1980s >> 1988 >> no-1005-may-1988

The Coffin as a Weapon

In Gibraltar, two men and a woman are walking down the street. They are ruthlessly shot dead by a gang of paid killers in the employment of the British Government. The British media immediately trumpets the news of a great victory: three cowardly IRA bombers have been killed in a stand-up gun battle with an undisclosed number of SAS heroes after the despicable IRA cowards had planted a bomb which would have made the Enniskillen bomb look like a firecracker.

Unfortunately for the politicians who rushed to the begging microphones to glory in the slaughter of three human beings, the story was incomplete. Unfortunately, too, for the people of Northern Ireland, the story turned out to be no more than a chapter in a heightened saga of death and destruction.

The “brutal”, “sick” and “sub-human” killers whom the brave SAS had faced in the reported gun-battle turned out to be unarmed and the bomb they had planted, and run away from, did not exist. Back to the microphones went spokespersons for the killers’ employers. Ministerial comments were prefaced with. “Well . . . everybody knows the type of ruthless people . . . might have been going for their handkerchiefs but . . . ” No one could have been greatly surprised when a bomb was subsequently discovered – in Spain.

“Full Military Honours”

The people of Ireland, and Belfast in particular. braced themselves apprehensively during the days of bureaucratic delay before the coffins arrived. Coffins have become a weapon of war. a Hill 60 in the grand strategy of battle between the IRA and those who provoke disorder to uphold the law. “Full Military Honours” are the final benediction that the state grants to those who, having been trained to live by the sword have fallen victim to it; a final, vital part of the respectabilisation of a foul trade. Even “enemies” are given the full treatment and. during the last war, many an RAF man put the hated swastika over a dead Luftwaffe pilot after both had been locked in deadly combat.

It’s a different thing, however, for fully paid-up and licensed state killers to exchange “full military honours” with one another and allowing the same ritual for just any group of people who take on themselves the right to do what soldiers do. Having a bawling man shouting at other uniformed automatons to fire shots over a coffin draped with a piece of cloth dyed in a particular way is a final recognition of legitimacy. The presence of the padre is the church’s acknowledgement of the right of the state to abrogate the “divine” prescription on killing.

It is this legitimacy which the IRA seek for their dead members. The right to indulge a ritual which elevates a fallen comrade from the status of a criminal to that of a heroic fighting man or woman. And it is because this mystique is seen as a means of differentiation between criminality and a greater morality that transcends that which the heavenly lawgiver chiselled out for Moses that the matter becomes, for both sides, a matter of principle.

The extent to which the British Government and the media had made a great victory of the Gibraltar killings in itself dictated a huge response from the IRA. If the British could make propaganda out of three killings, the IRA would make even more propaganda out of their coffins. News, in capitalist society, is big business; media people, camera crews, “experts”, “news analysts” and commentators would be flying in from all parts of the world to watch three coffins carried through the sort of slum district that moulded the ideas of their human contents; wealth represented by hundreds of thousands of pounds would be expended on covering the whole macabre operation. What would the IRA do? What would the “security forces” do?

Propaganda funerals

Windows would be boarded up. those working in certain areas would not go to work, transport would be re-scheduled, schools closed. Some would stay behind locked doors while others would prepare for their presence in the cortège and the probable consequences. Members of the RUC would kiss their wives and mothers, dress themselves in battle gear, take their rifles or machine-guns and go to earn their wages by ensuring that flags, gun shots, black berets and gloves were not used to defy the law.

A pall of fear and expectation hung over Belfast. In the workplaces, comments were guarded or otherwise, depending on the religious mix of the workforce. People living in sensitive areas worried about the aftermath of the funerals, new slogans appeared on gable walls, epitaphs of vulgar censure or praise, according to their location.

Here and there, perhaps, a few wondered at it all. Wondered that in a world where thousands were dying every day from hunger, where tens of millions of lives were diminished by poverty, by slums and unemployment, that the sadness of a funeral should become such an occasion of madness and conflict. Wondered why so many young, unemployed denizens of slumdom, whose wives and mothers were every day degraded and insulted by an uncaring system, should want to risk life and limb for something that had no bearing whatsoever on the quality of their lives. Such people were few and even they listened anxiously to the news broadcasts.

In the event, wisdom seemed to prevail. Some time before the funerals, the IRA dressed four of their members in the sort of silly clothes that their military enemies wear, erected a board with pictures of the deceased pinned to it, and fired a volley of shots. On the other side, the RUC intimated that it was not going to degrade its members by having them attack the funerals. It seemed as though a stand-off position had been achieved that allowed the tortured minds on both sides to claim a victory.

The RUC were, indeed, visibly absent from the funerals and Sinn Fein organised a valedictory parade aimed at milking the last ounce of propaganda value out of the event. Still, there was no one present for them to fight with and, as the day passed, the news reports seemed to indicate that the tactics of both sides had been successful. On this occasion, it seemed, a funeral would pass without being the precursor of more deaths.

Somewhere in the city, however, a man was preparing a dramatic gesture. Like most of those attending the funerals, he was poor, unemployed and lived in a slum. Like most of those attending the funerals, he had learned to hate. He did not hate the system that degraded him and forced him and his wife and kids to live in poverty. He hated those whom he had been taught to believe threatened his “whole way of life”. From an unmysterious source he had been given a gun and a number of hand grenades and. hyped-up on bigotry, he was waiting at the cemetery for the IRA mourners.

He killed three people and injured a further fifty. Like his enemies, who strode forward towards his blazing guns and the devastation of exploding hand grenades, he was imbued with a madness of anger that transcended a rational human being’s fear of death.

After the charges and counter-charges of police collusion, after the riots, the burnt-out cars, the petrol-bombed homes, there remained three more corpses. Three more funerals.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Almost as a diversion from the central drama, two soldiers were injured by an IRA bomb and a young girl shot dead and her boy friend seriously injured when the IRA opened fire on their car because they mistakenly thought it belonged to her brother whom they mistakenly thought was a member of the security forces. In a place where life is cheap an innocent victim merely merits an official apology and their funeral does not threaten us with full military honours.

But there were three other corpses that could be exploited for political gain. Scheduled for the following Saturday, it promised to be a monumental affair for, apart from the IRA, ordinary Catholics had been affronted by their killing and angered at the loyalists who had emblazoned their slums with congratulatory messages to their killer.

Again, there was no visible police presence at the funerals and. since two of the victims were not associated with the IRA, Sinn Fein management was less conspicuous. It seemed the day would end peacefully and a city would earn a respite from the threat of more coffins.

It was not to be. As the funerals made their way along the road they were confronted with a car containing two British soldiers. Why they were there will never be known. According to the IRA, they attempted to run down mourners but, unless they were imbued with the same bitterness as that which motivated the man who had caused the funerals, this seems an utterly absurd action. Equally absurd is the official story which suggested that the soldiers lost their way and accidentally came face-to-face with the funerals. In a country where working-class lives are expendable in a filthy conflict whose outcome has no bearing on working-class lives, anything can happen and the possibility of the soldiers being deliberately sacrificed by their masters for propaganda purposes is not beyond belief.

That the men were killed with unbelievable savagery is beyond dispute. First they were beaten into unconsciousness by the mob and then taken to a sports field where the IRA claim they were shot with their own guns. Television crews were close at hand; the pictures of the disgusting obscenity were flashed around the world. It was the turn of the British to milk the death of human beings for a propaganda coup.

Politicians, media people and clergymen were in demand to condemn the undoubted horror of the killings and they performed their selective condemnations with sickening dishonesty.

An end to the violence

Again it was left to the few to rationally explain the irrationality of a system that plays politics with human lives. To argue that the perceptions and values with which the state — any state — imbues its wage slaves are deliberate disguises to cover up the real problem. To hide the fact that, whether we perceive ourselves to be Catholic or Protestant. British or Irish, our way of life is dictated by our class position in society. To show that it is our class position, and not the colour of the rag that floats at the masthead or the colour of the pillar boxes, that imposes on all of the working class its poverty and degradation.

To demonstrate that there is an alternative way of living that should be considered. A way of life that will open the gates of abundance to all human beings; that will allow each the dignity of contributing constructively to the society of which he or she is a vital part and the right to avail themselves of whatever they need or require to lead full and peaceful lives.

Unfortunately, there were no begging microphones, no column inches, for that message. The people who own and control the media, like others of their class who own and control the rest of the means whereby we live, might be sickened by the coffins of the victims of violence but they do not want a solution that might involve them taking their places as ordinary human beings in the only form of society that can guarantee peace.

Richard Montague