Northern Ireland shows what a miracle MLK achieved

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As the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington is used to remember America’s Civil Rights movement, we should also recall the United Kingdom’s own Civil Rights movement.

1968 is famed as the year that across Europe, young people rose up against the prevailing orders. While these rebellions generally faded, in Northern Ireland they were to have a more lasting – and horrifying – impact. Young Catholics looked across the Atlantic to the victories won by Dr King’s campaign of non-violent resistance. They adopted these tactics for their own battle against those rules which excluded Northern Irish Catholics from housing, jobs and political power.

However, this peaceful movement was soon side-lined by a wave of violence.  Moderate figures like John Hume increasingly lost the initiative to Sinn Fein and the IRA, and never really regained it. The peace process ultimately wound up being a reconciliation between the sectarian extremists that largely excluded moderates.

The Troubles that erupted across little Ulster claimed three and a half thousand lives. What would have happened had the ‘American Troubles’ or even the ‘Dixie Troubles’ does not bear thinking about. MLK gave America a great gift by ending segregation but perhaps an even greater gift was doing so mostly peacefully.

Fiddling While Damascus Burns

It is the final brutal irony of the Iraq war: that futile hunt for phantom WMDs has paved the way for Assad to commit his WMD massacres. It seems we learn from history but only from the last piece of history: the folly of Iraq has wiped from our collective memories the lessons of Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. Our horror of another ‘Iraq like’ war has meant we’ve allowed the brutal war in Syria to continue along its bloody course.

Looking at the conflict now, we can see that the fears of those opposed to intervention have come to pass but have done so due to our absence rather than our involvement. We heard so many wise voices warning that arming the rebels would mean arming Jihadis. Well, the Jihadis were armed by the Gulf States, while our arms embargo blocked assistance from reaching moderate forces. Those same sage minds feared that our involvement would spread the conflict to Syria’s neighbours. Well, allowing the fighting to continue has pushed destabilising numbers of refugees out across the region and reignited tensions in Lebanon.  And those cool heads who feared we would ‘escalate’ the situation have convinced Assad of our impotence, thus emboldening him to ‘escalate’ to using chemical weapons.

These are errors we’ve made before. When Yugoslavia collapsed our arms embargo simply gave those who already had weapons free reign to murder, rape and dispossess those who did not. We also dithered for too long worrying about whether the Russians would give us permission to stop its allies’ atrocities. And we held back for fear of igniting a cauldron of ethnic hatred that was already ablaze. Then after years of hesitation during which tens of thousands of preventable deaths occurred, an atrocity of such horror came along that we intervened anyway.

Those advocating diplomacy instead of military action are right in principle but wrong in practice. They often speak as if this is some novel strategy rather than the one we have been pursuing since the start with measly positive results.

While I do think Assad – and other despots with chemical weapons – should be shown that there is a price to gassing civilians, we should go further. Those who cautioned inaction, now caution against engaging in regime change. Yet that is precisely what we should do: use a combination of air power and arming friendly rebel groups to push Assad from power. That is the genuinely ‘anti-war’ stance, the one that ends Assad’s campaign against his own people.

The experience of Iraq – and numerous other disastrous conflicts – should make us sceptical about military action. But it is no excuse for a knowing cynicism that counsels despair in the face of atrocities. Having allowed so many Syrians to die already, we owe it to that nation to do what we can to halt the slaughter, whether it is committed with sarin or otherwise.