Postmodernism, the IRA and the myth of redemptive violence


I’m overlooking the breakout of resignations among Irish politicians (who would have believed it? Like waiting for a Dublin Bus. None for ages despite being well overdue, then four all arrive together) .

What I’d like to comment on briefly is this: a friend told me this week he heard a noise that he hasn’t heard in years and his young children never have – the concussion of a car bomb exploding in Newry, over 15 miles from where he lives.

The escalating threat of dissident republicans is traced here. The Real IRA, the organisation behind the 1998 Omagh Bomb, seems determined to record another mass killing. What their strategic goals are is opaque – apart from some sort of Pearsean fundamentalist republican purity that glorifies violence even if doomed to failure, or even because it is doomed to failure. The ‘glory’ is belonging to the last remnant [since Sinn Fein and the IRA have betrayed the cause] of those engaged in a ‘noble’ and ‘just’ fight for Irish freedom, whatever the cost [and how wonderfully convenient that the cost is borne by the blood of other people].

And of course this is giving them the benefit of the doubt of being motivated by some sort of ideal, however twisted. Money, power, racketeering and drugs are more material objectives. The brutal murder on Wednesday night of Kieran Doherty by the Real IRA looked far more likely to be connected to mafia like activity – the very brutality being a graphic warning to others not to cross the mob.

We all give our lives to some story. Maybe it is the myth of western capitalism that more is better. Maybe it is the story that all that really counts is friends and family. Maybe it is the individualist story of ‘my life’ being at the centre of reality. Christians believe in the story of Jesus and are called become his followers in the non-violent kingdom of God.

For the people who planted this week’s bomb, it is the story of nationalism – that the utopian abstract idea of ‘free Ireland’ is of such value that it demands blood sacrifice and justifies threat, terror and brutal violence to achieve ‘justice’.

Some stories do more damage than other stories. Nationalism isn’t intrinsically ‘bad’, it can do a lot of good. But Ireland has been plagued by the poisonous sort (and while I’m talking about Irish republicanism, the poison has infected more than one side).

The IRA campaign ground to a halt for many reasons. One, I think, was because fewer and fewer people kept believing in the utopian mythology of the nationalist dream as the bodies piled up. Put it another way – postmodernism eroded the sand from beneath the feet of the IRA. Their nationalist meta-narrative had become corrupted to be all about power, force and killing. However, while the IRA’s campaign of armed resistance may have stopped, the underlying mythology of redemptive violence was left intact.

The myth of redemptive violence is that good things like peace, justice, equality and reconciliation can come through pain, fear, death and intimidation. This belief remains embedded deep down in psychology of Irish republicanism. It has never been repudiated.

The Real IRA are no morally different from the IRA. The former just happen to believe that the political conditions remain to justify their ‘right’ to impose their story on others by force and fear.

It is one of the ironies of the ‘Peace Process’ that just about everyone’s version of the past seems to remain largely unchanged. Maybe I’m wrong here (I have not lived in the North for a long time) but you get the impression that, if similar circumstances dictated, many would repeat the violence of the past. Put it another way – hearts have not been changed. Little wonder that, while there has been pragmatic political progress, trust and reconciliation remain in short supply 12 years after the Belfast Agreement.

In Christian terms, what would have a profoundly healing effect is repentance: – a turning away from a previously wrong belief and action to walk in a different path. It is probably a totally naïve hope that one day the republican movement might not only ‘regret’ the past, but turn away from the myth of redemptive violence that underpinned it. To do so would be at enormous cost since it would undermine the ‘legitimacy’ of 30 years of ‘armed struggle’. But until that myth is repudiated, there will continue to be new generations of deluded ‘believers’ like the Real IRA all too willing to kill in the name of Ireland.