The Contemptible Heroes of the Irish Republican Army

News & Politics

Martin McGuinness, the “Butcher of Bogside,” a murderer and bomb-making terrorist, just attended a state banquet with the British queen in Windsor Castle. McGuinness shooks hands with Her Majesty—even though, as an Irish Republican Army commander, he helped to assassinate the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten, by blowing up his boat, also killing his grandson and another teenager.

On that same day the IRA ambushed and killed 1 British Army soldiers, the deadliest attack on the army in the so-called Troubles.

McGuinness — along with Gerry Adams, chief of Sinn Fein the political arm of the IRA (though Adams always lies about the link) — were the “brains” of the IRA in the civil war among Catholic-vs.-Protestant-vs.-British army-vs.-Royal Irish (Protestant) Constabulary-vs.- informers and double agents on all sides in the Ulster six counties of Northern Ireland. 

Despite Ulster’s Protestant majority the IRA demanded independence from the Crown in order to rejoin predominantly Catholic Eire south of the border. Northern Ireland Catholics, a minority long denied civil rights by Ulster’s hardline Protestant government, wanted their voices heard and no job discrimination. Fearful Protestants were terrified of Irish reunification under people like McGuinness and Adams.

Is it complicated? Is it ever. History sits heavy. It starts in 1607 when King James imported Protestant farmers to "His Majesty’s Plantation of Ulster" to strengthen royal control of North of Ireland from the native Irish Roman Catholic population. Brutal lines were drawn you dare not cross. But there was always a small number of unusual people ready to risk their lives. Some Protestants marched with Catholics. Some Catholics intermarried with the "other side” and could be killed for it.

Such nonconformists are “contemptible heroes.” That’s someone fighting for justice often against his or her self-interest and by swimming against the powerful currents of emotion on their own side.

One example (among several) in Northern Ireland was the ex-merchant seaman, Gerry Fitts, a Catholic socialist politician, who, although savagely beaten by Protestant police during the 1968 civil rights march, had the guts to speak out against IRA murders and the toxic issue of the Maze hunger strikers. His own side branded him a traitor, and his home was attacked and firebombed by Protestant thugs and twice by IRA militants he had to fight off gun in hand. Heretics like Fitts helped create the atmosphere for a remarkable conciliation between the two hating groups, Protestant loyalists and Catholic nationalists.

My stake in the 16-year-old, near-miraculous Good Friday Agreement that ended the ugliness by bringing the IRA in from the cold is that on occasion the Provos or “Officials” or Irish National Liberation Army or Real Irish Republican Army or the Really Real IRA — does it matter which? — tried to kill me. The IRA loved West End London where I lived, planting explosives outside Selfridges department store, a Wimpy bar I was passing, a Regents Park bandstand where I jogged, an exploding Piccadilly letter box whose shrapnel almost beheaded me. Nothing personal, mind. But such incidents helped focus my mind wonderfully on why my political friends were trying to dismember me.

Except for a few revenge murders, all is now sweetness and light between the British crown and the Northern Ireland power-sharing government in which former guerrillas, Catholic and Protestant, sit as respectable statesmen. Forgiveness comes more slowly, repentance hardly at all. Nothing compares to the emotionally unrecompensed grief of relatives of the victims in, say, the IRA-sponsored Birmingham pub massacre or the bomb-shredded Harrods shoppers or the dead and wounded from the Omagh and Portadown massacres who are furious that a Martin McGuiness should be received with honors at the Palace.

My instinct for revenge is stronger than my willingness to forgive. So I’m glad that someone other than me has the sense to sit down calmly and make a deal, like the Good Friday Agreement, to end the killing. I’m constantly amazed when this happens, as in Rwanda where the “gacaca” communal justice system compels Hutu génocidaires guilty of the mass killings of Tutsis to confront the victims’ families. It’s not happening in Israel-Palestine, partly because contemptible heroes get shot down before their work is done. Such as Juliano Mer-Khamis, a half-Arab, half-Jewish ex-Israeli paratrooper, who created the Freedom Theater in Jenin to bring together Jews and Palestinians, and infant son in arms, was murdered by a “fucked-up Palestinian.” 

Contemptible heroes like Gerry Fitts and Mer-Khamis may not always be nice people but spiky, contrarian and hard to get along with. The honor scroll certainly includes the snitch-cop Serpico who got a facefull of police lead for his trouble; Joe Darby, a GI guard at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib driven from his Maryland home by neighbors retaliating because he revealed mass torture of Iraqi prisoners; suffragette martyr Emily Davidson, who, to the fury of many women and animal lovers threw herself in front of the King’s horse at Epsom Derby; the vagabond Marxist revolutionary, Victor Serge; and at least two generals, David Shoup, ostracized by other U.S. Marines for protesting the Vietnam war, and onion-breathed, Bible-spouting Orde Wingate, who invented the Jewish Special Night squads (core of the Haganah) and was despised by his fellow officers in Palestine. 

Contemptible heroes come in all shapes and sizes and have one thing in common: usually they’re not very popular until they’re dead.

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