The terrible lesson of Colonel Adams

As the US pursues a terrorist war, it looks all too likely to repeat the British errors that handed

Breakfasting with Dr John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, here in Washington last month, I was not surprised when he came out with some statistics that he uses to try to grab the attention of Americans: around 3,600 people have been killed through terrorism in Northern Ireland during the present troubles, he said, considerably more than were killed on 11 September (the death toll for the World Trade Center atrocities has now slipped to below 3,000). That meant, he went on, that there was hardly anybody in Northern Ireland who was not personally touched by terrorist deaths which, if extrapolated to the US, would mean a death toll of 1,500,000 Americans.

Yet things are never quite so simple as statistics might suggest. That same day, a fledgling hero of America was flying into Kentucky as part of the St Patrick's Day celebrations: Gerry Adams, now fast achieving Nelson Mandela status among Americans as a world peace-maker. Ringing the 66,000lb World Peace Bell, Adams told an adoring crowd that the Kentucky state motto, "United we stand, divided we fall", should also stand as a motto for Northern Ireland: he was there, he said, to raise funds for Sinn Fein and to keep Americans informed about what is happening in his country. As a climax to Adams's celebrity appearance, Judge Steve Pendery presented him with a certificate making him an honorary Kentucky Colonel.

Quite what the Colonel Adams of the Falls Road of two or three decades ago would have made of all this, I am not quite sure. He was interned in Long Kesh as a suspected IRA terrorist while I lived in Northern Ireland; it was an axiom then that anybody who rose to head the "political" wings of terrorist organisations had earned their position by demonstrating a willingness to use bombs and/or bullets. And yet Adams was warmly invited into the White House last month by the very man supposed to be waging a worldwide war against terrorism: President George W Bush.

I know that there is a history of yesterday's terrorists becoming today's freedom fighters and heroes. We have the example not just of Mandela (once charged, apparently on sound evidence, with a bombing), but also of Menachem Begin, who ordered the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that killed 91 people (and who also personally tortured and killed two of my late uncle's best friends, then in the British army). Colonel Adams, indeed, may well end up with a Nobel Peace Prize.

But ever since 11 September, Northern Ireland has seemed to me to have ominous analogies with the Bush administration's war against terrorism. Here we have a tiny area - the whole of the UK, lest we forget, is smaller than, say, Oregon - with a total population of only 1.6 million, fewer than a third of whom have nationalist aspirations. By the early Seventies, when the Provisional IRA had already broken away from the Officials and started nasty terrorism in Northern Ireland as well as mainland Britain, it still probably numbered fewer than 100 terrorists.

Then the British government declared its disastrous war on Irish terrorists. In 1971, following the death of a single British soldier, internment was introduced: based on information provided by the then incompetent RUC Special Branch, hundreds of supposed extremists (including Adams) were arrested and flung into jail without ever being charged with any offence. Volunteers for the Provisional IRA (as well as their Protestant counterparts) increased exponentially as a result. The following year was the bloodiest in Northern Ireland's recent history, with 13 civilians killed by British soldiers in Londonderry on Bloody Sunday and nine dying in 20 separate bombings in Belfast on Bloody Friday.

Now we are at an even earlier corresponding stage in the post-11 September frenzy here. And what has been the immediate response of the US government? To introduce the internment of young Muslim and Arab men, differing from what Britain did in only one respect: it has been carried out with stealth and the minimum of information, so much so that it is known only that there are at least hundreds being held without trial. More are being imprisoned on trumped-up charges, such as minor immigration violations; and most Americans do not have a clue that any of this is happening. An Egyptian student, Abdallah Higazy, was held for 31 days for supposedly lying about a pilot's radio he had in his hotel room overlooking the World Trade Center on 11 September; only later did it emerge that the radio belonged to an earlier guest, and that it had not even been found in Higazy's room. He was one of the lucky ones: he got out because he was the son of a diplomat, and the family had the wherewithal to rally powerful friends.

Inside Northern Ireland, meanwhile, a sophisticated Nato army waged war on a still small number of terrorists. An equally experienced security service, MI5, was brought in to eavesdrop and infiltrate. But the outrages mounted, with increasing numbers of soldiers and policemen - as well as civilians - killed and maimed. In 1984, the Provisionals directly attacked the British government - coming within a minute or so of killing the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Rockets were fired at 10 Downing Street in 1991.

With hindsight, we can now see that internment and mass arrests - so often based on faulty intelligence, too - were the best recruiting sergeants that Adams and the Provisional IRA ever had. And the more active the army became, the more a raggedy band of determined young men could get the better of them, and the bigger the supply of young men every succeeding day. The British, whether we like to admit it or not, were defeated by the Provisional IRA and forced to the negotiating table by a Clinton administration that blundered in not knowing what it was doing.

There are too many worrying parallels between Northern Ireland and the new worldwide war against terrorism. Internment backfires; aggressive military tactics against nebulous terrorists simply do not work. The only major difference between the small British war of the late 20th century and the major American one of the early 21st is that the Provisional IRA had a specific aim, to bring about a united Ireland - while the aim of al-Qaeda, we are told, is nothing less than the downfall of the United States. That makes it imperative for the US to resist attacks against it.

But how do you do it? Hugely aggressive military tactics and internment, or less spectacular intelligence work? The former could well be just as disastrous for the US worldwide as it was for Britain in Northern Ireland; the latter seems the only prudent way to proceed. I wish I could report that Americans are reeling from Reid's projected figure of a million and a half of their countrymen dead. But they're not. They're gonna fight this war the way they damned well want and they're gonna win. Got that?