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Irish Republicans Must Renounce The Nationalist Myth

Can it be laid to rest?
Can it be laid to rest?
"No murderer will be able to derail a peace process that has the support of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland," said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on March 8 in response to the murder of two British soldiers in Northern Ireland by "dissident republicans" from the Real IRA. Other condemnations were spoken by political and religious leaders across the political spectrum in Britain and Ireland.

This took me back almost 40 years. Throughout the 1970s, first as London correspondent for Dublin's state-owned RTE broadcaster, later as the parliamentary sketch-writer for the "Daily Telegraph," I heard prime ministers and presidents utter the same condemnations of barbarism, the same appeals for peace, and the same predictions that the terrorists would never win.

Surely murder and terror were never more universally condemned than during the long decades when 3,300 people were murdered in the Northern Ireland "Troubles." And that's the problem.

What was the end result of all those condemnations? The peace process that ended the bombings and the shootings also put unrepentant terrorists into high government office. Terrorists found guilty of multiple murders -- from both sides of the sectarian divide, Protestant loyalists no less than Catholic nationalists -- were released onto the streets. Gangsterism now rules large, and usually working class, areas of Ulster.

One More Push

To be sure, the IRA failed in its objective of bombing a million Prods into a united Ireland. In fact, its campaign of terrorism actually put the Rev. Ian Paisley into the position of First Minister of Northern Ireland—surely a contender for first prize in any list of Dubious Historical Achievements. Still, the IRA's Martin McGuinness got his bottom firmly planted in the ministerial limousine of a British government, and his accomplice Gerry Adams tours the world advising governments and their, ahem, armed critics on how to conduct a peace process.

So "dissident Republicans" must be tempted to calculate: If terrorism can achieve that much, maybe a little more of it -- One More Push -- will get a united Ireland. And if it fails to achieve that object (after the sixth attempt by my count), well, in the fullness of time they may hope to be offered more personal rewards in return for halting their murders of innocent people. Move over, Gerry; shift along there, Martin.

With the weekend murder of the two soldiers by the Real IRA and the murder the following day of a policeman by the rival Continuity IRA, the dissidents have moved well beyond such calculations. Even before these killings, there were signs that republican terrorism was reviving.

An official report lists no fewer than five "dissident" groups of terrorists. Since this time last year, they have mounted 18 gun and bomb attacks between them. Three such attacks were carried out in the early months of 2009. Most alarming, a 136-kilogram car bomb, thought to be destined for a British Army barracks, was found near a school in County Down last month. In response, Northern Ireland's respected police chief, Hugh Orde, had brought a small number of Special Reconnaissance Force soldiers into the province to gather intelligence on these threats.

More Than Mistakes

Does this mean a new round of Troubles is likely to happen? No, it doesn't. But a new round of Troubles wasn't likely to happen 40 years ago either.

Public opinion was firmly against IRA terrorism in the late 1960s. At the time, as few as 2 percent of Northern Ireland Catholics supported the "Provos." Catholic women initially brought tea and biscuits to British soldiers who had arrived to protect Catholic areas against rampaging Protesant mobs in 1969. British governments of all parties brought in successive political reforms to rectify anti-Catholic discrimination.

So why did the Troubles happen? Well, the British made horrendous mistakes when the IRA began its terror campaign. Sometimes they overreacted brutally, as when British paratroopers fired on a crowd of demonstrators and killed 19 people. Sometimes they underreacted foolishly, as when they allowed the IRA to set up "no-go areas" where it terrorized law-abiding Catholics, knee-capped dissidents, and established a secure power base.

As we all now know from Iraq and Afghanistan, however, horrendous mistakes are built into counterterrorism campaigns. They always occur. Yet both the United States and Britain have won such campaigns despite such mistakes. So what else went wrong for the Brits 40 years ago?

As it happens, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness inadvertently provided the explanation: "I was a member of the IRA, but that war is over now. The people responsible for last night's incident are clearly signaling that they want to resume or restart that war. Well, I deny their right to do that."

A Clean Break

But the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA claim only the same "right" that McGuinness claimed 40 years ago when he joined the IRA. This right holds that in 1916 the Irish Nation -- not actual Irish people now living nor even elected Irish governments, but some mystical Irish nation standing outside history -- gave the IRA the duty of driving the Brits out of Ireland. That duty binds Irishmen until Ireland is united. Elected governments have no power to lift it from their shoulders.

That is nonsense, of course, and fascist nonsense at that. Yet, as the late Conor Cruise O’Brien pointed out, respectable nationalist politicians and clergymen north and south paid lip-service to this mythic ideology every Easter and in every election campaign.

That in turn kept the republican loyalties of ordinary Catholics alive in the North. Though few Catholics supported the IRA, even fewer would betray it to the police or Army. Many gave its "soldiers" sanctuary. As a result, the IRA could fight on for 30 years and kill most of the Troubles' victims.

Defeating the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA today depends in large part on discrediting the sacred nationalist myth that violence on behalf of Irish unity is mandated by history. Once that myth is removed, much follows: that the cause of Irish unity cannot justify murder; that such unity can be legitimately achieved only by democratic consent; and so it must be accepted that Irish unity, while it may be pursued, may never be achieved at all. Democratic politics can then proceed on a more stable basis.

So Irish republicans genuinely devoted to the peace process need to go beyond their present stance. They need to renounce the nationalist myth unambiguously. As office-holders in government, Adams, McGuinness, and other Sinn Fein leaders have a particular duty to relinquish any ambivalence to the British state in Northern Ireland. In particular they cannot take the Queen's shilling in parliament but refuse full support for the police, Army, and intelligence services in bringing political murderers to justice.

In the last few days, though, the "Shinners" have hedged, condemning the murders yet objecting to the "shadowy" intelligence troops brought in to solve them. McGuinness himself said: "People will view the activities of those groups with as much suspicion and disdain as they do that group which was responsible for the killing of two people in Antrim." Amoral equivalence could hardly go further.

Such hedging is excused as a tactic to pacify restive republicans. If so, it is a serious mistake with potentially dreadful consequences. It tells Irish republicans, dissident or otherwise, that they live in a halfway house between British sovereignty and Irish unity. It reinforces the old omerta rule that Irishmen don't inform on Irishmen to the Brits or the Prods. Above all, it flinches from confronting republicans with the moral truth that political murder is still murder, and justifiable only in circumstances that long ago ceased to apply in Ireland north or south. Only such a moral recognition can provide a sure basis for permanent peace. Without it a revival of the Troubles remains unlikely, but not impossible.

John O'Sullivan is executive editor with RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL