Let me return to the Fintan O’Toole piece I commented on yesterday. In it, O’Toole puts grotesque viscerality in the place of reasoned argument. He ascribes a primal netherworldliness to the howl in order to situate the killing of RUC officers Buchanan and Breen beyond any general consideration of the social and political landscape of Northern Ireland at the time.
Where he situates the killing instead, is on the plane of racist atavism: ‘a dead Jew, a dead Black, a dead Serb, a dead Muslim, a dead Tutsi, a dead Papist’. So the killing of RUC officers is on a moral par with Nazis killing Jews (‘a dead Jew’) and Loyalists killing Catholics (‘a dead Papist’).
This dehistoricises and depoliticises the Northern Ireland conflict, and on very particular terms. The moral panorama O’Toole elaborates, from the sound of the howl, places the security forces of the British State on the same side as the victims of eliminationist anti-Semitism, and characterises the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries as bad as each other.
The structure of this panorama is not at all different from the way the conflict appears in liberal unionist circles: our forces held the line against the Nazis and are therefore good; the majority of people on both sides are decent and law-abiding people who simply want peace; unfortunately, there are violent extremists on both sides driven by dark timeless urges.
It isn’t hard to see variations of this at work more generally in British society, in terms of how the armed forces of that country operate in other countries, as civilised mediators grappling with age-old hatreds. This is also, of course, the structure of a fairy tale. The RUC and the British Army were major actors in the Northern conflict, and frequently operated with extreme brutality. Their relation to loyalist death squads is, to say the least, close and murky. Their actions were in many cases what drove young people to join the IRA, which had plenty of support in the nationalist population.
When O’Toole takes an incident in isolation and treats it as a manifestation of mere bloodthirsty animalistic euphoria, not only is he downplaying the importance of the structural, political factors that generated the incident and the role of the dominant military power, but he is upholding a politics of the civilised versus the brutes.
To be on the side of the civilised, that is, the ‘Irish society’ whom Sinn Féin, O’Toole says, owes ‘an immense moral debt’, no particular concern is needed for justice for victims of the Northern conflict. Indifference to the role of the British State in murdering Irish citizens is no barrier. All you need, it seems, is a proven track record in keeping your bestial passions in check.