Families who were bereaved or injured during the Troubles in Northern Ireland face a very painful truth today. It is that, along with the private loss which they constantly bear, they are now very likely to find themselves continuously wounded and insulted afresh by the ongoing public conversation. In the twenty-two years since the Belfast Agreement was signed, that situation has not got better, but substantially worse.
Take, for example, the discussion that emerged some weeks ago when Billy Hutchinson, the leader of a small loyalist party called the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), launched his memoir, My Life in Loyalism, with a number of press interviews. Hutchinson’s previous career was in the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary organisation — linked to the PUP — which was primarily known for brutal sectarian killing.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Hutchinson’s public profile rose in line with the ‘peace process’ and his support for a loyalist ceasefire. But back in 1974 he was convicted of a UVF double murder, in which he and another UVF man shot dead two young Catholic half-brothers, Michael Loughran, 18, and Edward Eric Morgan, 27. The young men were walking down the Falls Road on their way to work one morning when a car drew up beside them and gunmen opened fire. The court was told that the victims were selected at random for what were described by the judge as “cold-blooded murders”.
Hutchinson’s mention of his victims in his book, as reported by the Irish Times, is somewhat different. The men had, he said, been identified as “active republicans. How accurate the information was, I don’t know”. The passivity of the voice is striking, as is the ambiguity of “I don’t know”. Yet there was no indication whatsoever during court proceedings that his victims were involved in the IRA. They have never been claimed or commemorated by any republican paramilitary organisation.
Their cousin, only 12 years old when they were shot, later wrote Hutchinson an open letter in which he reiterated their lack of paramilitary involvement. In it, he movingly described the catastrophic shock for his family, and the few items that his cousin Eric left behind: a handful of albums — “Tubular Bells at the front” — and the little military pewter figurines he liked to paint.
Hutchinson has said that, “I accept responsibility for what I did”. So why continue to prolong a family’s pain by insinuating a political justification? Because the alternative is Hutchinson taking the consequences of his own action fully upon himself. This he refuses to do, despite arguing for the necessity of a peaceful future. In fact, he said as much in the recent interview with the Irish Times: “I justify everything that I did in the Troubles, and I have to do that to stay sane.” That, at least, comes close to an honest analysis of his own thought processes. But the wider question is: who in society pays the price for the preservation of Hutchinson’s sanity?
The UVF and UDA are still active in criminality in Northern Ireland. The PUP, however, is a very small player on Northern Ireland’s political scene: it currently has some councillors — of whom Hutchinson is one — but no representatives in the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. The same cannot be said of Sinn Féin, the party linked to the Provisional IRA, which has seven MPs in the UK House of Commons (from which it abstains), 27 seats in the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, and 37 seats in Dáil Éireann in Dublin. Indeed, the runaway success of the party in February’s general election in the Republic of Ireland — backed by many young voters, in particular — came as something of a shock to the Irish political establishment.
Once, voters in the Republic of Ireland were largely repelled by the party’s links to extreme violence. Today, many appear unbothered by that dark history, or might even consider that it adds a touch of radical spice to an otherwise bland democratic soup. That fresh acceptance has been enabled by a narrative — energetically propagated by Sinn Féin itself — which attempts to distance itself from the grotesque detail of IRA violence while simultaneously celebrating an airbrushed version of “the armed struggle”.
Although the image that Sinn Féin broadly chooses to project under its leader Mary Lou McDonald is that of a modern Left-wing, progressive party, campaigning on housing and healthcare,it occasionally flashes naked pride in its IRA past — as in February when David Cullinane shouted “Up The ‘Ra!” to celebrate his election as a Sinn Féin TD, or again last week when Brian Stanley, another Sinn Féin TD, tweeted gloatingly that the 1979 “narrow water” incident had taught the British “the cost of occupying Ireland”.
Stanley was referring to an attack on Warrenpoint by the IRA’s South Armagh brigade in which 18 British soldiers were killed, and over 20 injured. It took place on the very same day that the IRA blew up Lord Mountbatten’s fishing boat, killing him along with his 14-year-old grandson Nicholas, the 83-year-old Dowager Lady Brabourne, and a 15-year-old schoolboy called Paul Maxwell who was working as a “boat boy” for the summer.
The deaths of two elderly people and two teenage boys that day were presumably also intended to school the British in — to borrow Stanley’s parlance — “the cost of occupying Ireland”. Like the soldiers at Warrenpoint, the small party on the boat fell under the IRA’s broad definition of “legitimate targets”, and their deaths would have been greeted with glee.
The collective memory of Ireland, North and South, is in the throes of an ongoing struggle between actual human experience, factual truth and political propaganda for dominance, in which great swathes of human experience and factual truth are being routinely downgraded, dismissed, insulted or selectively interpreted. That is where the role of the scrupulous historian becomes of great and immediate importance. The book Lost Lives, for example, an authoritative compendium of Troubles-related deaths, has long been considered an invaluable chronicle of the reality of that bleak time. Each individual’s death is accompanied by a short factual account which tells its own heart-breaking story. Neither the IRA nor the loyalist paramilitaries come out of it well.
Another important contribution to Troubles history has just been published, this time by Liam Kennedy, an emeritus professor of history at Queen’s University Belfast. It bears the title Who Was Responsible For The Troubles? — a bold choice, since such a question presses directly on the inflamed nerve-endings of historical sensitivities, and has the potential to kick off the debating equivalent of a dust-up in a Belfast bar. Yet Kennedy — a Tipperary-born long-time resident in Belfast, who intimately understands the psychology of both North and South — goes through “the parade of candidates” with an admirable and forensic calm, painstakingly assembling the relevant facts and weighing the role of “both state and non-state actors”.
Much of this is directly relevant to Sinn Féin’s current attitude to the IRA’s past violence — which seems, in its carefully calibrated mixture of dogged justification and fuzzy regret, very similar to Billy Hutchinson’s attitude to UVF killing.
Earlier this year, Mary Lou McDonald said of the IRA campaign, “I wish it hadn’t happened, but it was a justified campaign,” going on to describe it as “utterly inevitable”. As the years have gone by, and its electoral base in the Republic of Ireland has grown, Sinn Féin’s retrospective justification for past IRA activity has changed emphasis. Where once it was broadly accepted — including by Sinn Féin — that the IRA waged its armed campaign in order to bring about a United Ireland by force, the party now prefers to depict the brutal campaign as an unavoidable historical necessity in the fight for basic civil rights and freedoms for Catholics in Northern Ireland. This canny, if bogus, alteration serves two purposes: it is infinitely more palatable to a modern audience, and it also permits the party to slide past the uncomfortable fact that after a long and bloody conflict a united Ireland has not yet been achieved.
Kennedy’s book debunks that interpretation, although it does not gloss over Protestant sectarian bigotry and violence, disastrous early mistakes of the British Army, or the shortcomings of the Unionist-controlled Stormont government from 1922 to 1972. But he argues that significant changes were already well underway by the late 1960s, including “electoral reform, changes to policing, and reform of housing”. In a survey of popular opinion in the spring and summer of 1968, 65% of Catholics thought that relations between Catholics and Protestants were better than five years earlier.
The clear policy goal of the nascent Provisional IRA was a united Ireland won by force, he says, just as the Sinn Féin newspaper An Phoblacht vowed in February 1970: “We will erect the Irish Republic again in all its glory no matter what it costs.” The author’s contention is that the Provisional IRA’s long-term motivation was very far indeed from a civil rights agenda, not least when one considers the high numbers of Catholics that it killed and maimed in Northern Ireland. Indeed, he considers PIRA to have been the primary engine of the Troubles.
His view is supported elsewhere by a source somewhat closer to the republican heartland — Kevin Hannaway, a republican dissident who also happens to be Gerry Adams’ cousin, who remarked not long ago of contemporary Sinn Féin, “If they were out for an Irish Republic they failed. If they were out for civil rights they got it in 1973. So what the fucking hell was the other 30 years of war for?”
In recent years, however, Sinn Féin has been extremely vocal on the case of Pat Finucane, a Northern Ireland criminal defence lawyer who was murdered by loyalist UDA gunmen in 1989 as he ate Sunday dinner with his family. Ken Barrett, a UDA member, was later convicted of his murder. An independent 2012 review of the case found evidence of collusion between Finucane’s killers and elements in the Royal Ulster Constabulary — for which David Cameron subsequently apologised — but “no over-arching state conspiracy”. Last week, the Secretary of State Brandon Lewis ruled out the full public inquiry demanded by the Finucane family – although he kept the door open for one in the future. This decision met with widespread outrage, including from the Taoiseach Michéal Martin and Amnesty International.
It is justifiable and understandable that Pat Finucane’s family should seek information on his appalling murder. Historic state collusion with paramilitaries in Northern Ireland should be held to account where it exists. What is not justifiable is Sinn Féin’s own refusal either to express any genuine regret or disclose information on the murders of lawyers and judges by the IRA, of which there were very many: among them Edgar Graham, a young Unionist law lecturer gunned down outside Queen’s University; William Doyle, a Catholic judge shot dead as he left Sunday Mass; Rory Conaghan, a Catholic judge murdered in front of his young daughter; and Martin McBirney, a left-leaning magistrate, civil rights campaigner and literary figure who was shot dead in his family home at breakfast.
Sinn Féin is no longer a movement outside the state: it has long been part of the government in Northern Ireland, and it is actively seeking to become the government in the Republic. For how long can it argue its own right to repress and deny “legacy” information on the murder of citizens in Northern Ireland?
It is hard now, perhaps, to convey the impact of what families bereaved by paramilitary murders went through at the time of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. They had to accept that the killers of their loved ones would gain early release under its terms; in one instance, the parents of Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick, the last soldier killed in the Troubles, had to witness their son’s killer, Bernard McGinn, laughing as he was sentenced to 490 years in prison for offences that also included making the Docklands Bomb, knowing he would be free in 16 months. Many of them accepted this because they believed it would bring an end to the sectarian killing that had destroyed their own families — and to a large extent it did.
Very few, however, had fully anticipated the degree to which former paramilitaries and their vocal supporters would come to dominate the political narrative in post-Agreement Ireland, whether in terms of media coverage or electoral success. The emotional comfort of former paramilitaries has been broadly indulged and preserved at the expense of those their organisations have bereaved.
Many of the bereaved have now taken refuge in privacy and silence. Some speak out from within victims’ groups or are active online, bringing their stories of loss to a wider audience. On platforms such as Twitter, I have seen a measure of the online abuse endured by courageous campaigners such as Ann Travers, whose 22-year-old sister Mary, a primary school teacher, was shot dead by the IRA during a 1984 attempt to murder her father, the judge Thomas Travers, as the family walked home from Mass. The icy statement from the Sinn Féin spokesman Danny Morrison at the time was that “Miss Travers’ death was regrettable but understandable as her father was a member of the British judiciary.” The party does not seem to have shifted fundamentally in its thinking since.
That chilling “regrettable but understandable” over a young woman’s murder back in 1984 sits very close to Mary Lou McDonald’s “I wish it hadn’t happened, but it was a justified campaign” in 2020. Or, indeed, Billy Hutchinson’s remark, “I justify everything that I did in the Troubles”. Yet any credible way forward for Ireland, North and South, must surely involve a genuine manifestation of respect for all those who lost their lives.
And if Britain is to re-examine the points where intelligence-gathering operations veered into criminal collusion, as it should, then the Republic of Ireland might also reflect on the degree of popular sympathy for the IRA in that jurisdiction, and the extent to which that funded and fuelled the murderous conflict in the North – a theme examined in a new book, A Broad Church by Gearóid Ó Faoleán.
Acknowledging and owning uncomfortable truths in history is a complicated and painful path for all parties, and so it should be. The best historians recognise this, I think, but the electorate now seems increasingly disinclined to do so. Much of Northern Ireland remains sharply divided among sectarian lines. Both there, and certainly in the Republic of Ireland, there is a resurgent, simplistic and deeply polarising IRA triumphalism, which many among the younger generation — who never lived through the raw misery of the Troubles — are finding quite an intoxicating brew. It must feel a bit exciting to them, I suppose. It doesn’t bode well.