No Easy Answers

Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things - Russell Baker

Yesterday in Banbridge a member of the PSNI, Stephen Carroll, was laid to rest. During those times when I regarded members of the force, then called the RUC, as enemies, my attitude toward their deaths was philosophical. ‘Its war, they know the score and, like other combatants, take their chances.’ When they attacked IRA funerals, the IRA bombed the route of theirs. Watching the battle of the funerals from the confinement of jail surrounds our thinking was no less boxed in than our bodies. Flame throwers liberally applied to their massed ranks seemed an effective dispersal agent. They could experience the fires of hell before getting there. It now looks like a vortex of irrationality from which we have been plucked back onto the terra firma of reason.

Today, I may be no fan of the force, remain opposed to its political character, but at worst regard its members as political opponents rather than enemies. And with a republican mindset which has over the years become increasingly tempered by a democratic sentiment reinforced by a deep suspicion of revolutionaries, I harbour no notion that opponents should be killed. Passions and emotions from the politically violent past float around for sure, but they are invariably filtered out before they enter my cognitive processes.

Nor am I any longer in the grip of that one-dimensional thinking which reduces policing to a political essence and nothing else. The PSNI is a political police force but it is also a body that deals with a wide range of non-political issues. It is hard to imagine that Stephen Carroll, when travelling to Craigavon in response to a call for assistance, had only one thing in his mind: to make it clear to the woman who had summoned him that neither she nor the Irish people had the right to national self determination. He was doing what cops in every country in the world do if worth their salt; answering a distress call. If we complain from a democratic point of view that the PSNI are often tardy in their response time when those most vulnerable call for their help, then it seems incomprehensible that we can condone killing them when they do come out, even if their status as a British police force does rile our republican sentiment.

Coming from a Provisional republican background where the normal societal moral constraints on killing members of the police become dissipated by a combination of ideology and numbing palliatives liberally massaged into the conscience by the leadership, not to forget police repression, I am immediately confronted by an uncomfortable awareness that if police were fair game then why should it be any different today? The reason the Provisionals killed police was because they were police operating in the service of the British state. That aspect of policing remains as pronounced today as it was then. So how can the legitimacy we conferred on our attacks on police be withheld from those attacking police today?

There are no easy answers that avoid inconsistencies and strained logic. The current Sinn Fein rationale is as disingenuous as it is self serving. Stephen Carroll had Sinn Fein representation at his funeral. But for much of his career the same party thought it necessary and morally correct to kill him. Whatever the difference between the Stephen Carroll of 1989 and the Stephen Carroll of 2009, it hardly justifies the massive differential in the means used to address his wearing of a police uniform. If it was alright for ‘patriots’ to kill him twenty years ago then killing him last week was also the work of patriots, not ‘traitors.’ If it was wrong to kill him last week then it was wrong to kill him 20 years ago. And for people like me who do see it as wrong to kill him last week only one logical conclusion flows from that.

While I refuse to disown it or dismiss it, I no longer seek to justify the Provisional IRA campaign. Too many of its leaders, as we have seen this week, were absolutely unscrupulous. Too many of its members were willing to kill for no other reason than the leadership told them to. Both leadership and led at the drop of a hat all too easily abandoned positions which when held had terrible consequences for people on the receiving end of them. We are entitled to expect that if killing people was not some frivolous exercise, then the steady abandonment of the goals their deaths were meant help achieve would at the very least be questioned rigorously. But rarely were they.

Writing in the Irish News a couple of years ago about a different conflict I argued that mitigation rather than justification is a more helpful concept to be employed when defending armed actions. There were many mitigating circumstances pertaining to the use of force by the Provisional IRA that no longer apply today, none of which related to the privileged position the republican physical force tradition assumes for itself. But as the conflict progressed from long war to wrong war the greatest mitigating factor appears to have been locked-in syndrome. Republicans today can hardly cite that by way of mitigation.

Locked-in syndrome increases the likelihood that a conflict can be become self-contained yet self perpetuating. The players lose sight of external factors such as the rights of others and seek to foreclose ideas that increase the potential for a respite in which the necessary space might emerge that will permit a step outside the box. There was certainly no need for ‘the peace process’ to unlock matters but a ceasefire was an essential requirement.

Without the mitigating factor of locked-in syndrome what is there left that can be said in defence of the killing of Stephen Carroll? Certainly the threadbare cloaks of legitimacy from the ramshackle wardrobe of the republican physical force tradition are so tattered and torn that they offer no cover whatsoever. White stick republicanism alone can find guidance in that. For me the considerations of the physical force tradition will never be permitted to form part of my deliberations. As the left activist and former republican prisoner Tommy McKearney argued many years ago republicanism must be uncompromisingly democratic or not at all.

If protecting a version of the past lends itself to violating the future then it is better to lay it to rest altogether and walk away reverentially but firmly. Like a dead comrade it should undergo neither desecration nor resurrection. However it is dealt with, preserving life in the future seems ultimately a more worthwhile republican objective than preserving the right to have taken it in the past.


  1. As an Irish Republican who has been active for over twenty years and who now supports the Sinn Fein leadership, I find it incredible how some people are aghast at Martin's traitor comments. The intersting thing is that for 25 and decreasing in years depending on when you departed the movement these same people have been calling Martin and the likes of me traitors, sell outs, cowards and even scum. I just think people believe that they have the right to say and do what rhey like but we are supposed to just take it.

  2. 20years ago martin would have no problem giving the go ahead to kill a ruc man... it just shows you killing wont get any one any were... its a pity they didnt speak out as much on the killings of robert mc cartney/paul quinn.they were traitors to Ireland as well only the were part of the provos army... now that they support the PSNI. they might reopen the case. and give the familys justice..

  3. the killing of these 3 guys was wrong. there is no british army kicking in doors/ on the streets armed to the can you call these guys freedom fighters? they kill unarmed police/soilders who had no chance what so a guy said to me the other day its money for the boys..keep the so called war going for there pockets. they are the same as the gangs who run drugs in limerick/ dublin only they dont have a green white and orange flag wrapped around them!!

  4. As a Republican who has in the past been twisted with hate for first and foremost the Brits,Loyalists and until recently the P.S.F. leadership I now feel more of a saddness at all that has passed both in my own life and in the lives of comrades since gone and still living. I have just got round to catching up on all the aricles written on this site and I have to commend Mackers and the other writers as while their writings make for sad reflection at times its still good to read the truth without the bandages of false political surgery ...If I have discovered one thing in my life its get rid of the hate and let others carry their own baggage as mine is heavy enough for me......I still cant have Adams and co but I do agree with Mackers lets make Republicanism about living and not in the taking of lives as we all carry wars weight and no one else need do so as its a weight you are blessed if you never have to feel it.

  5. I see a blogger there saying they've been an 'activist' for 15yrs- got involved just in time for the peace process eh? This is why present members of SF and the policy shambles of today cannot understand the depth of feeling regarding the call for informers and the political fart sucking that SF participates in etc..They are socialised into thinking SF is naturally all about nice suits, cozy wee jobs and media attention. SF leadership have a great cadre around them-fit for purpose.
    I hope we never give the unionist biggots full employment again,but enough cordite to wreck that disgrace at Stormont and destroy forever the Provo Betreyal process would be very VERY welcome!

  6. Thanks, AM, for a nuanced essay on certainly a difficult and nuanced topic, one that unfortunately makes the headlines that none of us want to read again. As to Larry Hughes' comment: One could have become an activist around 1994 if one was, say, eighteen- or twenty-years old. You couldn't blame one for coming of age-- when you must-- into the RM! If that blogger was five or ten years older in '94 or so, of course, Larry's point's taken. That's the trouble with anonymous assertions!

  7. Fionnchú, I am not a fan of anonymous assertions. All too often people hide behind them. However, on this blog for the most part I think people have used anonymity for no purpose other than to float an idea. That's fine. Generally, I think people should identify with what they say. Any anonymous comment on this board needs to be adding something to the discussion or has to be representative of a view out there. They should never be for the purpose of attacking in personal terms an identifiable character who has no means of fighting back.

  8. "If it was wrong to kill him last week then it was wrong to kill him 20 years ago. And for people like me who do see it as wrong to kill him last week only one logical conclusion flows from that."

    Anthony, why don't you state categorically what this logical conclusion is? Surely it is that the republican violence has always been morally wrong. Surely it is the case that it was also wrong to kill an RIC man 90 years ago. Surely your reasoning here requires you to repudiate as immoral the Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish War and the Provo campaign. I just don't understand why you can't or won't follow the implications of your statement above.

  9. MSD, so it wasn't your last comment on the matter at all. Anyway, it just means you don't understand, as you say, and I have run out of the time and inclination to help you understand. We'll be at it this time next year and the only outcome for now, rather than a solution, is an agreement to differ.

  10. If you check what I said, I think I said I'd made my last comment on that post in particular, not on the matter of legitimacy of physical-force republicanism. But OK,maybe we have to agree to disagree. But may I ask one last question on the matter of legitimacy - why do you think the Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish War to be legitimate and morally right but the Provo campaign to be deserving of mitigation only, not legitimacy? I'll leave it at that, then.

  11. MSD, I am aware that you said post but I think it is disingenuous to imply that it was not the topic that was implied if not actually meant. I have sought to answer you in full but it is not the answer you want so you keep returning in the hope of getting only the answer that you do want. It seems almost religious at times with a flavour of ‘do you renounce the devil?’ ad nauseam. Religion never persuaded me of anything other than it being bunkum. I hardly imagine your own approach, while not bunkum, is going to be any more persuasive.
    It seems to be a bit of a fetish to get me to agree with you, whereas I am absolutely indifferent to whether you agree with me or not. I am totally relaxed with you having a completely different opinion to me and don’t share your eagerness to convert. What you believe happens to be your own affair, your inability to impose it on me notwithstanding. Not much I can do for you on that. How does a humanist persuade a creationist that there is merit to atheism and none to religion? Being polar opposites, I suppose, they don’t draw together.

    You can ask as many questions as you wish but unless there is something new in them I see little point in going round the mulberry bush. And there is really nothing new in the latest question because whatever answer I give if it is not the answer that you want you will come back on another post asking the same question. Now, that is fine, you are more than welcome, can come back as often as you like, and will never find your comments rejected regardless of how critical they are. But I am under no obligation to continuously respond. I feel under even less obligation when I consider that regarding the questions raised on British state violence by myself and others you have avoided them. I think in terms of time I have provided you with more than I have anyone else.
    Your question unfortunately reflects the extent to which you have not really read what I have said otherwise matters would be more clear. Perhaps I have failed to persuade you of anything. Alternatively maybe you were determined not to be persuaded. So, it is not really worth my while going over the same ground time after time when there is so much else I need to get done, of importance to no one other than myself and family. But it is what we do with our lives.
    So that for me really is the end of the exchange. Maybe someone else will come to it fresh some other time and I will feel prompted to discuss it. But the angle would have to be fresh.

  12. Very good article again Mackers. It's always a consolation, and even cathartic, to see someone write so clearly about things that are swirling around in a confused state in the back of my mind. The only way that I can see any difference between the actions of the PIRA and these more recent attacks is that I really believed that the PIRA could apply enough pressure to force a British Withdrawal. By 1986 I had a rough idea this was not going to actually happen... although it's not a rough idea I openly spoke about, given the company I was in. For me the failure of PIRA to remove British rule was 'the end of history' as far as militant republicanism based on the support of a minority within a minority in the Six Counties was concerned. I fail to see how the current incumbents could in any way harbour even the slightest hope of success. Death, imprisonment and/or eventual dissillusionment it the only future for this type of activity now.

  13. John D, not a particularly easy piece to write. It posed its own challenges. I laughed when you mentioned the reluctance to express an opinion back in 86 because of the company you were in. It sounded funny. But it was so real and not always instigated by the leadership. If I was forced to pick one aspect of the whole project movement that alienated me more than anything else it was its censorship and suffocation of discussion and subversion of free inquiry.

    The current incumbents are going nowhere. They should find ways of protecting their republicanism rather than using it to attack society. And when they talk of Brit occupation, no matter how legitimate that observation might be, they ignore the even worse occupation of societal space inflicted by their political violence.

    I think SF has abandoned republicanism so much that it has left enough ground for others to stand on and reclaim without having to resort to the gun.

  14. Hi Anthony. I was just reading your post here and the comments, and I'm a bit confused by your idea that mitigation rather than justification is more helpful when defending armed actions. It seems to me that mitigation in itself involves an admission of guilt or wrongness and thus criminalises armed republicanism, a concession which unionists like MSD here are obsessed with extracting from republicans.

  15. Michael,
    Yes, it does seem that MSD became obsessed with the one issue which was a pity given that he/she raised some very good points at the beginning of the exchange. However, I think it is important not to be gripped by the same obsession only from the opposite end of the spectrum. That would amount to obsessing on the justness of IRA armed actions.
    On your main contention, there are some complex issues involved that require much more discussion and thinking before a more rounded appreciation could be arrived at. However, I think mitigation is a much better concept than justification. It does not criminalise. In fact it is easier to make the opposite case that the mitigating factors were so great that it is not sustainable to ascribe criminality to the armed actions under discussion.
    Mitigation starts out from a humanist premise that the right to life is stronger than the right to take it; that killing is the last thing anyone should want to advocate; that when it is advocated the mitigating factors must be so strong that they preclude all other alternatives.
    One problem with the IRA campaign is that it hardly met the criteria for what constitutes a ‘just’ war and that immediately problematises the concept of justification.
    These days I think there is an arrogance to the unqualified justification of violence or terming people ‘legitimate targets.’ It is certainly not something I could feel comfortable with.

  16. Thanks for the clarification, Anthony. I think I misunderstood the mitigation concept, taking it as being something considered by a judge after handing out a guilty verdict. Indeed, you are right that blind obsession is a problem on both ends of the political spectrum. Just out of curiosity though, since you mentioned just war theory, do you think that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were just wars?

  17. I should also have said that I am suspicious of the usage of the term 'just war'. Every year, Kevin Myers and the poppy brigade come out in force to venerate the justness of Britain's fight in WWI, a war between empires in which millions were killed, while also annually condemning national liberation struggles like the Easter Rising as unjust and immoral, though it had a relatively tiny human cost.

  18. Michael, are you suspicious of the term or of some of those behind its deployment? As a concept it cannot be reduced to some right wing impulse. It is very much independent of anything Kevin Myers might pursue. If a war is not a just war what then is it?

  19. I suppose I would be suspicious of its deployment in recent years. In fact, the first I heard of the term was in arguments claiming that the invasion of Iraq would be a just war. I also remember reading somewhere that the Easter Rising and the War of Independence do not meet the criteria for a "just war".

    If a war is not a just war what then is it?I don't know. My knowledge of just war theory is limited to bits and pieces I've read on the internet. You said that you didn't think the PIRA campaign met the criteria of a just war. What does that make it then? I don't know... The only reason I mentioned the concept was that I was interested in your opinions of the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

  20. Michael, the just war notion by centuries predates the debate on the Easter Rising. I think its origins are to be found with the Greeks and Romans. It has a great deal of philosophical and theological input. During the war in the North the more intelligent clergy would draw on it to criticise the IRA. The best work I could recommend on the subject is Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations by Michael Walzer. I have an earlier version (1970s I think)) but the later edition, as far as I know, has been updated to deal with the question of the war in Iraq. I must read it in depth some time.

    On Iraq and Afghanistan, from day one I wrote against the wars being waged there. I think one of the very early articles on the Blanket was against the upcoming war in Afghanistan. I don’t believe there is just cause there for the invasions.