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DAMNATIO MEMORIAE is a modern Latin phrase which usually refers to excluding or deleting someone from official accounts – from history -because typically their actions were shameful or not compatible with a country’s myths. It reflects the weakness and fear of a state; it is an official, wiping condemnation of a memory.

There is, however, an alternative meaning: memory as condemnation, purposely remembering so as to make sure that despicable people and actions are never forgotten. This wholly different meaning is an official recognition of shame and is a reflection of the strength and confidence of a state.

The difference between the two interpretations of DAMNATIO MEMORIAE suggests a way to remember officially the actions of the Provisional IRA and its supporters, while preserving the dignity of the nation and the country’s international standing.

Since the Good Friday Agreement the establishment or conventional view is that Sinn Féin should be facilitated in moving into mainstream politics. This usually involves treating them as one would any political party and making as little mention as possible of their support for and affinity with the IRA, previously the Provisional IRA.

Now, the campaign waged by the IRA was dominated by intentional attacks on – deliberate targeting of – civilians by way of gun attacks but most spectacularly by way of bombing public places. In short, the essence of their campaign was the commission of war crimes.

Sinn Féin’s project to become a mainstream political party might work if they were prepared to put the IRA behind them but they’ve created a problem: they want the Provisional IRA to be honoured in Irish history, recognised as having fought an admirable war against a colonial oppressor.

The IRA of course is not unique in committing war crimes; it may well be true that all armies have their own murky, shameful history. Colonial armies, national armies or indeed armies involved in wars commonly regarded as praiseworthy, like that against Nazi Germany, without doubt commit atrocities – war crimes – and yet are celebrated, made a part of their national story or myth. However, they tend to exhibit shame and try to ignore or cover up the crimes. Those in the UK who stand before the Cenotaph or wear their poppies know full well that there were atrocities and for the sake of commemorating heroics or what they see as honourable battle, they ignore the atrocities. It is a case of damnatio memoriae in its conventional sense; don’t mention that which was criminal and shameful.

This is not a course open to the IRA or Sinn Féin for the simple reason that their war consisted too largely of war crimes, especially public bombings. In other words, were they to brush away or “forget” the war crimes, there would be too little left that could be considered honourable. To gain acceptance as a mainstream party Sinn Féin had a choice: i) push the recent IRA war and their support for it into the past and hope that it will be largely forgotten or ii) have it accepted as an honoured part of Irish history by convincing the nation to accept war crimes as part of our identity.

Journalism – media generally – gives SF every opportunity to avoid the shameful memory. Their statements, policies, events are covered as news while studiously avoiding mention of dead and disfigured civilians and the desire to commemorate the perpetrators as Irish heroes. Irish media are committed to the normalisation of SF, making them part of the political process. However, what journalists want to normalise and what Sinn Féin wants to normalise are irreconcilable; journalists want to forget, while SF wants to honour.

There is in any event too much that is shameful and fearful in the contrived loss of memory which most of the “establishment” now favours. It is unworthy of modern Ireland which is quite capable of saying that, like other nations, we have shameful parts of our history but unlike many, we have the stability and confidence not simply to recognise truth but to memorialise it.

It is repugnant to think that a civilised, decent people would ever honour someone who would place or attempt to place a bomb in a public place, or admit into ordinary company or discourse someone who would support or attempt to dignify such an unambiguous war crime. The Irish however are heading towards that outcome: official acceptance – normalisation – of barbaric events and despicable people. The established view is that SF is to be normalised because it has shed its past. The SF view is that their past and that of the IRA is honourable and worthy of normalisation. The SF view is likely to prevail because paradoxically in the interests of peace and normalisation, there is a reluctance – bordering on censorship – to discuss what exactly is to be accepted as normal, mainstream.

There can be a different outcome but it will involve a struggle to ensure that bombing public places or supporting such attacks on civilians will never be accepted – never mind, honoured – in Ireland. It starts by establishing as mainstream not just occasional and ritual condemnation of Irish war crimes but an intention to remember, immortalise, those crimes as Ireland’s shameful exception. It is DAMNATIO MEMORIAE in the second sense, the creation of memory as condemnation. It is, yes, to Sinn Féin’s desire for official recognition of the IRA’s campaign but on the terms of a decent and civilised nation. In short, the Irish state must have commemorative events, memorial plaques, monuments to highlight Irish war crimes explicitly as war crimes, to say that like all other nations we have among us those who fall far short of the standards expected of our people and we will not forget them or quietly pretend that they never existed.

State recognition, commemoration and memorialisation of the evil done in Ireland’s name would embolden quiet, decent citizens who might become comfortable with the confrontations necessary to let it be known that they will never accept as normal someone who would do less than unreservedly condemn public bombing.

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*  “Commemorate” may not be a term that seems appropriate here as it usually suggests pride or joy. However it also suggests that an occasion is marked by observances that remind one of the origin and significance of the event. 

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Progressives – even socialists – too often face condemnation for associating with “terrorists”* with whom they may find a degree of common cause, e.g. in being anti-imperialist. The condemnation is usually met with wounded innocence and emphasis on their opposition to violence. They argue that ending violence involves talking to killers, while their critics see them as simply dishonest. Of course some may indeed be dishonest but taking what they say at face value, it is more plausible that they are naive, friendly and courteous, making a very silly, basic and public error.

The UK Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, offers a good start to a short discussion. He was quoted in the New Statesman (7th Sept. 2018)**, “It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table…”

John McDonnell could have said otherwise, “It was the targeting of civilians and the sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table…” and that would be equally true.


He might even have said, “It was the war crimes/crimes against humanity and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table…” and that too would be true.

You see, the problem is not that Labour Leaders or anyone would talk to those who choose civilian targets. Talking may be necessary to stop the killing and of course democrats will condemn violence. The problem arises i) when democrats are pictured not in talks with but socialising and befriending perpetrators, their leaders and supporters; or ii) are quoted using euphemisms (e.g. struggle or campaign) for intentional targeting of civilians. When democrats act in this way, they play their part in normalising the barbarity they routinely condemn. They also alienate decent people who would never socialise with a perpetrator, supporter or apologist for crimes against humanity. Thus progressive or socialist positions can be mired with the blood and tissue of civilians.

In brief, it’s like this for John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and indeed for everyone else: whether you are talking to war criminals, trying to understand them or discussing their place in history, you must stand resolutely opposed. You must always be unambiguously on the side of rudimentary civilisation against ALL those who would ever consider that targeting civilians is other than the most shameful barbarism.

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* The definition of terrorism is contested. Here’s a short look at it in relation to the Irish 1916 – 2016 commemorations: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2015/10/21/1916-2016-time-to-talk-and-end-the-confusion-over-terrorism/

** https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/economy/2018/09/who-real-john-mcdonnell

Recently on Facebook Mark Hennessy, News Editor at the Irish Times, became cross with me. I had criticised a journalist I admire for failing over decades of interviews to ask Jerry Adams about the decision of the IRA to target civilians. Mark felt that it was unreasonable to expect journalists to go on about the troubles in every article concerning SF. It’s not the first time this has been said to me and it’s time I addressed it.

Among all of the policies, views, topics etc. that SF addresses today one is utterly unique. They want to commemorate and celebrate the campaign of the Prov. IRA. Some of their members may prefer that this looking back stopped but they are aware that a part of their support base requires it, that forgetting it might split their movement or might even prompt a group to violence. Some others may see the campaign as honourable and worthy of celebration.

There is a simple reason why a desire to celebrate the IRA is loathsome. Like all combatants, the IRA thought about it and selected their targets. At some stage they decided that civilians were to be their targets. Over decades they persisted with this as public bombing – among other civilian killing – followed public bombing until it characterised their campaign. SF point out that civilians regrettably die in all conflicts. This is true. It is equally true that the intentional targeting of civilians is regarded as an unambiguous war crime. SF today want to celebrate this campaign.

There are of course Irish citizens who think that civilian targeting was acceptable in the Irish context or that it is a staple of asymmetric warfare and they are fine with its celebration. There are other Irish citizens who will view the celebration of a campaign of war crimes as relatively unimportant and will support SF because of other policies or issues. In order for SF support to grow, however, a large number of Irish citizens will have to come to accept that such celebration is normal or harmlessly eccentric.

We are talking about normalisation and this is where all citizens – but journalists especially – have to think long and hard. To begin with, we have to decide if we want the celebration of war crimes to be accepted as a normal or indeed as a merely eccentric feature of Irish life. If we do not, then we have to resist its being normalised.

There are two ways in which something is made normal. It happens firstly when it receives little or no adverse comment. In Ireland most citizens have been drawn into using a sanitised lexicon in which targeting civilians is hidden; we talk of war, troubles, unrest etc. – anything to avoid calling a spade a spade. Secondly, it happens by way of acceptance: a person or organisation is tolerated to the extent that they can take part in all of the nation’s conversations as if all of their viewpoints were within the bounds of acceptability. When the speaker is presented as normal, it is implied that their parcel of views is normal. Bluntly, normalisation proceeds every time a SF speaker offers a view, or they are reported or discussed and no one refers to their celebration of war crimes.

A journalist will respond by saying that news and current affairs cannot be disrupted and possibly made boring by constantly harping back to an old issue. Generally speaking this is a sound point. However, the subject here is extraordinary and could of course be treated as an editorial exception, having nothing whatsoever to do with day to day journalism. It is, moreover, for SF not an extraneous but a defining issue and it is not old, it is current.

There is a small number of extreme views which a civilised society cannot normalise and which therefore fall neither within the confines of media practice nor the routines of polite company.* No journalist or any citizen should let pass an opportunity to strike against exceptional barbarity. Obversely anyone holding an exceptionally barbaric view should expect it to be raised in most if not all situations.

Normalisation is an ordinary and familiar part of everyday life but it has a dark side and its outcome always involves struggle. It has delivered many of the features of progressive, tolerant society. It is the process through which previously excluded minorities together with perspectives, beliefs and practices, once thought to be vile, become unremarkable and accepted. None of this happens without resistance and opposition, and the media provide the arena in which each tussle is played to a stable conclusion.

Normalisation, however, is not necessarily progressive. It has a dark side because by that same process – again, with media playing a central role – a decent society can be so poisoned that large numbers of citizens accept or turn a blind eye to depraved actions and expressions.

The outcomes – progressive or poisonous – are decided by struggle. The danger of course is that a struggle might be smothered because media/journalism as an institution fails to create and stage a public controversy for the citizens they serve. That danger is increased when those seeking normalisation are adept at using the values, codes, practices, conventions and obligations of journalism to prevent a public controversy.

This is now where we are with SF and Irish journalism. SF wants to expand support while holding the view that their celebration of the IRA’s campaign of war crimes is normal, routine, something that is to be accepted and most certainly not to be a matter of continuing public controversy, brought up every time they appear in news or utter a comment.

It’s impossible to know how many but some journalists at least may take the view that such celebration is neither normal, routine nor accepted but that the journalist’s role is to report the news and comment on current affairs as defined by elite “news-makers”. When it comes to extraordinary depravity, that level of passivity falls far short of professional performance in support of the republic and its citizens.

Let it be said clearly that for as long as SF persist in celebrating war crimes a journalist covering them in any way who decides to avoid raising this horror, is facilitating its normalisation.

Many citizens remain steadfast ** and for them it is unthinkable firstly that Ireland could ever accept the commemoration and celebration of war crimes becoming ordinary – becoming part of what we are – and secondly that those who would do such a thing could be allowed among us without being told repeatedly that they should be ashamed of themselves, and that they are a disgrace to the nation.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/day-to-day-conversation-and-the-struggle-for-decency/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/the-division-between-supporters-of-sf-and-other-irish-people-is-and-ought-to-be-fundamental/

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