Dr Thomas Leahy is a lecturer in British and Irish Politics and Contemporary History at Cardiff University, and the author of The Intelligence War Against the IRA, a carefully sourced study reiterating the view among mainstream historians and analysts that the primary roots of the Irish-British peace process, and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, lay in the prolonged military stalemate that characterised the latter half of the so-called Troubles in the north of Ireland.
In particular, many scholars argue that the slow road to peace – or an absence of war – began with the halting acceptance by the United Kingdom that it could not inflict a decisive military or political defeat on the Republican Movement. Or even, as the second-best option, contain the armed insurrection at an acceptable level of attrition, safeguarding the UK from serious attacks, while creating the space for some form of internal settlement advantageous to the United Kingdom and those loyal to it – the unionist community. This gradual shift in thinking, the questioning of military victory or containment as achievable objectives, eventually led to renewed back-channel talks with the leadership of the insurgency in the late 1980s and early ’90s under the premiership of Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher MP.
While initially pursued in private, the UK’s suing for peace, as it were, was eventually accompanied by a series of public statements and overtures from serving or retired British officials. Notable among these early moves was the admission during a BBC television documentary in February 1988 by Sir James M. Glover, former Commander-in-Chief of the UK Land Forces, that the Irish Republican Army could not be defeated; a view quite at odds with London’s then decades-old line on the conflict. In a similar vein was the acceptance in December 1989 by Peter Brooke MP, the British government’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that a military defeat of the IRA would be “hard to envisage”. This admission to the Press Association caused outrage in Britain, but in hindsight it clearly served a dual purpose of indicating to the IRA that London was ready to limit its war aims, a policy change already covertly passed through deniable interlocutors, and to accustom the British media and general public to what was to come.
On the others side, many strategic thinkers in the Republican Movement were now likewise seeking a way out from what was becoming a generational conflict, questioning the efficacy of armed struggle without end, and tentatively exploring the potential of Sinn Féin to deliver war by other means. By putting votes before guns, and by using the latter to wring out concessions and advantages for the former, they hoped to establish an electoral (and legal, social and cultural) environment in which Britain would be voluntarily or otherwise sidelined. Thus giving the Republican Movement the political space it needed in order to achieve its core aim: a reunited Ireland (regardless of its ideological character). Which, somewhat ironically, mirrored the soon to be abandoned British policy of neutralizing the power or influence of the Republican Movement to achieve a political solution favourable to Britain and its local allies.
Of course, in recent years this account of the end of the Long War, a record formally acknowledged by the principal Irish and British contributors to the peace process of the 1990s and early 2000s, has been challenged by a number of right-wing and nationalist writers in Britain. Instead of a military impasse that led to a series of complex and painful compromises by all sides, these commentators have argued for a simplistic morality tale: a heroic romance in which the ingrained intelligence and steadfastness of the Anglo-Saxon overcame the native cunning and guile of the Celt.
In this fan fiction version of UK history, where British super-spies and hi-tech wizardry exploited the treacherous and avaricious nature of the Irish, a great victory was lost to a petty peace imposed by squeamish or gullible politicians and bureaucrats from London. (Though, interestingly, in some recent versions of the story, the formerly loathed and decried Good Friday Agreement has been rebranded as the ultimate symbol of surrender and humiliation for the IRA – and one that Brexit Britain may now safely cast aside, its purpose served).
The main perpetrator of these revisionist tales has been the cadre of writers and journalists associated with the notorious Policy Exchange, the think tank in London that has provided some degree of scholarly respectability to those forces in British society that a confidant of the former UK premier David Cameroon famously described as “mad, swivel-eyed loons”. Since 2005, the ultra conservative lobby group has published or publicized countless articles and books arguing for a factually barren interpretation of the Stormont peace accords of 1998, while just as often attacking the peace process itself. It is a campaign of misinformation that has continued to the present day, with the hardline body maintaining its barely concealed colonial view of Ireland through its visceral hatred of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the United Kingdom’s trade treaties with the European Union.
In the YouTube lectures below, Dr Leahy presents the case for accepting the mainstream interpretation of how the 1966-2005 Troubles came to an end, using primary sources and accounts by key figures, while presenting new facts to support the contemporary record. He deconstructs the allegations offered by the amateur historians of the neo-right in Britain, pointing towards the years of secret negotiations between the Republican Movement and successive UK governments. In his belief, the Good Friday Agreement represents the victory of politics over violence, not violence over violence.
It is no surprise that his book has been largely ignored by the political or media classes in London, since its central message of jaw-jaw not war-war does not align with the nostalgic jingoism of Brexit Britain. Instead they have publicised and eulogised the dangerous fantasy histories of armchair generals – and those who served and failed in the Troubles – and who now downplay the threat or seriousness of a Troubles 2.0 as they advocate for a Partition 2.0 through the perpetual Long War that characterises Brexit.