Guns in the Family


In the first week of September 2001, before a vastly more important story of terror and violence began to break, scenes from an unremarkable stretch of road in North Belfast occupied the news pages and television screens. Those scenes were, even to reporters hardened by more than thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland, deeply shocking. Little girls were walking up the road to the Holy Cross school, hand in hand with their mothers or fathers. From behind a human screen of policemen in riot gear, grown-ups were spitting, throwing bottles, and screaming abuse: “whores,” “sluts,” “Fenian bastards,” “animals,” and the chant, rising in pitch and menace, of “scum, scum, scum.”

The little girls were Catholics. The adults screaming at them were Protestant residents of the enclave in which the school is situated. Coming from a society that is supposed to be a shining example of the politics of peacemaking in a darkening world, the images were all the more disheartening. In the struggle between rational politics and visceral, historically rooted ethnic hatreds, it seemed all too clear that there could be only one winner.

Two months later, the Holy Cross protest had come to a quiet end. The consequences of their terrible experience will no doubt linger in the minds of the children. The bitterness and rage that made the protesters behave so vilely will not vanish overnight. But the awful drama, played out five days a week throughout those months, is over. What happened to end it was not a tidal wave of remorse or a sudden blossoming of mutual sympathy. It was the restoration of local government to Northern Ireland after the previous arrangements for such government had fallen apart. The changed atmosphere after September 11, skillful deal-making by the British and Irish governments, and the assistance of go-betweens from several nations had a profound impact on the nasty little world of North Belfast. Here was stark evidence of an obvious truth that is hard to keep in mind when anger and revulsion dominate our thoughts. The best way to change political behavior, even of the most vicious kind, is to change the political context.

The Northern Ireland peace process was founded on a notion that has recently been seen as beyond the bounds of acceptable opinion: you should negotiate with terrorists, address their political concerns, and draw them into the democratic system. This idea, which had the enthusiastic and often crucial support of the United States, was itself the product of a more basic perception: that people who engage in organized political violence are not necessarily, or exclusively, the kind of warped individuals who would be a menace to any society. At least some of them—usually those who rise to the top—would be valuable citizens in a normal democracy. Their crimes, however appalling, may result from specific political circumstances. In Northern Ireland, this idea has been made manifest in the most dramatic way. Hundreds of people convicted of taking part in terrorist outrages have been released from prison. Martin McGuinness, who has admitted to being a senior IRA commander when the organization murdered hundreds of people, is minister for education. Billy Hutchinson, who murdered two Catholic brothers while he was a member of the Protestant paramilitary gang the Ulster Volunteer Force, is a widely respected member of the local parliament.

Unthinkable as this kind of policy has become in the new international climate, the reality is that it has worked. Tentative, erratic, and teeth-grindingly frustrating as it has often been, the strategy has shown, again and again, that there is a direct relationship between the high politics of international negotiations and the low politics of intimate hatreds. In the early summer of 2001, the political institutions established under the Belfast Agreement of 1998 broke down because the IRA had failed to meet its obligations to put its weapons “beyond use.” Relations between Protestants and Catholics in sectarian cockpits like North Belfast got visibly worse. Some of the worst riots of the Troubles broke out. The protest at the Holy Cross school began. Protestant paramilitaries stepped up their attacks on Catholic homes. Veteran journalists described the atmosphere as being like 1968, when the Troubles started, all over again.

Yet, when international pressure (and the starkly altered climate after September 11) pushed the IRA into finally beginning the process of destroying its arsenal, the shape of events on the ground became very different. The governing institutions were quickly re-established. The sense that the process was not doomed after all changed behavior in civil society. The Holy Cross protest was defused. Just as significantly, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the overwhelmingly Catholic body that organizes traditional Irish sports and has a special place in community life, dropped its historic ban on members of the British armed forces and the local police joining its clubs. This move opened the way for young Catholics to join the new police force that is another key element of the agreement. The notion that ancient hatreds would always destroy the delicate architecture that democratic politicians put in place suddenly went out of fashion.

The broader implications of all of this, though, are almost as unsettling as they are reassuring. The Irish peace process is, in essence, a huge gamble on what, in the current international climate, must seem a very long shot: the rationality of terrorists and bigots. On the large scale, it involves a willingness to believe what, for example, the members of the IRA had always said about themselves: that they were well-motivated political idealists. On the small scale, it means believing that the people who disgraced themselves by screaming obscenities at little girls going to school at Holy Cross would, in a calmer political climate, behave more decently.

The difficulty, moreover, is not just that these things are hard to believe, but that they are dangerous to believe. We generally feel that the kind of people who explode a car bomb in a crowded street or knock on an old man’s door and shoot him dead deserve our outrage, not our understanding. The grown man who screams at a five-year-old girl merely because she has been baptized into a slightly different form of Christianity should be arrested, not bargained with. To understand all may be to forgive all, but some things, surely, must be unforgivable.

Against the positive practical results of the Irish gamble must be placed the negative practical consequences of allowing people who use political terror to believe that such a gamble will ever be made. What every terrorist group needs most, after all, is the belief that the pressure will tell, that all its enemy’s protestations of unshakable resistance will, sooner or later, give way to the desire to end the bloodshed. To admit that these people can be bargained with tells them that they will be bargained with. To accept that their behavior is the result of political conditions suggests that that behavior will ultimately result in the political changes they desire.

That is not a message that any democracy wants to send. And yet, the results of the Irish peace process speak for themselves. After a quarter of a century of incessant conflict, the IRA remained perhaps the most effective terrorist organization in the world. A huge apparatus of repression—armed British troops patrolling the streets, a sophisticated apparatus of electronic surveillance, internment of suspects without trial, the deployment of covert special forces, a network of informants—contained but did not defeat it. By the mid-1990s, it was generally agreed that the IRA could continue to keep up a high level of violent action for at least another thirty years.

Yet, last October 23, the IRA began to voluntarily destroy its own arsenal. It did so, moreover, without having achieved its primary goal, the withdrawal of Britain from Northern Ireland and the establishment of a unified state on the entire island. Both the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, had formally accepted propositions that had previously been anathema: that the status of Northern Ireland could not change without the consent of the Protestant population; that Northern Ireland could legitimately be governed within the frame of British sovereignty; and that armed violence had no further role to play. What could not be achieved by military or security measures has been achieved by political engagement. Northern Ireland may, as yet, be far from a settled democracy and the potential for violence remains, but it now seems clearer than ever that the changes set in train by the peace process are irreversible.

The questions remain, however. Is the Northern Ireland peace process a historical aberration whose wider meaning became redundant after September 11 or does it present a universal model for dealing with terrorism? Is the conversion of men like Martin McGuinness and Billy Hutchinson to constructive democratic politics a peculiar product of Irish circumstances or a valid reminder that many of those who have committed acts of terror are in fact quite decent human beings?

One way of exploring these questions is through a genuine encounter with such people themselves. Oddly enough, such encounters are rare. There are plenty of self-serving heroic memoirs and plenty of objective political and historical studies, but few accounts that are at once intimately personal and coolly questioning. Joseph O’Neill’s Blood-Dark Track, a young man’s exploration of the gunmen within his own family, is one.


Joseph O’Neill is the epitome of cosmopolitanism, about as far from the ferocious demands of blood, soil, and ethnicity as it seems possible to go. He was born in Cork in the south of Ireland in 1964, and regards himself as Irish. Though his father is from Cork, however, his mother came from the Syrian Christian minority in the Turkish port of Mersin. O’Neill’s father was a project manager for international construction companies, so Joseph spent his early childhood traveling through Africa and Asia, and then grew up in The Hague. He spoke Dutch on the street, French at home, and English as one of the multinational group of students at the city’s British school. He now lives in London, speaks with an English accent, and works as a business lawyer and novelist. If anyone can be said to have escaped from history, it is him.

This very removal, perhaps, prompted him at the age of thirty in 1994 to intrude on what he calls “the jurisdiction of parental silence.” He had been told that both of his grandfathers, Joseph Dakad in Turkey and James O’Neill in Ireland, had spent much of World War II in prison camps. Dakad, a well-to-do hotelier, was arrested by the British on a business trip to Palestine and interned on suspicion of spying for the Germans. O’Neill, a member of the IRA, which allied itself with the Nazis and mounted a bombing campaign in England, was interned by the Irish government. In the face of his family’s reluctance to discuss these events, he decided to investigate. Blood-Dark Track is a record of this journey into the past. What makes it fascinating is the honesty with which O’Neill confronts the powerful attraction of an unyielding political fanaticism even for a rational, sophisticated, deracinated man like himself.

The story of Joseph Dakad is vital to the story of Blood-Dark Track, but James O’Neill and his family are at its core. Dakad was essentially a victim, a small man accidentally caught up in great historical forces. His fate acts as a counterpoint to the main theme. For while Dakad’s troubles stemmed from his position as a member of an ethnic and religious minority, unaware of the significance that would be read into innocent actions, James O’Neill was a member of the Catholic Irish majority who waged an incessant war against the minority British presence on the island. Dakad was guilty, perhaps, of being blinkered and insensitive. O’Neill, though he would not have accepted the term, was a terrorist.

Most writers and journalists who encounter an organization like the IRA from the outside experience a certain bewilderment. They begin with a knowledge of the horrific, cold-blooded crimes and are unsettled by the discovery that while some of the people who plan or commit them are psychopaths and sadists, many of them are warm, friendly, funny, and likable. Joseph O’Neill experiences the same disturbance in reverse. He starts with the warmth, humor, and good nature of his O’Neill relatives and gradually brings himself to confront the kind of things they may have done.

The culture of the IRA runs deep within O’Neill’s family. His great-great-grandfather was an important figure in the so-called Land War of the nineteenth century, when the predominantly Catholic tenantry waged an ultimately successful campaign to take the farms they worked from their mostly Protestant and Anglo-Irish owners. Three of his grandmother’s brothers, the Lynches, were IRA activists in the decades after the establishment of the Irish state in 1922. One of them, Tadhg Lynch, was the organization’s adjutant-general, editor of its propaganda mouthpiece, and commanding officer of the IRA in Great Britain when it launched the bombing campaign that wounded dozens of ordinary civilians and killed at least seven. His stern, authoritarian grandfather, James O’Neill, was an IRA company commander, prominent in a famous raid into Northern Ireland in 1936. His father and two of his uncles took part in the IRA’s abortive attacks on Northern Ireland in the late 1950s. One of the uncles, Brendan, took an active part in the formation of the Provisional IRA at the start of the Troubles in 1969.

Together, then, the Lynches and O’Neills present an archetype of extreme Irish nationalism, an unbroken chain of militancy linking successive generations and enduring at least a century of profound political change. There are, in O’Neill’s account, few signs of regret or of the mellowing effects of age. His uncle Brendan tells him that after a life blighted by the imprisonment and impoverishment he suffered for the cause, his grandfather took his implacable hatred with him to the grave:

He told me he’d like to be propped up on a car seat with a machine gun in his hands and to charge that way into British soldiers. He wanted to die like that, usefully, killing as many as he could.

The mentality that identifies usefulness with mass killing is surely unappeasable. The moral of the story would seem to be that some people simply cannot be bargained with. James O’Neill and his children and relatives lived, after all, in the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign, democratic, independent state. Their culture—Catholic, Gaelic Ireland—was not being oppressed or discriminated against; it was, in fact, the official ideology of the state. Profound changes in the political context did not, for them, change anything. A simplistic imperative—get the British out of Northern Ireland—continued to dominate their lives.

Long before the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, that mentality expressed itself in an act of cold-blooded cruelty. Early on in his travels around Cork trying to piece together his grandfather’s secret history, Joseph O’Neill was given a rusty Colt .45 and told, “That’s the gun that shot Admiral Somerville.” He learned that much of his grandfather’s dark glamour came from the belief that it was he who murdered Vice-Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville at his house in County Cork in 1936. Somerville, a brother of the fiction writer Edith Somerville, had been a distinguished commander in the British navy, but had retired seventeen years previously. He was seventy-three. There was no conflict raging, no general atmosphere of rage and madness that might help to excuse the act. The murder was as cold in its conception as it was in its execution. And though it turns out that the killers were actually O’Neill’s uncle, Tadhg Lynch, his aunt Angela, then a teenage girl, and another man, the family’s responsibility remains clear, and his grandfather seems to have had some role in supplying or disposing of the fatal weapon.

This sort of cruelty cannot, moreover, be explained by some kind of inherited psychosis. James O’Neill had a streak of violence and a commanding presence, but the same might be said for many a paterfamilias of the times. His wife’s militaristic politics are at odds with what O’Neill calls her “civilian goodness”: raising money for good causes, visiting the sick, praying for friends in trouble, opening her home to striking British miners during the long coal strike in 1984. Their son Brendan is a four-handicap golfer, a campaigner for ethnic minorities, a friend of the oppressed everywhere. The dominant impression of the O’Neills and the Lynches is of lively, intelligent, fundamentally decent people.

Wrapped up in their warmth, and somewhat jealous of the contrast their political passion makes with his own “self-serving, morally unvigorous” pursuit of bourgeois comfort, Joseph O’Neill finds himself drawn into their logic. He is, he discovers, “for all my objectivity and outsider’s perspective,… as susceptible as any Catholic Irishman to dazzling by the national myths.” His reflections on the murder of Somerville and on the ethics of assassination take him much closer to the mindset behind the atrocities of September 11 than we like to imagine a civilized, cosmopolitan, educated Westerner could ever come:

It was not necessary to identify a “deserving” target of violence, because in many ways the less deserving and more shocking the target, the greater the notice that would be taken of the seriousness of the injury complained of and, as a consequence, the less gratuitous—and the more effective and morally coherent—would be the act of violence. Violence of this kind also gave rise to this assessment of the killers: that, in their readiness to assume the guilt and risks that came with the killing, they were to be applauded for assuming a moral burden on behalf of society.

That O’Neill pulls himself back from this “cold-hearted polemic” by seeing that it would justify almost any atrocity merely as a way of drawing attention to a political complaint is no less important than his honesty in acknowledging its attractions. O’Neill shows us in the process something valuable: that it is possible for a kind, rational, enlightened person to be drawn by the allure of warm feelings—family, homeland, belonging—into the politics of mass murder. His fundamental insight is that it is not just what is bad in political ideologies but also what is good that can turn decent people into terrorists. Sustained campaigns of terror may be carried on by people whose belief in civilized values is quite sincere. It may be the very assurance that they are not bigots or monsters that allows them to be both nice people and killers. Their ideology, in this case Irish nationalism, suppresses the human reality of their actions:

The stated principles of nationalism—equality, freedom, brotherhood, etc.—were as noble and unimpeachable as its dead, and they shed a beautiful light on the dim and perilous moral terrain that had to be crossed to achieve our nation’s autonomy. In a fundamental sense, though, this luminosity led us astray; unlike the Old Masters who slipped a skull or some other token of human fallibility into their paintings’ darknesses, in our self-righteousness we lost sight of what lay in the shade.

What has long lain in the shade of militant Irish nationalism is sectarianism. Sinn Fein, the IRA, and, with few exceptions, the people who support them genuinely believe that their ideology is a republicanism that offers equality to all citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Explicit anti-Protestantism was extremely rare even in the Northern Ireland conflict where the role of religious difference was patently obvious. What they could never recognize was that their refusal to accept that Irish Protestants might have a political identity as deeply rooted as their own is itself deeply sectarian. Convinced as they were that their own ideology was untainted by bigotry, they could not imagine how utterly prejudiced was their habitual view of the Protestants as people who had been bribed and duped into believing that they were British.

Joseph O’Neill came to grasp this when he discovered that behind the local lore that infused his family’s nationalism with a glow of authenticity was the suppression of an event that they literally could not recall: a massacre of local Protestants in 1922. The discovery prompts a final realization: that Admiral Somerville was killed, not because he was a symbol of the British state, but because he was an Irish Protestant. The greatest challenge to his family’s ideological fervor thus lay within themselves, or rather within the acts they had committed in its name. Though O’Neill does not say so explicitly, his story suggests that what really kept the family members so faithful to the cause for so long was not blind zealotry but a fear of what might have to be confronted within themselves if all their unacknowledged secrets could be recollected in the tranquillity of peace.


Joseph O’Neill’s book is a fascinating exploration of the personal complexities and private intimacies that lie behind a crude word like “terrorism.” It is also essential reading for anyone who doubts the significance of the IRA’s destruction of two of its arms dumps last October. On the one hand, O’Neill gives us a sense of how deeply rooted, how implacable, and how resilient militant Irish nationalism has been, a reality that might seem to rule out any possibility of being tempered by democratic change. On the other hand, that very reality underlines the scale of what has been achieved in getting such a movement to begin to dissolve itself. Anyone reading Blood-Dark Track before October (it was published in the UK last spring) would have come away with a deeply pessimistic view of what lay in store for the peace process. It would have seemed impossible to believe that so genuinely conservative a culture could ever make the final leap of declaring itself redundant before its aims had been achieved. If the gun that shot poor Admiral Somerville was still being passed around as a treasured heirloom sixty years later, what hope was there that the guns that have inflicted so much suffering on Northern Ireland could be destroyed by their own secret guardians?

And without IRA decommissioning of weapons, as had become abundantly clear in the fitful course of events since 1998, the institutions established under the Belfast Agreement could not survive. Asking Protestant politicians to govern alongside the political allies of an organization that had spent decades trying to destroy them was a lot. Asking them to do so while those same people retained a private army with its implied threat of what might happen if they did not get their way was simply too much. The expectation would have to be that the blood-dark track would continue to wind its way toward mayhem and oblivion.

The expectation was wrong, though, and the gamble taken by the Irish, British, and American governments in engaging with the IRA has paid off. The path ahead is not smooth. Much Protestant opinion remains alienated from the process. The delays in implementing the Belfast Agreement have corroded much of the popular enthusiasm that is so vital to the broader social transformations that the political deal is meant to achieve. The non-sectarian middle ground has been squeezed by the way the agreement itself, with its impeccably balanced recognition of the “two traditions” in Northern Ireland, fails to recognize a third tradition of people who do not wish to be categorized as belonging to either Catholic or Protestant tribes. Sinn Fein has not yet signed up to the new policing arrangements that will be the ultimate test of whether the laws of the new political dispensation have cross-community consent. Dissident paramilitaries on both sides remain intent on mayhem.

Yet the IRA’s move in getting rid of weapons has done much more than merely give time and space for the new institutions to establish themselves. It may be, at one level, purely symbolic, since anyone who knows how to get hold of weapons can at any time replace the guns that have been destroyed. But terrorism itself functions symbolically. The aim of an IRA car bomb, or indeed of the attack on the World Trade Center, was never to inflict a military defeat on the enemy. It was to send a message in a way that would command attention and provoke a response. Conversely, the decision to destroy weapons of terror sends a message that cannot be revoked. It says, for the first time in Irish history, that the secret army is accountable to democratic politics, and must respond to the wishes of both the local electorate and the international community. The concession of that principle makes a resumption of the “armed struggle” impossible.

This has happened because the decision of the governments to engage them in argument and negotiation broke down precisely that self-protective barrier that Joseph O’Neill identifies so well: the self-righteous conviction that they could not have been doing harm to the very entity that they held so dear: the Irish people. This conviction thrived on repression, but could not survive the kind of reflection that anyone involved in a political process must engage in. In that at least there is the hope that the Irish peace deal might not merely succeed in its own terms, but eventually offer a way to rethink what has become the central problem of the new century.