The Troubles: a product of ‘virulent’ madness?

The proposal to give £12,000 ‘recognition pay’ to the families of all of those killed in Northern Ireland is a subtle way of rewriting history.

Kevin Rooney

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The proposal to give a £12,000 payment to the next of kin of all of those killed during the Troubles, even if they were paramilitaries, inevitably caused a storm yesterday.

The proposal is part of the long-awaited report from the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past, which was published yesterday and which makes more than 30 recommendations to the British government – including advice on how to ‘record the legacy’ of the Troubles and even how to refer to the events of 1969-1994. The report suggests that while the term ‘Troubles’ is a bit too neutral, and ‘war’ is a bit over the top, the best phrase is probably ‘the conflict in and about Northern Ireland’.

But it was the proposal to give ‘recognition payment’ to every next of kin of the more than 3,000 people who died that grabbed the headlines. The wide respect for the report’s authors – Dr Robin Eames (former Church of Ireland Primate) and prominent Catholic Denis Bradley – did little to dampen the angry reaction from Unionists in particular that everyone who died in this conflict should be treated the same. Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson, and the widows of Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers, took to the airwaves to denounce as ‘shameful’ the idea that there is ‘moral equivalence’ between the death of an RUC member, a civilian and a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Claiming to speak for many, RUC widow Phyllis Carrothers, whose husband Douglas was killed in an IRA car bomb in 1991, said: ‘I’m hurt because I don’t think the perpetrators of murders and those murdered like my husband should be treated on a level playing field.’ Eames and Bradley, however, are of the view that there should be no ‘hierarchy of victims’.


The report of the Consultative
Group on the Past

As it happens, while I might come from the other side of the tracks, I respect Phyllis Corrothers’ condemnation of this controversial recommendation. At a time when British and Irish politicians seem to have lost the nerve to distinguish right from wrong in the official recollection of the conflict in Northern Ireland, she at least has held true to her political convictions. And one thing that Eames and Bradley seem keen to scrub out of the history books is the fact that this entire war was built on conflicting political convictions.

The mural down the street from my family home in West Belfast that said ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ reflected the prevailing view of the republican community I grew up in. Simply put, the deaths of young men who we believed were fighting against British military occupation and repression were considered by us to be a far greater loss than the deaths of the British soldiers and RUC men enforcing British rule. To wipe out, retrospectively, that distinction, the fact that convictions, passions and values underpinned people’s attitudes during the conflict, is not only to irritate Mrs Corrothers, but also to erase the goals and objectives that republicans believed were worth fighting and dying for.

By treating every death as morally equal and offering equal compensation to all, the Eames-Bradley report tries to wipe out decades of political conflict in favour of presenting the war as some type of natural disaster, devoid of any purpose or principles. The logical consequence of such an approach is to erase all sense of agency from the conflict, and suggest that we were all victims of some irrational force which took over this part of Ireland between 1969 and 1994. Indeed, the Eames-Bradley report argues that ‘buried memories fester in the unconscious minds of communities in conflict, only to emerge later in even more distorted and virulent forms to poison minds and relationships’.

Reading this, you could be forgiven for thinking that there had been an outbreak of political Ebola in Northern Ireland, a kind of deranged malady, and thus we need elevated people like Eames and Bradley to offer us therapy and ‘recognition payment’ to make us feel better. There is no sense of the contemporary political nature of the conflict: the colonialist aims of the British and loyalist forces which sought to suppress republican dissent and terrorise Catholic communities, or the clear-cut desires for liberation that motivated many of those who resisted them. Instead, everything was apparently ‘unconscious’, ‘distorted’, ‘poisonous’. The Eames-Bradley report says that ‘although the past is the past, it continues to exist in people’s minds’. Here, the people of Northern Ireland, rather than the political arrangements there, are depicted as the key problem – and they must be cured, corrected or in some way taught to ‘come to terms’ with this all-powerful, all-haunting past.

If the Eames-Bradley approach succeeds, the history books will turn a complex political conflict into the kind of insulting image of warring, past-obsessed paddies so beloved of British commentators and cartoonists.

For those republicans who have put up with 30 years of criminalisation and vilification by the British authorities and their allies, the report’s refusal to take sides or create a ‘hierarchy of victims’ might seem like an attractive option. But by making all sides equal and suggesting there was no right or wrong, the report actually does more to undermine the legitimacy of the republican struggle than years of demonisation ever did.

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said the report should be ‘independent and victim-centred’. This reveals Sinn Fein’s complicity in the abandonment of the politics of principle that the peace process represents. That Sinn Fein now present fallen republicans as ‘victims’ rather than ‘freedom fighters’, as we once referred to them, reflects the victim-orientated politics of the Irish republican movement and the peace process more broadly. The Eames-Bradley report, with its in-depth recommendations of who can be defined as a ‘victim’ (a great number of people who lived in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1994), will further entrench this post-agency, history-rewriting approach.

While it might make sense for the side that lost – Irish republicans – to try to redefine the nature of the struggle, what is more bemusing is the British government’s seeming willingness to accept the recommendations of this report, or at least seriously to consider them. What was the point of fighting a brutal war against ‘terrorism’ for 25 years if you decide today that there is, after all, a moral equivalence between those ‘terrorists’ and your own soldiers and RUC allies? Are British officials really going to agree that there is no distinction between British Army and IRA dead? While I may not agree with the cries of protest against Eames-Bradley emanating from Unionist critics at the Daily Telegraph, it is undoubtedly true that this report reflects a deeper uncertainty and disorientation at the centre of the British establishment, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

A similar amnesia appears to have gripped many in Ireland, too. Last Wednesday, when Irish people opened up their newspapers to read special supplements on the inauguration of new American president Barack Obama, the Irish Times carried another special supplement on the ninetieth anniversary of the first Dail (Irish parliament). The opening of the first Dail in effect marked the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, which resulted in the recreation of the Irish Republic as an ‘independent nation’ free from British rule. On the same day, the first IRA action took place at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary, when Sean Treacy and his comrades ambushed and killed two members of the pro-British RIC police force. In books, songs, literature and historical records, these two events – the founding of the Dail and the first IRA action – were seen as inextricably linked. Yet I was surprised to find that nowhere in the Irish Times was there a reference to what are regarded as the opening shots in the key phase of the struggle for Irish independence. It was simply expunged and written out of history in last week’s paper. Its absence and the downplaying of IRA armed struggle meant that one was left with the impression that the first Dail and subsequent Irish independence ‘just happened’, with no action or decision-making involved.

The problem with such censorship is that it excludes human agency from the picture and leaves the historical narrative appearing random and arbitrary. This is a high price to pay for the embarrassment the Irish elite feels about the fact that its nation state was born from the barrel of an IRA gun. Similarly, the Eames-Bradley report on remembering the past does no one any favours when it attempts to blur the factors that gave rise to ‘conflict in and about Northern Ireland’, even if recalling the facts themselves is painful and uncomfortable for some.

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school.

Previously on spiked

Kevin Rooney reviewed one book that successfully explained the political failings of Sinn Fein and another which a disturbing attempt at historical revisionism. Mícheál Mac Giolla Phádraig was appalled by the suggestion that the IRA was a death cult. Brendan O’Neill described the decommissioning of political debate. Or read more at spiked issues Ireland.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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