I left this as a series of comments on Fintan O’Toole’s piece in today’s Irish Times, which is titled ‘The ugly sound of a howl of joy haunts Sinn Féin’s account of IRA killings’. In his article, O’Toole cites the testimony of Finbarr King in the Smithwick Tribunal, who heard “a big roar like ‘hurray’, or whatever”, after RUC officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan were shot dead by the IRA. He then says that such a roar shows that Sinn Féin TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn was lying when he said on the Vincent Browne show that Breen and Buchanan’s killers were acting out of a sense of duty.
‘Why should there be a contradiction between a ‘painful sense of duty’ and a ‘big roar’ emitted at the culmination of such a duty? Shooting someone dead isn’t something that comes natural to anyone, so you would imagine that people who end up doing so -even out of a sense of duty- react to having done so in ways that appear ugly and unhinged.
Fintan O’Toole’s further contention, that the IRA operatives who shot the two policemen dead were not doing their duty, because duty would have entailed not shooting an unarmed opponent dead, is one particular interpretation of duty, and one unlikely to have weighed heavily on their minds when pulling the trigger. This may be a valid criticism of the IRA’s actions, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t doing their duty – as they saw it.
I’m fascinated by the contention expressed here that Sinn Féin and the IRA have an immense moral debt to pay to Irish society. To my mind this suggests that on the one hand you have the moral delinquents in the Republican movement, and on the other you have the rest of Irish society whose moral stature in this regard is beyond question, since they played no part in armed conflict. The moral majority versus the immoral minority. It is as though the question of whether to take up arms was presented to everyone under the same conditions. But the reality is you had sections of society who were exposed to experiences of discrimination and events of extreme brutality and victimisation. That doesn’t automatically place anyone who took up arms in the right, but nor does it confer any status of moral creditor on those who did not, least of all those who had no such experiences. If people want to hold Sinn Féin and the IRA to account for what they did, fine, but they should ditch first of all the de rigueur pretence that Northern Ireland was a normal state with normal forces of law and order.
From the standpoint of recent Southern coverage, and the degree of attention given to certain people killed by the IRA, you would get the impression that the murders of Catholic civilians were few and far between -and even then the IRA was to blame. In fact there were twice as many Catholic civilians killed as Protestant civilians. If Sinn Féin and the IRA have an ‘immense moral debt’ to pay to Irish society, is there not similar moral accounting to be done with the British State? Will we ever find Fintan O’Toole talking about the British State’s immense moral debt to Irish society? I am inclined to think the answer is no, and I think it is because for him, as for many others in his milieu, neither Northern Catholics nor Northern Protestants are part of Irish society, and that’s proper order.