It is rather ironic that a day after the death of Martin McGuinness, terrorism was inflicted on Londoners. Once it was the Irishman’s Republican movement that was the leading cause of terrorism in Britain. From the 1970s to the 1990s dozens of bombs exploded in London alone. Outside the House of Commons, for example, in 1979, where five innocents would be killed thirty-two years later, Airey Neave MP died when an explosion blew his legs off. In the Docklands bombing, twenty-one years ago, the IRA killed two men and did a hundred and fifty million pounds worth of damage.
That bombing was in revenge for Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Republicans, being excluded from peace talks. The British government accepted their demands and the IRA slowly began its decommissioning. Years on, Martin McGuinness shook hands with the Queen and was considered a statesman and not a terrorist.
It is difficult to imagine the time when Republicans and loyalists were slaughtering each other. It is painful to remember. It is also impolitic. So, as Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley shook hands, we heard far more about Bloody Sunday, where British soldiers killed fourteen Catholics, than the Kingsmill massacre, where the IRA butchered eleven Protestant workmen, or the Miami Showband killings, where loyalists massacred an Irish cabaret band.
Now, after Khalid Masood scarred London once again, I find myself comparing the Troubles to what might be called “the Terror”. People, like me, who became politically aware after the Good Friday Agreement might find it difficult to appreciate the scale of the violence of the IRA. They attacked – or tried to attack – 10 Downing Street, Heathrow, the Imperial War Museum, the London Stock Exchange, the Tower of London, hotels, tube stations, shops, restaurants and telephone boxes. That was in London alone. Northern Ireland was worse.
Now we do not face the sheer number of attacks Britons endured from the IRA. This is the first lethal act of jihadism since the death of Lee Rigby in 2013. We do not experience the same incipient dread Britons would felt, time and again, when they encountered empty cars and abandoned backpacks. If we consider terrorism across Europe, however, which, in just the last two years, have scarred Paris, Brussels and Berlin, and killed everyone from liberal satirists to Catholic priests, a darker image will emerge – and if we consider the conspiracies our counter-terrorism officials have thwarted it grows darker still.
The IRA was a coherent organisation; fuzzy around the edges, but still targetable as a military force. Jihadists are more diffuse. They can be connected to ISIS or Al Qaeda but they can be in small groups, or, indeed, working alone. This means that they cannot be defeated militarily but can only be managed. The IRA was at least partly a political organisation, with, it transpired, some negotiable aims. To the extent that jihadists have worldly ambitions they are to impose Islamic rule across the Earth. There will be, and should be, no Good Friday Agreement here.
There are differences in tactics as well. The IRA tended to give warnings before their terrorism. Sometimes they didn’t, and sometimes their warnings were perfunctory, but they showed some willingness to spare innocent life. Jihadists kill as many people as they can. I am unaware of a single warning a jihadist has made before attacking soldiers and civilians. The point is to do as much carnage as they can.
The IRA also valued their own lives. When they killed themselves it was in hunger strikes, not suicide bombings, and when Republicans died while perpetrating terrorism it was due to their incompetence. (Thomas Begley, for example, blew himself up while trying to bomb a fish and chip shop, along with a loyalist and eight civilians, and is still commemorated by the more obscene Republicans.) The willingness of jihadists to sacrifice themselves mean they engage in near-suicidal but horrifically effective missions such as ploughing cars and trucks into civilians. This has been a feature of attacks in France, Germany and now England.
There are further differences in historical context, which are relevant for society at large. Whatever their feelings towards Northern Ireland, Britons recognised the bonds of history, politics and culture that connected our countries, and the inevitable difficulties of untangling them. Jihadism was not inevitable. It has been imported. Cosmopolitans see this as the bad part of a trade-off for a more open, equal and diverse society. Nationalists believe it is a self-inflicted wound. It is a nice sentiment when Brendan Cox – husband of Jo, the MP who was murdered last year – says terrorists will not divide us but we are divided and events like this will only widen those divisions.
I would be among the last to excuse the IRA, or to minimise the horrors of their terrorism. They killed hundreds of people, young and old, men and women, black and white, Catholic, Protestant, atheist and Muslim.They attacked people as high as the Prime Minister of Britain and as low as poor three-year-old Jonathan Ball, who was killed in Warrington in 1993 while buying a Mother’s Day Card with his babysitter.
Yet as Britons indulge in performative stolidity advertising their insistence on living normal lives, it is worth remembering that this is abnormal.
It is, in fact, to a great extent, unprecedented. We have never faced so terrorists so ruthless, so reckless, and so widespread. They might never reach the intensity of the violence of the IRA, lacking the organisation or popular appeal, but there is no comparable route to peace. They will strike again and again – however our police struggle and our columnists pronounce. Citizens will grow more outraged by the burden that successive governments have quietly expected them to bear. No one even seriously hopes that it will stop anytime soon. They just blunder on, quietly checking the names of the dead, as old IRA veterans meet around the gravestones and fool themselves into thinking it was all worthwhile.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.