The brutal murder of David Black on Thursday morning was another chilling reminder, if one was needed, of the potential of dissident strains of Irish Republicanism to cause mayhem, destruction and unjustified grief to a family circle and the rest of the community. David was a Prison Officer, a well liked member of his local church and the Loyal Orders.
More importantly, he was a family man with a wife and two children. None of this was considered relevant to his killers, who dehumanised him into a “target” or a uniform. The brutality was reminiscent of so many terrorist atrocities, from all quarters, in Northern Ireland’s past.
The reaction to the killing has been swift and unanimous, with strong words of condemnation and solidarity coming from across the political spectrum. This is, of course, welcome and a sign of the much better position our society is in. Moreover, any attempt to probe more deeply into the issues raised by continuing terrorism may be seen as an attack on the psychological importance of such unity.
However, as Mick notes, there is a danger such symbolism becomes an end in itself, overlooking the real problems these groups pose. In particular, there is an elephant in the room- a potent and destructive truth that lies behind these heinous actions. While the Belfast Agreement largely ended the present threat of violence, it did not kill the ideology that gives it refuge.
These groups follow traditional armed Republican ideology. A retired Chief Superintendent on UTV noted that these groups keep popping up, because they see themselves as inheritors of a tradition, one mainstream republicans supposedly left behind with the signing of the Belfast Agreement. In short, it is partly the unraveling of the useful fiction outlined by Henry McDonald, namely that the PIRA campaign was a quest for human rights and equality rather than coercing unionists into their version of a united Ireland.
We see many ways of trying to draw an artificial distinction between the two sets of violent campaigns; the latest of which is the deputy First Minister emphasising the criminality of these groups as an attempt to place them beyond the pale from those before them. Yet it is not their drug-dealing which caused David Black’s murder- rather it was their psychological ability to wrap themselves in an ideology stretching back into 19th Century Fenianism and beyond. We must note that the need for the democratic approval of the nationalist community was never a pre-condition for armed republicanism. Indeed, Burleigh notes that terrorists often see themselves as the enlightened few, a revolutionary vanguard whose ends justify their means.
In our case, condemnation is regularly followed by Sinn Féin stressing these groups have ‘no strategy’. or little support. In short, the objection is tactical, rather than moral. The disjunct is between the moral language of condemnation and the reasoning employed to defend. These reasons will never bring about an opportunity to reduce the numbers of those vulnerable young minds attracted to this puritan Republican creed as they leave the interpretation of when violence is appropriate as a hostage to fortune- when ‘armed struggle’ is necessary is literally in the eye of the beholder.
Let’s be clear- given the contempt for Sinn Féin and the Provisionals displayed by dissidents, it is unlikely that Martin McGuinness telling them violence is morally wrong and has only ever driven people further apart would prevent their campaign, but it would mark a significant step in destroying the ideology the retired officer speaks about.
Irish history shows us that seismic changes rarely happen in a ‘big bang’ fashion, but are long in the making. In particular, I have noted that perhaps more significant than Declan Kearney’s recent sermonising on reconciliation was Spike Murray’s admission that a culture of ‘commemoration’ and effective indoctrination of children may not be appropriate in the world of the Belfast Agreement.
This pernicious influence has also extended into pockets of some civic organisations, illustrating how important it is for constitutional nationalists to seize the moral high ground within their own community and in particular to ensure that we see further progress in normalising relations between the GAA and the police as part of a shared future. Narrowing the space for these terrorist groups is not simply about criminality, it is about breaking the endurance of ideology. Ignoring this fact surely increases the risks that more young people will be sucked into destroying their lives and the lives of others.
In short, whilst the prisoners’ dispute over strip searching at Maghaberry may be the accelerant for this latest vile murder, the ideology of armed republicanism is the substantive fuel. This is not to say that Irish nationalists are not entitled to their analysis that partition was wrong or to peacefully seek to achieve their political goals, of course they are. What must be tackled, however, is continuing ambivalence or romanticism concerning violence to seek those goals, means that merely destroy lives and continue to nullify their claims to emulate the ideology of Tone.