(First published in The Dominion Post, May 29.)
There was a time when I didn’t quite know what to think about the Irish Republican Army.Before going any further, I should explain my background. My mother was of staunch Irish Catholic stock and I was raised in an environment soaked in Irish Catholicism.
I don’t recall Mum ever expressing a view on the Irish political question, but it probably wasn’t necessary. I was genetically programmed to feel sympathetic to Irish nationalists and to resent the English for what they had done to Ireland.Besides, I had leftist leanings in my younger days (didn’t we all?), and there was a certain romanticism about Irish revolutionaries and the heroic failure of their attempts to throw off British shackles.
Irish republicans became very adept at exploiting this romantic aura. In 1985, in the midst of the Troubles, I observed a big republican march on Belfast’s Falls Rd. Gerry Adams, who even then was the leader of the Sinn Fein party, was in the front row.Surrounding him were beaming Irish-American Catholic visitors, mostly from the Boston area – generous donors to the republican movement who were made a great fuss of by their hosts and who no doubt thought they were contributing to the holiest of causes.
Did it occur to them that their dollars might have paid for bombs that killed innocent people? I doubt it.I’m not sure exactly when I stopped thinking of the IRA as righteous freedom fighters. Initially I rationalised their acts of terrorism as terrible but defensible. I persuaded myself that sometimes the end justifies the means – a rationale that psychopathic ideologues have used as an excuse for all manner of abominable acts.
But eventually I arrived at an absolutely clear position from which I’ve never deviated since. This was that nothing justifies the killing of innocent people; not under any circumstances.No cause is so righteous that it entitles those pursuing it to take the lives of people, even children, who have done nothing wrong and probably have no power whatsoever to control events.
Of course that’s exactly what terrorists do. They achieve their goals by creating fear and by making it clear that they will go on committing atrocities until the other side loses its nerve and caves in.This holds true whether it’s in Baghdad, Paris or Northern Ireland (where, I should add, the IRA was not alone: the British Army shot 26 civilians in the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, and Protestant loyalists also killed indiscriminately).
You can argue about whether soldiers are legitimate targets. Soldiers enlist in the knowledge that their lives might be on the line. They have a choice.But ordinary citizens waiting for a bus, eating in a café or travelling on a plane have no say in their fate. Murdering them requires a complete forsaking of conscience and morality.
The worst of the Irish republican bombings took place in Omagh as recently as 1998. Twenty-nine people were killed and 220 injured. The bombing paradoxically accelerated progress toward a peace agreement because of the public revulsion it caused. It was a rare case of an unintended consequence being a good one.That terrorist act was carried out by an IRA splinter group which had parted company with the “official” leadership, but the bombing differed from IRA-endorsed atrocities only in scale. The nature of the act was the same.
Which brings me back to Gerry Adams. The Sinn Fein leader has denied repeated allegations that he was an IRA man, but the taint is there. It’s hard to imagine that a man who was for so long at the centre of the republican struggle isn’t stained with blood.What, then, are we to make of the highly publicised and carefully orchestrated handshake between Adams and Prince Charles, whose great-uncle Lord Mountbatten was killed by an IRA bomb?
Part of me wants to applaud the meeting as a testament to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.We already had the extraordinary example of the incongruous friendship that blossomed between the Protestant loyalist demagogue Ian Paisley and the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, whose rapport led to them being labelled the “Chuckle brothers” by the British media.
If those two formerly implacable enemies could bury the hatchet, what more appropriate sequel could there be than for the heir to the British throne to put aside Adams’ dodgy past and walk arm-in-arm with him, metaphorically speaking, into a golden future?But I’m not so sure. Some things are beyond forgiveness.