The Blanket

The Sorry Truth

Anthony McIntyre

The IRA statement this week apologising for all non-combatants killed by it during the armed struggle has caused a flurry of excitement in media circles. We may be forgiven on occasion for thinking that the media scrum stands at the bottom of the mountain awaiting a 'sign' from above which they can interpret in some new way. Even when the tablet of stone is passed down from P O'Neill with the words merely rearranged somewhat differently from the last time they came down there is a sense that some in the press posse have just won the scrabble championship. How so much spin can be put on so little substance is an intellectual crime that those charged with disseminating our news will unfortunately not have to answer for as they meander through a fictionalised life. How an author of a book on the IRA, Kevin Toolis, can make the claim that 'the Irish Republican Army has never apologised, regardless of how cruel or pointless the act' defies credulity.

The statement of regret by the IRA should not be insensitively dismissed, if for no other reason than the obvious solace it has brought to some of those who have lost loved ones as a result of IRA activity. Who would want to deny the Rev. Joseph Parker the comfort he derived from the apology which prompted him to say ‘thank God they have reached this stage. To me it is a wonderful thing.' Having lost his 14 year old son Stephen on Bloody Friday his reading of the IRA statement should be treated with respect. His son would be 44 now. A long time dead; a lot of grief to carry. Anything that makes it lighter should not be scorned.

Yet this should not be allowed to serve as cover for some in the media to behave as if used cars are spanking new models. Nor should it serve as a licence with which to designate themselves as salespeople with the task of securing purchasers through a discourse abounding with allusions to the novelty of the product or its unprecedented content. It is this media worship of the peace process that has helped sustain that process as a powerful discursive formation replenished in large part by its own myths. And as Jack Holland so brilliantly pointed out challenge the myth and you become a rejectionist or an enemy of the peace process. Yet if left unchallenged the public will be led into the world of Alice in Wonderland.

In assessing IRA statements any evaluation has to be made against a backdrop that under the present leadership republicanism has become a corporate lie. Lying both externally and internally has become a defining characteristic of the republican leadership. And on occasion expressions of grief have meant absolutely nothing. In October 2000 the IRA shot dead Joe O'Connor in Ballymurphy. It went on to deny any involvement and offered condolences to the family of O'Connor.

For all the media fanfare this week, the truth is that the IRA has been apologising for years for killing non combatants. And why should it be any other way? No matter how legitimate a cause if we kill the innocent in pursuit of it should we refuse to say ’sorry’? The implication would be one of having for ourselves the right to kill people by mistake. Such unadulterated arrogance could only delegitimise any cause. In 1978 the IRA went so far as to say that it would accept criticism from those bereaved after the La Mon bombing in 1978. That they may have situated such apologies in the context of general British culpability is beside the point. Even on this occasion by differentiating between combatants and non-combatants the IRA is still saying that all those killed died in a just war against Britain, otherwise the organisation would have apologised for all the deaths. Mistakes merit apologies and the IRA were no strangers to the concept of making one and then offering the other. At one point in 1988 apologies followed mistakes with such frequency that Bishop Eddie Daly in a funeral homily said he wanted to hear no more of them.

All this aside it is expecting too much to think that IRA statements or acts at significant junctures are mere coincidence. Gerry Adams claiming that this year’s second round of decommissioning had no link to the Republic's general election as he sat beside party candidate Arthur Morgan was amazing for how he managed to prevent his tongue coming through his cheek. The 1999 IRA statement that it was disclosing the location of the graves of the disappeared shortly before negotiations at Hillsborough persuaded few that the objective was humane rather than strategic and was not linked to taking the heat off in terms of the decommissioning demands the party was facing. It was an act of the utmost cynicism - literally throw a few bones as a means to move the scent away from the weapons trail.

There is a republican hand more strategic than ethical guiding the latest announcement. The leadership are cleverly making a pitch to isolate unionism as it attempts to gather wider support for its demand that Sinn Fein be punished for the failure of the IRA to act in a 'housetrained' way. The Sinn Fein leadership will argue that the unionist allegation that republicans are not fit for government is ridiculous given that republicans are making apologies for killing the innocent, attending imperialist war commemorations, and have been de facto assisting the RUC (and in return receiving RUC praise for it) in Ardoyne in ensuring that nationalist youth pose no challenge to the state at a time when those claiming to be fit for government are violently attacking the RUC at Drumcree.

In addition, Sinn Fein will be acutely aware that the thirtieth anniversary of Bloody Friday is an opportune time for journalists to rake the embers and assign culpability to some individuals. The party president will be all too conscious that, as one critical journalist put it, 'the 30th anniversary of Bloody Friday would provide ample opportunity for journalists to explore his dark past'. The party would fear that the person, as they see it, who is the leader of the Irish peace movement, may be presented abroad and in the Republic as the ’honourable member for Massacre’. While the allegations flying about seem based on very dubious substance, it is the spin that worries the party. By getting in first with an apology the IRA hopes to draw the sting out of the inevitable adverse commentary.

In all of this there is a further issue that the IRA leaves unaddressed. How can the relatives of some non combatants take any succour from the IRA statement if the organisation denied killing their loved ones in the first place? Who is to apologise to the families of the Whitecross massacre - the Republican Reaction Force? What is the husband and child of census collector Joanne Mather to believe? Do they not merit an apology rather than a denial?

If words are to be worth more than the breath used to convey them then there needs to be an acceptance that mistakes are, by definition, beyond the control of the IRA once it moves into operational mode. And while the organisation remains active to any extent it will always pose a threat of some sort to non-combatants, the case of Andy Kearney serving as a salutary testimony to the veracity of this contention. Saying sorry for a mistake depreciates in value if those who say it are prepared to risk the same mistake all over again.

This week’s IRA statement, therefore, may well be consistent with the peace process but need not be consistent with the peace. It merely means that in its battle with unionism to enhance the nationalist position within the parameters of the internal settlement republicans signed up to under the Good Friday Agreement, ‘truth’ is a weapon to be used against the ‘other side’. This seriously pollutes the atmospheric well out of which, it is hoped by some, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission shall emerge. Sadly, truth is not wanted here, just its appearance. Equally sadly, it is an appearance the peace process sustains as was all too visibly evident from the comments of a leading Irish participant at a 1998 Oxford conference: the Good Friday Agreement was 'a delicately balanced compromise which can be destroyed by truth - honesty and straightforward talking must be avoided at all costs.'





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Words are seductive and dangerous material to be used with caution.
- Barbara Tuchman

Index: Current Articles

19 July 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


The Sorry Truth

Anthony McIntyre


Neutral Environment?

Billy Mitchell


Sectarianism and How It Can Be Fought
Hazel Croft


Support Irish Glass Bottle Workers


14 July 2002


A Case for Class Politics

Billy Mitchell


Tim Lopes - Poor, Black, Journalist

Anthony McIntyre


Pretty Vacant





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