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Tag Archives: war crime

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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All too often journalists support the view that ISIS killers come from a dark, incomprehensible savagery and that they are utterly unlike the ordinary decent terrorists we used to know in the 20th century. After the 2017 murder of the children at the Manchester concert there was a harking back to the IRA bomb in 1996 which had fewer casualties but did more infrastructural damage.

Possibly the most egregious expression of this vile nonsense came from Stuart Maconie, writing in New Statesman.* He sees “no credible comparison” between the jihadi attack of 2017 and the IRA attack of 21 years earlier. Whereas the intentional selection of civilians as targets is an unambiguous war crime/crime against humanity, he clearly does not agree or he regards such crimes as sometimes understandable.

Certainly the likes of the IRA killed differently to ISIS but the argument that one is better or more acceptable than the other rests on two propositions that are utterly unacceptable. One refers to the respective methods of killing; the other to justification.

Firstly, it is argued by Maconie in common with many others that giving warning of a bombing and expressing regret afterwards is a preferable course of action. The proposition is that, having planted a bomb in a public place, giving the potential victims a sporting chance of escape and then expressing regret over the casualties, somehow makes those responsible a better class of perpetrator.

Secondly, there is the proposition that the opprobrium attaching to the selection of a civilian target should be proportional to how reasonable a cause the attackers espouse. Now, this is a thoroughly disreputable and selective form of outrage; it seeks the acceptance of war crimes in pursuit of a favoured end. Maconie is quite explicit. He argues that, while the IRA did not have the support of Manchester’s large Catholic and Irish population, their attack was not so bad because that population would have been familiar with the claims of Irish nationalism. He puts it thus:

These families and pubs and streets may not have sympathised with the IRA but their aims and their struggle would have been a familiar thread of family life and local culture. Those aims did not seem unreasonable to many: a united homeland, free of an occupying military colonial presence.

The ISIS attack on civilians, he reckons, was worse not because of the numbers or ages of the victims but because no “sane” person understands them:

By contrast, it is hard for anyone sane to comprehend what Isis or its deranged “lone wolf” sympathisers can possibly want beyond their own martyrdom and an end to what we think of as civilisation. It is a new dark age.

Certainly the ISIS mindset is dark, foreign and medieval. They don’t ever express regret and their bizarre methods of torture and killing in the Middle East alienate and frighten Western citizens. However, when it comes to bombings and shootings directed at civilians, they are precisely the same as the IRA.

All combatants select targets. They choose military, infrastructural or civilian targets. Civilians often die when a military or infrastructural target is attacked. They become in that awful phrase collateral damage. However, when civilians are targeted, an unmbiguous war crime is committed. When a public place is targeted, a perverse argument can be offered, pretending that it was a commercial target, that civilian casualties represent collateral damage and are regretted – and in any event a warning was given so that they had a sporting chance of escape. That’s complete bollocks. A developed country is rich in commercial, infrastructural targets often miles from human habitation. Targeting a public place is a carefully considered decision and it is a war crime.


* New Statesman, 26 May – 1 June 2017, pgs. 26-27

Jeremy Corbyn is making a silly, unforced error in the way he looks to the wider context of the attack in Manchester, and it is the same error that saw him used by the IRA and SF.* There are two motivations for looking at context and JC simply must make it clear that his is one and that the other is reprehensible.

What happens before an outrage like that perpetrated in Manchester is that someone selects the target and then their associates participate to a greater or lesser extent. That is to say, there is deliberation leading to intention to cause civilian casualties. A military or industrial target could be selected but isn’t; the decision is to kill civilians. In short, there is a wilful choice to commit a crime against humanity. Because this is a matter of immediate target selection it cannot be justified, lessened or even explained by reference to context, circumstances or a wider struggle.

Now, there are thinking people who want to explore the wider context in which the act is situated and they most certainly should not be criticised – never mind condemned – for doing so. However, if they want to avoid the crude ridicule of feral bigots, they must be aware of the trap set for them.

You see, decent, thinking people are not the only ones looking at context. There are others looking and not in a thoughtful way but in a calculating way. The intention of these others is not to understand. Rather, they want to use context to deflect attention and responsibility away from the deliberate commission of mass murders. They want to so muddy the water that there is no difference between an attack on armed soldiers and bombing a concert hall, pub, restaurant or public place. Their objective is selective approval of some crimes against humanity. They know full well that they cannot hope for the support of anyone who holds that there is a categorical difference between a soldier/combatant and a war criminal.

A war crime cannot be explained away by reference to the cause of the war. Jeremy Corbyn can of course make this clear but his condemnation of an act or acts goes nowhere near making it clear. Neither is it enough for him to argue that for the sake of peace one must talk to one’s enemies because this implies negotiating with an honourable foe rather than the sort of person who would bomb a pub or would support such foulness. Of course one must talk and try to achieve an end to killing but Jeremy Corbyn like any decent person also has to reject explicitly the perverse doctrine that in conflict anything goes and that all civilian casualties are equally regrettable. There is an enormous difference between condemnation or saying that civilian casualties are regrettable and saying clearly that the targeting of civilians is always a war crime/crime against humanity.

In brief, it’s like this for Jeremy and indeed for everyone else: whether you are talking to them, 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.