Who They Are


I watched the second TV3 programme on Sinn Féin presented by Ursula Halligan. It was a lot more boring than the first one, leaving aside from the minutes of footage that had already appeared in the first one. Also there were fewer sinister atmospherics, which was disappointing.

There was an interesting part, which I would suggest was by accident rather than design, in which southern establishment politicians sought to explain why the armed campaign of the Provisional IRA was morally or ethically different to armed campaigns fought by the generation that they mythologise as a guarantee of their own political authority and legitimacy. Lots of huffing and puffing, but no convincing explanation. The matter of the ‘mandate’ was brandished triumphantly by David Andrews, because apparently this would have justified his father shooting people dead, whereas the absence of a mandate in the later Northern situation meant that shooting people dead was wrong.

So if you have a mandate, that in itself means you can shoot people dead. Well that’s ok then. I’m not saying that shooting people is unjustified under every particular circumstance, including the circumstances of the War of Independence, but there is a heavy burden of justification and the notion that killing people in and of itself is legitimate because you have a mandate, which is all they could come up with, certainly explains the taste for electoral absolutism that characterises the Southern political establishment. And it shows that the view of the southern Irish establishment is -however it might flatuate on occasion about ‘true republicanism’- for all intents and purposes, identical to that of the Northern unionist establishment, both in terms of social and economic policy and in terms of its view of democratic legitimacy.

When Alan Shatter was speaking from his perch atop the moral high ground, my attention couldn’t help being diverted to the set of big books stacked in front of a Tricolour. I Am Not A Lawyer so I have no idea if those big books have some sort of particular significance in terms of judicial morality. But I couldn’t help but imagine that a chronicle of atrocities committed by the Israeli Defence Forces, whose actions he continually justifies, against ordinary people in Palestine, atrocities that continue to this day, could fill a great deal more volumes, and could only assume that his contention that of a war of national liberation is justified doesn’t apply to the Palestinians.

The final few minutes of the programme, in which Ursula Halligan sought the opinion of various participants as to whether Gerry Adams was ‘on a par with Nelson Mandela’, tipped over into the ludicrous. Has Gerry Adams ever said he was on a par with Nelson Mandela? And given that David Trimble -who has supported extra-judicial assassination in the context of Northern Ireland- is a political ally of Binyamin Netanyahu, a murderous racist demagogue par excellence (he welcomed him to the Houses of Parliament and took part in the Gaza flotilla whitewash), and given that Alastair Campbell helped engineer the deaths of a multitude of Iraqis, what is it that makes these people authorities on political stature? I suggest that in the case of TV3 and Ursula Halligan it is an indifference to murderous violence perpetrated by the people you see as on your own side. Including, of course, the British Army.

As I said in the last post, I’m not a supporter of Sinn Féin, and what concerns me here isn’t that party’s reputation but the contemporary representation of the Northern conflict for contemporary political ends, and the way it shapes public perceptions of struggle, democratic legitimacy, and violence. What we are faced with here is a moral atmosphere in which State violence –including the structural violence imposed in the interests of political and economic elites- is painted as ipso facto legitimate. This moral atmosphere exercises its power by presenting on the one hand the forces of the rabblement given to violence, immaturity and flights of fantasy, and, on the other, the stately embodiments of Reason -including the economic rectitude of the free market economy- in the figures of people like Ruairi Quinn and Alan Shatter. The effect is to present any questioning of the legitimacy of the ruling powers as both a threat to the State and inspired by a congenital craving for criminality.

Of particular interest here is the role played by SDLP figures from the North who function as a kind of native informant, the representatives of the good ‘ordinary people’ who abhorred violent struggle and had the moral rectitude to keep their hands clean. I have to admit that for a long time that was roughly how I saw the world, not least because it was the picture painted by the national media of both jurisdictions.

But over a long period of time I started to think about what had happened within the frame of my own experiences and family history. In particular, my thinking on the question of whether the violence of physical force is a legitimate form of action was shaped by the experiences of my grandmother and my father. To cut a long story short, my grandmother, now deceased, was taken hostage in her home and my father was taken at gunpoint out to a country lane where his Mini was loaded with a 1,000lb bomb. He was told to drive the car into the centre of town or his morther would suffer the consequences. He did what he was told, and was able to get the area evacuated before the bomb went off.

Meanwhile, as she later related, she found herself looking at a kettle of boiling water on the stove and weighing up whether she ought to throw it over her captors. After the bomb went off, the captors left. But she kept a knife on the mantelpiece ready to plunge it into anyone who tried to take anyone from the house again. Is this kind of violence justified? And if so, what is the difference between this and procuring arms to protect a street or an estate in the aftermath of State violence? It is precisely this kind of complexity that TV programmes like this one, with the moral grandstanding they invite and present, serve to efface systematically.

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