Those of you who lived through the Troubles will remember the British government’s use of the north as a research laboratory. While supposedly trying to maintain peace, its experiments ranged from psychological warfare, through disinformation, to the recruitment of agents.
While the days of military experiments are apparently over, it is increasingly tempting to believe that we are still being used as a laboratory, this time for political experiments.
The Secretary of State’s unprecedented slashing of public service expenditure is regarded as an attempt to embarrass the DUP back into government.
However, the breadth and depth of his cuts suggests that what began as political punishment has now turned into a political experiment. How do people (that’s us) react when the level of public services to which they have been accustomed are suddenly reduced?
Welcome to the north, the land of laboratory guinea pigs.
When British troops arrived in 1969, their response to republican violence was to employ the tactics they had used in Aden (1963-67), where they lost heavily. With poor intelligence, they relied on questioning at roadblocks and responded to attacks by subjecting whole communities to lockdown (as in the lower Falls in 1970).
That merely increased resistance, so they began their experiments. The first was to torture those who became known as the Hooded Men. None of the men had any worthwhile information, but the army wanted to test the impact of their five torture techniques. (The Nazis did the same in Germany.)
Then they employed disinformation by stating, for example, that the bomb at McGurk’s Bar was an accidental IRA explosion. They knew the UVF blew up the pub. That disinformation campaign continued throughout the Troubles.
Their experiments in recruiting agents were perhaps the most frightening. Having learned from Aden, the British were determined to have top class intelligence and by 1994 they were effectively in charge of most republican and loyalist violence through their agents’ information. Top agents were allowed to kill more disposable agents when they had served their purpose.
When the British army went to Iraq and Afghanistan, US generals said they learned so much from them that they drew up a new field manual, based on the lessons from the north. The experiments had worked.
Now we are in a new era of research. The aim of the current experiment is to test the social and economic consequences of reduced public services and to assess personal and community responses to increased deprivation.
How do people cope when their welfare benefits are cut? Do food banks get the government off the hook? How quickly can private medicine take up the slack for the collapse of the NHS?
The results of the military experiments were designed to be applied abroad. The political experiments are intended for domestic use in Britain.
Both the Tories and Starmer-led Labour believe in a reduced role for the state in providing public services. What they learn here, they can apply in Britain, by understanding how far they can go before there is political protest.
Of course, the Irish laboratory experiment may not easily transfer to Britain. There have been no significant protests against the cuts here. Arguments about the border take precedence. For example, not a single social or economic issue was raised during the Troubles (a common pattern in the history of political violence here). We just do flag protests.
From the hunger marches (1930s) to the miners’ strike (1980s) and the poll tax riots (1990s), the English have always been more rebellious than us. We have lain down under what can only be described as Tory cruelty.
Where are the protests against social and economic injustice? Where is the “inevitable” unity of our people? They have been tossed into the bottomless pit of sectarianism, allowing another British government experiment on what must be the world’s most tested guinea pigs.
They learn from their experiments. We don’t.