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Why should IRA victims forgive the terrorists?

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The issues of forgiveness and justice are of considerable import in Northern Ireland given the post-conflict republican attempt to rewrite history and to conduct what Ruth Dudley Edwards has referred to as ‘lawfare’ against the security forces. However there is concern in Northern Ireland that the unionist ‘voice’ on these issues is not being heard in Great Britain. The following article was published in the Belfast News Letter on August 4 and is republished by kind permission.

THE known leaders and activists of the IRA/Sinn Fein combined the ordinary activities of everyday life and in many cases devout religious observance with a campaign of terrorist murder for three decades. This disclosed a commitment to the infliction of death and injury and an indifference to human suffering that demonstrates a deep-rooted moral depravity.

Confrontation with the demonic evil of terrorism and the indifference of the leadership of IRA/Sinn Fein to the suffering caused by the IRA (‘no alternative’) acutely raises for victims the issue of forgiveness: is there a moral obligation on the part of the victims of terrorism to forgive?

The moral significance of forgiveness is rooted in a context where wrongdoing has broken a significant interpersonal relationship. In this context, reconciliation or the rebuilding of a relationship is the ultimate object of forgiveness. Reconciliation requires repentance on the part of the wrongdoer and on the part of the wronged person a willingness to put aside resentment and anger, however justified.

But in the context of the intrinsic evil of terrorism the entire rationale of forgiveness as a moral imperative is absent. There is no pre-existing morally significant relationship between terrorist and victim to be rebuilt and consequently in this context reconciliation has no moral relevance. This means that there is no moral point to forgiveness: consequently there can be no moral obligation to forgive terrorist evil.

The absence of this obligation is reinforced by the fact that the reaction of moral outrage that terrorist evil causes is rooted in our highest moral sensibilities – to be incapable of moral outrage when confronted with terrorist evil demonstrates moral insensibility and blindness to intrinsic evil. Moral outrage (not to be confused with the psychology of hatred) in the context of terrorist evil is therefore itself a moral virtue.

The moral centrality of forgiveness in the context of interpersonal wrongdoing is replaced in the context of terrorist evil by the dominant moral requirement of retributive justice determined by the due process of the criminal law.

These considerations mean that victims of terrorism are under no moral obligation to forgive terrorist evil but the state has a fundamental obligation to pursue the retributive punishment of evil so that evil is not trivialised by the neglect of justice. But it is precisely the neglect of justice for innocent victims of terrorism that has been a marked feature of the ‘peace process’ since the late 1990s in Northern Ireland.

The so-called ‘peace process’ initiated the moral sanitisation of republican terrorism which was consolidated by the 1998 Belfast Agreement. The Agreement released convicted terrorists and elevated republicans into the government of the citizens that the IRA had terrorised for three decades. The implementation of the Belfast Agreement involved a radical corruption of democracy and an appeasement of terrorism of which IRA/Sinn Fein were the major beneficiaries.   

Since 1988 academic and legal fellow travellers of the republican movement have devoted their efforts to a rewriting of the history of the conflict, directed to the dual objective of the moral exoneration of the IRA and the focusing of blame for the conflict on the security forces and the British state.

This presents an imperative challenge for unionists to ensure that the moral culpability of the leadership and activists of the IRA and the callous barbarity and intrinsic evil of their multiple crimes will not be buried in oblivion. To allow that to happen would amount to a factual and moral perversion of history and the effacing from history of the death and suffering of the thousands of innocent victims of the terrorism of militant Irish nationalism.

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Patrick J Roche
Patrick J Roche
Patrick J Roche was a Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998 to 2003 and is president of the North Down branch of the Traditional Unionist Voice. He has co-edited five books on the 'Northern Ireland question'.

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