One of the striking things that about Miriam O’Callaghan’s interview with Kingsmills massacre survivor Alan Black was the presenter’s emphasis given to atrocities being committed on ‘both sides’ -and also humanity on ‘both sides’.
I was never part of a ‘side’. So many people I know did not consider themselves part of a ‘side’, least of all a side from which people perpetrated atrocities on their behalf. Like many others I never supported any kind of killing. I was very much aware, however, that there were others who were very much inclined to kill me, and others like me, because they deemed that I was on an opposite ‘side’.
My religious denomination meant I was automatically part of the ‘pan-nationalist front’. This was a common phrase used by the DUP at the time. and an entity that the Mid-Ulster UVF in its Portadown murals proclaimed it would smash.
The effect of the commonplace rhetoric of ‘both sides’ -or, on occasion, ‘both tribes’, is to present the Northern conflict as borne primarily out of sectarianism. Sectarianism viewed in this light has little to do with the character of institutions in Northern Ireland, or how life is organised by and large. Rather, it is considered more of a mindset: it reflects a poverty of vision among those who fall prey to it, in contrast to those who observe it.
In describing the Northern conflict in terms of ‘both sides’, or the ‘two sides’, the role of the British State in prolonging that conflict is effaced. Its sponsorship of loyalist death squads is ignored. Instead, the British State is elevated it to its desired status as an honest broker seeking to keep a lid on warring sectarian ‘tribes’, just as it has claimed to do in a whole swathe of territories around the globe.
A frequent self-satisfied diagnosis is whataboutery. This is supposedly an inability of members of one side to recognise their side’s own crimes and misdeeds while decrying the crimes and shortcomings and blindspots of the other side. Diagnosticians of whataboutery, of course, have neither crimes nor shortcomings nor blindspots of their own.
If the role of the British State is left out of consideration, massacres appear as savagery emerging from the dark side of human nature, manifestations of pure evil. The Kingsmills massacre, a brutal sectarian atrocity, was preceded immediately by the Reavey and O’Dowd killings. These were carried out by the Glenanne Gang, a group of loyalists, British solidiers, and RUC and UDR members responsible for dozens of murders. John Weir, one of the members of the Glenanne Gang, said that the purpose of their activities was to provoke a “civil war” in which the IRA would eventually be crushed.
Kingsmills did not emerge out of some unfathomable tribal savagery, or that strange apparently natural phenomenon known as the ‘cycle of violence’. It was a retaliation, just as the Greysteel massacre was a retaliation for the Shankill bomb. To describe it as a retaliation is not to justify it. It does not render the perpetrators any less culpable for the sectarian bloodbath. It is simply to point out that the role of the British State in inciting the event should be considered important, if one is interested in the truth of these matters, and in ending the possibility of future violent conflict.
To categorise this and other such questions as the ‘whataboutery’ of ‘one side’ is to acquiesce in the preferred logic of forces that have blood on their hands, and no inclination to come clean. It takes no small amount of gall to polish one’s halo about the depravity of IRA violence and simultaneously let the British State off the hook, in effect conceding to the latter its right to murder whoever -including Irish citizens- in defence of the realm.
The idea that I, or anyone else, Catholic, Protestant, nationalist, unionist or otherwise, are automatically part of a ‘tribe’ or a ‘side’, whereas people in Dublin or London sit in splendid Olympian detachment from the whole thing, borne by higher ideals and more civilised inclinations, is one of the main factors in prolonging the prospect of sectarian barbarism.