Adrian Ismay death: condemnation is cheap if mainstream republicans still justify own misdeeds
Mainstream republicans' condemnation of dissidents over Adrian Ismay's murder rings a bit hollow, says Eilis O'Hanlon. The renegades had good teachers
The works of John Donne don't appear to be popular reading material in the library at Maghaberry Prison. "Any man's death diminishes me," wrote the 17th century poet, "because I am involved in mankind."
Dissident republicans at the Co Antrim jail chose instead this week to openly glory in the passing of prison officer Adrian Ismay, who died 11 days after a bomb went off underneath his van in Belfast, even reportedly lighting up cigars in the exercise yard to taunt their warders.
That's worth remembering next time supporters of republican prisoners start whining about the conditions in which those charged with and convicted of terrorist offences are held. Cigars now, is it? Some ambitious human rights lawyer will no doubt soon be taking a case to demand that they should have been given access to Champagne, too.
There was some comfort for Adrian Ismay's family, as a post-mortem examination yesterday concluded that the 52-year-old had, indeed, died as a direct result of the bomb attack, prompting police to launch a murder inquiry. But there was surely less comfort from the ritualistic condemnations which followed the announcement of his death. One of those offering his thoughts on the matter was Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly, who managed to throw together some words to the effect that "attacks on prison officers, wherever they work, will achieve nothing but more suffering and grief".
It had a sort of dutiful, dum-di-dum quality, as well as hinting at a familiar, if unspoken, inference that if it did achieve something "more", then it might be justifiable.
Kelly's Twitter page, after all, comes emblazoned with a large banner photograph saluting the 1983 breakout from the Maze in which he was himself involved.
Actually, that's a nice way of putting it. Kelly was "involved" to the extent of putting a bullet in a prison officer's head.
Kelly refuses to say if he shot the officer. "There were two shots fired," he told The Independent's David McKittrick in 2013.
"There was myself and others there, so clearly it was a prisoner who shot him. But that is as far as I will go." The official report into the incident goes much further, naming Kelly as the shooter.
That man, mercifully, survived. James Ferris was less fortunate. The 43-year-old, who'd worked at the Maze for eight years, was stabbed three times in the chest that day before collapsing and dying of a heart attack.
Unlike Mr Ismay, however, his death was not officially treated as murder.
There's the rub. What moral authority does Gerry Kelly have to reprimand dissident republicans for taking part in paramilitary actions which led to the death of an innocent man when he, too, was involved in actions which led to deaths in not-dissimilar circumstances?
Twenty years into the peace process that circle has still not been squared. Sinn Fein/IRA continues to stress the differences, rather than the similarities, between itself and its dissident successors; but if one death can be celebrated, why not another?
Who gets to decide who is - and who is not - a "legitimate target"? Who gets to call violence on and off?
Until there is a morally and logically consistent answer to those questions, it can hardly be a surprise that prisoners in Maghaberry should celebrate Mr Ismay's death by lighting up cigars.
They had good teachers.
That's one thing that all dissident republican organisations have in common. The Real IRA, Continuity IRA, the New IRA; they all want to claim the name of the IRA. Even Oglaigh na hEireann take the title adopted by the Provisional IRA during the Troubles.
They don't do so because they are ideologically opposed to the actions of the group to which Kelly belonged, but because they revere it. Kelly is not their nemesis. He is their hero.
What they venerate is the Kelly of 1973 Old Bailey bombing infamy, who was doing then what they do now, rather than the Kelly of 2016, who advocates political change only through democratic means.
But he doesn't get to decide which part of his past and present should inspire disaffected young people today. Especially not when he continues to laud his former actions and those of his comrades.
In this, the centenary year of the Easter Rising, that process of glorification has actually been ratcheted up a notch as Sinn Fein/IRA scrambles to claim the legacy of 1916 as retrospective justification for the armed struggle.
Terrorists need myths and icons every bit as much as they need weapons and safe houses, and Kelly and others are supplying it to them in spades, as killing in the name of Ireland becomes mainstream discourse again rather than the depraved perversion it always has been.
Kelly seems to believe that, just because he no longer shoots prison officers in the head or plants bombs that recklessly endanger life, that should be sufficient reason for others not to do it, too.
But it's not enough to say that political conditions have changed and there is no longer any justification for violence, because that argument is entirely subjective. There were plenty of cooler heads arguing, when Kelly played dice with people's lives, that the political conditions did not justify it then either. He chose to ignore them. As dissidents now choose to ignore him.
After 1916 WB Yeats asked himself whether some of his words, written in a nationalist fever, had sent out "certain men" to take up arms. If writers can examine their consciences in this way, when all they have to answer for are poems and plays, then Kelly and others in the leadership of Sinn Fein/IRA ought to be prepared to ask themselves the same question.
Have their words and deeds created a situation where certain young people think nothing of killing an unarmed man doing his job?
It's not only republicans who need to engage in that process of re-examination of the past. Unionists and the British State should do likewise. But the misdeeds of others are no excuse for one's own crimes and republicans seem as far away as ever from taking responsibility for the negative legacies of the society which they helped create, rather than simply taking self-serving credit for more positive developments.
The prisoners at Maghaberry who mocked the death of a good man are deviants whose actions are beyond contempt. They condemn themselves with their own cigars. But they're not orphans. They are the well-trained children of a republican family still in love with fairy tales. So, stop telling them.