Northern Ireland: a zombie IRA and zombie government

The killing of Ronan Kerr exposes both the moral turpitude of republican dissidents and the opportunism of Northern Ireland's rulers.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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The murder of the Catholic Northern Ireland police officer Ronan Kerr by Irish republican dissidents was grotesque. What a waste of a life. In the past it was loyalist terror squads that killed people simply for the fact of being Catholic; now it is so-called republican dissidents who carry out sectarian murders, targeting a young man on the basis of his religion and his career choice.

Yet what is striking is the speed with which the Kerr murder has been politically institutionalised by party leaders and the media, turned from an expression of residual resentment against Catholics who join the police service into a premonitory snapshot of what might become of Northern Ireland if any group or individual fails to commit themselves fully to the ‘peace process’. If the killing reveals the moral turpitude of republican dissidents, the transformation of it into a political signpost exposes the desperation of the political class.

The killing of Kerr confirms, for anyone still confused on the matter, that there’s nothing remotely principled or romantic about republican dissidents. They might call themselves the ‘Real IRA’ or the ‘Continuity IRA’, but they’re really the Zombie IRA: small groups of resentful individuals who cynically don the historic garb of physical-force republicanism to disguise the fact that theirs is an inchoate, nihilistic form of violence rather than a serious political campaign.

The Zombie IRA’s sporadic attacks – whether they’re targeting off-duty soldiers or Catholic cops – is an Irish variant of twenty-first-century nihilism, an expression of alienation and bitterness. In this sense, it has more in common with modern-day Islamist violence than it does with the war pursued by the Provisional IRA against the British Army and its allies from 1969 to 1994. The key difference between the PIRA and the ZIRA is that where the former used violence as a means to a political end – the forceful removal of British troops from Ireland – for the latter the violence is the end. It’s all there is. A shooting or an attempted bombing as an expression of the individual shooter or the individual bomber’s angst. These are terror tantrums, not dissimilar to when angry young Muslims try to blow up an aeroplane or stab to death a Dutch filmmaker.

Indeed, it is striking the extent to which republican dissidents, like Islamists, have embraced the narcissistic politics of identity. Once upon a time, republicans attacked the police service (then called the Royal Ulster Constabulary) because, in their eyes, it was the armed representative of an oppressive and foreign state power. Now they attack one individual for daring to join the police service presumably on the basis that he has failed to adhere to his identity, to honour his roots as a Catholic and thus a minority person in Northern Ireland who ought to feel removed from the powers-that-be. This is the same motivation as that behind Islamist threats to murder Shanna Bukhari, the young British Muslim woman who aspires to be Miss World: a kind of tribal fury, the use of violence to enforce a cliquish view of what is and isn’t acceptable within the confines of one’s identity.

Yet the extent to which the killing of Kerr has been made into a sort of political signifier, a morality tale even, reveals some base motives on the part of the political and media elite too. Some view the killing, not as a relatively isolated event executed by a minority group, but as a reminder of the deep hatreds that lie just beneath the surface of Northern Ireland’s fragile pseudo-civilised facade. The Kerr murder shows that Ireland is still a ‘prisoner of its past’, says one commentator, and that it might at any moment be plunged ‘back into [that] dark and bitter past’.

The British media response to the Kerr killing is infused with snooty fears about atavistic Irish men and women, who at the merest whiff of police blood might be tempted back towards a life of bomb-making and bloodshed. ‘Nationalism is an itch that can never be quite scratched away’, says one observer. ‘It may fall silent for a decade or two. But you can’t ever be sure that it’s gone.’ Others have argued that groups like the Real IRA remind us that ‘violence, chaos and anarchy’ always lurk beneath the surface in Ireland, ‘volatile in the here and now’. Like time-travelling mental patients, apparently Irish people are continually being whispered to by ‘the voices of history’.

Alongside the age-old prejudices about crazy Irish folk, there’s a strong streak of historical illiteracy in this kind of commentary. The notion that Ireland could easily be plunged backwards, with some commentators even darkly reminding us that in 1969 the PIRA, like the RIRA today, also emerged from a split in the republican movement, overlooks profound political changes that have taken place in Ireland and around the world in recent decades. The war of 1969 did not kick off because some Irish men were suddenly consumed by the nationalist itch, or because they were told by the ‘voices of history’ to dust down their guns and start killing Brits once more. Rather, there were specific circumstances and events that nurtured the start of that 25-year conflict, including a broader international thirst for radical change, the failure of Northern Ireland’s middle-class civil rights movement to improve Catholics’ lives, and the brutal response of first the Unionist authorities and then the British Army to any challenge by Catholics and nationalists to the Six Counties set-up. The IRA emerged in response to that, not from an in-built lust for mayhem in Irish people’s DNA. Today, none of the political conditions of 1969 exists, and the Irish national question has been utterly exhausted.

The fear that one killing, however horrible, could wreck the ‘peace process’ and rewind history 40 years really speaks to a powerful, existential sense of insecurity on the part of Northern Ireland’s rulers and the British elite more broadly. The fear that the current set-up might be shattered by relatively rare acts of violence exposes an instinctive recognition that the institutions of the ‘peace process’ – from the Good Friday Agreement to the constantly crisis-ridden Northern Ireland Assembly – are hollow, in many ways illegitimate, and certainly lacking in enthusiastic support from the people of Northern Ireland.

It is not the strength of republican dissidents that makes sections of the elite fret about a return to so-called anarchy, but rather the weakness of their own post-conflict political arrangements. The ‘peace process’ filled the post-war era, not with new or visionary politics, but simply with the promise of official management and celebration of Catholics’ and Protestants’ allegedly fixed identities. From the Good Friday Agreement to the Assembly, all institutions have been built on the sectarian premise that Northern Ireland has two permanently distinct communities whose different traditions must be valued and whose self-esteem must be preserved. The Assembly is less about carving out a political future than about managing the present in order to avoid a slide back to the past. Unsurprisingly, such politics has failed to inspire much confidence or interest amongst what are effectively its lab rats: the people of Northern Ireland.

And so now, some political leaders are cynically using the killing of Ronan Kerr to try to get people to back Northern Ireland’s post-conflict political arrangements. We need ‘unity’ in relation to the peace process, they say, as this killing confirms that this seemingly neverending ‘process’ is the only way forward. What we end up with is a political elite in Northern Ireland that offers people little more than recognition for their identities and a dissident movement that polices and punishes people who sin against their identities. These two sides are not engaged in a new Irish war – rather they are flipsides of the same ugly coin of the shallow post-conflict politics that now dominates Northern Ireland.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

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