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At this late stage it may seem unforgiving to argue that membership of or support for Sinn Féin cannot be made a routine, acceptable matter. It may seem too to be dwelling in the past or indeed to be showing a preparedness to risk the peace process. However, the problem with SF is not that it is an organisation putting a criminal or military past behind it. The problem is a great deal more serious; there can be no question of tolerance for anyone or any group with a history or record of involvement in or support for crimes against humanity. The true nature of what is now whitewashed as “the armed struggle” creates a categorical difference and places SF among those parties whose 20th century horrors make their existence in the 21st century an affront to civilisation.

SF argue not merely that the IRA has ceased to exist and that they are fully committed to peace, they also argue that the terrible things which happened during the troubles or the armed struggle were typical of wars anywhere and are best forgotten, that it is time to move on. Their proposition is that a war has ended and that its participants were good people caught up in a conflict and can now return to civilian life. This is a parody which decent people will never accept.

There is, however, a moderate case that wrongdoing should be forgiven and forgotten. That can apply to all manner of offence from traffic violations, through thievery and on to murder but it cannot apply to crimes against humanity. Such crime is a category in itself; it involves not an offence against the person or the state but against everyone and against what it means to be human. It cannot be tolerated, forgiven or be wiped away by a local peace deal. Perpetrators, their commanders and facilitators must be hunted for the rest of their lives; they must know that they risk being treated like those frail, old people finally apprehended decades after the end of WW2. Their supporters must never be allowed fully to enjoy the society of ordinary people.

There is variety in the pit of horrors that faces anyone looking at crimes against humanity and war crimes but one thing stands out: the intentional targeting of civilians. Let something be absolutely clear: all combatants select targets, they make a choice. Some choose civilians. That is to say, they choose to kill civilians rather than soldiers. 

SF will say that the IRA was involved in a war of liberation, that they were fighting an army of occupation and crucially they will claim that civilians unfortunately die in all wars. Yes, civilians die in wars but when they are intentionally targeted, it is deemed a war crime, a crime against humanity.

Furthermore, the IRA campaign was not a military campaign blighted by the unfortunate deaths of civilians. Neither was it a military campaign during which war crimes were committed, crimes which dishonoured the majority of the fighting force. Rather it was a campaign in which civilians were routinely chosen as targets; the preference for civilian deaths was punctuated by military engagements.* The reality of the IRA’s armed struggle is a hideous inversion of SF’s warrior tale.

The Good Friday Agreement approved by the majority of Irish people involved among other features an end to IRA attacks in return for the Irish and UK states’ virtual amnesty for perpetrators, commanders and facilitators. It did not absolve, forgive or change the horror; it was a deal approved by citizens under duress. The IRA’s campaign remains a sordid series of crimes against humanity which was and is approved by SF. The Good Friday Agreement does not oblige any Irish citizen to join or vote for SF. Neither does it oblige any Irish citizen to engage socially with members and supporters of SF.

Well, there’s a small caveat. There is a constant low-level threat to end the “peace process”. In other words, if SF is denied what it sees as its rightful place within the establishment of a peaceful Ireland, that might lead somehow – despite the disbandment of the IRA – to renewed violence.

Their view is that SF must be successful and opposition – especially being truthful about their position in support for crimes against humanity – constitutes opposition to the peace process. Citizens are expected to accept the goblin tale of an honourable armed struggle, worthy of remembrance, even celebration. Dissent is met with anger and cries of betrayal.

SF has recruited many members, quite a few of them born after the end of IRA violence and enjoys the support of roughly 15 – 20% of voters. These people are not deluded, mistaken or intimidated. They are aware of what they are doing, they are making informed decisions, but their feigned innocence is aided by a common thread among journalists: that SF needs to break with its past by changing its leaders. It is a particularly sneaky argument which pretends that a veil of ignorance and innocence separates older from younger members. The reality is that those who might replace the current leaders joined the organisation before the killings stopped. Their present finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty, joined the year that Garda McCabe was murdered, a year in which civilians were bombed in Britain. It might then be argued that skipping a generation of potential leaders would work. However, a look at the celebrations on the election of their MEPs reveals pictures of Lynn Boylan hoisted on the shoulders of an alleged bomber. Her partner, Eoin O’Broin, is the SF spokesperson on Housing, Planning & Local Government. It is ludicrous to suggest that such people were unaware of the nature of their chosen party and do not now discuss it.

There are even younger members who, it is argued, were born years after the killings had stopped and who know nothing of the crimes. This is patronising nonsense which rests on the plainly silly suggestion that the decision to join a political party is a trivial matter, done without thought. Not so. When a young person joins a party, it is deliberate, a choice, the selection of one party from among others.

A similar range of choice faces voters of whom something in the region of 20% choose SF. It is this figure that reveals the extent of a dark stain on Irish society. A variety of evasions is offered to explain that these citizens are innocent of support for any kind of violence, never mind crimes against humanity.

It is said that at this remove from the ceasefire they know nothing of what happened or regard it as a history which should now be ignored. It is said that while they are aware of the crimes, they are voting for current policies and/or personalities, or are voting tactically against a despised government. It is argued that SF has become socialist or vaguely leftist and their relatively large support offers the possibility of a left-alliance majority government.

These are the arguments of those who despise ordinary citizens, who regard them as utterly uninformed, incapable of reasoned voting. That’s simply not true, though there are voters who may try to avoid responsibility by feigning ignorance. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of voters – including SF voters – are well aware of what they are doing.

The line that the past does not matter or matters less than current concerns merits consideration. It cannot be uncoupled from a clear look at what is being said not to matter or is being rated as relatively unimportant. Past involvement in minor transgressions or petty crime could be deemed unimportant with the passage of time. Major crime or even murder might be so regarded in some well argued circumstance. However, choosing to target civilians – crimes against humanity – time and again can never be disregarded. Similarly, when it comes to voting intentions, the very idea that such crimes could be less important than a policy or programme is abhorrent to civilised thinking.

It is time that Irish citizens paid attention to this phenomenon. Rather than pretend that it is something innocuous or some sort of misunderstanding or mistake, face it: a sizeable minority in Ireland are not overly concerned that a party with a record of support for a campaign of crimes against humanity continues to exist and/or they approve of that campaign.

There is an obligation on the rest of us to stand up for a basic point of civilisation: that the targeting of civilians is unforgivable. In this republic each citizen faces the decision of whether or not to acquiesce, to socialise without dissent with the one fifth of citizens who do not accept that point.


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* It might be pointed out that of the deaths attributed to nationalist paramilitaries the ratio of security force to civilian casualties is not as bad as the ratios for loyalists or the security forces. However, three things must be emphasised. Firstly, the numbers killed by nationalists were greater. Secondly, the people injured – often hideously so – numbered in the tens of thousands. In discussion of casualties they generally receive relatively little attention and they were overwhelmingly civilian. Thirdly, the bombings of public places which characterised the conflict were repeated instances of a choice of targeting civilians.

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.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/a-former-ira-gunman-and-hunger-striker-tells-his-story-1.2754240

There is a courtroom scene in the movie, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It shows an IRA court operating during the war of independence. It’s probably accurate. That’s how they did things. The sentences ranged from rough to death.

The IRA justice system operates by excluding existing state personnel from an area or a “community” as it’s more usually called these days and making the citizens who reside there dependent for their security on SF/IRA volunteers/staff.

This is what Gerry Adams was talking about when commenting on the scandalous IRA treatment of rape victim, Mairia Cahill. He said that during the “troubles” the IRA was the police force in many nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. He is referring to their success in excluding the police (RUC) and setting up a rival to the state’s system of justice.

Leaving the question of legitimacy aside, there are problems of course with this kind of justice. Obviously, without the state law, institutions, personnel and expertise which are built up over centuries, the penalties imposed are bound to be quick, cheap and often brutal. However, victims and others seeking justice would also fall foul of the shambolic system. Both problems are well illustrated in recent SF statements.

Firstly, Gerry Adams is revealing in attempting to find virtue in brutality. “In an article published on his blog, Mr Adams outlined how republicans dealt with allegations of child abuse, saying that the IRA on occasion shot alleged sex offenders or expelled them.” – http://www.rte.ie/news/2014/1020/653455-mairia-cahill/

Now, it’s remotely possible that Gerry Adams is being clever in cynically using this scandal to cement the support of right wing voters who would favour corporal and capital punishment. It is almost certain, however, that he is being genuine. That is to say, he really does think that shooting offenders is evidence of a serious concern over sex abuse.

Secondly, SF explicitly uses the incompetence of the IRA investigators/judges to explain the dreadful treatment of sex abuse victims. Dessie Ellis, the Sinn Fein TD, says that while the IRA carried out criminal investigations, “To be honest they were not qualified to deal with something like sexual abuse.” – http://www.herald.ie/news/sinn-fein-td-ira-held-internal-probes-into-serious-crimes-30673144.html

Apart from the similarity here to the Catholic Church’s response to sex abuse, and the sordid implication that they feel they were competent when sentencing citizens to beating, maiming or execution, they seem to be at least aware that their justice system had its limitations.

It is also likely or at least plausible that their system never had as its objective the delivery of justice but that like terrorism its purpose was to convey a message to the state that its writ did not run in certain areas and to the people that there was a new authority.

Incidentally, some anti-water meter activists have learned from the IRA’s alternative-state approach. They want to alienate citizens from their police force (An Garda), portray the “community” as in conflict with the state, and insinuate “activists” as the voice of and leaders of the community. – https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/citizens-need-to-talk-about-a-contentious-suggestion-which-is-reported-regularly-by-an-uncritical-media/

The activists who organise resistance to the installation of water meters regularly put forward a contentious proposition in the media but journalists/presenters seldom – perhaps never – challenge them.

They contend that work within, passage through or policing of a housing estate requires the consent of the community. It’s a familiar concept in Northern Ireland but is new to this part of Ireland. Moreover, “community consent” is determined by activists not all of whom live in the particular community.

The model put forward is of communities under siege from something akin to an occupying force and dependent on cadres which know what’s best and will protect them. It is a model which has simply no relevance to Ireland today.

The protesters mount a token blockade to prevent water meter installers’ trucks gaining access and then they obstruct the installation of meters. They offer little resistance, however, and allow the Gardaí to push them aside. Given the small numbers of protesters and Gardaí, it might seem odd to treat this seriously. It may, however, be a growing phenomenon, beginning to border on dangerous. There are already activists who regard a residential area as their territory and will attempt to drive off rivals and those who belong to the political parties who generally support the state.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as the actions of fantasists in thrall to anti-state struggles which occurred and still occur in Northern Ireland but there is a component to this which reflects badly and damages the credibility of the left. It too attracts the fantasist but of a slightly different kind. Unfortunately it has roots in Marxism and makes Marx appear ridiculous at a time when his work should be relevant.

There is a tendency particularly among Marxists with middle class origins to both misunderstand working class and romanticise anything that seems popular. When, therefore, a significant number of people take up a position, there is an assumption that they are progressive as long as they can be labelled “ordinary working people”, that they need to be led and if they are opposing the state, so much the better. At its most benign this draws some leftists into the routine form of Irish populism. However, the romance of involvement in something that looks a bit like revolt draws them close to and into competition with the fantasists mentioned earlier, those who want to do battle with the state.

All in all, the notion that the Irish people are at war with their own state needs to be questioned and discussed publicly in Irish media. It is an abandonment of public service merely to report on or give coverage to a proposition so contentious. It is an abandonment too of citizens who do not think they are opponents of the Irish state.

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.

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* http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A10256460%3A15946%3A02%2D03%2D2014%3A
** http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/02/veronica-guerin-suspect-shot

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.