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Malachi O'Doherty

Why the fact we have adapted as a society to make space for killers is something we deserve credit for

Malachi O'Doherty

We can only hope that former paramilitaries look back with regret at what they have done.


Forensic officers at the scene following the terror attack in Streatham High Road, south London by Sudesh Amman (Aaron Chown/PA)

Forensic officers at the scene following the terror attack in Streatham High Road, south London by Sudesh Amman (Aaron Chown/PA)

Forensic officers at the scene following the terror attack in Streatham High Road, south London by Sudesh Amman (Aaron Chown/PA)

We are faced again with the mystery of a young man who thinks he is doing God's work by stabbing strangers in the street. Sudesh Amman was motivated by a theology which says that these people are infidels worthy only of death.

He could not have known the religious sentiments of the strangers, but he presumed to.

He tried to kill strangers because he wanted to be a martyr, that is, he wanted to die.

So, perhaps we are to understand his actions by the logic of suicide. He believed that, when he died, he would go to paradise to be rewarded for his actions.

There was not a lot of logic to this, but then he was only 20 years old.

I have over the years spoken to many people who, at that age, were active terrorists.

Some of them regret what they did. Some of them continue to defend it.

There is a difference here between republican and loyalist traditions of murdering. What you find among loyalists of the type who regret the past is that they are still integrated into the loyalist community; they are not viewed as having disgraced it by their apostasy.

They say things like: "We were caught up in it"; "We were young"; "We were led astray."

They point to the fact that some of the most respected people in the society of their day endorsed loyalist violence.

William Craig, a former Minister of Home Affairs at Stormont, had inspected ranks of Tartan gangs at Vanguard rallies and told huge crowds that a time would come when they would have to "shoot to kill" and "liquidate the enemy".

So, there was a strand of society which thought loyalist paramilitaries were necessary, who made allowance for those who murdered strangers in back streets.

They said that the hands of the police were tied and that somebody had to do something.

On the republican side, you hear a different argument. They say: "The war came to us"; "We defended our people".

They still honour those who did the killing. And they did most of the killing.

And where people stand outside that tradition of reverence for the killers they alienate themselves from their own republican former comrades. They are reviled.

Republicanism does a better job of preserving respect for killers than loyalism does.

I think the fact that we have adapted as a society to make space for former killers is something we deserve credit for.

On RTE's The Late Late Show on Friday Arlene Foster, the First Minister, spoke of her association with Martin McGuinness. She said that "Martin" (as she called him) had spoken in tribute of a man who had been present at the shooting of her father, a man who had killed many times.

She acknowledged that this man had only been 17 at the time.

She spoke also of her own experience of being on a school bus that was bombed and she made the experience human and memorable.

She had taken the window seat and been spared the worst of the blast, because she liked to have a snooze on the bus.

She also acknowledged that it was probably not the intention of the bomber to kill children, but that he had expected his bomb to go off and kill the driver before the children boarded.

In Arlene's account, we hear the recognition that even the bomber of a school bus is not necessarily as evil as you would imagine him to have been.

And a future serial killer who had been present at the shooting of her father had been "only 17" at the time.

Had circumstances been a little different, that boy killer might have ended up at the Executive table with Arlene, as other past killers did.

Martin McGuinness was almost certainly a murderer himself. At least many of those who sat with him in the Executive believed that he was and that, as a commander in the IRA, he had had personal responsibility for far more murders than he actually carried out in person.

I think the fact that we have adapted as a society to make space for former killers is something we deserve credit for.

We understand better than most that, deluded and vicious as Sudesh Amman was on Sunday afternoon in Streatham, had he survived and grown to maturity he might have been of some value to others.

A loyalist acquaintance of mine recently met up with an old friend from east Belfast. They had, as teenagers, gone rioting together on the Newtownards Road, stoning Catholics.

Catching up on old times, my acquaintance asked the other man why he had taken a different path in life from his friends and why he had not joined the paramilitaries when he had seemed so keen.

The story was this: a neighbour had seen him at the riot and, when he had gone home that night, his father was waiting for him.

His father had walloped him as soon as he came through the front door and told him that if he ever again heard he had been rioting he would break his back.

That wouldn't pass for practical parenting these days, but it did the job. The man was more afraid of his father than he was of the state or of the IRA.

Every day in Northern Ireland, journalists, social workers, politicians, police officers and others are interacting with men and women who were active paramilitaries 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago.

The police know more about those former paramilitaries than most of the rest of us do. They say they believe they know the name of the killer of Lyra McKee.

When Arlene Foster names the man who "was present" at the shooting of her father, she is presumably repeating what the police told her.

And this is also a common thing here: that relatives have a name for the killer of a loved one, though that killer may never have been charged.

People in London and Dublin don't really get their heads round the extent to which we have integrated the killers into our society.

They have no expectation that, in the future, some who sent jihadis out with knives might be sitting on councils, might be ministers in government, might be solicitors and school teachers and community workers, more adept at filling in an application form for funding than at wiring a bomb. Ours got very good at that.

One can only hope that those people will look back with honest regret for what they did, as many of our own former paramilitaries do, and as some, regrettably, particularly the Sinn Fein leadership, doggedly refuse to.

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