A Response to New Violence in Northern Ireland

UPDATE 10.45pm: It's been reported that a police officer has been shot dead in Craigavon. Whether this is connected to the murders in Antrim is unclear. But I feel even more strongly about everything I wrote earlier today. There has never been any justification for the use of violence to achieve political ends in Northern Ireland; and for at least the last decade there has been no intellectual logic to even pretending such justification.

On Saturday night, two young soldiers preparing to go to Afghanistan were murdered in Antrim, Northern Ireland. Four other people, including two men delivering pizzas, were injured. The people who carried out the attack — members of a group that split from the mainstream IRA in the late 1990s — claim they were doing so to bring about a free Ireland. They make the callous claim that the pizza delivery guys were collaborating with what they consider to be the British occupation forces in Ireland.

It’s hard to know what to say in response, but let’s begin with a reminder of the political context.

In short, from 1997 onwards, after 30 years of civil conflict in which our society saw illegal paramilitary groups and British security forces engage, nearly 4,000 people were killed, 43,000 physically injured: we negotiated with each other.

The vast majority of Irish people, North and South, voted in a free referendum over 10 years ago to endorse the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. The government of the Irish Republic supports this agreement. So does the government of the U.K. And the European Parliament. And the U.S. government. And the United Nations.

The agreement required serious and substantial compromise from each community; it was hard-won, and some of the costs of the agreement are still difficult to bear. It has brought about the release of all prisoners held for politically-motivated offenses; the reform of the police to the extent where a (U.S.) oversight commissioner pronounced it one of the most progressive police services in the world; the enactment of some of the most radical and humane equality and human rights legislation anywhere on the planet; and a power-sharing executive government whose very modus operandi includes neither Protestant/unionist nor Catholic/nationalist representatives from vetoing the other side.

Every community in Northern Ireland has had to compromise, and every community has gained. Our past is a broken one; we’re trying to fix it. The people who murdered the soldiers and seriously injured PIZZA DELIVERY GUYS on Saturday are motivated by a mixture of historical falsehood and the human tendency to blood lust, along with whatever personal stories may have forced them into thinking that violence is an acceptable path. They are wrong. And anyone who tries to justify this kind of act betrays the best of what it means to be Irish. I am left with feelings of deep offense alongside the sorrow I feel for the loved ones of those who have died, been wounded, and the rest of the people of my home, Northern Ireland, whose traumatic memories of the past have now been re-stirred. Including my own.

But angry rhetoric is not what we need right now. We need to assert something vital: that being northern Irish, or Irish, or simply human is never to be just ‘one thing.’ I am from Belfast, but you cannot easily put me in a political or religious box. Within the past two generations I have family ties to people from just about the widest demographic background possible in 20th century Ireland. Protestant. Catholic. Irish. British. Pro-state. Anti-state. Political. Apolitical. Bereaved. Suffering. Peacemaking. To those who would return to violence as a method for political action, I say: If you want to remove the British, you’d have to kill half of me. On the other hand, if you want to hurt the Irish, take the other half. If we’re honest, we may all find that our backgrounds grant us more in common with our supposed enemies than we usually think.

I am close to people who lived to see their loved ones murdered. The killing was done by Irish ‘rebels’ who believed they were trying to start a revolution, and by pro-British ‘loyalists’ telling themselves that they were trying to stop one. That’s over now. Or it’s supposed to be.

The people who killed two young men and shot four others on Saturday night may think they’re trying to get the revolution started again. They’re wrong. The revolution has already come. It came when our political representatives decided to forgo the right to revenge and negotiate a settlement in which nobody wins (except everybody) and nobody loses (except everybody). Because of this revolution, we can each have a stake in the future of our society; and the past can be addressed through nonviolent, non-punitive means. It has cost us a great deal. There can be no one who is totally satisfied with every aspect of the Northern Ireland peace process – I’ll gladly tell you what bothers me about it if you ask. But complaint, and much less revenge, won’t serve us – even as we are outraged at the weekend’s horror. For the larger truth is that while it has always been true that there has never been any justification for the use of violence for political ends in Ireland and Northern Ireland, today, and for at least the last decade, there can be no way of even pretending such a justification exists.