Casuistry of Blood: Fighting for Freedom?

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

“I am not made for politics because I am incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary.” Albert Camus, Notebooks 1945.

Recently, I seem to have been often discussing, with contacts in England, Ireland and Sri Lanka, moral issues relating to the use of violence. Some of the comment following the death of Nelson Mandela heightened this.

A friend in suburban England frets at what he sees about Sri Lanka on Channel 4 News. My friend made a token knee-jerk to the idea that people should make life bearable on this lonely rock in the vast universe by just getting along nicely together and not fighting. However, he also set up some kind of dichotomy between “so-called” terrorists and the “self-righteous” governments that try to put them down. My friend also trotted out that old trope about “state terrorism”. Pity the state that does not have the monopoly of violence. One would hope that a democratically elected government would exercise violence proportionately.

Albert Camus was conscious of the dilemma faced by the pacifist. He wrote in 1948: “I merely say that we must refuse all legitimacy to violence, whether it comes from raison d’état or totalitarian philosophy. Violence is both unavoidable and unjustifiable.” In his native Algeria, both the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) rebels and the French colonial forces used torture. By September 1956, it was official FLN policy to attack civilians. One of the FLN leaders, Ramdane Abane, said, “One corpse in a jacket is always worth more than twenty in uniform.” Urban bombings became widespread. Camus wrote: “Each side thus justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries. This is a casuistry of blood with which intellectuals should, I think, have nothing to do, unless they are prepared to take up arms themselves.”


A Sri Lankan contact justifies the use of violence by the IRA, who, he claims, were “fighting” to throw off 800 years of British oppression. Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president, recently made a pathetic attempt to steal some of the respect granted to Nelson Mandela. As Irish historian, Ruth Dudley Edwards, put it: “As any aspiring starlet knows, it helps to be seen with people more popular and famous than yourself.” Kader Asmal, the organiser of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement for three decades and later a minister in Mandela’s government, spoke of the help the IRA gave its military wing in the bombing of an oil refinery in 1980.

Yes, Mandela was associated with violence. Mandela was one of the founders of Umkhonto we Sizwe – Spear of the Nation – the ANC’s armed wing. In his statement at the Rivonia Trial, Mandela said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”  Mandela did not die then and neither did the vile racists governing the country. Mandela did not object to attacks on burger bars and amusement arcades and refused to repudiate the armed struggle in 1985 when he was offered his freedom. As with the Provisional IRA, Hezbollah and LTTE attacks, most ANC victims were not politicians or military but women and children.

In the real world, there are some situations where democratic processes are not available to an oppressed population and violence seems the only option. Apartheid South Africa and occupied Palestine might fit this description. However, what kind of violence was appropriate?

Sinn Fein spokespeople declare that, like the ANC, they reluctantly adopted violence because there was no other route to equality for nationalists. However, Northern Ireland was not like apartheid South Africa or occupied Palestine. The Catholic minority did suffer discrimination. There were peaceful non-violent movements whose objective was to redress these wrongs. The Provisional IRA, whose main concern was not civil rights, hijacked them. Although they assumed for themselves the role of protectors of the Catholic population, their agenda was to emulate the republican martyrs of yesteryear and to fight for a united Ireland. This degenerated into atrocity and criminality. Historian Marc Mulholland thoroughly researched documents from the 60s and struggled to believe how the issues of that time were worth 30 years of murderous mayhem.

The majority did not support the 1916 rising. It was a conspiracy within a conspiracy; a secret plot by seven IRB members. Catholics in the south did have the vote and the General Election of 1918 was essentially a nationalist vote against conscription. It was a mandate for political struggle but not for the murder of Irish policemen, loyalists and ex-servicemen. The majority of IRA actions were simply assassinations.

Fintan O’Toole has written: “There is a place beyond civility and morality, beyond compassion and sympathy. There are circumstances throughout history in which many otherwise ordinary people come to inhabit that place. They find within themselves a capacity, not just to do terrible things to other human beings, but to be thrilled and exhilarated by those acts.” The Sinn Fein IRA position seems to be that even when they murdered  children, it was always someone else’s fault. The IRA men are heroes and the only victims are themselves. What kind of violence was appropriate to achieve civil rights for the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland? What kind of violence was appropriate to achieve a united Ireland? How should “freedom fighters” combat an oppressive state?

Jennifer McNern was 21 when she went with her sister, Rosaleen, into Belfast for an afternoon’s shopping in March 1972, finishing with coffee in the Abercorn Restaurant. A bomb exploded. She woke up a week later, missing both her legs. Her sister lost two legs, and an arm.  Fourteen limbs were amputated that day and two girls died. More than 130 people were injured. A policeman said:  “All you could hear was the moaning and squealing and the people with limbs torn from their bodies”.  McNern is once again afraid that unelected dissident republicans will set off street bombs in Northern Ireland.

Gerry Adams very publicly carried the coffin of Thomas Begley during his funeral in Ardoyne. Perhaps he had to do this to maintain the credibility that enabled him to carry forward the peace process. Begley’s own bomb killed him on 23 October 1993. The IRA intended to assassinate loyalist paramilitary leaders, who were to be meeting in a room above Frizzell’s chip shop on Shankill Road, Belfast. The blast killed nine other people and 57 were injured. Raymond Elliot helped shovel the unrecognisable flesh into brown bags. “There were body parts stuck to the wall, blood and guts. People’s insides were lying there. I saw somebody’s scalp. Adrenalin kept me going. I was no hero. These people, my friends and neighbours, were reduced to that.” Twenty years later, he takes 19 tablets a day. He still sees a psychiatrist.

Martin McGuinness has called for information about undiscovered remains of the Disappeared. He said that The IRA’s secret killing and burying of victims accused of passing information to the British security services was cruel and unjustified: “What happened to those families was totally and absolutely wrong. I believe it was cruel, I believe it was unjustified. Of course the IRA were responsible.” McGuinness could not put his IRA past behind him when he sought to be elected president of the Republic of Ireland. Although he has committed himself to peace and democratic politics, people on both sides of the border, Protestant and Catholic, found it hard to forget his role in the IRA.

Isaiah Berlin warns us to be sceptical when governments violate rights, ostensibly in pursuit of freedom. We should resist those sea-green incorruptibles, whether they are dictators or dissidents,   who self-righteously claim a monopoly of virtue. Berlin is against those who crave certainty, simplicity, and uniformity and who treasure the conviction of their own righteousness. He is against those who argue that the ends justify the means, that what you suffer during a revolution, what you suffer under a totalitarian dictatorship is worthwhile because of a good outcome in the future.

Despite the undoubted if not definitive success of the Good Friday Agreement, a handful of unelected die-hards do not want peace. They want to create new martyrs for Ireland. Is there an inevitable regression from Northern Irish Catholics suffering discrimination, to innocent English (and Irish) people being blown to giblets while enjoying a drink with friends?

Camus wrote: “we must refuse to justify these methods [reprisals and torture] on any grounds whatsoever, including effectiveness. Once one begins to justify them, even indirectly, no rules or values remain.” He addressed the FLN: “No matter what cause one defends, it will suffer permanent disgrace if one resorts to blind attacks on crowds of innocent people.”