We all love a redemption tale and Gerry Moriarty worked to give us just that in the story of Laurence McKeown (Irish Times, Weekend, August 13 and 14, 2016) The title reflected the project, “From gun to pen: An IRA man’s story”.* What followed was a whitewash.
There is no doubt that Laurence McKeown suffered and had the strength to turn his life around. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder; he had fired on a police Land Rover whose occupants returned fire. He also admitted to involvement in bomb attacks. Gerry Moriarty did not explore the bomb attacks but went on to tell of the horror of the blanket protest, a near-death hunger strike and the process of redemption by way of an Open University Degree, release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a Ph.D. from QUB and on to becoming a successful playwright. Researching a play, Laurence McKeown had dinner with a police officer who spoke of shovelling body parts into bags. At this point in the story Gerry Moriarty again evades the question of bombs.
You see, the bombs and body parts are the essential truth. The whitewash is the myth of a struggle against armed opponents in which unfortunately civilians occasionally died. The truth is that while armed opponents were sometimes attacked, the preferred targets were civilians; the “armed struggle” was a long, long succession of crimes against humanity. It may be possible for a person involved in, facilitating or supporting crimes against humanity to seek redemption but it’s not likely and it certainly shouldn’t be a facile process.
It is right that people should attend and discuss the plays of Laurence McKeown but no one with a shred of decency should socialise with him and no journalist with the smallest commitment to truth should so trivialise crimes against humanity as to let them pass without comment in a redemption tale.
Bluntly, when civilians are targeted, it is a crime against humanity. When a story concerns crimes against humanity, they must become the story. Anything less reveals a perverse sense of priority.
Miriam O’Callaghan’s radio programme this morning (Sunday, 2nd March 2014) had three interviews*. One with Jimmy Guerin, the brother of murdered journalist, Veronica Guerin, whose acknowledged killer, John Gilligan, was injured last night when attackers attempted to murder him**. The second interview was with Jerry Hall, the model and actor. The third interview was with Tommy McKearney, convicted murderer, IRA member and hunger striker.
The Jerry Hall interview served as something of an insulator between two poles of editorial policy. The man suspected of the murder of Veronica Guerin, received no sympathy. There was absolutely no doubt that the editorial approach was condemnation; there was no desire to understand or to find redeeming features in John Gilligan or his actions. However, from the introduction when Tommy McKearney was described as “on active service” with the IRA, the third interview was not about murder but about exploring how this “gentle man” had come to murder/kill postman, Stanley Adams, his subsequent participation in a hunger strike and his thoughts on Northern Ireland.
At the close of the programme Miriam read out texts from listeners who thought that the Tommy McKearney interview lacked balance; they wondered why a family member of his victim or someone opposed to the IRA had not been interviewed. No text appeared asking why a family member of John Gilligan had not been interviewed. Here’s the thing: Balance is a fine convention in the coverage of a public controversy; it applies to two sides of a story, to contending political arguments. Paradoxically, however, when one decides that balance is applicable to an issue, one has taken sides in a most basic debate. That is the debate about what is a matter of public controversy and what is not, i.e. what is political and what is not. There is no way out of making an editorial decision so basic.
In the case of Miriam’s programme the editorial decision was that Veronica Guerin’s killing was not a matter of public controversy – was not political – but that the killing of Stanley Adams (Postman and a member of the UDR) was a matter of public controversy, was political. From the moment that balance is thought to apply there is no way back; the realm of politics has been entered – a realm of acceptable discussion – and in this instance the killing of a postman was brought within the consensus of what is acceptable as a matter for discussion.
While there are no details as yet as to the motivations of the murderers of the English soldier at Woolwich, the web is already alive with opponents and defenders of Islam. More significantly for those of us who value public discourse, many thoughtful and tolerant people are taking the position that Islam – and by extension all religion – is not a problem. Paradoxically it is this kind of blanket tolerance that can lead to trouble.
For as long as religion is “respected” in public discourse, particular religions will be attacked because of the actions and statements of their most extreme adherents.
When we discuss values and matters concerning values, religion has to be ignored and certainly cannot be allowed become a trump card. For example, debates about abortion cannot be side-tracked by stuff about respect for catholic beliefs and nastiness to gays cannot be permitted because the speaker believes in Islam. When a society takes seriously claims that something should be or not be because God or a prophet said so, it encourages belief as opposed to argument. Every single cruel, divisive and – yes! – inegalitarian belief should be hauled out from under religious cloaks and tackled.
When that has been established, we can say with some confidence that an act of barbarity had nothing to do with religion.