Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Why it is just one short, perilous step from 'understanding' dissident violence to defending or excusing it

The colour party marches along O’Connell Street during the Saoradh Easter Commemoration in Dublin
The colour party marches along O’Connell Street during the Saoradh Easter Commemoration in Dublin
Journalist Lyra McKee
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

It didn’t take long for Lyra McKee to be forgotten by the only people with the callousness to justify her murder. It was Saoradh — cheerleaders for dissident republican group the New IRA that is believed to be responsible for the shooting in Derry — which said, within hours of her death, that blame for the young journalist’s killing lay with “British Crown Forces”. It was the same Saoardh who, less than 48 hours later, was marching down Dublin’s main thoroughfare to mark the Easter Rising under flags and banners celebrating paramilitarism.

Some of them even brought their young children along to join the colour party, presumably in the belief that the family which preys together stays together.

That the crowd in O’Connell Street didn’t turn their backs on this disgusting spectacle is worrying. Perhaps they didn’t realise that the loons in fancy dress, dark glasses and berets represented the people who’d taken Lyra McKee’s life. Ignorance, though, is no defence.

That goes for all those who’ve encouraged and enabled the resurgence of violent republicanism. A myriad of excuses has been made for them, especially young people seduced by the dissidents’ message. They’re not old enough to understand, it’s said. They live in areas of economic deprivation, experts murmur. The poor dears haven’t seen the benefits of the peace process, the hand-wringing commentators whine.

That last one is particularly obnoxious. Thousands of people were murdered in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and tens of thousands were left with serious, life-changing, life-limiting injuries. In what way has a generation which doesn’t face that on a daily basis not benefited from peace?

Those who parrot sanctimonious gibberish about support for dissidents being “understandable” risk making the end of a cycle of murderous violence seem like a minor detail which fades into insignificance compared to the level of welfare payments.

Studying the social and economic factors which go into destabilising a society is important, but it’s equally necessary not to allow understanding something to become a gateway into defending or excusing it.

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Derry has serious social problems, but so does everywhere else. Deprivation was also far worse in the past, and that was no excuse for a previous generation of psychopaths to kill in the name of Irish unity or the Union either.

To sugar that pill to spare young people’s feelings only muddies the waters, just as Sinn Fein is doing right now by drawing mealy-mouthed distinctions between the supposed “good” IRA of the past and the “bad” IRA of today. It’s all the same violence, but, far from having the humility to stop whitewashing the past, mainstream republicans seem to be exploiting Lyra McKee’s murder to double down on their hero worship of the Provisional IRA, knowing full well that it perpetuates the pernicious myth of 1916 leader Padraig Pearse that “bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”. Young people are old enough to be told the truth, including that no hardship or political frustration justifies taking up a gun.

The longing most commonly expressed since Lyra McKee died is that this latest tragedy will shock those inclined to support dissidents out of their complacent stupidity.

Sadly, that’s a hope with little foundation in experience. Unless they’ve had their heads stuck in the sand since birth, those who hold on to a sneaking regard for dissidents can’t have any illusions about what they’re supporting or where it leads.

The shock over Lyra McKee’s murder has inevitably overshadowed the rest of that night’s events; but even if a gun had not been fired, what happened was wholly reprehensible. More than 50 petrol bombs were thrown by a crowd of around 100 people. Over-familiarity with certain words makes one forget what a serious weapon a petrol bomb can be, and what damage it can inflict. Vehicles were also hijacked and set alight.

This outbreak of civil disorder was not wrong because of who died. It would have been deplorable whoever had been hurt.

It would still have been so if everyone had got home safely.

Chances are that the trouble was deliberately orchestrated last Thursday in order to stage the conditions for an attack on the PSNI. Knowing that the police will not these days shoot  back into a crowd, even if they do come under gunfire, creates the perfect smokescreen for terrorism.

This has happened so many times before that it can’t have been a surprise to anyone who went out to riot that evening that they were being drafted in to provide cover for the New IRA, as simultaneously human shields and tactical support. Still they came out in droves anyway. What disaffection or deprivation could possibly justify that?

Martin Luther King said that a riot is “the language of the unheard”. Many will be persuaded by that argument, and insist that condemning rioters suppresses their legitimate right to a voice. That is to misunderstand how easily discontent and resentment can be exploited by dark forces for their own ends.

No one can possibly know, when a riot begins, how it will end. That’s why, writing a few years ago about the Maiden City’s most famous son, author Maurice Fitzpatrick recalled how “even in his earliest awakening as a civil rights campaigner in the streets of Derry, it simply did not occur  to Hume to resort to throwing stones at the police.” Film footage from the very beginning of the Troubles shows him berating youths who were engaged in running battles with security forces.

John Hume was not a saint with arcane mystical knowledge beyond all human comprehension. His argument, made in plain language, couldn’t have been easier to grasp, even by those young idiots in Creggan who effectively provided a welcoming committee for dissident gunmen last week.

When is everyone going to stop making excuses for them, as if they can’t be held responsible for their own actions? To outsiders, riots may seem like terrifying and menacing events.

To those in the middle of them, they’re more likely to feel exhilarating, even fun. Mobile phone footage taken during the evening of Lyra McKee’s murder shows that the crowd was having a whale of a time.

They gave in to their worst instincts, that’s all, and painting it in some grand philosophical light only encourages them to do it again.

One academic who studies dissident republicans has said she doesn’t believe that the tragedy of Lyra McKee’s murder will affect their strategy in the long run, and she’s probably right. So what are those scores of young people who came out willingly and enthusiastically to join the riot last Thursday going to do when the next one is being organised? That will be the test.

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