Dealing with terrorists


Madam, - The British prime minister is a reasonable and accommodating man. He knows his kingdom is far from united, and he would like to deal sensibly with those wishing to further dismember it, particularly in Northern Ireland.

He dislikes terrorists, but draws an increasingly clear distinction between rational, measured terrorists and ruthless mass murderers without credible political objectives. He is just as appalled by the recent London bombings as his friend Bertie Ahern, who finds terrorist "activities of this kind" completely unacceptable in a democracy, leaving it up to others to infer which terrorist activities are acceptable.

Mr Blair understands the political aims of the IRA, which are "shared by many perfectly law-abiding nationalists in the North and South" and which gave him a basis for meaningful negotiation. British sovereignty over Northern Ireland yesterday, joint sovereignty tomorrow, Irish sovereignty later, when the "demographic factor" becomes sufficiently operative. Tony Blair and Gerry Adams have learned to speak the same language and convey the same implicit threats.

The ideology attributed to al-Qaeda is a different matter. How can Mr Blair do business with people who seek to reverse globalisation, rather than merely to transfer a small, backward province from one jurisdiction to another within the EU? A demand for devolution of local government to selected mullahs in, say, Leeds and Birmingham could be met half-way by keeping Birmingham while jettisoning Leeds, or else requiring all fatwahs to be signed jointly by the imam and the head constable. But, as it is, he and his government will continue resolutely to reject all unreasonable claims from this "different form of terrorism" which he identified after September 11th, 2001.

Mr Blair is also perplexed by the viciousness and ruthlessness of al-Qaeda, and doesn't "think the IRA would ever have set about trying to kill 3,000 people".

Arithmetically, he may be right. In three decades of effort up to 1999, republican groups succeeded in killing only 2,139 people, some of them accidentally or through misidentification leading to apologies, a form of hypocrisy in which the prime minister also excels. The IRA itself is credited in Lost Lives with only 1,771 killings, including 636 civilians. Most of its numerous attacks on the London underground failed to work, and the organisation never imperilled the lives of its "volunteers" through so costly a device as suicide-bombing.

Its major stunts caused less carnage than the recent "attack on London". Only 10 killed and 57 injured at Frizzell's fish shop on the Shankill in 1993, 11 killed and 63 injured in Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday, 1987, 21 killed and 180 injured in two Birmingham pubs in 1974, 28 killed and 310 injured by "dissidents" in Omagh in 1998. Hardly anyone died in Manchester or at Canary Wharf. Perhaps, with better bombs and less cautious personnel, the IRA might have outscored its Islamic counterparts.

For Mr Blair, such speculations are beside the point, which is that the IRA has made a statement which may enable him to get the "peace process" back on track towards its predestined terminus.

One day, the prime minister or his successors may master the language of Osama bin Laden and again succumb to voluntary amnesia concerning past atrocities. Meanwhile, the spurious distinction between good and bad terrorists will continue to poison political debate. - Yours, etc,


Professor of

Modern History,

Trinity College,

Dublin 2.