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Home Uncategorized The Limits of Empathy

The Limits of Empathy

Henry Patterson

Does Terrorism Work? A History, by Richard English, Oxford University Press, 368 pp, £14.99, ISBN 978-0198832027

Richard English has written extensively on Irish republicanism and nationalism and his Armed Struggle is widely regarded as most comprehensive and balanced history of the Provisional IRA. More recently he has widened his focus to that of terrorism as an historical and political phenomenon and this book represents an attempt to answer one of the most contentious of all questions about the use of violence for political ends. As he recognises in his introduction, there are sharply conflicting answers to this question, which in part depend on the definitions of “defeat” and “victory”. One recent Spanish study of the end of ETA’s campaign claims that, despite being effectively dismantled by the security and intelligence services of the Spanish and French states, the organisation was able to use negotiations with successive governments to make major political and ideological gains. However, the general academic consensus has tended to point to the widespread failure of terrorist groups to achieve their fundamental objectives. One academic study of 450 terrorist groups’ campaigns by Audrey Cronin concluded that only 4.4 per cent had succeeded in the full achievement of their aims and that 87 per cent had achieved none of their strategic aims.

English’s judgement on the four case studies which represent the bulk of the book ‑ Al Qaida, the Provisional IRA, Hamas and ETA ‑ is broadly in line with Cronin’s findings. However, his argument, and this is particularly the case with the Provisionals, is that a terrorist group can fail to accomplish its fundamental strategic objective and yet achieve a range of secondary strategic and tactical objectives. Thus a partial strategic success might entail establishing, through your capacity for continued violence, that your organisation is central to any attempted political settlement and thus capable of deeply influencing the political agenda.

English argues that although the Provisionals failed in their fundamental strategic objective to force a British withdrawal from Ireland, they did achieve a secondary strategic victory, which was to establish their centrality to any state structures that developed in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement. They have also scored major ideological victories in terms of the delegitimisation of the British state, as can be seen in the dominance of issues to do with “shoot-to-kill” and collusion in current debates about the past. As English points out, given the toll that the Provisionals exacted on state forces the existence of some collusion was unsurprising. The figures are startling: 911 members of the security forces killed by the Provisionals, while the security forces killed 115 Provisionals. In his role as historical adviser to Sir Desmond de Silva’s review into the loyalist killing of the solicitor Pat Finucane, English provided a case study of how much a professional historian can contribute to the analysis of collusion by emphasising the need for situating the killing in a longer-term perspective and in particular the fevered loyalist reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the major spike in Provisional violence after the arrival of a new arsenal of weapons from Libya. His contribution to the de Silva review is a powerful demonstration of the validity of a central argument of his book, which is that historians, with their emphasis on the longer term and on the complexity of causation, can play a decisive role in understanding terrorism, particularly when much research focuses on short-term assessments or, as is the case in Northern Ireland, rummages in the archives for pieces of evidence to illustrate a pre-given partisan version of the Troubles.

Emphasis is placed in the introduction on the importance of interviewing members of terrorist organisations and English notes his surprise that some academics working in the area have never met a terrorist. He has interviewed many former republican and loyalist paramilitaries and some of these interviews provide useful insights while others do not add much to the analysis. The problem is not simply that talking to ex-terrorists is in some cases simply eliciting rationalisations of their involvement, but more fundamentally that they cannot talk about the core activities in which they were involved. This is not simply for obvious legal reasons but also because of the unheroic and sordid nature of much of this activity. More truth about the Provisionals’ campaign in contained in Eamon Collins’s Killing Rage than in dozens of post-hoc rationalisations trotted out by former Provisionals

One of those interviewed for the book was Séanna Walsh whom the Provisionals chose to read out their end-of-campaign statement in July 2005. Described by Sean O’Callaghan as an “exceptionally intelligent, thorough and dangerous operator”, Walsh provides a boilerplate narrative of his Short Strand community’s radicalisation under siege from loyalists and the military and refers to a number of key incidents: the 1970 Falls Curfew, internment in 1971 and Bloody Sunday in 1972: “For me Bloody Sunday was the key moment. That was when I decided I would have to do something.”

Contrast this with the account of Walsh’s life given in Denis O’Hearn’s biography of Bobby Sands. Séanna Walsh was a close comrade of Sands and was one of those interviewed by O’Hearn: “Walsh came from an area near the Short Strand, a Republican stronghold which was full of IRA men and where joining the IRA was natural … In June 1972 he attended a large meeting where some legendary IRA men made speeches that stirred his desire to join the IRA. In July he applied to join.” More than a decade separate the two interviews and in the interim a major ideological effort has been made to reposition the Provisionals as the armed wing of a repressed civil rights campaign. To quote the current mantra: “the war came to us”.

Walsh was a grammar school boy and like many other leading republicans is far from the tabloid images of the blood-thirsty bomber and assassin. Another emphasis in English’s book is the rationality of terrorism ‑ those who engage in terrorism “tend to display the same levels of rationality as do other people … they tend to be psychologically normal rather than abnormal … they are not generally characterised by mental illness or psychopathology … the emergence and sustenance of terrorism centrally rely on the fact that perfectly normal people at certain times consider it to be the most effective way of achieving necessary goals.” This rather bare, instrumentalist definition of rationality avoids a judgement of the objectives of terrorist activities. As English set out very clearly in his history of the Provisonals the objective, a united Ireland achieved by force against the wishes of a substantial sector of the North’s population, was a delusionary one. Too much emphasis on the normality of terrorists also tends to screen out the Jihadi Johns, the Shankill Butchers and Freddie Scappaticcis.

On the broader morality of terrorism, the book tends towards a cost-benefit approach: even if the strategic objective had been attained would this have justified the death, pain and destruction caused to bring it about? In cases like Northern Ireland and the Basque Country, where the strategic objective failed to be achieved, it is not just former Provisionals like Anthony McIntyre who ask if the IRA’s victims were a price worth paying for power-sharing and cross-border institutions. There is another issue not raised in this book which goes beyond a balancing of political and ideological gains against lives destroyed and that is the essential moral vanity of those who arrogate to themselves the right to take life in the name of a people, nation or community.

English’s book aims to go beyond an academic audience to a broader public in order to stimulate debate and discussion. As he notes, many of these feel that terrorism is so heinous as to be beyond the realm of dispassionate analysis. Does Terrorism Work? represents English’s belief that terrorists merit “calmly empathetic analysis”. Coming from someone who has lived and taught in Northern Ireland during some of worst years of the Troubles this view deserves respect. But as Rogelio Alonso argues in La Derrota del Vencedor (The Defeat of the Victor), his recent critique of the anti-terrorist policies of successive Spanish governments, in some situations empathy has its limits: “In a society where those who have caused victims present themselves as ‘champions of peace’, resentment is not necessarily an expression of hate or vengeance but a commitment to certain moral values essential for society.”


Henry Patterson is emeritus professor of Irish politics at Ulster University. He is currently working on the Fermanagh volume of The Irish Revolution 1912-1923.



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