• Paul Coulter

No Alternative? NI Murders Past & Present

With many others in Northern Ireland, I was dismayed, although not surprised, this week by comments from Michelle O’Neill, deputy president of Sinn Fein and former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister, that there was “no alternative” to the violence that marred this place in past decades. I was not surprised because Sinn Fein will not say that IRA violence was wrong because it is part of its own history and core to its ideology. Few among the present generation of politicians may not have been involved directly in the violence, but many of their family members certainly were. O’Neill’s father was an IRA prisoner and at least two of her cousins were active IRA members. The idea that fighting for the cause of was heroic is fundamental for Sinn Fein. Glorification of violence is in its DNA.


I was not surprised at O’Neill’s defence of past violence. I was, nonetheless, dismayed because this comment makes it all the harder to envisage a shared future for Northern Ireland and because it reveals one of the deepest flaws with our current political system. The mandatory power sharing arrangement we currently have in the Northern Ireland Assembly reinforces the concept of two communities and encourages people to vote for the parties that will most strongly represent their interests rather than those who will imagine a shared way ahead. It is an arrangement based on the ‘Good Friday Agreement’, which dodged the question of how to deal with our conflicted past. There was no process for truth and reconciliation and no requirement for signatories to renounce the violence of the past.


At the very least in a post-conflict society, people who are supposed to lead us into the future should be committed exclusively to peaceful means. Ironically, O’Neill’s wider comments this week were about a peaceful future based on the ‘Agreement’. She said it now offers an alternative to violence and is precious. But in saying that the terrorists of the past had “no alternative”, she was claiming that there are times when it is appropriate for people living in a democratic state governed by the rule of law to resort to violence to achieve political end and that those people can decide when those times are for themselves. The paramilitaries who wreaked such horrific violence in Northern Ireland decided they had no alternative and O’Neill believes they were right. What, then, is to stop today’s ideologues, in whatever cause, drawing the same conclusion and taking the same course? Furthermore, the violence perpetrated by the IRA (and other paramilitary groups on both ‘sides’ of our conflict) was often of the kind that no believer in a civilised society could support (planting car bombs in busy town centres and shooting people simply because they were from the ‘other’ community). How sad that a politician in 2022 could suggest that was justified!


When I am reminded of these views among Sinn Fein politicians, I find myself struggling to understand why the party receives so many votes in Northern Ireland. At the most recent Assembly elections, in May 2022, it received the highest number of first preference votes and won the largest number of seats. I must remind myself that many of its voters would not defend the violence of the past or preserve the option of violence in the future. At least I believe and hope that is true. But I struggle to understand why they vote for a party that glories in past violence and keeps the card of future violence up its sleeve? I want to understand and I want to share this society with these voters. I suppose many gave Sinn Fein their vote because work hard for their communities or they want a strong voice to challenge the strong Unionist voice of the DUP. But still I struggle.


Someone might accuse me of sectarian bias as they read this. But I am not strongly Unionist by conviction, and I cannot defend the record of my people (Ulster Protestants) in their treatment of Irish Catholics. And I would be equally dismayed and frustrated if a Unionist politician defended Loyalist paramilitaries or collusion by the security forces. But none of the main Unionist parties would do so. Nor would the nationalist SDLP defend paramilitary violence. Its leaders saw a different path for Northern Ireland’s disadvantaged Roman Catholics – the peaceful pursuit of civil rights. There was no excuse for the illegal killings that happened in Northern Ireland during our so-called Troubles, whether the killers were paramilitaries of either colour or rogue police or soldiers. There is always an alternative to murder.


This was true in the past and it is true today. Thankfully, Northern Ireland no longer suffers regular killings in sectarian violence. But Northern Ireland is now experiencing a new wave of violent killings of a different kind. O’Neill’s comments reminded me of a phrase I have noted many times when a different issue is reported. It is a media mantra that women from Northern Ireland who seek an abortion in Britain are “forced to travel”. But that is untrue. No one pushed them onto the boat or plane. They chose to go. There is always an alternative to murder.


“But”, someone might protest, “that’s easy for you to say. If you had to face what they had to face you might have made the same choice”. I confess that is true. It is true both concerning abortion and concerning paramilitarism. I did not grow up in a Republican heartland in West Belfast or rural County Tyrone. I was never invited or urged to join a paramilitary group. I never felt the injustice of being on the underside of discrimination and sectarian policies. If that had been my story, I cannot say how I would have chosen. Similarly, I have never been pregnant (obviously), nor have I ever fathered a child I feared I could not care for or whose existence put my future into doubt. I cannot say what I would have done if my life had been different.


It is true that some people have less choice than others and freedom is unequally distributed. But hard choices in which the pathway that seems easiest, or even ‘best’, for oneself but are harmful to others are part of every life. Choices have consequences for ourselves and for others. That is why we need morality to set limits on our choices and why, in a civilised society, we need the rule of law to constrain people and hold them to account. No circumstance justifies the killing of an innocent other. To plan the death of another is a course no one need pursue. To take an instrument of murder in hand is a decision no one need make. To use that instrument to take a life is a choice no one need take. Morality and the law both say clearly, there is always an alternative to murder.


That alternative is there whether the person whose life is on the line is a someone we deem an enemy or an unborn child. Sadly, though, our culture and law is self-contradictory when we compare terrorism and abortion. Rightly, most people would say that terrorist murders are wrong. Rightly, the law agrees and holds terrorist murderers accountable. Wrongly, though, many people would say that abortion is acceptable, at least in some circumstances. Wrongly, the law in Northern Ireland now agrees, offering no legal protection to unborn children and no legal consequences for those who kill them. Why is this contradiction tolerated? Simply because unborn children are small and unseen, offer no economic value to society, and have the misfortune to be dependent on their mothers for life. They are unique, living human organisms with life ahead of them, like the people killed in the Troubles. They deserve to live, like the people killed in the Troubles. Their lives are precious, like the people killed in the Troubles. There is no justification for killing them, just like the people killed in the Troubles. Planning a death, taking an instrument of murder, using it against another, is wrong whether the other is born or pre-born. There is always an alternative to murder.


It may not be an attractive or easy alternative, but it is there. There was an alternative for the men and women who imported Kalashnikovs and Semtex to Northern Ireland. They could have campaigned peacefully for rights and justice. They could have built a compassionate society for all, including their enemies. They could have raised their children to seek peace and have a better future. They could do all this with a clear conscience, and they could demand, rightly, that the law and society should support them in it. There is an alternative for women who contemplate aborting their babies too. They could work and campaign for better support for mothers. They could build a compassionate society for all, including their unborn children. They could carry, deliver and embrace their children and let them have the future that is theirs by right. They could do all this with a clear conscience, and they could demand, rightly, that the law and society should support them in it. There is always an alternative to murder.

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