State: The Truth

I mentioned yesterday that there had been little talk to date of what the implications would be for the British state to classify the ‘Troubles’ as a war, in particular what this might mean for consideration of the British state’s own actions.


Then, via Slugger O’Toole, comes a Dean Godson comment piece in which the following is observed.

The latest leak to emerge from this body is the dotty noion that it might ask the Government to admit that the British State was engaged in fighting a “war” against the IRA for more than 30 years. The Troubles were, of course, never a “war” – unless you subscribe to the Provisionals’ preposterous conceit that they are the legitimate government of the Republic.


There is good reason for the government not to admit that the British state was engaged in fighting a war. It does not seem controversial to point out that the British state had agents operating within paramilitary organisations, torturing and in some cases murdering people. As I noted yesterday, if paramilitaries could be accused of committing war crimes, then –and we are leaving to one side the often brutal actions of soldiers in uniform- the same accusation could be levelled against the British state.


Dean Godson provides the main objection to this notion:


The British State sought to prevent the violent overthrow of the legitimate constitutional order. A minority within the minority nationalist community sought to coerce the Province’s pro-British majority, and successive governments sought to contain them. If the British State had really been fighting a “war”, few of the Sinn Fein/IRA godfathers would have survived to tell the tale.


The source of the ‘legitimate constitutional order’ to which Godson is referring is the state itself. The state establishes itself as a necessary condition of everyday life, and as such has no need to justify its existence. It need only take the required actions to ensure it endures. In the Northern Ireland situation, there was no need for it to shell nationalist areas with tanks, since this would have rendered obvious the fact that, at root, the state had no legitimacy except that which it accorded itself through the threat of force, i.e. none really. For the state to endure, it merely needed people to consent to the idea of its legitimacy, and then tailor its actions accordingly.


What you had in the Northern Ireland situation was a sector of the population who were conscious of the fact that they were forced to obey the state, and accept the conditions it provided. The state imposed itself on them against their conscious will, and the consequences were subversion, insubordination, protest, violent insurgency and so on.


There is a temptation to make a case that nationalists should have been more accepting, compliant, and so on, in face of these impositions which, as it turned out, were not as bad as those obtaining in other places. But this case seems to require, at some level, recognition of the legitimacy of the state, the source of which, as pointed out earlier, is the state itself. To say this is not to provide justification for the IRA deciding to blow people’s heads off, but to point towards a more complex set of affairs than observations such as ‘the lion’s share of the atrocities was committed by terrorists’ suggest.


An alternative approach would be to argue that since the majority of people wanted Northern Ireland to exist as constituted, the minority ought to have submitted to the will of the majority, and any unlawful deviation deserved to be punished. For this approach to work, one must accept a priori the legitimacy of the state as constituted, in terms of its geographical limits, the institutions it authorizes, the functions it performs. I can no longer see how this approach will do.


If what I am saying above is correct, then there are implications for the workings of the Consultative Group on The Past. People want to find out about the events that destroyed their lives, but the group appears unable to operate effectively without the co-operation of the state, which means that its outcomes are in essence precluded by the exigencies of state. Given that it was set up by the government, this should not be at all surprising.


There appears to be some expectation that the state will, to some degree, ‘come clean’ about the nature of its past deeds. Yet this is unrealistic, since it will only do so to the extent that its legitimacy is not questioned. At any rate, the answers the Consultative Group will come up with will be in terms of what the state can do to make things better. There are better ways of doing things.

3 Responses to “State: The Truth”

  1. 1 copernicus January 15, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    As one of the posts I haven’t written, I was going to discuss the language which continues to appear in “metropolitan” journalism in such unselfconscious, unreflecting constructions as “Irish terrorism” and “the Irish problem”.

    The principle at stake is civitas sibi princeps, which is the basis of the modern constitutional and international order. The people are the prince in their own state. That is sovereignty is derived from and authority legitimised by the consensus of the citizenry as a band.

    But language like the above which is used reflexively by British commentators demonstrates a lack of commitment to this construction of authority and legitimacy is in a secular state.

    The “Irish” element of the “people” is distinguished; the problem they cause is external to the State. They cannot then be claimed as part of the people. If they are not part of the “people”, then they are not part of the consensus which confers legitimacy on the State. If they are not part of the consensus conferring legitimacy, the State has no authority over them.

    If the State has no authority over them, but seeks to impose its will on them nevertheless, it is inevitable and indeed legitimate that subversion, insubordination, protest, violent insurgency will follow.

    But instead of saying, look, “we’re not exactly a secular, democratic metropolis here so those arguments go out the window (fair enough)”, the London commentator seeks to derive legitimate authority over a stated other by reference to a circumscribed consensus and authority which only can only logically extend to the people subscribing and admitted to it.

    Of course, for the British, the metropolis is Washington and the attitude from that quarter towards the source of authority in Britain is pretty similar to that outlined above.

    This effects of this latter state of affairs are not lost on the Spectator, Telegraph and Financial Times in which the language I’ve complained of regularly appears. But because the “Establishment” (for want of a better term) has been unwilling to articulate and accept the sources and limits of British sovereignty, their commentators have been left without a linguistic or constitutional armoury with which to resist the encroachment of Washington on British sovereignty.

    (viz articles on those guys who were extradited to the US on fraud charges, the Basra deployment and Afghanistan)

  2. 2 copernicus January 15, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    The above most assuredly does not represent an endorsement of IRA, State, or other terrorism.

  3. 3 Hugh Green January 15, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    If the State has no authority over them, but seeks to impose its will on them nevertheless, it is inevitable and indeed legitimate that subversion, insubordination, protest, violent insurgency will follow.

    Not only is this not an endorsement of IRA, State or other terrorism, it’s really quite uncontroversial, as in:

    whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

    But sadly one feels obliged to spell it out nonetheless, in order to avoid the accusation of legitimating terrorist acts.

    As for the journalistic language, I think it’s broadly the case that journalists will write within a framework delimited by state interests and its associated categories. The ‘Irish’ question, or indeed the ‘Muslim’ question, as generally represented in the press, seem to me to replicate the administrative approach of the state to such matters. So there is, I think, more than an element of fact to this sort of language, insofar as it accurately represents real state priorities. It is also my suspicion that ‘Establishment’ discourse tends to curve back in on itself.

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