“Paramilitarism: Mass Violence in the Shadow of the State” by Uĝur Ümit Üngör (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020). Reviewed by Chris Stanley.
The genesis for this book was an analysis of Assad of Syria’s unleashing of militias to repress an uprising against his regime in 2011. Upon reflection the author realised that that violent episode deserved a monograph in its own right. But the Syrian episode provides a prism through which Uĝur Ümit Üngör compellingly considers paramilitarism, violence and the state. He uses the metaphor of the solar eclipse to reveal the dark heat of the relationship between state and paramilitarism (page 186).
Üngör opens with the recent and continuing Syrian ‘experience’ of violent conflict reliant upon the paramilitary militias. Episodes of insurgency and counter-insurgency can be painfully drawn out over years, as those in Northern Ireland are all too sadly aware. And this aspect of paramilitarism is possibly more important than Üngör realises.
Today in Northern Ireland there continue to be the entrails of violent paramilitary activity by Republican dissidents set against the peace process. This activity relies upon political and economic disenfranchisement largely among the young and led to the murder in 2019 of the journalist Lyra McKee in Derry. But the structure and activities of these Republican dissients paramilitary groups are vastly different to those of the PIRA and INLA at the height of the Conflict.
Also today in Northern Ireland the remnants of Loyalist paramilitary exists in the form of low-level violent gangsterism and criminality. Üngör has a sound understanding of the relationship between paramilitarism and criminality.
The shadow of paramilitarism still looms as a presence in Northern Ireland; its force still to be understood through the continued contested out-workings of the Legacy of the Conflict and the relations between the British state and Loyalist and Republican paramilitarism through the policies and practices of collusion, most recently explored by Mark McGovern in ‘Counterinsurgency and Colllusion in Northern Ireland’ (London: Pluto Press, 2019).
But what is paramilitarism? Üngör conceptualizes it as “a system in which a state has a relationship with irregular armed organisations that carry out violence.
But what is paramilitarism? Üngör conceptualizes it as “a system in which a state has a relationship with irregular armed organisations that carry out violence. These armed groups have different forms and types of relationship with the state, but nevertheless are linked to it” (page 7).
By having a link to the state these organisations achieve a quasi-legitimacy (even if for many it is deniable) – unlike militias.
By having a link to the state these organisations achieve a quasi-legitimacy (even if for many it is deniable). There is both a dynamic and a relational proximity between paramilitary groups and the state (page 8) which sets them aside from militias which might have a more dominant role in a failing state or a state which is ceasing to exist or coming into existence. Hence the importance of the organic nature of this relationship.
PIRA was terrorist because it was anti-state (despite collusion between it and aspects of the British security forces, characterised by the role of PIRA-informer Freddie Scappaticci aka Stakeknife) whilst the UDA/UVF/UFF grouping was paramilitary because of direct links between elements within the UDR and the RUC
In a counter-insurgency situation such as the Conflict in Northern Ireland, the PIRA was terrorist because it was anti-state (despite collusion between it and aspects of the Britsih security forces, characterised by the role of PIRA-informer Freddie Scappaticci aka Stakeknife) whilst the UDA/UVF/UFF grouping was paramilitary because of direct links between elements within the UDR and the RUC, the latter providing intelligence, personnel and equipment – most notoriously in the Dublin-Monagham Bombings in 1974 which former British Army Military Intelligence Officer (MIO) Fred Holroyd described as the closest point Britain came to invading Ireland in the post-war period.
The UDA was more than tolerated by the British state; it was indeed relied upon because it was outside a legitimate (and therefore accountable-deniable) structure
The UDA was more than tolerated by the British state; it was indeed relied upon because it was outside a legitimate (and therefore accountable-deniable) structure (page 11). The UDA was manageable for a period but as with similar organisations described by Üngör (page 15) its value to the state was determined by political-security need and with the Good Friday Peace Agreement 1998 its work for the state was done. Thus it fragmented into its present form of low-level Loyalist gangsterism mirrored by fragmented dissident Republicanism.
Üngör’s book starts with a loose history or survey – necessarily so given the shadowy nature of his subject – of paramilitarism. He traces its development from militias in emerging modern states and their role in supporting those seeking or claiming territorial rights. The paramilitary subaltern can well be imagined in the Machiavellian world of The Prince.
It is in the twentieth century that what might be described as modern paramilitarism emerges, as state authority becomes more settled. The role of the state evolves to protecting its ideological values and countering attempts at insurgency. Regarding Northern Ireland, Üngör considers three heads. First, the security dilemma between identity communities (the sectarian divide). Second, collusion. Third, criminal infighting ‘after the war’.
It is welcome that Üngör recognises the centrality of collusion to the Conflict in Northern Ireland – collusion which is still being exposed and contested – as it goes to state impunity for ‘political’ violence.
I suggest Üngör is wrong in describing the Conflict as ‘war’. It was a counterinsurgency for the British state and struggle for equality and British withdrawal for Republicans
However, I suggest Üngör is wrong in describing the Conflict as ‘war’. Whereas the Conflict has been described as the “Irish War” or “The Dirty War” in fact the Conflict was never designated as either a war or an internal armed conflict as such designations would have invoked the Geneva Conventions. It was a counter-insurgency exercise for the British state and a Republican struggle for equality and the forced withdrawal of the British.
Üngör concludes his account of the role of paramilitarism in the Conflict in Northern Ireland by noting “If the history of Northern Irish paramilitarism teaches us anything, it is the relevance of identity cleavages, the difficulty of proving collusion, and the volatile afterlife of paramilitaries.”
I would contest Üngör’s comment on collusion: collusion as state impunity can be proved if it is exposed. It is the process of exposing it which is difficult as the state necessarily relies upon its negation (what Üngör and McGovern call denialbility) to enable it to become an administrative state practice as the judges of the European Court of Human Rights described in the Ireland v UK judgment in 1977.
The continuing reluctance of the British state to confront the extent of collusion during the Conflict undermines the peace process
The continuing reluctance of the British state to confront the extent of collusion during the Conflict undermines the peace process by blocking truth-seeking to establish accountability which can lead to reconciliation.
Üngör continues his tour of paramilitarism by examining it in terms of its relation to organised crime and the role of state in its ‘regulation’. Regarding Northern Ireland he notes that Loyalist and Republican paramiliartites both terrorised each others communities (for example, the sustained violent attacks by the Mid-Ulster UVF Glenanne Gang against Catholic civilians) but also secured their own communities, offering protection when state security forces were unable to do so. There were also differences, I would note, between urban and rural paramilitary activity.
Extra-judicial violence would be partially policed and would lead to punishment and imprisonment. Üngör notes that “Republican and Loyalist paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland from the 1970s to the 1990s increasingly came to inhabit a grey zone between ordinary criminal violence and selective political violence” (page 98). This is what Martin Dillon called The Dirty War (London: Arrow, 1991).
The Romper Room Gang, The Glenanne Gang and The Shankill Butchers committed appalling atrocities against Catholic civilian targets, but were either the out-reaches of state jurisdiction or directy employed as state agents and part of the practice and policy of counter-insurgency. Specifically, Frank Kitson’s implementation of the ideas he extrapolated in ‘Low Intensity Operations: Subverison, Insurgency and Peace-Keeping’ (London: Faber and Faber, 1971): including the deployment of counter-gangs.
Today the remnants of this form of paramilitary criminality are expressed as a form of ‘internal’ policing of particular communities – for example the Bogside in Derry where drug related criminality is ‘regulated’ by punishment beatings and the Republicans Action Against Drugs (RAAD) ‘campaign’.
Üngör’s concludes this chapter with two observations. First, that paramilitarism is about the mobilisation of people to commit violence. As criminals have a higher predelicition for violence he notes the relationship between paramilitarism and criminality. Second, that collusion between state and paramilitary state actors or agents enables the former to commit extra-judicial acts of violence against those who oppose it and the latter to allow these acts to be committed with impunity.
Üngör then turns his attention to the organisation of paramilitarism. In terms of the Conflict in Northern Ireland he is critical of the recent work of both Anne Cadwallader ‘Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland’ (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013) and Margaret Urwin ‘A State in Denial: British Collaboration with Loyalist Paramilitaries’ (Cork: Mercier Press, 2016). His criticism is based upon their conclusions regarding preciseness of the state-paramilitary relationship in terms of the provision of intelligence in terms of targets (often directly from state agents (RUC Special Branch officers for example with close connections to the UDA and UVF/UFF)) and means (for example, facilitating the supply of weapons).
I submit there is a middle position here: the Conflict was a drawn-out episode of sustained violence, the British state responded with diferrent counter-insurgency polices and practices throughout, often depending on which political party in London was in power (and in Dublin also). The relationship between state and paramiliatarism was organic and London manipulated both Loyalist and Republican factions. Both factions had internal divisions and power struggles (note the ‘rise’ of Loyalist Robin Jackson following the assasination of UDA commander Billy Hanna with the UDA and Jackson’s links with the UDR and RUC Special Branch).
Northern Ireland was a testing ground for military theories being worked through the post-war post-colonial insurgencies of Kenya, Oman, Malaya, Cyprus. Hence, the deployment by the British state of the use of counter-gangs, ‘black’ propoganda, the suspension of of the Rule of Law, the use of agents and informers, blackmail (including the use of sexual blackmail as in the Kincora scandal) and in the deliberate dissemention of intelligence regarding potential targets.
Certainly the British deployed covert secuity forces (the MRF and the FRU, for example, again determined by whether deployed in rural or urban environments) and these collaborated – even relied upon – paramilitary connections and relationships. I would also submit that there were tensions between state agencies in terms of policies and practices (for example between MI5 and MI6, between RUC and RUC Special Branch, between MOD and FCO and so forth) which meant lacunae in the ‘control’ of paramilitary policy and practice or shifts in the intensity of the relationship between state institutions and paramilitary groups.
What I can agree upon with Üngör is that paramilitarism “exists within the secretative ‘nooks and crannies’ of the state” (page 159). This is necessarily so as it is covert and its success relies upon its denaiability: politicians certainly in Westminster did not – and indeed do not – want to to know the extent of collusion in Northern Ireland hence the most recent political attempts to draw a line under the past and stop new investigations of the violent past (see my recent post on this for VillageMagazine: Stanley).
Üngör adops Mark McGovern’s recent analysis of the importance of “creating spaces of deniability” within the context of the Conflict in Northern Ireland. A space of deniability allows the state to promote deniability which is a method to control the unpredictable outcomes of unregulated paramiliatarism which could undermine the state’s monopoloy of the Rule of Law and violence. As Hannah Arendt observed “violence can destroy power”.
For those of us engaged in the out-workings of the Legacy of the Conflict in Northern Ireland this synergy between commission and omission is at the core of collusion, which is still a pall over the contemporary landscape
Üngör concludes his survey of paramilitarism with the following argument “that states have not just downcontracted but also upcontracted violence: as much as they formed groups top-down, they could also allow bottom-up vigilantism and popular mobilization, with the similar result that paramilitarism became sanctioned”. (page 191). This means, for Üngör, that paramilitarism is both an act of commission and an act of ommission. For those of us engaged in the out-workings of the Legacy of the Conflict in Northern Ireland this synergy between commission and omission is at the core of collusion, which as I noted, is still a pall over the contemporary landscape of this Narrow Ground.
This book contributes further to our understanding of this key element of the solar eclipse of political violence within the contemporary state and throws further a little light on the pall of counterinsurgency and collusion on the Conflict in Northern Ireland.
Chris Stanley is a litigation consultant with KRW Law solicitors