“I cannot believe that everything must be subordinated to a single end. There are means which cannot be excused "➖ Albert Camus
I first learned of the killing of Lord Mountbatten on a prison visit from my late mother and brother. It was during the blanket protest, so other ways of accessing the news were not as available to us. At that point, on “our wing” in H4, there was no crystal miniature radio “bangled” away in a back passage, the usual dank depository for prison contraband: which was just about everything given that just about everything was prohibited by prison management as part of its strategy of deprivation, physical and mental.
On the visit with my family, I was told that Mountbatten had died in an explosion on a boat but there was some talk that it might have been gas related. Such was the uncertainty as to why anyone might wish to end his life.
Clarity had no more of a presence in the jail wings either. When I eventually returned to my cell and relayed the news to my fellow blanket men, they too seemed unsure as to the provenance of his fate. Later that same summer evening word was shouted across from our protesting comrades in H5 about the British Army sustaining serious casualties in a bomb attack. There was no doubt as to who was responsible. The mood that night was one of jubilation. The same sentiment was nowhere near as palpable in response to Mountbatten. Unlike the Paras at Narrowwater, about whom there was no equivocation, his status as a “legitimate target” seemed less certain.
Once it was confirmed that the IRA had carried out both operations, and in particular seemed to have hurt British officialdom more through Mountbatten than the soldiers, the general attitude on the prison protest wings was that the Mullaghmore operation was a job well done. Mountbatten was a second cousin of the Queen and India’s last viceroy – something few of us on the blanket mentioned at the time. Those of us who knew anything about him had acquired that knowledge courtesy of the World At War television series. That an IRA bomb rather than a gas explosion had claimed him coupled with the annoyance of the British establishment and press, was enough to move the needle for us. What the world might think seemed irrelevant. It was either with us or against us. When I smuggled newspaper clippings back to the Blocks from a Belfast court, collated and perfectly packaged in clingfilm by Martin Hurson - a former blanketman but then back on remand and who would later die on hunger strike - which cited Yasser Arafat condemning the killing, the Palestinian was dismissed as a waster who didn’t know what he was talking about.
A young nephew of a prisoner later told him a joke on a visit. The nephew stated that what really had killed Mountbatten was dandruff: he had left his head and shoulders on the shore. When the prisoner in turn relayed the joke to us, we laughed and guffawed. The man whom we previously held few views on one way or the other had been transformed into an arch nemesis worthy of being ripped apart.
In that atmosphere of triumphalism, where I was as raucous as the rest, the fate of the children or anyone else on board was a footnote. They had become casualties of war, the horror of their deaths not permitted by us to blemish the act of giving the Brits their comeuppance. Given our circumstances of life in a cauldron of deprivation underpinned by prison staff violence, it is understandable that - even with the benefit of reflection - the well of sympathy was there for ourselves alone to drink from. We were young and empathy was in short supply.
The Mullaghmore attack featured again during the week when Sinn Fein was put to the test of public scrutiny over its attitude to the IRA’s perspective on British royalty. The party had been so gushing with its condolences to the monarchy on the death of Philip Mountbatten, that a blind man could sense what the next question was going to be.
Mary Lou McDonald stepped up to the plate. Before she had the time to drop it the media, ears blocked and eyes wide shut, made a story out of nothing. It claimed she had apologised for the killing. Yes, her predecessor as party president had been on the army council of the IRA at the time of the killing, but it was hardly something she could be remotely linked to. Gerry Adams stating that “he knew the danger involved in coming to this country” was a sentiment she was going to steer well clear of. Any claim she might make to have had no hand or part in IRA operations would be readily believable.
So, without having looked at it, to my mind there seemed no way she would have Sinn Fein apologising for an IRA operation given the fiction the party had sustained for decades that it was not in any way linked to the IRA.
The most she said was that she was sorry that Mountbatten or any other person had died during the war. That comes nowhere close to being a political apology. Her undoing came when Fran McNulty later interviewed her on Prime Time, where he focused less on Mountbatten and more on the dead children, Paul Maxwell and Nicholas Knatchbull. His question was simple but direct – in the clear knowledge that children had embarked on a boat was it wrong to press the button and detonate the bomb? That was the moment the plate dropped. McDonald pressed a self-destruct button of her own and refused to acknowledge that there were no circumstances in which such an act could ever be right. She bobbed and she weaved, but he landed the punch.
Whatever the justification or mitigation in targeting Mountbatten, he should never have been attacked while in the company of civilians or children. Unlike the targeting of the Paras later the same day, that is what makes the attack on the Shadow V a war crime. McDonald, usually an accomplished media performer, was poor to the point that one observer commented “This is as bad an interview as Mary Lou has done in a long time … really struggling with basic answers to pretty simplistic questions.”
Mary Lou McDonald should not be apologising for the attack on behalf of Sinn Fein, unless she is willing to admit that it was the work of the Republican Movement of which Sinn Fein and the IRA were the primary constituent parts. Slim chance of that.
She should not politically apologise for the IRA’s war against British state terrorism. To do so would be to cloud the issue of what helped cause and sustain that war. Sorry alone – swing alone.
She should not be evasive about the targeting of children. The option is there for her to call on the IRA to apologise for a war crime.
In these matters where time, maturity, empathy, nuance all combine to induce more ethical reflection, I find something useful in the thinking of the just war theorist, Michael Walzer when observing a play by Albert Camus:
In the early twentieth century, a group of Russian revolutionaries decided to kill a Tsarist official, the Grand Duke Sergei, a man personally involved in the repression of radical activity. They planned to blow him up in his carriage, and on the appointed day one of their number was in place along the Grand Duke’s usual route. As the carriage drew near, the young revolutionary, a bomb hidden under his coat, noticed that his victim was not alone; on his lap he held two small children. The would-be assassin looked, hesitated, then walked quickly away. He would wait for another occasion. Camus has one of his comrades say, accepting this decision: “Even in destruction, there’s a right way and a wrong way—and there are limits.”
Mullaghmore was the wrong way and children are off limits.
⏩Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.
I enjoy honest accounts like this. The duality of man. I'm outraged at the idea of targeting kids, yet at the same I've argued to justify bombing campaigns where kids were killed. How does the brain process such cognitive dissonance without shutting down? Aye, that should be a universal mantra, children are off limitsReplyDelete
I think the same moral duality exists in most of us. Circumstance often shapes moral outlook in a damaging way. Time helps iron out the inconsistencies repair it. Can we hold to the positions we claim to uphold? It is a difficult one. But by even setting them out there can act as an incentive to adhere to them. No bad thing if it is not posturing and virtue signaling.Delete
Hasnt Adams previously condemned bad IRA operations? Or at least he has been critical of the that the ground work was done for her to follow his example.ReplyDelete
More relevant than your Russian example, common but less memorable news reports often reported that the IRA had abandoned an op because of the proximity of civilians. So the option would have been known to the bombers, and especially after the backlash from their support base after indiscriminate attacks in 1974.
He has but I think she is reluctant to bite the bullet and speak frankly about what was one of the IRA's showpiece operations. It celebrated that operation in a way it did not celebrate the bad operations you refer to.Delete
You are right about there being incidents closer to home but the Russian one was instructive because of how Camus had his character phrase the moral/political dichotomy.
Great piece well really just the truth in all fairness Mary Lou has not got the same lies available to her as her predecessor she struggles big time because she wants to be a political leader but also keep the hounds at bayReplyDelete
a bit of a tightwire walk?Delete
A soul searching piece...I think it will haunt a few people maybe quite a few. The conflict in Ireland unconventional that it was exposed far to many children to the brutality of violence. If you were on the recieving side and the giving side and it more likely to haunt people even more.ReplyDelete
It is not to excuse the British for anything, nor absolve republicans of everything.Delete
Don't know if you heard your fellow South Derry man, one Joseph Brolly on NewsTalk radio with Kieran CrudityDelete
Poor Joe had shocking nightmares for years ... an image of a burning child at the bottom of the bed
Sounds as if he was surely haunted
Then he goes on to say
"When I gave a kidney, I wanted to sort of preserve a life
I suppose possibly to atone for the sins of those around me
to try and make some sort of amends for those around me ………
(Interviewer then asks: Who’s sins were you atoning for?)
Well, you know we had …em… there were lots of very distressing events around the town
… there was a horrendous bombing at Claudy
… and you know there were …em… soldiers murdered outside the town.
There were … there was a lot of what was of great regret … you know that a young prison officer would be shot in the face … regardless of what was going on …"
Yourself and Mackers will have us wearing sack cloth and ashes yet!
We would only have you wearing sackcloth and ashes to improve your dress style. When you once said to a woman "hey groovy chick, how about a date"? the answer you got was "try 1972."Delete
Henry Joy commentsReplyDelete
Hurt people ... hurt people
People bruised by life and communities aggrieved by circumstance are more likely to become hostile and violent.
Individuals and communities whose needs are reasonably well met will be less likely to deliberately participate in hurting others.
Violent civil unrest can only foment where there's a significant number of hurt people. Viability for a sustained campaign will be proportionate to the level of distress or sense of injustice experienced by the actors. The more aggrieved the protagonists become the greater the tendency for excessive responses.
Compound the situation whereby the civil authority fails to exercise restraint or behaves, as has happened a number of times in our history, to nefariously manipulate parties to the conflict ... then what can we expect but retaliatory push-back and egregious excesses.
Rather than participate in excessive moralising, I find myself taking a position similar to Camus's succinct summary of the French/Algerian conflict: "it was as unavoidable, as it was unjustifiable"
Individuals and communities whose needs are reasonably well met will be less likely to deliberately participate in hurting others.Delete
but does not explain the violence of the rich against the poor.
Excessive moralising is one way to look at it, but I think as a concept it only has purchase if the thinking expressed is used for the purpose of pontificating or virtual signaling. Often "excessive" is like "extremist" - applied when what is expressed introduces a chill into the comfort zone. I would hope the above piece is not excessive moralising and more an exploration of what might constitute wrong ways and limits.
Your quote from Camus has long interested me without ever bothering me: the implications seem easy enough teased out - the cause is often unavoidable, the means to pursue it are not always justifiable.
As for the operation under discussion, that was easy avoidable. There was no pressing military or strategic necessity that merited the operation. It was not one of those situations where military necessity made unavoidable the killing of children. Whatever is thought of Mountbatten, the children had every tight to expect from the IRA that it had neither right nor reason to kill them.
The 'excessive moralising' was a description of my own stanceDelete
It was neither descriptive nor prescriptive for anyone else
But here's the thing and where to my mind the rubber really hits the road ... if our moral sensibilities are deeply held and if we are to hold an irrevocable position where we define these actions, operations such as Mullaghmore and Kingsmill, as war crimes where does the moral compass point then?
The volunteer who detonated the charge at Mullaghmore and the volunteers at Kingsmill have never been brought before the courts. There are those who co-operated in these operations, both before and after the fact who have evaded prosecution too.
Is there an obligation for those with information to come forward?
Presuming there are any of them still alive, should those in the leadership of the IRA at the time, appear before the International Criminal Court for their 'war crimes'?
Moral dilemmas abound!
I never considered excessive moralising to be a trait of your argument.Delete
The only thing that would exempt lining up a group of unarmed civilians and shooting them dead from the category of a war crime would be in a situation where there was no war. We can only invoke that defence if we claim we were not at war.
I don't think there is an obligation on people with information about those activities to come forward. This is based on my previous assertions that there should be no prosecutions in the Bloody Sunday war crime. The moral dilemma that creates is no less real because it means that war crimes go judicially unaddressed and that conflict resolution compromises justice.
As you say, moral quandaries abound. But better to recognise that than to pretend there was nothing unethical about the actions in the first place.
Excellent piece, Anthony. Very, very well presented. (Geraldine G here, since it says “Comment as: Google Account.”)ReplyDelete
Geraldine - thank you. It will not persuade everyone. It would most certainly not have persuaded me back in the day. And as Henry Joy alludes, reflection tends to take place outside the immediacy of conflict. That said, I fail to see how it can be argued logically that the children were not victims of a war crime, unless the war itself is denied.Delete
Óglaigh na hÉireann apologised long ago, rightly, for deaths such as those of the children on the boat. If McDonald were actually involved in the Republican Movement (she was not and is not and is the leader of what is better thought of as New Sinn Féin) she would have been aware of that. Insightful as ever, Tony, and it is only right that Republicans grapple with issues such as this. Clearly a lot of things happened that should not have happened, though the war itself was a just one. We must ensure that our children never know the society in which we grew up in. Looking at Pearse and Firinne and their generation, I cannot imagine that they ever will, though we must be careful and take nothing for granted.ReplyDelete
Sean - you say that there was an IRA apology for the likes of Mullaghmore. That is right but it was a general apology which did not address the specifics of that operation. I don't think had Mary Lou been aware of that general apology it would have made it any easier for her.Delete
Our war in the North would never meet the just war criteria as officially stated. We were often slated during the campaign for not waging a just war. We certainly felt it was justified and did not wage it because we thought we were doing something wrong. But that doesn't suffice to meet a just war criterion. The priests would sometimes discuss this with us in the jail.
Whatever else the IRA did it seems indisputable that it did fight a protracted guerilla war against British state terrorism. We might now wish we had have gone about it in a totally different way but if we were teenagers again we would probably do the same.
I invariably say in these matters that I hope my writing helps bring clarity rather than moral high grounding it. I would have pressed the button at Mullaghmore, lined people up at the side of the road and dug secret graves. I would not dream of doing it today or defend my perspective on it at the time.
Henry Joy sack cloth and ashes might be stretching it a little. Whatever is going on in Joe Brolly's life Im sure it is very personal to him but for Joe wanting to atone for things being done by his neighbours to his other neighbours would be like Paisley looking to atone for things being done by the Pope. Articles like the one that Anthony has written allow people to reflect. In my opinion reflection is a learning proccess. Being haunted by particular events and repenting about them are two very different things. Given the same set of circumstances at the same period it is most likely one would end up at the same outcome. War is both brutal and terrible those of us who are lucky to come out the other end of it have at the very least a duty to reflect on past events to try and avoid mistakes made in the past.ReplyDelete
Yes Dominic, reflection is part of the processDelete
And after reflecting we draw some conclusion
Next, based on those conclusions we formulate a plan
Then completing the cycle of learning by moving into the activity phase again to test new learnings
And so it continues and repeats
The ideal which we move towards is to build an accurate map for ourselves so that we might navigate the world more competently.
'Chimp Brain' doesn't do good map making. Sentiment is a drawback in this domain. What's required in acquiring effective life skill is a cold eye.
"Mountbatten...should never have been attacked while in the company of civilians or children."ReplyDelete
"She should not be evasive about the targeting of children. The option is there for her to call on the IRA to apologise for a war crime."
In 1990 a 6 month old baby was shot dead along with her serviceman father in Europe. The baby was hit in the head at close range by a 7.62 short, we can only imagine the carnage, yet the perp is to this day lauded by the 1916 Societies among others, and articles and comments lauding him have appeared on this blog. If these are war crimes why are the war criminals still lauded?
I remember reading about a young catholic father who was murdered by the Provos during a bank robbery in Donegal. His murderer is still lauded by the Derry Brigade at memorials, retraumatising the man's family every year. How do you think the republican community should remember these people? If a volunteer was a war criminal should they be removed from rolls of honour?
Peter - I think you missed an opportunity. Republicans are reflecting - with a critical eye - on their past activities. You could have done likewise and explored the war crimes of the state forces. That would have been of real benefit and had the potential for good dialogue. We already know what you think of republicans and you have always been welcome to express that view here.Delete
If we all stay in our comfort zone I am not sure it does a lot to enhance understanding.
That said, you do raise good questions that republicans need to address even if you assume when you should be demonstrating.
I will give you my view when I am less tired.
The death of Nivruti Islania was appalling. You assume you know who did it whereas I do not assume to know. I have read the press reports alleging Dessie Grew was involved but little else. They might be true but having so much experience of them calling things wrong, I would need a lot more.Delete
If whoever carried out the attack knew who was in the car and was determined to kill them all anyway, then it would be a war crime. A shooting attack can allow for a much larger degree of discrimination than a bomb. This is why it is easier to frame the Mullaghmore operation as a war crime if we are correct in thinking that the presence of the children and other civilians onboard was known about and observed yet the button was hit nevertheless. There was no escape option available for the children / civilians. We don’t have anywhere near the level of certainty in the case of Nivruti Islania.
When I look at these things I try to work out how I would feel if the situation was reversed. Is the British soldier guilty of a war crime when he shoots dead a child while trying to hit a member of the IRA? It would be an appalling incident but I would not label it a war crime. The British soldier who seems to have deliberately shot dead Majella O’Hare would be guilty of a war crime in a war time situation.
You seem to suggest that there is something wrong that this blog would permit Dessie Grew to be eulogised. It is a free inquiry blog – why would it not allow the opinion expressed through eulogy? If you – which you won’t – were to praise the Paras responsible for the Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy atrocities, you would not have that opinion suppressed. You would have the opinion challenged – much as you are free to challenge the opinion that Dessie Grew is worthy of being eulogised - but there would be no grounds for someone to blame the blog for featuring your opinion on the matter.
Why are war criminals still lauded? Bomber Harris is still lauded even though it seems beyond doubt that he was a serious war criminal who massacred civilians in their thousands. I notice a Daily Telegraph writer this week trying to defend him on the grounds that he won the war: a case of ends justifying means rather than process legitimising outcome. The Counterpunch piece I cited earlier seems again relevant: Scratch the surface of such arguments, and the truth is bleakly common: apologists for murder will be found.
They are lauded because freedom of opinion allows them to be lauded. You are not asked to laud Harris.
How should the republican community commemorate their dead even where such dead have been guilty of atrocity or war crimes? In an ideal world no one culpable for that would be lauded. But I am okay with it much as I am okay with the loyalist community commemorating their dead and the Paras remembering their dead. I am not okay with memorials and wreaths being targeted by the hate merchants.
If people of whatever hue wish to honour characters that those from another hue consider unsavoury, my attitude generally is, ok, so long as I am not prohibited by your eulogising from observing that the person being eulogised was culpable for atrocity.
The whole conflict was littered by war crimes on all sides. I found this piece poignant. Thanks for sharing it Anthony. Time cools the blood.ReplyDelete
Glad you got something out of it Steve.Delete
No party had a monopoly om war crimes.
As Henry Joy suggested to me has there ever been a war without them?
And legally, the war crime band has a very expansive range of activity within it.
In my usage of it I tend to employ it for the most horrendous of acts: Bloody Sunday; Kingsmill. For other breaches of the rules of war such as troops wrecking homes or insurgents hurting people, I tend not to use it.
Have you ever written about the attack before, Anthony? It seems to have had an impact on you.ReplyDelete
I don't remember a piece in particular but I probably have. I took part in a number of documentaries about it. If you mean by impact, am I driven by it? No. I wrote about it this week because it had been in the news and invited some reflection.Delete
There is an observation in a piece on Counterpunch about the Armenian genocide that illuminates the difficulty and perhaps the need to avoid being formal or pedantic:ReplyDelete
Attributing names to the brutal acts humans are capable of inflicting upon each other is never without problems. There are gradations of terror, hierarchies of atrocity and cruelty. In these, the pedants reign. Disputes splutter and rage over whether a “massacre” can best be described as a crime against humanity or a counter-measure waged with heavy sorrow against a threatening enemy. Scratch the surface of such arguments, and the truth is bleakly common: apologists for murder will be found.
Thanks for sharing that observation from Counterpunch AM.Delete
Like the Camus quote I referenced both acknowledge the ultimate bind which exists. It existed for those who participated in the more egregious operations during the conflict, as it exists for those who retrospectively attempt to objectively evaluate those painful events and times.
the one thing we can be certain of Henry Joy is that if by ultimate bind you mean ultimate dilemma, it is that.Delete
I have no problem with war criminals facing justice and being removed from rolls of honour, be that Soldier F or Brian Robinson or anybody else. I don't like them being lauded as heroes. You rightly point out Provo war crimes but don't say what should be done with the war criminals.ReplyDelete
Peter - I have no problem with war criminals facing justice and being removed from rolls of honourDelete
Presumably that means you think the Bomber Harris statute should be removed.
The IRA perpetrated many horrendous things and if you are right it has committed war crimes in other countries. Yet, the British state has practiced war crimes and atrocity in numerous countries to the extent that in terms of culpability the IRA looks almost angelic which it is not. But you have to see the problem it poses when these things are fleshed out and we are confronted with Henry Joy's moral quandaries.
Years ago when reading a biography of Joachim Peiper, the Waffen SS senior officer, I thought about his grave and came to the conclusion that if people want to honour him at it - despite his conviction for war crimes (hotly disputed, as I recall, by some British and Canadian officers who backed him) - that is up to them.
I would oppose German state & society honouring him for the same reason I would oppose British state & society honouring Harris.
Nor would I expect the Northern or Dublin state & society to honour the IRA, but I feel republicans should be left to get on with it.
Unlike you, I would not regard Brian Robinson as a war criminal despite having known the guy he killed. You must then regard Billy Hutchinson in the same light.
I have stood off labelling individual front line loyalists (unless they were Basher Bates or Lenny Murphy types) as war criminals while holding that the overarching loyalist strategy of targeting an unarmed civilian population was a war crime and which again the British state was knee deep in.
I once attended the UVF funeral of Billy Mitchell. Given that Billy was convicted for killing two men whose bodies were disappeared for months (the universal calling card for war criminals) and was accused of participation in Dublin/Monaghan bombings (something I view in the same manner as I do allegations against Dessie Grew), the argument could be made that I honoured by attendance a UVF war criminal. I wonder how much such an allegation provides any serious clarity. But it does flag up the difficulty of a hard and fast approach and without doubt raises moral questions as we feel our way around these issues.
It sticks in the craw when people who kill civilians are lauded as heroes, be that Bomber Harris, Soldier F or Dessie Grew. Some will argue they did what they had to do. Fair enough,it's a greyish area, but lauded? It's just not right.ReplyDelete
there is a consistency to that perspective and I would find it hard to object to someone holding that across the board view.Delete
Then there is the fact that some people who have killed children have also been guilty of heroics. Whatever Bomber Harris might have ordered from the safety of his London office, the people who manned the planes displayed huge courage.
Best for a society not to laud killing even if it finds itself at times lauding the killers.