Easter Sunday this year brought a horrific terrorist attack in Pakistan: A suicide bomber in the city of Lahore killed at least 70 people, many of them children. This is sadly typical of how insurgency is waged today, with no respect for human life. How different things were 100 years ago, when during Easter week 1916 some 1,500 Irish Volunteers tried to drive the British out of Ireland by seizing power in Dublin.
The Easter Rising was swiftly defeated by the British army with the “Shinners” (as Irish nationalist were called, after the Sinn Fein political party) being routed out of their redoubt in the ornate General Post Office Building. Sixteen leaders of the rebellion were executed and more than 500 people killed during the fighting, many of them civilians. More than 1,500 rank and file Irish Volunteers were sent to British internment camps that were later dubbed “the nursery of the IRA.” Many of the men who emerged from these prisons — among them Michael Collins, the de facto commander-in-chief of the Irish struggle for independence — went on to launch a fresh revolt against British rule in 1919 that was not so easily put down.
The Irish War of Independence had more than its share of savagery, at least by more genteel contemporary standards. The most notorious day of the entire conflict occurred on Nov. 21, 1920. “Bloody Sunday” began with gangs of IRA gunmen hitting rooming houses across the capital to assassinate British officers and intelligence operatives who had been brought in to break up their networks. Fourteen men were killed that morning, including two Irish police officers who stumbled across the hit squads. In apparent retaliation, a force of British paramilitaries — the “Auxies” (Auxiliaries) made of up former British army officers and the “Black and Tans” made up of British recruits for the Irish Constabulary — entered a Gaelic football match at Dublin’s Croke Park and opened fire, killing 12 civilians and wounding 60.
The shedding of blood on both sides was deeply disturbing to British public opinion at the time. It is a sad reflection of our more barbaric times that the deaths of 12 civilians in another country hardly qualifies as big news anymore.
I don’t mean to romanticize the Irish War of Independence, which in many ways was as nasty as guerrilla wars always are. It resulted in the death or wounding of 4,000 people, including nearly 1,000 British soldiers and police; many of the other victims were innocent civilians. Yet both sides showed restraint, which is seldom seen today. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George would not bomb Irish villages, torture captured terrorists or send civilians to concentration camps. In turn Michael Collins, “the Big Fella,” turned down schemes to truck bomb the House of Commons or shoot members of the British Cabinet.
And, in the end, “Mick” Collins was willing to accept a compromise solution to end the bloodshed altogether: Under a treaty signed on December 6, 1921, he and the other Irish representatives agreed to form the Irish Free State out of the 26 southern counties while agreeing that the six counties of Northern Ireland, with a large Protestant population, would remain part of the United Kingdom. That arrangement was too much of a compromise for some of the IRA die-hards who launched a war to overturn the treaty. Michael Collins lost his life in that conflict, but his side won the war, and Northern Ireland remains part of the UK to this day.
It is hard to imagine today’s terrorists and guerrillas — groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Pakistani Taliban, which carried out Sunday’s bombing in Lahore — accepting such a negotiated solution. Some might say this is because today’s most notorious terrorists are Muslims, whereas Collins and his cohorts were predominantly Catholics. But in centuries past, Catholics and Protestants could fight one another with near-genocidal violence; think of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which killed a substantial part of the German population. By the 20th century, religious passions had cooled. Collins and his fellow “Shinners” were motivated by nationalism, not religious fanaticism, and their goal was to create a liberal democracy, not a theocratic dictatorship.
In the process, Collins and his fellow IRA members proved that relative restraint could actually be a powerful weapon against a liberal democracy such as the United Kingdom. Setting an example that would be emulated by numerous anti-colonial activists in years to come, they shamed the British into granting most of their demands and were careful not to go so far that they would simply cause the authorities to become more intransigent.
By contrast, on many of today’s insurgent battlefields — in places like Pakistan and even more so in Syria — the government acts in such brutal ways that it encourages a brutal style of warfare by the rebels. Torture and the killing of civilians by both sides are commonplace. Both sides, in effect, act in such a way as to rule out the kind of compromise that brought the Irish War of Independence and many other guerrilla conflicts to a conclusion.
The experience of the Irish republicans, who were once as synonymous with terrorism as Muslim extremists have become, shows that there is an alternative to endless and ruthless low-intensity warfare. It is a tragedy that this is a lesson that is certain to be ignored by all sides in the internecine wars that are tearing the Muslim world apart and claiming collateral casualties as far away as Lahore and Brussels.