Taking politics out of the gun

Today's protests against arms and the arms trade are shot through with childish naivety - and more than a smattering of chauvinism

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Guns have been big news this week. First the Irish Republican Army ditched theirs, putting a reported 650 Kalashnikovs, 50 heavy machine guns, 40 rocket launchers, six flame throwers, one surface-to-air missile, three tonnes of Semtex and various other weaponry ‘beyond use permanently’. News reporters described it in breathless tones as an ‘historic day’. One of the priests selected by the IRA to witness the historic moment said: ‘There was silence. We were taking the gun out of Irish politics.’ (1)

On the same day, it was reported that UK prime minister Tony Blair recently held talks with Saudi officials to firm up an arms deal worth £40billion. Britain is hoping to sell military equipment to the Saudis, including some of BAE Systems’ state-of-the-art Typhoon fighter planes (2). Some commentators grumbled that, just as Britain had helped to take the gun out of Irish politics, it was putting more guns into Middle Eastern politics. One described BAE Systems as ‘merchants of death’ and said it should change the slogan on its stall at this week’s Labour Party conference from ‘Adding advantage to the UK Skills Base’ (which, admittedly, is rather bizarre) to ‘Adding to Middle Eastern arsenals and making a mint’ (3).

Meanwhile, Nicholas Cage is enjoying box-office success in the USA playing an illegal arms dealer in Lord of War. His character sells all sorts of guns to every tinpot dictator or guerrilla outfit that wants them, saying: ‘There are over 550million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is: how do we arm the other 11?’ One film critic says the movie reveals a ‘basic truth: we Americans are the biggest arms dealer of all’ (4).

Why this obsession with weapons? From the IRA’s disarmament, to the response to Blair’s Saudi deal, to the handwringing about the West arming wicked states, these are not debates about politics or international relations, or attempts to explain why some states (like Saudi Arabia) use extreme force against their citizens and other states (like those mysterious African ones depicted in Lord of War) end up clashing with neighbouring states or non-state forces. Rather, they are discussions about things: about aeroplanes, guns, rocket launchers and bullets, as if such inanimate objects were an evil force, the cause of conflict. This points to a spectacular naivety about politics and war. The popular obsession with arms and arms trading festishises weapons, elevating The Gun to centre stage, while denigrating the human: the politics, passions and problems that can lead to armed conflict.

Consider the yelps of joy (from everyone except Ian Paisley) that greeted news of the IRA’s disarmament. The clichéd response was to say that ‘the IRA has finally taken the gun out of Irish politics’ (5). One report claimed that it was the fact that the IRA remained heavily armed over the past 10 years, during what was supposed to be a peace process, which ‘perhaps more than anything else…prevented peace’ (6). Anyone would think that it was the mere existence of IRA weapons that started the war in Northern Ireland and kept it going for 25 years (from 1969 to 1994). This overlooks one small fact: the IRA had virtually no weapons when the conflict began.

The IRA split in late December 1969, when its Dublin-based leaders refused to send weapons to aid beleaguered nationalist communities in Northern Ireland, which was fast descending into violent conflict between Catholics and allied Unionist and British forces. The Official IRA stayed in Dublin, while the Provisional IRA, with a new leadership in Belfast, set about acquiring weapons (even relying, at one stage, on officials in the Dublin government to smuggle handguns north of the border). So the Provisional IRA didn’t even come into existence, much less start arming itself, until a year-and-a-half after the violent clashes over Catholic civil rights in 1968 and four months after the British Army was deployed in August 1969. The Provos first shot and killed a British soldier in February 1971, a full 18 months after the British Army’s arrival.

Today’s focus on numbers and types of IRA weapons, with those scary photos of IRA arms caches that apparently did so much to ‘prevent peace’, overlooks the fact that some of the fiercest clashes in Northern Ireland – such as the three-day Battle of the Bogside in Derry in August 1969 – involved stones and petrol bombs, not Kalashnikovs smuggled from overseas. Even the Provisional IRA itself remained as reliant on homemade devices as it did on traditional weaponry. It used ‘coffee-jar bombs’ against the RUC and British soldiers; in one of its most audacious attacks, when in 1991 it launched mortars at 10 Downing Street while then prime minister John Major was holding a Cabinet meeting to discuss the Gulf War, the mortars were fired from specially reconstructed drain pipes from the back of a van parked on Whitehall.

And for all the claims about Libya and other dodgy foreign elements arming the Provisional IRA to the teeth in the 1980s, in fact the list of its arms – as obsessed over in newspapers following the news of disarmament – looked remarkably small. Apparently the IRA had 650 Kalashnikovs, which is not that much, when you consider that at one point there were 32,000 British security forces, all of whom were armed, in Northern Ireland.

It is bizarre to claim either that it was the IRA who put the gun into Irish politics or that it was the existence of guns that kept peace at bay. There was violent conflict in Northern Ireland before there were IRA guns, and that conflict often involved unarmed citizens throwing whatever they could get their hands on at RUC officers or British soldiers. It was politics that drove the conflict, and arms were only acquired as part of that political clash. To reduce the Troubles to a question of guns, semtex and mortars – and to claim that it was a great groundbreaking moment when those guns, semtex and mortars were put beyond use – is to depict the conflict as some kind of macho outburst, where all that was required was to remove the toys from the boys. It rewrites a clash between a group of people with political aspirations and state forces with very different aspirations as a problem of there being too many guns lying around for idle hands.

A similar super-reductive approach to war informs today’s anti-arms trade movement. They, too, focus myopically on weapons – and often on certain kinds of weapons that they find particularly offensive. So they responded to the news that Blair had struck a multi-billion pound arms deal with the Saudis by describing, in great detail, what exactly a Typhoon fighter plane can do (in a nutshell: a lot of damage), and by asking whether it is responsible to arm anti-democratic and illiberal states such as Saudi Arabia. This highlights two grating things about the anti-arms trade camp: it also fetishises weaponry, and it implicitly accepts that Britain has the moral right – no, responsibility – to decide which regimes can have guns and which cannot.

Of course, Britain and other Western powers have a murky history of arming those they considered friendly states, while trying to cut off arms to their foes. And as part of that process the West armed states with dire human rights records – including, recently, China and, of course, Saudi Arabia. Their overriding concern during the Cold War era in particular was not whether the guns would be used by dictators against civilians, but whether said dictator was ‘our bastard’ or ‘their bastard’ – and if he was ours, then he could have all the guns he needed. Such intervention and arms trading often prolonged conflicts and had disastrous consequences for people in the third world.

Yet today’s campaigns against the arms trade are less about holding the West to account and challenging its interventions abroad than they are concerned with encouraging the West to act more responsibly in international affairs in order to keep those trigger-happy types in the third world in their place. So the British-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which has been around since 1974, says it wants ‘to end all international arms sales’, yet it ‘focuses’ in particular on ‘exports to oppressive regimes and developing countries’ (7). It encourages people in Britain to write letters to their MPs requesting that Britain stop sending weapons to such regimes. Comedian Mark Thomas, who has made opposing arms trading his big thing, once said that Britain has helped to arm just about every ‘crazy fucker’ in the third world. The campaigners’ demand is clear: Western governments should behave more cautiously and avoid arming and antagonising those fuckers in the developing world.

These campaigners focus on certain kinds of weapons. So when Thomas protested at the big Defence Systems and Equipment International arms fair in London earlier this month, he was especially drawn to ‘stall 704’ run by an Israeli company called TAR Ideal Concepts Ltd (8). That stall was offering stun guns, stun batons and leg-irons for sale to governments and police forces. Why was Thomas more disgusted by these items (which are not even used to kill) than he was by other stalls selling machine guns or rocket launchers and the like? Firstly, he explained, because stun devices are ‘banned in the UK’, and secondly, probably, because such torture devices tend to be used in those crazy developing countries and were being sold by those nasty Israelis. Here, Britain is cast as the good guy for banning such wicked weapons, while the bad guys are the foreigners who make and use them.

The peace movement has long festishised weapons – at the expense of offering a serious political challenge to Western wars of intervention. So from the late 1950s to today, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has obsessed over nuclear weapons, in a time when there have been no nuclear wars but plenty of ‘ordinary’ wars to get agitated about. During the conflict in Northern Ireland, the Labour-left Troops Out Movement campaigned against British forces’ use of plastic bullets in riot control – though why they should find these devices, aimed at incapacitating individuals, any more objectionable than live bullets is anybody’s guess. Princess Diana made landmines the big issue of the 1990s and led the campaign for a ban – as if removing that one weapon from warzones would make everything hunky dory.

Such anti-weapons campaigning was always more moral than it was political; it was about expressing individual revulsion with certain kinds of guns or bombs or torture devices, rather than mounting a political opposition to the ends and aims that such weapons were used for. As a result, this middle-class moralistic campaigning was largely ineffective. In fact, it was worse than that: by accepting that the West has a moral responsibility to control arms trading, ban certain weapons and keep guns away from crazy people in the third world, the weapon fetishists ended up boosting the moral authority of the best armed nations in the world to tell some of the weakest states on Earth how to conduct their military affairs.

So just last week, UK foreign secretary Jack Straw lectured Iran over its ‘nuclear ambitions’ and earlier this year he brought in new arms controls to restrict the flow of guns to war-torn developing nations. That is where pacifist weapon festishism gets us: to a situation where even dozy Straw can lecture the third world.

Read on:

Jack Straw’s global gun law, by Josie Appleton

(1) ‘There was silence. We were taking the gun out of Irish politics’, Lucy Bannerman, Herald (Glasgow), 27 September 2005

(2) Britain ‘agreed in secret’ to expel Saudis during £40bn arms talks, Ewen MacAskill and Rob Evans, Guardian, 28 September 2005

(3) Diary, Giles Foden, Guardian, 28 September 2005

(4) ‘Lords of war’ takes over the screen, Cate Marquis, College Publisher, 26 September 2005

(5) ‘There was silence. We were taking the gun out of Irish politics’, Lucy Bannerman, Herald (Glasgow), 27 September 2005

(6) The IRA and us, Jerusalem Post, 28 September 2005

(7) See the Campaign Against the Arms Trade website

(8) ‘Selling torture in London’s Docklands’, Mark Thomas, New Statesman, 26 September 2005

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Topics Politics


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