Belfast Telegraph

Richard English: The best way to remember victims of terrorism, like Lyra McKee, is to forge a politics that offers non-violent ways of dealing with our differences

Paramilitary violence has been overwhelmingly proven far more certain to generate human suffering than to produce benign political outcomes, writes Richard English

The coffin of Lyra McKee is carried out of St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. Photo: PA
The coffin of Lyra McKee is carried out of St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. Photo: PA
The Al-Qaida attack on New York’s Twin Towers in 2001
The Real IRA’s bombing of Omagh in 1998
Richard English is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast and author of Does Terrorism Work? A History (Oxford University Press)
Lyra McKee

By Richard English

The terrible killing of Lyra McKee prompts reflection about the legacies of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland and beyond. Understandably, initial reactions were those of shock, denunciation, grief, mourning and a very profound sadness. The loss of a unique and precious life quite rightly stands as the most important thing to remember about any such cruel murder.

But long-term reflection is also a moral duty for us all. What does such violence achieve, and how should societies and individuals respond and remember? Can honest answers to such questions make future killings less likely?

Some will object to our even asking this question. How can we calmly analyse such horrific acts as the murder of defenceless Lyra McKee? And is the term 'terrorism' an appropriate and useful one, anyway?

Is it not too condemnatory to be of analytical value? Does it focus too often on non-state, rather than state, violence? And does its emphasis on the political dimensions of violence give greater seriousness than is appropriate to what is merely brutal crime?

I have sympathy for such views. But I still think that the long history of terrorism is one on which we all need humbly to reflect, not least if we are to minimise the likelihood of future cycles of appalling violence in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

Such reflection has to be long-term in nature. Instant suggestions that Lyra's killing would bring an end to dissident republican violence are at odds with the long experience of Irish republican militancy, a tradition which has endured many appalling, unintended and widely condemned killings in the past.

I remember people telling me after the 1998 Omagh bomb that Irish republican violence would not survive that atrocity. I doubted that suggestion then and it is instructive that some of those involved in the latest iteration of the IRA are too young even to remember Omagh, much less any earlier violence from the Troubles.

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We also have to recognise that many factors can contribute to generating terrorist violence.

Even dissident Irish republicanism - a comparatively small phenomenon - has drawn strength from an ideology of resistance to British rule in Ireland; from hostility to the peace process compromises that have been made by Sinn Fein; from a long-standing opposition to the police, both ideological and also reinforced by some week-to-week encounters; from the local energy and commitment of a small number of figures of influence, including some experienced former Provos; from a desire for adventure and excitement; from personal rivalries and fallings out; and from the opportunity that some have seen for financial and criminal gain through violence.

It also very rarely achieves its central, primary, strategic goals. There have been exceptions. One might argue, for example, that Jewish terrorism in the 1930s and 1940s contributed significantly to the acceleration of the central goal of establishing an independent state of Israel. But such outcomes are far outnumbered by those cases where terrorist groups fail to achieve their headline goals.

This does not mean that they achieve nothing of significance. The securing of what might be called 'partial strategic success' is, in itself, a serious achievement.

So, you might campaign for full national independence and your violence might result in the production of significant, but not full, national autonomy. This does not represent full victory, but it is a non-trivial outcome, nonetheless.

And it is vital to remember that vast numbers of human endeavours fail to result in the achievement of our central, primary goals. Terrorist organisations - like businesses, or political parties - mostly have to settle for less than ultimate strategic victory.

What terrorism has very frequently generated is tactical, rather than strategic, success. The 9/11 atrocity might be judged a profound strategic failure. It did not destroy US power, or drive the US and its influence from Muslim countries, or lead to the revivification of the kind of Islamic faith to which Osama bin Laden adhered, or bring to an end those apostate Muslim regimes that were - and are - so despised by al-Qaida. But, tragically, as an operational act, it was a tactical success of appalling proportions.

Terrorism has very frequently also resulted in the tactical outcome of generating publicity. The paradox here is that this publicity is most often secured for acts which most people tend to find repellent. In that sense, the tactical success - dominating headlines - has often undermined over time the strategic goals for which the violence has been practised.

This is something witnessed very frequently during the history of many terrorisms. The decline of support for Basque separatists ETA owed much to people's horror at the distinctive thing for which ETA was so famous: violence. This was especially so when ETA's victims were civilians and, again, this is a resonant theme globally.

One of the many reasons for al-Qaida not gaining huge support among Muslims was their violence against civilians - and especially against Muslim civilians.

And, while much attention was focused on the way in which Isis atrocities helped recruit certain followers in recent years, it remains true that such merciless acts as the beheading of civilians much more commonly led people to reject Isis and what they stood for.

This was a dynamic evident also in the terrible killing of Lyra McKee last month. As so often with terrorist violence, the victim was civilian and defenceless. The long-term effects of the murder on dissident republicanism are unclear. But the temporary setback for them was obvious.

And the mainstream political parties, whom the killers so rejected, have now been jolted into attempting to revivify a Northern Ireland politics which republican dissidents themselves oppose and want to damage. In all of this, the killing of Lyra painfully echoes certain realities which we all need to remember if terrorist violence is to be minimised.

Terrorism has overwhelmingly proven much more certain to generate terrible human suffering than it has been to produce the benign political outcome which supposedly justifies it.

Many of the victims of terrorism are utterly innocent of any act which might justify their being considered legitimate combatants in a war.

In so many enduring settings from which terrorism arises - whether in Ireland, or Colombia, or Israel/Palestine, or Iraq - the historical likelihood that violence alone will produce victory seems deeply remote.

Above all, the most valuable way of remembering the victims of brutal violence is to sustain a politics which offers legitimate and non-violent ways of dealing with our enduring differences.

In that sense, Lyra's death has implications for Northern Ireland, but also for many other divided societies, as well.

  • Richard English is Professor of Politics at Queen's University Belfast and author of Does Terrorism Work? A History (Oxford University Press)

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