There was nothing civil about this 'war'
If Northern Ireland didn't descend into Yugoslavia-style ethnic cleansing during the Troubles, it was in spite of republicans not because of them, argues Owen Polley
Published 07/01/2011 | 08:00
Is it a shock that Pat Sheehan, convicted IRA bomber-turned-West Belfast MLA, has a warped view of the Troubles? As the latest back-street revolutionary to turn Armani-clad seer and represent Sinn Fein at Stormont, it would be more surprising if he saw republican violence for the futile nihilism it was, rather than as a "probably quite civilised" campaign.
That won't relieve the hurt and revulsion felt by victims of 30 years of IRA 'civility' when they read his comments - made in an interview with David McKittrick.
The Assemblyman, recently co-opted to replace Gerry Adams, lauds the organisation for its restraint: "The IRA, if it had wanted to kill Protestants, could have left a 1,000lb car-bomb on the Shankill," he reasons.
Of course, the IRA did actually leave a bomb on the Shankill Road. It killed 10 people, including eight innocent shoppers and Thomas Begley, the IRA 'volunteer' who planted the device.
To Sheehan, and those who share his jaundiced mindset, those casualties don't quite qualify as 'blood-letting', because the perpetrators claim they weren't the intended target.
The whole notorious catalogue of republican atrocities can be dismissed with the same complacent logic: Enniskillen, La Mon, Bloody Friday, Claudy, all terrible mistakes. "I don't believe the IRA went out to kill civilians," Sheehan says.
The rationale is that, because it could have been even more callous, more indiscriminate, more murderous, the IRA's actions were "quite civilised".
Sheehan's choice of language is obscene, but it is more of what we've come to expect from the Sinn Fein propaganda machine. It is his broader point which deserves a little more attention.
He notes that Northern Ireland didn't witness the scale "of mass killing and genocide" which characterised other ethnic conflicts. That much is true enough.
But the absence of an Ulster 'Srebrenica' owes precious little to the IRA, or to the urban revolutionaries and nationalist fanatics who filled its ranks. The last thing we should do is congratulate terrorists - whether republican or loyalist - for their 'civility' during the Troubles.
The most important difference between Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland is that, while it failed as a state and fell apart, our security forces refused to allow us to descend into similar chaos.
We have the police and the army to thank for containing republican violence, harrying the IRA and maintaining a semblance of peace. Sheehan's comrades attempted to bring anarchy to our streets, but ultimately law and order prevailed.
Where it enjoyed the greatest freedom, in south Armagh and other border areas, the IRA showed no aversion whatsoever to ethno-religious violence.
Indeed, it targeted many victims precisely because they were Protestant. Thank goodness that, for the most part, it did not act with impunity. There was always the spectre of defeat, the threat of retaliation and most of all, the long arm of the law, keeping things "quite civilised".
That's not to say that the misery caused by organisations like the IRA should be understated. In tiny Northern Ireland we had more than our fair share of cold-blooded murders, displaced persons and disappearances, thanks to paramilitaries like Sheehan.
If we didn't suffer out-and-out, former Yugoslavia-style ethnic cleansing, it was thanks to the bravery of the security forces and in spite of the IRA and other terrorist groups.
Sinn Fein has subsequently tried to pull off the trick of portraying the Provisionals' violence as principled, carefully-targeted and primarily defensive.
That's a gross distortion, exploded by even the most cursory examination of the IRA's bloodstained history.
With repetition, though, it has received a sympathetic hearing in some quarters and even achieved a degree of acceptance. Through the passage of time, we have become wearily accustomed to the perpetrators of violence spreading their revisionist gospel at Stormont and elsewhere, often with disarming eloquence.
David McKittrick was impressed with Sheehan's erudition when he interviewed the Sinn Fein MLA, but, in truth, the story is familiar enough.
A corner-boy bomber goes to prison and after a spell of self-improvement at Her Majesty's expense, comes out a philosophy- spouting politician.
Long Kesh was quite the university back in the day, but too many of its graduates prefer to use their education to justify past crimes, rather than reflect upon them.
The previous MLA for West Belfast, who now pursues his political career across the border, was cut from the same cloth. At least his successor has the decency to acknowledge that he was in the IRA in the first place, even if he cannot bring himself to show some shame, or apologise for its misdeeds.
With his love of cricket, Greek mythology and Aristotle, it's no wonder that Pat Sheehan likes to think that the thuggish campaign he took part in was "quite civilised".
But if he believes his own propaganda, then he is deluding himself.
The victims of IRA violence and fair-minded observers will not be so easily fooled.