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The Evolution of Terrorism 101

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Tony Abbott's approach to terrorism has failed to learn from the lessons of the past — even the recent past in his own birth nation, writes Graham Houghton.

'Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.'

~ Edmund Burke, Irish statesman (1729-1797)

In this open letter to Tony Abbott, I outline the way in which the rise of terrorism in Northern Ireland during the 1960s came about. I also point out the long and simmering history of resentment against English rule in Ireland and the failure of politicians to address the issue with any sense of creativity, or vision — just the iron fist of draconian law with the inevitable consequences. 

What do you really know about terrorism, Mr Abbott?  Here’s a short history lesson for you; one in which you figure. 

You came to Australia with your Geordie father and Australian mother as assisted migrants, aka the Wider White Australia Policy, in 1960.  Some eight years later the country you left entered a 30 year conflict known as The Troubles — a name given to ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland, but which spilled over at various times into mainland UK, the Republic of Ireland and even mainland Europe. 

The origins of this conflict, which continues to simmer below the surface to this day, are long and complex, but can be summed up by stating that one group of people, largely identified as Roman Catholics, felt oppressed and discriminated against by another, largely Protestants. Because of this, The Troubles is often characterised as a conflict of religious beliefs, which is not entirely accurate. It was an historic sectarian conflict arising largely out of the partition of the island of Ireland by the British Parliament in 1920. The self-governing entities of Northern and Southern Ireland were thus created in an attempt to appease Irish nationalists. But because they remained part of the United Kingdom, it didn’t work.

In 1922, Southern Ireland, in an act of Unilateral Declaration of Independence, created the Irish Free State and severed all links with the United Kingdom. As you can imagine, the people of Northern Ireland were left wondering who to turn to. On the one hand, a majority of Catholics believed that they should go with the default position and throw their lot in with the South, the Republicans. On the other, a majority of Protestants argued for breaking with the South and returning to the Crown, the Loyalists. The Loyalist argument prevailed, but the battle lines were drawn and the two communities in Northern Ireland were identified largely by their religious adherences.

Earlier in 1922, unrest and violence over the Irish independence question had reached a pitch where the government of Northern Ireland was forced to introduce The Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act Northern Ireland (more commonly known as The Special Powers Act)As a piece of legislation, it was designed to control violent conflict and it conferred extraordinary powers on the Home Affairs Minister. The Minister was able to make any regulation believed necessary to maintain law and order in Northern Ireland. Breaking these regulations could earn a sentence of up to a year’s hard labour and, in some cases, a whipping. A special court with no jury was enabled to hear cases involving such crimes. The Minister also had the power to forbid inquests on the grounds that they might jeopardise good order and peace. Included in the Act was the power to summarily close licensed premises, to ban meetings and parades in public places, to close public roads and to confiscate any property.

As a piece of anti-terror legislation, it also made unlawful the spreading by any means of

''... reports or... statements intended or likely to cause disaffection to subjects of His Majesty.''

It was a chilling instrument of control, made necessary by ill-informed and probably ill-intentioned political thinking. So where did it lead?  It led directly to The Troubles.

From its Royal Assent and commencement on April the seventh, 1922, it was viewed by the Catholic minority as a power play by the Protestant majority.  It may not have been intended to give the Protestant community any advantages, but it certainly ended up doing so. In the years immediately leading up to The Troubles, the Catholic community was demanding an end to discrimination in jobs and public housing; the introduction of universal adult suffrage and an end to blatant gerrymandering.  They were also appealing especially for an end to The Special Powers Act.

A peaceful civil rights campaign to bring about these changes began in 1964. Many marches and protests took place with relatively few problems until March 1966 when a small group of former Irish Republican Army (IRA) members blew-up Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin. This led directly to the belief within the Protestant community in Northern Ireland that the IRA was about to reform and renew a violent campaign for independence there. 

Under the leadership of a firebrand cleric, Dr Ian Paisley, the loyalist community started to organise themselves into militias, the most prominent at that time being the paramilitary Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV), thus cementing the religious element of the divisions. Very shortly afterwards, a militant protestant group calling itself the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was gathered together by a former British soldier named Gusty Spence. One of the most fruitful recruiting grounds for the UVF was the UPV. They initiated a firebombing campaign against Catholic-owned businesses and against Catholic schools and homes. They declared war against the IRA and its supporters on May 21st and began the shooting war on May 27th.

It is believed that The Troubles left more than 3,500 people dead among 50,000+ total casualties. Of the dead, 1,840 were innocent civilians. Outside of Northern Ireland, more than 116 people died in the Republic of Ireland, 125+ died in mainland Britain and 18+ died in mainland Europe. In the year that you left Oxford with your MA, Mr Abbott, 84 human beings died in that conflict. Were you aware of that? That is what terrorism really looks like.

So before you start talking up the threat of terrorism here, just remember how it felt back in the UK in the early 80s. We were not subject to draconian legislation to "keep us safe". We were not afraid to walk out of our doors and go about our daily business without peering around every corner looking for an IRA bomber. We were sensibly vigilant when and where it was necessary, which was essentially in the centre of the largest cities. We were not subject to the rants of shrill politicians trying to scare the pants off us with a largely invented threat. We took our children to parks, to the beaches, to carnivals, to theatres, museums and art galleries and, for the vast majority of us, nothing ever happened except a truly enjoyable family day out together.

It is your job to govern this country for the good of all, not to protect us, because you can’t. The sad fact is that no one is ever completely safe when there is someone determined to do harm. The murder in 1979 of prominent conservative politician Airey Neave by a car bomb outside the Houses of Parliament in London is proof of that. But it should not mean that we need to give up our freedoms.

And it is simply not good enough to play the "just in case" card as a battering ram for unnecessary and possibly divisive legislation. From what I’ve outlined above, you can see where that will lead.

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