Continuity between Adams’ failed war and failing peace is to ‘establish the conflict as eternal and perpetual’

A powerful piece from Newton Emerson, in yesterday’s Irish Times…

The first person the IRA murdered after Gerry Adams was elected Sinn Féin president was Charles Armstrong, the Ulster Unionist chair of Armagh City and District Council.

Adams became president on Sunday, November 13th, 1983. The following evening, a bomb exploded under Armstrong’s car as he left a council meeting. An SDLP colleague, Pat Brannigan, risked his life by pulling Armstrong from the burning wreckage.

Armstrong left a wife and eight children, who heard the explosion from their house a few hundred yards away. Afterwards, they received threats and hate mail and were forced to move. To the IRA supporter, every victim becomes culpable by the mere fact of their victimisation.

Shortly after the attack, Adams said Armstrong was a “perfectly legitimate” target because he was a part-time member of the Ulster Defence Regiment – as if any number of such targets were not available.

But Armstrong was also a liberal figure, respected across the community. In his final council meeting he had held a minute’s silence for the murder of a Sinn Féin councillor’s brother, earning rebukes from the DUP.

“All human life is sacred,” Armstrong told the chamber. “Murder, for whatever reason, must be condemned.”

Armstrong was a liberal. Ostensibly, the Provos killed him because he was in the UDR and therefore “a legitimate target”, but as Newton points out “three weeks after the Armagh bomb, the law lecturer and UUP assembly member Edgar Graham was murdered by the IRA.”

If there was ever an IRA plot to kill Ian Paisley, it’s yet to be revealed. Liberals on both sides, as well illustrated by this particular story, were the glue that still bound some forms of civil and political society throughout the trauma of the troubled years, and therefore a threat.

Selective targeting of liberals rather than the Unionist extremes (the 2006 edition of Lost Lives says the Provisionals managed a kill rate of just 30 loyalist paramilitaries in over thirty years) suggests these social bonds themselves were a strategic target in and of themselves.

Although there is no comparison in scale, the Bosian writer Aleksandar Hemon speaking on BBC Radio Four’s Start The Week in the wake of the publication of his memoir of Sarajevo shared this insight into the mindset of such strategically directed killings…

I always thought that the extreme violence that happened in Bosnia was directly proportional to the strengths of the bonds that they had had for at least a few generations before that. So that the violence had to be so intense so as to tear that [closeness] apart.

And to make any reconciliation impossible or at least very hard to achieve over several generations so rather than the consequence of thousands of years of hatred, they needed to break up families, they needed to drive a wedge between neighbours who had lived together for so many years. They knew what they were doing.

It was a strategy on the part of the Serbs in particular. They utilised the inhuman potentials that humans have. It was a political stratagem that required, in some ways, advanced thinking: tactical and strategic and psychological and perhaps spontaneous.

In the history of the siege of Sarajevo there were so many arbitrary crimes you know children shelled snipers shooting people running to get water but it was precisely so that no one would be able to forgive the next generation.

In other words, to establish the conflict as internal and perpetual.

It really is worth listening to the whole thing, particularly on the malign interpretations used by extreme nationalists to make false claims on the nature of culture, identity and history. It’s a useful context for the key point Newton draws in his own piece:

Today, I am occasionally invited to speak at Catholic secondary schools. It is a privilege I enjoy. The children are as open, kind and clever as they were 30 years ago but their view of the Troubles, albeit ancient history to them, is utterly different. They see IRA violence as regrettable yet inevitable, and almost certainly warranted. The idea of a just war against oppression has been swallowed whole.

This was always going to prove toxic when the next political problem arose, and that moment has arrived. Sinn Féin has pitched its latest manoeuvrings at Stormont as a battle for inalienable rights against intractable unionist bigotry. Commentators describe an Irish language Act – something Sinn Féin could not be bothered with until months ago – as the new one-man one-vote. The logic points straight back to the start of the Troubles.

This is Adams’s ultimate legacy. He has bought peace by licensing the next war. That might have been excusable as a temporary expediency but he has pursued it as a permanent self-exculpation. At the Sinn Féin ardfheis last weekend, delegates cheered their pride in the IRA. All its victims have become culpable by the mere face of their victimisation, a majority of northern nationalists implicitly concur – and a unionism that could counter this with reform and understanding was deliberately marked for death.

The long history of partial disclosure of that self-exculpation has become a platform from which to continue fighting his war by other means. In insisting on continuity between his own failed war and failing peace the aim has been to “establish the conflict as internal and perpetual”.

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