Editorial from Irish Political Review, August 2002


The system of criminal law operated by the state replaced the system of personal revenge which had operated through many ages of human history, and the taking of personal revenge was made a crime. The state asserted the exclusive right to operate a system of law, or justice, impersonally administered, in the interest of maintaining social harmony. It doled out punishment in the public interest. The individual against whom another individual had done something that was judged to be a crime, was obliged to find a substitute for the old, substantial satisfaction of revenge in contemplation of the fact that justice had been done. Not only did the state inflict the punishment, but it (or the Crown, in the British jurisdiction) was the beneficiary of any redress imposed on the perpetrator: the victim gets no redress. But it is doubtful whether the depersonalisation of life was ever so comprehensively accomplished that for the individual justice became something other than a vicarious form of revenge—a sophisticated, long-drawn-out kind of revenge.

That’s the criminal law. The civil law exists for settling conflicts between individuals over matters which the state has not made criminal. Libel law, for example, was introduced (or extended to the private sphere) at the moment when the British state, in the interest of civilised regimentation, criminalised duelling as a means of settling affairs of honour between gentlemen—thereby effectively abolishing honour. If you have loads of money and somebody says something nasty about you, you can sue him for libel with the object of taking his money away from him.

Money is the remedy in civil law—in the law which has to do with relations between individuals. Criminal law has to do with relations between the individual and the state, and the remedy can be imprisonment.
A thousand years ago, before the imposition of the Norman state, murder was a matter that could be settled between the families concerned by means of money payments, somewhat as things are now settled in the civil law. But, when a strong state was established, and the process of civil regimentation under state authority began, murder was made an offence against the state, and the family of the murdered person ceased to have any particular role in sorting things out. They were reduced to mere witnesses, or had no role at all in the judicial process.

In the course of the long English conquest of Ireland—which took over 500 years to accomplish—one of the standard ideological justifications of the subordination of the Irish was that they were lawless. And one of the chief signs of their lawlessness was that they continued to deal with murder as an offence between individuals, to be handled according to customary practices.
Well, the British state has now reverted to lawlessness in the matter of the Omagh Bombing. In breach of the invariable practice of a thousand years, the state has instigated the families of the Omagh victims to take the law into their own hands, treat murder as a civil offence, and seek a money settlement with the people whom they hold to be responsible—because the state has given them their names as the people responsible.

The last Chief Constable (Ronnie Flanagan) encouraged them into this action, as did the last Secretary of State, and the BBC has acted as one of the fund-raising agencies for them.

Why has the state chosen to encourage this revival of the vendetta? It says it knows who arranged the bombing, so why not prosecute them? It has changed the criminal law to make prosecution easier than it had been—and it had been pretty easy—so why not prosecute? Why not lay out its case in Court and let the law take its course? The prosecution might fail, but even in Northern Ireland the police do not reckon that all prosecutions will certainly result in convictions.

If the state knows everything about the Omagh Bombing—and it has repeatedly said that it does—it must surely have a plausible case to bring to court. Why allow itself to be paralysed by fear of failure?

The truth seems to be that it is not failure it fears, but prosecution itself. What it dare not risk is that, in the event of criminal prosecution, the Defence would be able to implicate the state itself in the Omagh Bombing.

If it knows all it claims to know, the strong probability is that it knows it because it had agents amongst those who organised the bombing. And the Real IRA has issued a statement that state agents acted as agents provocateurs in the bombing. So the probability is that the Government is not certain that the Defence would be unable to make a credible case in Court that the state itself was responsible for the casualties.

So it has incited a vendetta.

On July 30th BBC Radio 5 devoted a phone-in to the serving of the civil writs demanding money compensation to the five men whom the RUC alleged to be responsible for the Omagh bombing. Michael Gallagher was in the studio to deal with the questions. As there was a dire shortage of questions, the time was filled out by discussion between the compére, Nicky Campbell, and Gallagher. At a certain point Campbell filled out time with what must have seemed to him to be a safe piece of rhetoric with which no right-thinking person could disagree: What do these people think they can gain by such actions—the Provos tried it, but they stopped when they saw it was getting them nowhere.

But Gallagher wasn’t having any of that. In his most animated contribution to the discussion, he insisted that violence had got them a very long way indeed:

“These were people who were just corner boys. And now they can walk into the White House in their Italian suits. We have watered down democracy to meet these people half way. “ He thought it was intolerable that people in Northern Ireland should not have justice, and that serial murderers should be released. People in England got justice: look at Myra Hindley.

Campbell suggested that there was perhaps a difference, since these things were done in Northern Ireland for a political purpose. Then he asked Gallagher why he thought the Provos had not doled out “freelance justice” to the Real IRA dissidents as they had done to others in the nationalist community. Gallagher did not recoil in horror from the suggestion, pointing out that “freelance justice” was terrorism. (One felt that terrorist justice would not have been entirely unacceptable to him.) What he said was that the Real IRA was not such a small group as was usually alleged, that some of the hardest men in the Provos had gone over to it, and that it was growing all the time, and that the Provo leaders were afraid that an attempt to discipline it would cause a blood feud.

It was not apparent whether he thought that was sufficient reason for the Provos not to act against the Real IRA. But he condemned Adams and McGuinness for not calling on people within the “Republican community” to inform on the Real IRA. Since such a call would undoubtedly have accelerated the movement of members of the Provisional IRA across to the Real IRA, it must be assumed that Gallagher’s primary concern is not with the general politics of the Northern Ireland situation, but with his individual pursuit of ‘justice’ against the handful of people whom the police have told him caused the death of his son. And that, of course, is entirely natural. Gallagher is not a politician. He is the ‘ordinary, decent citizen’—the type which, we have been officially told for the last thirty years, makes up the great majority of the people of Northern Ireland, but whose influence on public affairs has always been negligible. But he has been cast in a political role by Peter Mandelson, former Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, and the general officialdom of the strange ‘Northern Ireland state’, who decided to manipulate the personal feelings of this particular group of ordinary decent citizens for a political purpose. And, since he has accepted the casting, he must be treated as political.

(The assumption that there is a widespread knowledge in ‘the Republican community’ of who did the Omagh bombing, and that it would stand up as evidence, is a very strange assumption indeed. It can only be for propaganda reasons that it is never questioned. The Real IRA is conspiratorially organised. The most that could be got from ‘the Republican community’ is rumour. Hard information could only be got from members of the conspiracy, who included agents of the state. When the state appealed to those with information to come forward with it, it was effectively appealing to itself.)

There were adequate reasons why the state, in the course of its development, gave itself a monopoly of ‘justice’ and marginalised victims in the ‘justice’ proceedings into the role of witnesses. And those reasons apply in Northern Ireland, even though it is not, never has been, and was never designed to be, either a democratic state in itself or a functional part of a democratic state.

The rule of law is that the state acts for the victims and the victims must make do with whatever vicarious satisfaction that this gives them. In this instance the victims are acting in place of the state, at the instigation of the state, and with the support of the propaganda apparatus of the state.

Other victims have been left to lick their wounds and get on with life as best they can.

The Omagh Bombing is usually described as “the single worst atrocity” of the Troubles since 1969, and was so described in Gallagher’s programme. In fact, the single worst atrocity was the Dublin bombing of 1974, the purpose of which was to influence the Dail in its legislative activity. It did so. Nobody has ever been charged with that atrocity. The probability at the time seemed to be that the deed was done by the British state acting in conspiracy with a group of Ulster Loyalists. A group of relatives got together in pursuit of justice, as in the case of Omagh but, unlike the Omagh relatives group, it had to make its way against official obstruction at ever level, particularly from the Gardai. Since the pursuit of justice in that instance would have been advantageous to the Republican cause, it was actively discouraged by the Dublin authorities, who have been eager to rig cases against those alleged to have some involvement with the Omagh Bombing.

What was required of the Dublin relatives was that they should go away and lick their wounds in private. But they have not done so. They have kept the issue alive, despite the efforts of two states to fob them off. And the British state, which is so anxious for justice in the Omagh case that it has revived the vendetta, finds that the world will get on very well without justice in the Dublin case.




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