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25 September 1997 Edition

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Britain must face up to its murderous past

Fern Lane of Fuascailt argues that Britain must hold a public inquiry into the death of Diarmuid O'Neill

One year ago this week Diarmuid O'Neill, IRA Volunteer, son, brother, partner, friend, human individual, was shot and killed by the Metropolitan police, very probably at the behest of the British state, despite being unarmed. We were all required to accept that because he was the first of these things it somehow diminished or even negated the fact that he was also the others; that he got what he deserved, that the government was self-evidently justified in sanctioning his killing, that there was no case to answer.

His family, supporters and many others, however, do not accept this, nor will they. Indeed, why should they? Diarmuid had an inalienable right to answer his accusers, but he was deliberately denied this right. The response of the British government when asked to account for his murder, both at the time and since, was its usual one; to metaphorically wave a dismissive hand, offering as justification for its crimes the well-worn, crude characterisation of republicans as (a) in the grip of a degenerate and pathological love of violence for its own sake, and (b) as having some kind of congenital and obsessive attachment to past events and a corresponding inability to move forward. Both are wrong and both are deeply offensive, most especially to those who have suffered at the hands of the British state.

It may seem blindingly obvious to say that before the past can be left behind the wrongs committed in that past have to be put right - one of the reasons the Bosnian conflict has not been properly resolved, for example, is because those who committed atrocities have not been required to answer for them. The British seem to be willfully oblivious to this simple concept when it comes to Ireland. The truly dazzling multiplicity of wrongs committed by them and their agents against nationalists have never been acknowledged, much less rectified. But until they are addressed, they cannot - should not - be forgotten. Violence is a response to this injustice, inequality and inhumanity; the cry of the oppressed soul, to paraphrase Marx.

The British state's relish for taking out its republican opponents instead of bringing them to trial whilst insisting that only others commit murder is but one manifestation of the wrongdoing which remains unresolved and which will continue to dog any potential resolution to this conflict. Refusing to answer legitimate questions - in the form of an independent public inquiry - about the gratuitous way in which Diarmuid O'Neill met his death and the calculated lies of the people which followed not only cruelly prolongs the anguish for those who loved him, ultimately it also (along with the many, many other murders of Irish men and women carried out by British forces) creates an almost insurmountable obstruction on the road to reconciliation. Those campaigning on behalf of Diarmuid are determined to ensure that Britain can no longer reserve for itself, as it once did, the right to murder those who oppose its presence in Ireland without being held to account.
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