The ugly sound of a howl of joy haunts Sinn Féin’s account of IRA killings
Opinion: The horrible things done during the Troubles cannot be undone, but they should not be lied about
The story is that the killers were acting out of a painful sense of duty. As Pádraig Mac Lochlainn put it to Vincent Browne last week, “they were all caught up in a profound tragedy”. They took on the burden of duty: “Every soldier and combatant in a conflict has a duty to prosecute a war, tragically, yes, that is the case.”
Even in its own terms this is, when applied to the murders of Breen and Buchanan, a lie. Soldiers in conflicts do not have a duty to kill unarmed opponents who are clearly surrendering. They have, on the contrary, a legal duty not to kill such opponents.
Just last week, a Royal Marine sergeant, Alexander Blackman, was given a life sentence by a British court martial for killing a wounded Taliban combatant in Afghanistan.
Or, to look at it from a different angle, Sinn Féin’s logic of a duty to kill unarmed enemies would entirely justify, for example, the shooting dead of three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar in March 1988 as they tried to surrender. I must have missed the statement from Gerry Adams that the SAS members who committed those murders were doing their duty.
But all of this is to appeal to rationality and the roar of joy that King heard that day comes from somewhere far beneath the rational. It rises up from the darkest parts of the human soul. There is a place beyond civility and morality, beyond compassion and sympathy. There are circumstances throughout history in which many otherwise ordinary people come to inhabit that place. They find within themselves a capacity, not just to do terrible things to other human beings, but to be thrilled and exhilarated by those acts. The men who killed Breen and Buchanan knew that terrible euphoria.
These things cannot be undone but they must not be lied about. One of the basic tasks of civilisation is to stop ourselves from falling into this abyss by knowing where its edges are. Sinn Féin and the IRA owe Irish society an immense moral debt that can be repaid in some small part by not perpetuating the cant that blurs those edges.
One of the absurdities of the Troubles was the BBC’s use of actors to overdub interviews with Adams and his colleagues, so that we saw the lips moving but heard another voice.
Until Sinn Féin finds a capacity to speak honestly, many of us can’t help hearing, every time it speaks, a ghostly overdub: Ya-hoo! Ya-hoo! Ya-hoo!