By Jack Holland
The murder of a Catholic teenager last week as he waited to catch a lift to work is a ghastly reminder of one of the worst aspects of the Northern Irish conflict, and also of the stupidity surrounding the issue of weapons decommissioning.
Ciaran Cummings, who was 19, was shot dead on a summer’s morning, standing at a traffic rotary in Antrim, a few miles north of Belfast. He was employed at an engineering works. In many ways, he was the typical victim of the Northern conflict. According to friends and family, he belonged to no organizations (political or otherwise), had no special interest in politics, and was no threat to anyone — that is, anyone with a mind that is capable of sustaining rational thought for more than a minute at a time. Yet, this ordinary teenager, trying to earn a living, was perceived as a legitimate target by an outfit calling itself The Red Hand Defenders. At least they claimed "responsibility" for his murder.
I wonder who will claim responsibility for the Red Hand Defenders and the fact that they and organizations like them continue to thrive in Northern Ireland? No one, I surmise.
During the height of the conflict young men like Ciaran Cummings were murdered every day — their bodies dumped in alleyways and empty lots or in ditches. We actually got used to it. People even began to expect it. In some twisted way, sectarian murder was part of the scenario that included IRA bombings and assassinations, which loyalist killers sought to invoke as a rationale for their crimes. Their twisted thinking went something like this: if we kill enough Catholics, the IRA will loose support. In other words, they wanted to terrorize Catholics from supporting an organization whose very existence depended on the Catholic fear that they were vulnerable to loyalist attack. Is there something wrong here? See the above remark on the capacity for continuous thought.
Now, what are we being told by the apologists for murder? Namely, that the crisis over decommissioning (or lack of it) and the election of two Sinn Fein councilors in Antrim town last month has driven tensions up so high in the loyalist community that they went out and murdered a 19-year-old Catholic on his way to work. Logical, isn’t it? In fact, it is similar to the previous "logic" advanced to justify the murder of Catholics in previous years — that it was a deterrent to the IRA. This time, it is because loyalists want the IRA to decommission that they attack Catholics.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
Clearly, people who really believe such things have lost the power of continuous thought, without which it is not possible to engage in any kind of argument, political or otherwise.
The killing of Cummings also exposes a basic mistake at the heart of the decommissioning controversy. The Provisional IRA and its supporters argue that it is not possible for the IRA to decommission until there is a settlement that guarantees Catholics security and safety. They point to the riots of August 1969, arguing — correctly, history shows — that the Provisional IRA arose because of the need to defend Catholic areas, and as long as Catholics feel that that need exists, then there exists the need for a defense force of some kind. This argument is in fact an attempt to justify republican demands for the disbanding of the RUC police force (which Catholics don’t trust, says Sinn Fein) and its replacement by a force acceptable to all nationalists.
In fact, the history of the conflict demonstrates the inability of the Provisional IRA (or any other republican group) to defend Catholics from deadly attacks such as that which claimed the life of Cummings. In 25 years or more of scrutinizing the Troubles, I have never come across an instance of loyalist killers being intercepted or prevented from carrying out their murderous activities by the IRA. On more than one occasion, British troops or the police have done so — shooting UVF pub bombers in one incident and killing a would-be UVF assassin in another. The Provisional IRA was not possessed of the kind of intelligence to allow it to intercept these hit squads. Nor could they be expected to have possessed it since the vast majority of loyalist murders were of people selected at random and only because they were Catholics. Having 100 tons of weapons and explosives is not going to protect the Ciaran Cummings of this world. What republican groups did do more successfully was retaliate against Protestants. Sometimes, these retaliations were purely sectarian themselves. Sometimes they were more specific, targeting loyalist paramilitary leaders like John McMichael (UDA) or John Bingham (UVF). But these killings were the exception, not the rule.
Likewise, the kind of all-out attack on Catholic areas that occurred in August 1969 has not been a characteristic of the Northern conflict. Smaller-scale sectarian clashes such as those at the moment flaring up in North Belfast are far more common. Provisionals might point out that the reason there was no repetition of August 1969 was the fact that the Provisionals were there to defend the Catholic ghettos after that date.
However, I think it is more accurate to say that what kept a reoccurrence of August 1969 from happening was not the Provisional IRA’s existence but the presence of British troops — 20,000 of them by 1972. This is somewhat ironic, and republicans will never admit it: their so-called enemy was the determining factor time and again in protecting their districts from large-scale loyalist attacks.
Part of the reason why ironies like this abound in Ulster is that the whole conflict there was fought on false pretences on both sides. For the loyalists, the killing of Catholics was never really about deterring the IRA, but about hating Catholics. Hatred of that kind, like racism which it so closely resembles, is fundamentally irrational. And when irrational people try to find reasons for their irrational acts, they tend to get themselves into glaring contradictions.
As far as the Provisional IRA is concerned, it pursued a futile campaign based on the false premise that Britain was opposing Irish unity out of imperialistic wickedness when in fact it was Protestant opposition to Irish nationalism that lay at the foundation of the Northern Irish conflict. It was not a reprise of the 1919-21 War of Independence. The Provisional analysis was the case of a mistaken theory leading to fatal consequences.