Parallel Conflicts, Divergent Narratives: Algeria, Northern Ireland, and the Role of Propaganda…

Bernie McIlhatton is a Slugger reader from Belfast

I enjoyed Sam Thompson’s piece on the Algerian War which emerged from his review (elsewhere) of Patrick Anderson’s Rewriting the Troubles, War and Propaganda, Ireland and Algeria. Sam’s introduction to the Algerian War serves as a usual background for the book’s main focus, reportage and propaganda during political conflict.

The book investigated NI’s new controversy. Unionists maintain republicans are ‘Rewriting the Troubles’. Republicans respond that they are excavating their narrative from earlier propaganda. Anderson evaluates this using Chomsky’s Propaganda Model. It requires an historic match. He finds it in the Algerian War 1954-62.

Unionists and pieds-noirs both recoil from the colonial label but Anderson explains both conflicts arose from remarkably similar historical circumstances. He sympathises with liberal Protestant objections to colonial explanations while demonstrating how settler societies can remain in place, however old the settlement. He includes summaries short histories of each conflict, identifying and contextualising the many corresponding events for subsequent media evaluations. He does not expect to find any departure from official government narratives in the right-wing or populist press and consequently concentrates on the Guardian/Observer, widely regarded as bastions of independence and liberalism. All historic matched events were/are found between 1954-62 and 1968-74.

One important match is that settlers broke the emotional bonds holding them within the nation, Britain or France, by repeatedly frustrating metropolitan reforms designed to successfully incorporate the Irish or Algerians.

Some figures are necessary to appreciate these media comparisons. Algeria’s estimated toll is 250-300,000 war dead, in per capita terms ten times more bloody. But importantly for this study, only the several thousand dead in Algiers, Oran and other towns attracted much media attention. Foreign Legionnaires chasing small ALN bands in remote mountain villages scarcely produced a few lines. France’s 450,000 troops confronted the ALN in a counterinsurgency 10:1 ratio. Britain committed relatively more, with 30,000 facing republicans in a 30:1 ratio, possibly 50:1. France killed 141,000 ALN and 60,000 civilians. Britain killed 188 civilians and 109 IRA, (official figures, excluding collusion) The ALN killed 15,583 soldiers and 19,166 civilians and disappeared 18,674 civilians and estimates of 30-100,000 Muslim (French) soldiers murdered after the war. The IRA killed 1009 state forces and 508 civilians. Loyalists’ 878 victims amount to 50% of civilian dead. Algeria’s loyalists, the OAS’s 1658 victims amount to 1% of Algerian civilian dead.

Both armies perpetrated civilian massacres, Bloody Sunday and Rue d’Isly. The press condemned France: ‘Look at the Rue d’Isly, the French are most unlike us in their ruthlessness’, but maintained Widgery’s Bloody Sunday gun-battle for 40 years. The Rue d’Isly massacre occurred when a large pieds-noirs demonstration approached the Muslim part of Bab el Oued in Algiers. A rooftop shot generated panic in one line of nine French soldiers, all Moroccan Spahis manning a blockade, who spontaneously opened fire for 6/7 minutes, killing 54. Journalists reported young lieutenants, the only officers on the ground, slapping their faces and screaming at them to ceasefire. Bloody Sunday killed 14 but is more disquieting. Saville concluded paratroopers fired, without warning, for forty-five minutes in pursuit of fleeing demonstrators, encouraged by Colonel Wilford and General Ford: ‘Go on paras, go and get them …’ Monday’s Guardian editorial opined: ‘a warning had been given … The presence of snipers in the later stages of the march must have added a murderous dimension’ and recommended: ‘Hot pursuit and other Israeli techniques.’ Another article inexplicably explained: ‘stone-throwers are ‘reasonably safe in the knowledge that, as they are in Londonderry and not in Prague or Birmingham, Alabama, it is unlikely that anyone will get his head blown off.’

Both armies tortured. French paratroopers were tasked with preventing the no-warning bombings of the Battle of Algiers. Soldiers justified torture with the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. The press condemned France: ‘it is no answer to say that the rebels’ crimes are far worse, General Massu’s excuse for clearing the ALN from the Kasbah is an insult to France’. Anderson investigates the many IRA atrocities. But British officers never proffered the ‘ticking bomb’ excuse. The army and IRA had agreed coded warnings. British torture, however, was denied or justified as a necessary to stop ‘evil men’. Editorials explained: ‘the information obtained from the [Hooded] men … was undoubtedly responsible for saving the lives of innocent civilians’. These claims were never substantiated and the men were soon released, some almost immediately. The press claimed detainees were: ‘subject to noise’, ‘tired out’, some wounds were ‘old boils or self-inflicted’. ‘Conservative backbenchers probably suffered far worse interrogations at public schools’, ‘vigorous and tough interrogation must go on’.

Algeria’s war was explained as an anti-colonial struggle: ‘These vain and arrogant pieds-noirs equipped with a colonial mentality benefit from the prestige and economic advantages accompanying a colonial power.’ ‘So long as the settlers retain their privileged position they will continue to infect France with Fascism.’ When a grenade exploded on a rush-hour bus carrying workers home on an Algiers evening, the victim was ‘a young French settler’. The poorest petits blancs of Algiers were still settlers.

The Troubles were different. Self-determination for Protestants was inviolate, Northern Ireland was fully democratic and Catholic self-determination was/is incompatible with Atlee’s guarantee: ‘the border is not negotiable’. Editorials repeatedly rejected partition as an issue and urged the army not to abandon any territory. ‘Partition is as outdated as the dinosaurs’, or ‘a depressing number of civil-rights supporters are now dragging in Partition’. Any suggestion of withdrawing ‘as elsewhere in the Empire … is encouraging some psychopath to contemplate further murders of soldiers.’ This rare slip betrayed a colonial context.

The ALN were portrayed as soldiers and insurgents. They did not murder French soldiers, they ambushed them. These maquisards (resistance) were ‘disciplined and tough’, ‘fearless and elusive idealists’, acting ‘to a moral code’. In reality, they shot up buses and beaches and threw grenades in to stadiums, schools, synagogues and weddings: ‘insurgents killed and mutilated six Europeans including children’, ‘six Moslems had their throats cut by insurgents’, ‘the Algiers-Kolea bus was attacked, the European passengers were executed’, ‘The rebels carried out a successful ambush killing 23 soldiers and 9 civilians’. France was at war: ‘The Algerian High Command arrived today by air.’ A curious description for throat-cutting of reluctant Muslims or playground grenades.

When the ALN ritually slaughtered 300 rival nationalists, with knives in a village in Melouza, editorials urged the French to negotiate with the rebels ‘no matter how much blood was on their hands.’ ALN tactics made sense from a ‘grim tactical point of view’. The Observer despaired: ‘Unfortunately’, the British government had ‘trotted out the hoary old legend that no “true” national movement ever used terrorism, such hypocrisy discredits Britain by aligning her with the most unrepentant form of colonialism.’

ALN leaders were ‘impressive’, ‘responsible’, ‘noble’, ‘disciplined’ and ‘restrained’, ‘eloquent and engaging’, ‘some of the best political brains’, ‘Mohammed Yazid might be a brilliant Sorbonne student’. Yacef Saadi, mastermind of Algiers’ no-warning bombs was a scarlet Pimpernel figure and the cause of some angst: ‘The difficulty of morally assessing the men engaged in this grim struggle, the fundamental greatness and generosity of Yacef Saadi and the despair of this modern patriot who would never be free … this beautiful narrative bears witness, not only for Yacef Saadi, but for the spirit of man with its fundamental greatness.’ Amirouche, whose order at Melouza was ‘exterminate the vermin’, was nonetheless ‘a revolutionary, more ready to spare European civilians than fellow rebels.’

The IRA were ‘psychotic terrorists’ and ‘sectarian gunmen’ who ‘enjoyed killing’. They were ‘gutless’, ‘mindless’, ‘mystical romantics’ and criminals: ‘killing for the sake of killing’, they ‘would kill you with sticks if that’s all they had’. They sent out children with ‘medieval weapons like the crossbow, not to speak of biblical ones like the stone’. Republicans were ‘unpleasant’, ‘inarticulate’, ‘not very bright bigots’. None displayed any theoretical understanding of revolutionary movements, nor exuded any of the charismatic charm of revolutionaries. They were hard, bitter men ‘who evoked Popeye, William Faulkner’s plastic killer in Sanctuary’, criminals who lived in their own private world devoid of any morals. Mac Stíofáin was ‘really a very, very unpleasant man, a political clodhopper suited only for organizing back-street brutality’. He was ‘Mack the knife’, ‘a Franco’, and, inevitably ‘sported a Hitlerian moustache.’ .

French Algerians were portrayed as: ‘settlers who deny even the slightest responsibility, these strident bedevillers of any Algerian settlement …’. Ulstermen were not settlers. ‘Describing people as settlers when their families have often been in Ireland since before the Mayflower left for America reveals the type of hypocrisy in terminology which clouds the issue’. ‘Anti-colonialism was not a useful basis for discussion, it would require the Bostonians to hand back their city to the American Indians.’

Loyalists and OAS portrayed themselves as counter-terrorists. Neither attacked terrorists. The September 1957 Battle of Algiers was preceded by counter-terrorist [?] bombings through June and August including Rue de Thebes which killed scores of Muslims. The ‘counter-terrorist’ UVF embarked on a campaign of murder, bombings of Catholic homes, businesses and RTÉ in Dublin in 1966. Their first act was to petrol bomb Holy Cross girls’ primary school in Ardoyne.

Two distinct patterns of reporting emerged. OAS gunmen were ‘gratuitous’, ‘fascist murderers’. Drive-by shootings by loyalists were an ‘understandable retaliation’. Self-determinations for pieds-noirs was ‘surrendering to fascists’. Self-determination for British Ulstermen was inviolate.

The OAS machine-gunned passers-by on the grounds that ‘Any Arab will do.’ The press said they ‘were not soldiers’ but ‘Nazis’, ‘fascist desperadoes’ and ‘colonial terrorists.’ Loyalists pursued a similar policy of ‘any Taig will do’. The Guardian printed the following between 1970-74: ‘in spite of many claims to the contrary from Catholics it is by no means certain that the UVF is responsible for any of the killings … the organization has consistently condemned sectarian killings.’ ‘It must be stressed that there is no evidence that the UDA is involved’. And this ludicrous UVF statement: ‘Under no circumstances will the indiscriminate shooting or bombing of ordinary civilians or civilian property be tolerated.’

Loyalists and pieds-noirs both rebelled against governments of their supposed devotion: the UWC Strike, May 1974 and Algeria’s corresponding insurrectionary ‘Barricades Week’, January 1960. Enraged by DeGaulle’s speech foregrounding Algeria’s self-determination, pieds-noirs ultras seized government buildings, blocked downtown Algiers and killed gendarmes loyal to Paris. Locally-recruited Territorials and elements of the 10th Paras helped enforce the strike. The Guardian questioned French resolve: ‘Algiers extremists have very long experience of getting their own way’ and urged Paris to ‘eliminate the fascists settlers of Algiers’. De Gaulle faced down these ultras, disbanded the locally-recruited Unités Territoriales regiment, imprisoned its commanding officer and replaced suspect officers of the regular army. The 10th Paras, long stationed in Algiers, were replaced with the 25th, furious at being recalled from the mountains. The Guardian welcomed this as opening pieds-noirs minds to ‘other solutions besides an Algeria forever merged with France’

The UWC Strike, May 1974, opposed power-sharing and Council of Ireland, achieving both through control of power supplies, intimidating workers, a servile local BBC, and a wavering British government frustrated by generals unsupportive of government policy. The reportage presented this loyalist front as a ‘Workers Council’ (no Ulster), sympathised with unionist trauma, and ‘understood’ the army’s remarkable lack of response. Describing the Dublin bombs as a ‘raid’, editorials yet deemed the whole episode to be ‘un-bloody’ and proposed diluting power-sharing and postponing the Council of Ireland until unionist trauma subsided. There was no British DeGaulle or corresponding Barbouze agents shooting down patriot-rebels.

The book is worth reading for the postscript alone, a brilliant evaluation of the most important writers of the conflict, Conor Cruise O’Brien and Albert Camus. Camus was an ‘Algiers Shankill boy’, child of impoverished pieds-noirs background who condemned terrorism and army repression. O’Brien famously accused Camus of ‘stylishly regurgitating propaganda’. Anderson leaves it to the reader to decide whether or not O’Brien’s framing of the Troubles as a religious squabble and rejecting the colonial legacy, was a ‘stylish regurgitation of propaganda.’

(All quotations from Anderson, Rewriting the Troubles)


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