Nationalists have begun another attack on Unionists, pointing out that Unionists claim to be opposed to “terrorism” but this is a pointless claim when there is no context. They have a point – not least because Unionists do stand up for those who endorse terrorism when it suits them, just as everyone else does.
The issue about the IRA campaign of 1969-94 is not that it was “terrorism”, but rather that it was unjustified. That is a very specific thing. “Terrorism” itself can be justified when no democratic options exist – but in Northern Ireland in 1969 (and indisputably from 1973) they did, just as they do now. And Unionists admit this – next month they will parade to commemorate the gun-running of 1913 (“terrorism” by any definition); their hero Churchill demanded “fighting in the streets and on the beaches” in the event of a successful Nazi invasion (and rightly so; but “terrorism” by any definition); and of course Unionist elected representatives were only too pleased to share a platform with the likes of Billy Wright and demand an inquiry into his death (he was a “terrorist” by any definition – and one who operated clearly unjustifiably at that).
So terrorism plainly can be justified, and is justified by Unionists (even in many cases when it was just as unjustified as the IRA campaign). It is and was not justified in Northern Ireland because democratic routes always existed – never more so than now. Indeed, in many ways Northern Ireland is the most democratic society in the world. Nowhere in Western Europe has more elections; nowhere has a police force more accountable to elected representatives; nowhere is keener on all sorts of civic engagement in the democratic process. With power-sharing, accountable policing and a range of East-West and North-South bodies governed by appointees broadly appointed in line with party vote share, several democratic routes exist. Terrorism cannot be justified.
Which makes it all the more galling that Unionists endorse it. They have endorsed attacks on that same democratically accountable police service (terrorism), on public property (terrorism), and now one Councillor who endorsed a potential murderous attack on a parade (terrorism). This was not just any old Unionists endorsing terrorism – it was a Minister, a Junior Minister and a Council Leader in the case of that latter. It’s not just one party either – other Unionist parties are currently in talks with the largest one about electoral pacts. Their hands are all dirty.
The only difference between Loyalist rioters now and IRA “volunteers” in the past is one of scale. But the simple point is this: terrorism in a liberal democratic society is either right or it’s wrong. So, Unionists, which is it?