When my brother joined the RAF, my mother wanted a picture of him in his new
uniform. So that Christmas he brought his uniform with him to our family home
in Scotland. Traditionally all our parents' important photographs of us are
taken outside with the house behind us. But this time my brother put on his
uniform in his bedroom, stood in the hallway to be photographed and then
changed back into civilian clothes. Though his politics and choice of career
mark him out in our family, we are proud of him. But the furtiveness of the
whole procedure took something away from it.
At the end of the week he went back to his (constantly guarded) station. He
then drove to the local town, absent-mindedly leaving a suitcase in the
carpark. Station security destroyed it in a controlled detonation as a suspect
These incidents may seem trivial but they introduced an element of anxiety and
fear that has never left our family life.
For the last ten years I have lived and worked in London. Bomb scares, bomb
threats and real bombs have been a regular feature of life. I don't want to
over-dramatise this: it's been a while since IRA bombs caused large-scale
death and destruction in the UK mainland. I wouldn't begin to compare the
element of danger in my life to that of someone living in Northern Ireland,
let alone any of the far more dangerous and unstable parts of the world. But
when the litter-bins disappear from all the busy public places (bombs may be
hidden in them), when the center of your city has a permanent security cordon
placed around it, when a bomb goes off on the bridge you crossed that morning
or smashes the windows of a friend's offices, when you don't talk about your
brother's travel arrangements outside of the family, when all of this becomes
so familiar that you can't remember things being different and a rocket attack
on a government building draws comment more for its novelty value than its
threat to life - when all that is true things are wrong.
So how should I see my colleagues? My grandfather hated all the Irish, my
uncle won't stock Irish butter in his shop. They would certainly see my
colleagues as the "enemy". Should I be showing them the same hostility
That's the point of this article: not to say that I live under the daily threat
of death, because I don't. But every day I work alongside people from a community
which has been involved in a low-intensity war with my own for the past thirty
three years (not to mention most of the last millennium). If my brother were to
die at the hands of Irish Nationalists, should I demand retribution against that
Well, I don't treat them with hostility or as my enemy and I'd feel like a damn
hypocrite demanding blood-tribute. All of them know someone (friend or family)
who was killed in the conflict, their families live with an environment of
violence and hatred which makes trivial the minor disruption to my own life.
Some of them are old enough to remember the signs in London boarding houses which
said "No Blacks, Dogs or Irish".
This does not mean that I accept the tactics of the IRA in any way. And if they
killed my brother I know I'd be wanting to kill someone, somewhere to answer for
my family's pain. But there are some other things I know:
- I know that my own country's history in Ireland is a bloody one, even if
what my great grandfather may have done to someone else's great grandfather is
no justification for killing someone today.
- I know that elements within my own government and security services have
tolerated, ignored and at times sponsored the Loyalist terror groups. Many in
the Nationalist community - even those who don't support the IRA - see the IRA as
their community's only defence against those terror groups (and against us).
- I know that much of the population of the UK see the whole conflict as nothing
to do with them but as a fight between two mad tribes over the sea, even when
confronted with direct evidence of UK complicity. (And I know that this refusal
to accept responsibility helps convince many Nationalists that violence is the
- I know (and my compatriots on k5 may attack me for this) that most of the
members of the IRA are neither mad nor cowards, however much I may be disgusted
by their actions and the reasoning by which they seek to justify them.
- I know that we can never achieve a military victory over the IRA and that
attempting one will only cause more death and pain, maybe for another millennium.
The Peace Process, such as it is, is the only hope for all the communities
involved. Nobody is going to like it, nobody is going to get what they want,
nobody is going to win any kind of victory except the kind that comes from not
living with violence and death (possibly the only real victory there can be).
Knowing all this, my colleagues and I get along pretty well. Though this is
easier for me than for them: this is my home but while it is a friendly
enough place for them to work today, it wasn't so in living memory and the
future holds no guarantees.
That's just my view, though. Many of my compatriots see it differently. My
brother, for example, doesn't think we should be making peace with the IRA.
Who he thinks we should be making peace with, I'm not sure. The Belgians,
possibly. Actually, that's a bad joke. He wants a military victory - which
is a worse one.
Then there are my friends who work in the Docklands area (and who were lucky
not to be killed when the IRA detonated a huge bomb nearby). They have spent
the last few days telling anyone who will listen that they have no sympathy
for the distress of Americans today. They think that until the US extradites
those of its citizens who collect money and arms for the IRA, the US should
itself be under sanction as a terrorist state. If they thought the UK had the
muscle they'd feel perfectly justified in taking direct action. (This may just
be a bloody-minded way of saying "Now you know how it feels" but I
think they're more than half serious)
How much of this is relevant to the current situation in America? Do the
various views described above have any parallels in the various ways Americans
are trying to deal with Tuesday's atrocity? You decide. I just want to say this:
depending on how you look at it, we in these little islands have spent either my
whole life or the last thousand years shouting for victory and retribution. Only
as each of the several sides has begun to acknowledge the futility of "victory"
has any hope of peace and sanity approached (and this may yet fail).
But then, no side here has right entirely on its side. Maybe you are different.