Jude Collins

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

So tell me this: what's murder and what's not?

There must be better things to do on a glorious summer morning than write about killing and murder, but it’s one of those things that keeps coming up.

The matter of murder seems to hold great fascination for a lot of peoplehere, particularly murder as it relates to the Troubles and more particularly as it relates to the actions of the IRA in the Troubles period. 

My dictionary defines murder as “the act of putting a person to death intentionally and unlawfully”. That last word is probably the most important - ‘unlawfully’. It hints that there might be a lawful circumstance in which someone is put to death intentionally.  

Are there circumstances where the intentional putting of a person to death is lawful? Well for years in Britain and Ireland, capital punishment was lawful.  In many parts of the world it still is. Outside capital punishment, if we look at two of the greatest mass killings in modern times - Hiroshima and Nagasaki - few people would say that hundreds of thousands of people were murdered on the command of Harry Truman. Likewise those who kill in the name of their country - British soldiers who have fought and, presumably, killed in places like Afghanistan  - not only are not considered murderers, they are hailed as heroes and often given medals for their work. 

But that’s not new. The American Revolution of 1776, the storming of the Bastille in 1789 , Easter 1916 - these are seen as heroic acts, selfless acts which involved the intentional putting of many people to death. There are some - usually unionist - who see the men of Easter 1916 as murderers, but most Irish people would regard them as heroes. When the ten hunger-strikers died here in 1981, they did so on the grounds that they should be regarded as political prisoners, not common criminals. That is,  that the killings or related actions they were involved with were not murder.

The taking of human life must be the ultimate obscenity. Each life is unique and to snuff it out is a truly terrible deed. But since human beings existed, probably, there has been the belief that in some circumstances, killing others is the only course left open. To say that you chose not to kill while others did is not a valid argument, for the very good reason that we can’t have the experience of others, only our own. We don’t know what possibilities existed or seemed to exist for them, what seemed to them morally justified or not morally justified. And as I say, since earliest times groups and tribes and nations have seen physical force as their only resort and have used it, and a distinction between that and killing for private motives of revenge or spite is universally accepted. 

So when people insist that killings in a particular conflict are murder, what they really mean is that the conflict was unnecessary and that other means of redressing problems of injustice and post-colonialism could have been used. When people such as the hunger-strikers insisted that armed force - the killing of others - was the only course left open to them, they are arguing that what they did beyond the prison walls must be distinguished from the actions of the common murderer.

If you’re a pacificist, you’ll reject that argument along with every other argument for the taking of human life. If you’re not a pacifist and condemn the physical force used during our Troubles, to be consistent you’ll have to condemn George Washington, Winston Churchill, Sir Walter Raleigh,  Henry VIII and just about any leader who saw violence and the killing of others as the only possible  option in the circumstances. I haven’t heard anyone presume to call any of those named above a mass murderer.  But then, consistency has never been a striking feature of those who cry “Murder!” about the period of the Troubles. 


  1. Such ignorant nonsense.

    Killing in a war is lawful, so long as it complies with the laws of war - Geneva Convention etc. Killing in war that does not comply with such war is not lawful.

    In NI, there was no war. The laws of war did not apply. Rather the normal criminal and civil law applied.

    Killings by terror groupings were unlawful and intentional and hence murder. Any killing by security forces that was unlawful and intentional was also murder.

    It's not that difficult, Jude.

  2. Mark Bridger the child murderer fantasised about the british army, maybe if he had joined up he woulden't be in the situation he now finds himself. Instead of having his prison van pelted with stones etc by an angry mobb for killing children, he could be pelted with flowers and kisses and medals.

  3. To Anonymous 10:27, were the heroes of the French Resistance in WWII who killed Germans murderers? Their country had officially surrendered and Vichy France had allied itself with Germany. The law of the land was a German one...

    It seems that your point is a rather rigidly naive, one that ignores the complexities of history, nations, states and the rule of law.

    1. No, the French Resistance killings would have been lawful.

      Part of France was illegally.occupied and the Vichy regime wasn't recognised as the legitimate government of the rest. A state of war existed.

  4. The Mother of the soldier killed by Francis hughes in a gun battle wanted to have his belongings after he died but so did his Partner. The British army court decided that the Partner should have them because when a soldier is killed in war situation, then his belongings should go to his wife or his common law wife. This was duly done. So to anonymous 10.27 i think you are the one spouting such ignorant nonsense. this proves that a war situation existed here, except of course when it didnt suit the brits.

    1. What a weak argument.

      A nice gesture by the Army but hardly means there was a war.

      The conditions for war did not exist under the Geneva conventions.
      The civil and criminal law applied.
      The European convention of human rights applied, which doesnt apply in war. (ironically the provos.took cases against the uk to the European court of human rights.)
      No state or authority recognised it as a war.
      There were no POWs.
      No-one can be taken to the international criminal court at the Hague.

      Need i go on?

  5. So if it was indeed a war, the abduction and murder of Jean McConville, The Disappeared, the Claudy bombing, Kingmsill and murder of workmen at Teebane were all war crimes?

  6. Jude
    The criteria for murder (or any crime) does not include whether the perpetrator thinks it was justified or not.
    A man may feel the only way out of an unhappy marriage is to kill his wife. Should we say 'fair enough so,off you go'.
    What members of the IRA or any other organisation think about their acts is only relevant to them and their conscience.
    There must be an objective standard in law. I know of no international body that has declared the IRA action as just.
    The governments of the UK and Ireland clearly did not think their actions just.
    The people here in the North did not support them. They were a tiny minority acting out their own violent ideology.
    And whatever they may have felt they clearly had a choice, as so many others in the same position chose not to pick up the gun.

    1. Good post,Gio.It would be nice if you got a response.

  7. "There has been the belief that in some circumstances killing others is the only option left open" Can you say that in every IR A killing that there was no other option open?That appears to be the logic of what you are saying.

  8. @anonymous, sometimes you must look past the 'lawfulness' of a situation and consider the right and wrong of it. It was St Augustine who said "an unjust law is no law at all". Now consider that in South Africa apartheid was practically a state law which enshrined racism into the constitution and made it lawful for discriminatory practices to go unpunished. In America too there were discriminatory laws that resulted in a sizeable section of the population being treated as second class citizens.

    There will always be resistance to such injustice. Some choose non violent methods to fight such injustice; others of course choose to adopt an armed struggle. Who is to say what is right and wrong? Nelson Mandela was certainly not against using violence to achieve his goals for South Africa.

    Now in Ireland we had the situation where the British state undemocratically partitioned the country resulting in the creation of a northern Irish state that systematically discriminated against the catholic/nationalist/republican population. An orange state for an orange population was mentioned. The IRA obviously chose to adopt an armed struggle in the fight against this injustice.

    You may wish to portray them as unthinking, uncaring people but by doing so I believe you are taking an extremely narrow view of the conflict and ignoring the root causes of it.

    That however is the past and as we know not everyone will agree on it and will have their own interpretation of history. We should all agree that we want to move forward together in peace and harmony and I don’t think passing legislation with the intent of punishing past deeds is the way to do that.