Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Nelson Mandela

Freedom Fighters, Terrorists and Ordinary Decent Criminals


This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday March 31 2015.


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The world was horrified recently at the news that a co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had deliberately flown his plane into a mountain killing 150 people. Many have commented that this was the ultimate expression of modern narcissism, a trend for suicidal people to want to take others with them without their consent. I wrote last week about how Kieran Conway, in a book in which he calls himself a “freedom fighter”, admitted responsibility for killing 21 innocent young people in the cause of a united Ireland. No one asked those young people what they thought about it. Terrorism is another kind of narcissism.

There are fuzzy boundaries between war, terrorism, crime, politics and business. Politicians use terms like “war on terrorism”, “war on crime”, “war on drugs”. Some might believe that this is part of a plan to militarise civil society. “Freedom fighters” easily morph into criminals as they resort to bank robberies and drug dealing to raise funds for the cause. Many once considered as terrorists later take their place in government.  In Ireland, there was Eamon De Valera and more recently Martin McGuinness. In Kenya there was Jomo Kenyatta; today his son is president and has had his case dropped by the International Criminal Court.

MIA made it into the news again the other day. It was not for any recent achievement but merely about a gripe that she regurgitated concerning the way Oprah Winfrey had treated her some time ago. Suggestions that MIA was terrorist sympathiser led to some people dragging out that old chestnut: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Whenever this is said, no definition of “freedom fighter” is offered. No examples of bona fide freedom fighters are presented except for Nelson Mandela.

Ronald Reagan called the Nicaraguan Contra rebels freedom fighters. Reagan also frequently called the Afghan Mujahedeen freedom fighters during their war against the Soviet Union, yet twenty years later, when a new generation of Afghan men fought against what they perceived to be a regime installed by foreign powers, George W Bush labelled their attacks “terrorism”.

Professor Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Ottawa’s Carleton University, says the phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” “is grossly misleading.” It assesses the validity of the cause when it should be addressing terrorism is an act. “One can have a perfectly beautiful cause and yet if one commits terrorist acts, it is terrorism regardless.

Distinguished scholars have devoted their lives to defining terrorism and have admitted failure. In the first edition of Political Terrorism: a Research Guide, Alex Schmid spent a hundred pages examining more than a hundred different definitions of terrorism. Four years and a second edition later, Schmid conceded in the first sentence of the revised volume that the “search for an adequate definition is still on”. Walter Laqueur despaired of defining terrorism in both editions of his  work on the subject, maintaining that it is neither possible to do so nor worthwhile to make the attempt.

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” seems to mean that state authorities sometimes delegitimize opponents, and legitimize the state’s own use of armed force. Critics call this “state terrorism”.

The UN’s attempts to define terrorism failed because of differences of opinion about the use of violence in the context of conflicts over national liberation and self-determination. Since 1994, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly condemned terrorist acts using the following political description of terrorism: “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable”.

Although, in the international community, terrorism has no legally binding, criminal-law definition, there are definitions of “terrorism”. A study on political terrorism examining over 100 definitions of “terrorism” found 22 separate definitional elements. These can be summarised thus: violent acts, which deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants, intended to create fear, perpetrated for a religious, political, or ideological goal.

Bruce Hoffman wrote: “By distinguishing terrorists from other types of criminals and terrorism from other forms of crime, we come to appreciate that terrorism is :

  • ineluctably political in aims and motives
  • violent – or, equally important, threatens violence
  • designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target
  • conducted by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure (whose members wear no uniform or identifying insignia) and
  • perpetrated by a subnational group or non-state entity.”


Everyone agrees that  terrorism is a pejorative term, with intrinsically negative connotations. Use of the term implies a moral judgment.  According to David Rodin, utilitarian philosophers can (in theory) conceive of cases in which the evil of terrorism is outweighed by the good that could not be achieved in a less morally costly way. Michael Walzer argued that terrorism can be morally justified in only one specific case: when “a nation or community faces the extreme threat of complete destruction and the only way it can preserve itself is by intentionally targeting non-combatants, then it is morally entitled to do so”.

Those dubbed “terrorists” by their opponents rarely identify themselves as such, preferring to use other terms such as separatist, freedom fighter, liberator, revolutionary, militant,  guerrilla, rebel,  or patriot.

The use of violent and brutal tactics by criminal organizations for protection rackets or to enforce a code of silence is usually not termed terrorism. However, “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” often use their capacity to intimidate to engage in similar activities to organised crime. While they were purportedly striving to reunite the six counties of Northern Ireland with the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, the Provisional IRA were also building up a criminal empire. While this might have begun as a means of financing the republican struggle, crime seemed to become an end in itself. The profits of crime might have been a reason for prolonging the conflict.

Raids on illegal distilleries in Ireland uncovered bottling and capping machinery and high- quality copies of brand labels. Many of the products were designed for use in pub optics. The IRA took the production of counterfeit spirits so seriously that it even had a quality control unit.

Conway writes about his participation in bank raids and gun battles. The IRA’s “elite robbery team” unit organised armed robberies using a tactic known as “tiger kidnapping”, where the family of an employee was held hostage to ensure co-operation. The unit played a central role in the theft of £26.5 million from the Northern Bank just before Christmas 2004 and organized three other robberies which netted a further £3 million in that  year.

According to Customs Revenue officers, about half of Northern Ireland’s filling stations sold fuel smuggled from the Irish Republic, where duty was considerably lower, at a cost to the Treasury of about £200 million a year. Fuel smuggling, much of it organized by the notorious South Armagh brigade, was probably the IRA’s single largest source of income.

The paramilitaries were involved in pirating DVDs and software and the IRA’s links with America gave it access to new releases. The IRA’s counterfeiting operations extended to fake football strips, designer clothes, power tools and a well-known brand of washing powder. A bottle of counterfeit perfume seized at a market was found to contain urine as a stabilizer.

Often the IRA invested as a silent partner in legitimate businesses. The IRA’s finance unit contributed to Belfast’s property boom by investing in houses.

The IRA received up to $6 million (£3.1 million) for helping to train  rebels in Colombia. The payment was allegedly negotiated by a former IRA “chief of staff” who had worldwide contacts — including in Libya, where republicans deposited some of the proceeds from their vast criminal empire.

The Irish gangster Martin Cahill was the subject of two feature films. In The General, Brendan Gleeson played him. In Ordinary Decent Criminals, Kevin Spacey played him. Cahill was involved in petty crime from an early age and turned to armed robbery after stealing arms from a police station. O’Connor’s jewellers at Harold’s Cross, Dublin was forced to close, with the loss of more than one hundred jobs after Cahill stole €2.55 million worth of gold and diamonds from the store.

In 1994, a gunman, who was armed with a .357 Magnum , shot Cahill in the face and torso, jumped on a motorbike and disappeared from the scene. The IRA said that it was Cahill’s “involvement with and assistance to pro-British death squads which forced us to act”. One theory is that John Gilligan, who was convicted of the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin (also shot by a motorcyclist), had Cahill killed because he was trying to get a slice of Gilligan’s drug profits.

Gilligan effectively had the complicit support of the Dublin IRA and had members of the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) in his pay. He was importing enough cannabis to make everybody rich. He was even importing small arms, which he passed on to republicans as sweeteners.

The IRA established links with organized crime in the same areas of the Costa del Sol where many of Dublin’s top “ordinary” criminals, the “Murphia”, lived. The Murphia became the wholesale middlemen and women who supplied parts of the UK drugs markets after developing links with their British counterparts.

The dissident republican group the Real IRA was responsible for murders, attempted murders and pipe bomb attacks in the Republic. The group is believed to be extorting millions of Euros from targeting drug dealers — as well as business people — in Dublin and Cork. The Real IRA have taken over many of the security and protection rackets once run by the Provos. The dissidents are also believed to be selling some of these bombs to gangs including criminal elements within the Travelling community.

The Provisional IRA funded its terrorist activities with bank robberies and protection rackets. Martin McGuinness was the IRA Commandant for Derry. He and Gerry Adams were prominent in the labyrinthine negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA laying down its arms. As a minister in the government of the statelet of Northern Ireland, McGuinness   visited Sri Lanka to advise us on peace and reconciliation. Sinn Fein, which used to be seen by voters in the Republic as the proxy of the Provisional IRA, is a major Opposition force in the Dáil today and is often mentioned as a possible coalition member of the government. Fiachra Gibbons, in the New Statesman, described Sinn Fein as “a kind of cross between Fianna Fáil and the Catholic Church, but with extra guns, paedophiles and front businesses.”

In Sri Lanka, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) was mainly dependent for funding in its early days on robberies and extortion.  Trading in gold, laundering money and dealing in narcotics brought the LTTE substantial revenue to buy sophisticated weaponry. They also played a role in providing passports, other papers, and also engaged in human trafficking

Those who carried out the Easter Rising in 1916 are seen in a romantic light compared to the bombers of today. However, like the bombers of today, they  believed they were entitled, although they were but a small unelected group of conspirators in a democratic country, to stage a revolution in which many innocent people were killed. “Armed struggle” generally means fanatics killing innocents by remote control. The whole point of terrorism is to induce fear among non-combatants. It is a bit rich for those committing these acts of terror against civilians to call themselves freedom fighters. Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public for political purposes are abhorrent, whatever political or philosophical justifications are presented.



Reconciliation in South Africa

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday May 27 2012.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established by the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995, has provided a model for other countries and generated a vast bulk of scholarly literature. Although there had been truth commissions before, the TRC was different in that its mandate was to go beyond truth-finding to promote national unity and reconciliation.

Peter Storey was past president of the Methodist Church of South Africa and of the South African Council of Churches. He was a member of the selection committee for the TRC. He wrote optimistically about it in 1999: “Perhaps other nations with wounded histories may find in South Africa a model for hope. As the international community comes to recognize that there is no peace without confronting the hurts of history and without the healing of national and ethnic memories, one nation’s attempt to do so may inspire ways in which God could bring newness in those lands too.”
In the April 30 2012 issue of the New Yorker there was an article by Philip Gourevitch entitled Unreconciled. This was a review of a novel called Absolution by Patrick Flanery. The novel is built around the TRC. Gourevitch writes that for the South Africans in the novel “the past is largely a source of anguish, and its torments are most acute when the facts are most elusive”.

In his description of South Africa in the 1980s, Gourevitch reminds us that Nelson Mandela was not always the cuddly secular saint that everybody loves now that he is 93. The guerrilla force of the African National Congress, MK – Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), was founded in 1961. Mandela was one of its founders and before he was imprisoned he was its commander-in-chief. MK’s main aim in those days was sabotage and they tried not to kill anyone. However, two decades later, Wimpy bars and amusement arcades were targeted. Mandela did not object and refused to repudiate the armed struggle in 1985 when he was offered his freedom. Even when he was released in 1990 he said that MK was formed as a “purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid”. He said that the struggle had to continue. So the defensive armed struggle included killing children in burger bars.

Story we believe today
The story we believe today is that South Africa became a democracy in a peaceful transition. The violence on both sides has been airbrushed out of the picture. This was part of the deal agreed upon. There would be no punitive justice. According to Gourevitch the purpose of the TRC was not retributive justice but to “extract from its witnesses a collective history with which to reconcile a divided country” .Of the TRC, Gourevitch writes: “But what if the truth is not comforting? What if the truth is useless? What if too much of that truth is irretrievably lost to the past, because the only people who knew it were killed by it?”

The effectiveness of the TRC was measured In a survey study by Jay and Erika Vora. They examined its usefulness in bringing out the truth of what had happened during the apartheid regime, the feelings of reconciliation that could be linked to the Commission, and the positive economic and political effects both domestically and internationally. Some said that the proceedings only helped to remind them of the horrors that had taken place in the past when they had been working to forget such things. Afrikaners perceived the TRC to be less effective in bringing out the truth than the English participants and much less effective than did the Xhosa. Some viewed the proceedings as inaccurate as many people would lie in order to keep themselves out of trouble or to get an amnesty. There was a feeling that ordinary victims were discriminated against in favour of high profile victims. The view was expressed that the hearings did not always capture the stories of ‘ordinary’ victims. It became apparent that many communities felt that they were left out and other communities were favoured over them. The TRC was perceived as having done good work elsewhere in the country.

Back in 1999, Storey had been optimistic: “The TRC has a number of unique features. First, it gives priority to victims rather than perpetrators. The Gross Human Rights Violations Committee hears the stories of victims across the land.”

Political expediency
Victims did not all see it that way. A 1998 study by South Africa’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group found that most believed that justice was a prerequisite for reconciliation rather than an alternative to it, and that the TRC had been weighted in favour of the perpetrators of abuse. There were strong feelings that perpetrators must be made to contribute materially and financially toward the reparation and rehabilitation of victims. Justice and punishment was still preferred to amnesty as a way of dealing with perpetrators. Steve Biko’s family described the TRC as a “vehicle for political expediency”, which “robbed” them of their right to justice. John Pilger criticised the TRC for allowing the easy transition from white exclusive capitalism to multiracial capitalism, and for avoiding trying criminals, including murderers.

William Kentridge, director of Ubu and the Truth Commission, (a multi-media play by Jane Taylor) said, “A full confession can bring amnesty and immunity from prosecution or civil procedures for the crimes committed. Therein lies the central irony of the Commission. As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done, they get closer and closer to amnesty and it gets more and more intolerable that these people should be given amnesty.”
Amnesty was always controversial. Some victims’ families challenged (unsuccessfully) the amnesty provisions in South Africa’s highest court on the grounds that they were denied due process and justice. Defenders of the TRC responded that these critics showed a basic misunderstanding about the TRC’s mandate, which was to uncover the truth about past abuse, using amnesty as a mechanism, rather than to punish past crimes. However, people are coming to see that that there is a difference between impunity, implying escape from accountability, and amnesty, which carries profound inward and social consequences.

It has to be remembered that although apartheid had been defeated, its minions still dominated the police, army, and civil service. Transition had to be handled cautiously if a coup or civil war was to be avoided. The majority of whites refused to acknowledge the systemic nature of the torture, maiming, and assassinations to which individuals had been subjected for more than 30 years by the secret police. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “It’s very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep.”

Flowery language
Although repentance could not be guaranteed, sometimes it seemed to be genuine. A police officer admitted the slaughter of many people in an attack on a rural village and faced his victims’ surviving relatives: “I can never undo what I have done. I have no right to ask your forgiveness, but I ask that you will allow me to spend my life helping you to rebuild your village and put your lives together.”

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group made a number of recommendations that could be useful in other country contexts. Among them: “New national symbols not be built around representations of heroism and courage of a few individuals. Rather these should be oriented towards recognising the dignity and strength of the many who have suffered and sacrificed for the realisation of a free society.”
Did the TRC succeed? A book edited by Audrey R Chapman and Hugo van der Merwe, was published in 2008. The title was Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Did the TRC Deliver? As coordinators of a huge research project that ran over eight years, Chapman and van der Merwe had access to a wealth of quantitative and qualitative data. Van der Merwe, project manager with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, wrote: “Despite all of its flowery language around reconciliation, it really had very limited impact in terms of providing healing and justice for survivors and providing reintegration into communities for perpetrators. Those dynamics are ones which stay with society and that require further engagement by government and civil society.”

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The Arrest of Gerry Adams

This article was published in Ceylon Today on May 14 2014.


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The police force of part of the UK arrested a member of parliament of a separate nation in connection with a crime committed 40 years ago. The PSNI (Police Services of Northern Ireland) arrested Gerry Adams, MP for Louth in the Republic of Ireland, under the Terrorism Act 2000, and questioned him for four days at Antrim police station. Adams leads the party that jointly governs Northern Ireland. He was one of the key brokers of the accord that ended what had been a brutal 30-year war.


They were investigating his alleged involvement in the murder of Jean McConville in 1972. The IRA dragged Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten, from her west Belfast home and executed her, claiming that she was an informer. Her body was found in August 2003 buried on a beach in County Louth. Forensic tests showed she had been badly beaten and shot in the back of the head.


Adams said: “I believe that the killing of Jean McConville and the secret burial of her body was wrong and a grievous injustice to her and her family”. The PSNI released him without charge.


Boston College


Boston College interviewed several former paramilitaries about the Troubles on the understanding that they would not publish transcripts until the interviewees were dead. PSNI subpoenaed Boston College in 2011. A provision of US law forced them to hand over the evidence, which they did after two years of legal battles. A court last year ordered the project to hand over the tapes to PSNI.


Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre ran the project. McIntyre is a former IRA life sentence prisoner. Moloney is a Belfast journalist who published A Secret History of the IRA, twelve years ago. Moloney revealed that in the early 70s Adams had established a unit in the Belfast IRA called the “unknowns”, which conducted several “disappearances”, including that of McConville.


Adams and the IRA


In interviews for the project, two former IRA operatives, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, confessed to involvement in Jean McConville’s murder. When former IRA commander Brendan Hughes, died in 2008 it emerged that on the tapes he alleged that Adams was a senior IRA leader during the Troubles and had ordered Mrs McConville’s killing.


Adams said: “Both Moloney and McIntyre are opponents of the Sinn Féin leadership and our peace strategy and have interviewed former republicans who are also hostile to me and other Sinn Féin leaders.”


Moloney says: “…the Sinn Féin leader chose to lie about his past, saying he was never in the IRA. That claim is so absurd, and to many of his former comrades so hurtful, that some were bound to protest.” Brendan Hughes in his Boston interview: “[When Adams denies IRA membership] it means that people like myself … have to carry the responsibility for all those deaths, for sending men out to die and sending women out to die, and Gerry was sitting there … trying to stop us from doing it? I’m disgusted by it because it’s so untrue and everybody knows it.”



Isn’t Northern Ireland ‘Sorted’?



Someone asked me: “Isn’t Northern Ireland sorted?” This is not a surprising reaction. When people outside the island of Ireland think about Northern Ireland at all, which is probably rarely, they are comfortable in thinking that the old problem has been “sorted” by the hard-won Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Tony Blair and New Labour and Bill Clinton presented the Northern Ireland peace process as a resounding success in bringing centuries of ‘ancient hatred’ to a close and providing a model for the rest of the world’s ethnic trouble spots to follow.



I suspect that many in Sri Lanka would see Northern Ireland as a model, like South Africa, for the reconciliation process in this country. The Adams case shows that Northern Ireland is not “sorted”. Why have the hopes invested in the Good Friday Agreement not been fully met, sixteen years after it was signed?



Ongoing Strife



There is likely to be a further plunge in turnout at this month’s municipal and European elections, reflecting growing disillusionment with the dysfunctional administration at Stormont. A recent newspaper survey of young people in Northern Ireland found that two thirds did not believe they enjoyed peace and the same proportion wanted to leave to pursue their aspirations.



Adams and Mandela



Adams cynically exploited the global wave of emotion surrounding the death of Nelson Mandela to create the impression that he was Ireland’s Mandela. Mandela openly acknowledged his role in orchestrating the campaign of violence against the repressive apartheid regime. His admissions, and similar acknowledgments of culpability from leaders on both sides of the South African conflict to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were fundamental to helping the country move from the horrors of the past.



Adams has actively concealed the truth of his past and sought to discredit those who have sought to bring light to the subject. Adams told members of the McConville family “Thank God I was in prison when she disappeared.” In fact, Adams was free at the time of the killing.



Justice or Peace?


There are lessons in this affair for other post-conflict situations. Who can argue with victims’ commissioner Kathryn Stone, when she says, “There can be no sustainable peace in Northern Ireland until every victim has true peace of mind”?


Ruth Dudley Edwards recently wrote: “The reluctance to dig into the past that has enabled both sides to continue their habit of what in Northern Ireland is called ‘whataboutery’ – in which any allegation by a member of one tribe is answered by a counter -allegation from the other.”


Others argue that those who did not live through the horrors of the Troubles do not appreciate the hard bargains that had to be struck to bring the relative peace enjoyed today. Official amnesia allowed fringe figures on the Loyalist side, such as firebrand bigot Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, to acquire legitimacy in order to achieve an ostensibly democratic administration in Belfast. Robinson was convicted in a court in the Republic of Ireland of unlawful assembly, having led an incursion across the border during frequently violent Protestant protests against an intergovernmental agreement between London and Dublin in 1985.


Impunity or Therapeutic Amnesia.


In the years after the IRA ceasefire, the Irish government had an unofficial policy of playing down IRA violence. Just two years after the 1994 ceasefire an IRA unit shot dead Jerry McCabe, a police officer, in Co Limerick during a botched robbery. The attempt to cover up the IRA’s role in the McCabe murder caused outrage among the Garda Síochána.


In March 2014, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly stated that 187 people had received letters assuring them that they did not face arrest and prosecution for IRA crimes.


Only a day before Adams’s arrest, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers ruled out inquiries into the British Army Parachute Regiment’s killing of ten mourners at a funeral in Ballymurphy, in August 1971, and the IRA’s killing of 12 people in the La Mon House firebomb massacre, in February 1978.


There is little doubt that Adams, whatever the truth of his connections with the IRA, played a large role in ending the conflict. If he was not in the IRA, how did Adams have the authority to persuade the IRA hardliners to agree to peace? Today, people of violence on both sides sit down and discuss sewage plans, pension problems and how to invest in infrastructure. As Peter Hain, the former Northern Ireland secretary, said: “Adams and [Martin McGuinness] have been indispensable in moving Northern Ireland from the evil and horror of the past to the relative tranquillity and stability of today.”


In the Good Friday Agreement, approved in 1998 in referenda north and south of the border, there was no amnesty – only a concession to the perpetrators of Troubles-related crimes that if found guilty, they would serve only two years in jail.


How does Northern Ireland confront its past without undermining peace? Should politicians from all parties in Stormont, Dublin and Westminster to talk seriously about whether they can establish South African-style truth and reconciliation hearings, in which individuals can publicly declare their crimes and express contrition, in exchange for freedom from prosecution?



Casuistry of Blood: Fighting for Freedom?

“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.”

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