When Violence Becomes a Habit

by Seamus Deane

DUBLIN Since the Troubles began in 1968, there has been only one worse bombing atrocity in Ireland — theno-warning bombs of a Protestant loyalist group in Dublin and Monaghan on May 17, 1973.
p. Thirty-three died — 28 in Dublin — and more than 100 were injured, many seriously. No one has ever been arrested.
p. The bombing on Saturday in Omagh, 55 miles west of Belfast, is even harder to comprehend, for it took place just when the impetus of the peace agreement seemed to have increased. The demented marches of the Orange Order Protestants were beginning to peter out, and the threat of another such march down the Garvaghy Road, a Catholic area of Portadown, had expired in the flames that killed the three young Quinn boys a month ago.
p. But in ominous contrast to the fading violence of the Orange marching season, there had been several bomb attacks in the last few weeks on provincial towns by dissident republicans — splinter groups of the Irish Republican Army. They had caused millions of dollars worth of damage, but no casualties. In each case there had been a phoned warning and the area had been cleared.
p. The pattern held this time, too: a provincial town, a phoned warning. But the information was inaccurate, say the police, and the people who had been moved to safety at the other end of the High Street had in fact been moved to where the car containing a 500-pound bomb had been parked.
p. A crude pattern had been emerging — the crescendo of annual Orange violence fading as a crescendo of Catholic republican violence built. Both were directed against the peace agreement. In both cases it was a miracle that more people had not been killed. The deaths of the three Quinn children rescued the political situation for the Government by destroying the mass support for the Protestant marchers.
p. But what can be the effect of the deaths of the 28 people (including infants and children) murdered in Omagh? There is no point in claiming that the intention was not to take lives; how many times in the past 30 years have car bombs gone off prematurely, in the wrong place, because of confused or deliberately skewed information?
p. The most sanguine view possible is that the revulsion against the dissident republicans is so great that they will be permanently disabled as a political or military force; that this is the last terrible explosion of Ireland’s 30 years’ war; that the Sinn Fein leadership, which has outrightly condemned the bombings, will now be sufficiently secure to declare all violence at an end, and that as a consequence the Protestant leadership will sit in a government with Sinn Fein.
p. The bleakest view is that this carnage will start the Protestant paramilitaries off again, that the continuing violence will sweep away all possibility of political accommodation and that the Good Friday agreement will go the way of the Sunningdale agreement of 1973, the last time any prospect of peace hovered in the uncertain air of Northern Ireland.
p. The appeal of sectarianism as a system of politics lies in its simplicity. Northern Ireland was created as a violent sectarian system, beginning in anti-Catholic pogroms and continuing by various forms of threat, discrimination and gerrymander. But the conditions that enabled that system have disappeared. Not just peace has come within political range, but also justice.
p. Yet it has long been clear that the violence of the system and the violence directed against the system had a dynamism that derived from violence itself. People ask how and why human beings could do such things as explode bombs in a crowded thoroughfare on a Saturday?
p. Such questions look for proportionality in the answer; they seek for a political intelligence in the ruthlessness. But the truth is darker than such questions can address. Violence grows in pathogenic conditions, and it attracts psychopathic people, but its worst feature is its addictiveness. It becomes a habit. Politically, habits are eminently defensible. They can be construed as forms of endurance, of hard-bitten loyalty, of single-minded devotion. Indeed, in many respects, they contain these elements.
p. But when violence becomes habitual, then the world of democratic consent is inverted. The violent can always claim, as the republican dissidents are now doing, that there is a right above that of the consent of the people. This has led to the dismissal of the people’s votes and now, by catastrophic logic, to the dismissal of their very lives.
p. Omagh may be a watershed. It may be the end of violence. It may be that the dead and the maimed of that little town will be remembered collectively as the last victims of the Troubles. They died during an attack on the peace process. The least we can do for them is to insure that the process survives the attack and remains resonant with their names and with the appalling sound that took their lives away.
p. Seamus Deane is the Keough Professor of Irish Studies at Notre Dame.

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