaceful means. Demanding that antagonists conduct
themselves in a non-violent manner when differences arise is the
backbone of any civilized society. Northern Ireland's highly-democratic
electoral process, including proportional representation in the
Assembly for all parties, provides adequate means to settle political
disagreements in congress and not looking down the barrel of a gun.

This
is, however, an altogether separate matter from demanding that the
minority of British-controlled Ireland (or anyone else) succumb
to the anti-gun zealotry that has infected England, Scotland, and
Wales. If the IRA or other paramilitary organizations in Northern
Ireland refuse to surrender their arms while maintaining a firm
commitment to the democratic institutions they've agreed to respect,
then they have perpetrated no wrongdoing. It is possible to act
peacefully without offering oneself up for potential sacrifice.
While we condemn the use of terrorism as a political instrument,
Americans should not endorse the disarming of Northern Ireland's
minority population; nor should the people there feel morally bound
to surrender their best means of defense.

The
"People" described in America's founding documents, from
the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, Federalist
Papers, and Bill of Rights, were the people of the world. The rights
espoused were the Rights of Man. Ironically, it was the great English
jurist William Blackstone who spoke of the "right of the subjects…of
having arms for their defense" as "the natural right of
resistance and self-preservation." As long as the IRA cease-fire
holds, the British government should stop trying to export its gun
control agenda across the Irish Sea. For our part, Americans should
wish to see no one impotent in the face of possible aggression –
it is totally contrary to our heritage. Let us support the right
to keep and bear arms in Northern Ireland.

1On
Sunday, January 30, 1972, soldiers of an elite British paratrooper
regiment went berserk on the streets of Londonderry, firing on a
crowd of civil rights demonstrators. After a twenty minute shooting
spree, thirteen people lay dead and eighteen were wounded (one of
the wounded would later die). The event came to be known as “Bloody
Sunday.”

October
11, 2002

Scott
McPherson [send him mail]
is a freelance writer in Fairfax, Virginia. He is married to a British
citizen and resided in Bristol, England, for two years. During his
stay in the United Kingdom the IRA ended its then-unprecedented
18-month cease-fire in February 1996 with a massive truck bomb in
London, followed just four months later by a similar bombing of
Manchester. His travels have taken him through Northern Ireland
on just one occasion, during the brief Easter Cease-fire of 1994.

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