Should Americans Support IRA Disarmament?

"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

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