History, Politics, Security

The Troubles and The Terror

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.

Aftermath of the 1993 Shankill Road Bombing

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.


Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. Visit his website here and follow him on Twitter @bdsixsmith.


  1. Irish republicans have been bombing the British since the 1880s and their safe haven had always been the US, particularly Boston, New York and Chicago. I remember seeing framed canceled checks made out to Eamon de Valera, dated about 1920, hanging on the walls in people’s homes in the 1960s. They were family heirlooms. I clearly remember IRA donation jars in the Irish bars in Boston and Cambridge in the early 1970s. I clearly remember when the Household Cavalry was hit in Hyde Park. I remember that until then, the US was not at all aggressive about shutting down IRA support.

    I often wondered why this was so. If they had been jihadi rather than IRA thugs that would not have been tolerated.

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  3. Santoculto says

    ”Re: last RT, WNs and 88ers delude themselves into imagining liberalism wasn’t in the Anglo genes and was a Jewish invention.”


    whitey are pussy, whatever ”side” and hopeless…

    One thing don’t cancel other.

  4. Martin B says

    I think you may be missing the other group that was committing acts of terror on a daily basis. The British state. These acts occur in a context, it is not an excuse, but it is part of the understanding of what took place. The IRA said this, that they were going to take the fight to the mainland.

  5. This article misses the biggest difference, that of the ideological underpinning behind the IRA and jihad. The IRA wanted a united Ireland, jihadists want to implement the primary aim of Islam which is to subjugate all to allah under sharia law which is the basis for Islamic rule.

    Sharia has been ruled by the ECHR to be: “sharia law is incompatible with democracy and human rights”. This is vastly different to what the IRA were trying to achieve and this ideological basis for jihad needs to be exposed and discussed.

    Source: “Annual Report 2003 of the European Court of Human Rights, Council of Europe”

    Noting that the Welfare Party had pledged to set up a regime based on sharia law, the Court found that sharia was incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy as set forth in the Convention. It considered that “sharia, which faithfully reflects the dogmas and divine rules laid down by religion, is stable and invariable. Principles such as pluralism in the political sphere or the constant evolution of public freedoms have no place in it”. According to the Court, it was difficult to declare one’s respect for democracy and human rights while at the same time supporting a regime based on sharia, which clearly diverged from Convention values, particularly with regard to its criminal law and criminal procedure, its rules on the legal status of women and the way it intervened in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with religious precepts.
    Copy of the report from the ECHR website: http://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Annual_report_2003_ENG.pdf

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