Skip navigation

Tag Archives: centenary

One way of preventing discussion of the centenary of Ireland’s 1916 Rising and of the actions of the IRA is to spread confusion about the meaning of “terrorist”. The authors of the confusion are mass murderers and their supporters, and they are successful because journalists and media managers facilitate them.

While in popular discussion “terrorist” has been almost drained of meaning, becoming a synonym for “bad”, in academic discussion its meaning has been stabilised and is now largely accepted. This was not always the case.

During the 20th century academics were looking at a distinct phenomenon that they wanted to study and talk about. It was clear that non-state groups were kidnapping, shooting and bombing civilians. These groups were commonly referred to as terrorists. Academics set out to study them but there was a problem which could only be addressed by working on definition.

Definition was necessary because the term was already loaded with negative connotations and study of any action or group attracted, “Who are you calling a terrorist? Why don’t you study atrocities committed by states?” The tactic was to prevent examination of what was clearly a separate and relatively new form of political violence. The choice facing academia was to find a new word for something which ordinary citizens referred to as terrorism or to define the term so that the violent phenomenon could be studied without the constant disruption of the “whatabouters”. A new label would have been daft, so definition it was.

Definition was of course fraught and contentious; university libraries tend to have a groaning shelf or two to attest to that. There was a battle because the last thing that non-state killers wanted was to be isolated from horrors committed by states. They could offer no moral justification for their actions so they relied on pointing to those who had done similar or worse. Some states – particularly the USA – aided them in this by referring to states they didn’t like as “terrorist states”.

Like the academics, citizens seeking clear public discourse have an interest in defining terrorism and insisting that self-serving games not be played with terminology. Let it be clear that terrorism for those neither involved in nor supporting barbarity signifies violence perpetrated by non-state actors on civilians for the purpose of sending a message to a wider audience (rhetorical violence). In other words, state armies are not involved either as perpetrators or victims and the dead or injured are reduced to mere messages, fodder for media.

In Ireland there is a tussle for ownership of the 2016 centenary of the Easter Rising. It is not a matter of whether the state’s founding myth is bloody; that’s a different issue. The tussle is about whether the actions of the Provisional IRA – supported by Sinn Féin – are like the actions of the 1916 insurrectionists. It is vitally important for SF that the actions of the IRA receive the respectability that has been granted to the insurrectionists because in Ireland that would elevate the IRA to heroes.

If a sensible public debate is to take place, it needs to be emphasised that the actions in 1916 fall a long way outside the definition of terrorism, while the actions of the IRA accurately match the terms of the definition. What the 1916 insurrectionists have in common with the IRA is that both are non-state actors. Apart from that they differ. The insurrectionists for the most part attacked armed soldiers. The IRA for the most part attacked civilians. The insurrectionists in a time before electronic mass media did not and could not reduce victims to media messages. The IRA, however, developed this form of conflict and killed for media effect.

Every journalist who is unaware of the struggle over the definition of terrorism and who permits the term to be bandied about as a mere synonym for bad, sides with those who would try to bury public discourse in a swamp of name-calling.

I attended a funeral recently. On the way there, driving in rural north county Dublin, I encountered an anti-water tax sign which urged people to “Rise up”. A short time later, waiting, in the church porch, I noticed the front page headline on the Catholic newspaper “Alive”. It was anti same-sex marriage and urged people to “Rise up”. Now, I’d be confident that there’s a study somewhere of the Irish Catholic/nationalist preoccupation with the romantic, rising/resurrection notion that stretches from at least the “Easter Rising” of 1916 to the present-day nationalist splinter group, éirigí. (That translates as a plural imperative, commanding the people to Rise.) But lately there’s been quite a bit of resort to the word, especially on Facebook.

Ok, it might be nothing more than a word that is in people’s minds right now. In the short term it’s Lent and Irish Catholics are looking to Easter; next year is the centenary of 1916 and there’s a considerable amount of media attention being paid to that. Nevertheless, it might be worth giving some thought to the prominence of the word.

Some of those calling for a rising, like some of those calling for a revolution, may be completely serious. That is to say, they’ve thought about the words they use, the reality of battle, the effect on the general population, their desired outcome and they’ve concluded that this is the best or only way forward.

However, the largest group using evocative terms are hardest to understand. They constantly reiterate their opposition to violence but are unwilling or unable to let go of its lexicon. On the cultural side, the marches, banners, feelings of solidarity, if drained of violent rhetoric, would be revealed as a quasi-constitutional way of letting off steam or as an illustration of the way things work in a polyarchy, i.e. political priorities are decided by pressure on government or – more fashionably – on the political class.

On the theoretical side, they have opted for the parliamentary path and have explicitly eschewed violence but many still want to think in terms of a people rising up in revolt. It is a search for a third way between revolt and reform. It can seem incomprehensible that having abandoned the former and chosen the latter, the impression presented is that the choice was the other way round. There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, like any organisation or party experiencing change, they don’t want to be either outflanked or teased by more aggressive former comrades.

Secondly, they still see a role for street activity. They not only want to identify with the tradition of gains won when people clashed with the state, they also see this as a continuing route for advance. Some reckon it is the only way progress was ever made or will be made. A seat in parliament from this perspective becomes a mere platform for an activist who believes more in street activity.

The final group is comprised of fantasists who believe they are living in a police state and that they are part of an uprising which will shortly be joined by the majority.

If words matter, those who urge others to Rise Up or who talk in terms of revolution will have to be questioned forensically until citizens know exactly what – if anything – is meant.

David Black, a prison officer, a public servant, was murdered this week. [i] It was an appalling crime but it’s just not plausible to say so without saying the same of earlier similar acts. No doubt the perps. will say that that they are “fighting” for Irish freedom from Britain or for Irish “unification” and that what they did was part of a continuing struggle dating back to the early 20th century or earlier. [ii] In Ireland over the years we’ve adopted a number of pivotal moments, glorifying violence before a moment and condemning violence after it, just as SF and others now treat the Good Friday agreement and the peace “process”. They seek to portray themselves as unlike today’s killers. They want to do what has been done before: be part of a new establishment which condemns the latest political murders. It’s a depressing pattern. As the various claimants to be the heirs polish their boots for centenary marches, [iii] it might do some good if a few of them at least realised that they had plausibility problems.