Dundalk attack shows why need to be careful with our use of terrorism as a concept

dundalk courthouse

Dundalk Courthouse. Image credit: http://bit.ly/2AxFe1a

As someone from Dundalk, I woke up on Wednesday to the shocking news of the horrific attacks that left one person dead and two others hospitalised. When acts of senseless violence occur, it is natural that people search for explanations; to make sense of the senseless. One of these explanations that is frequently proffered in the aftermath of such attacks is terrorism. In recent years across Europe and the rest of the world, terrorist attacks have become more low-tech to the point that knife attacks can constitute terrorism and in this regard only, the attacks that took place in Dundalk were somewhat redolent. It subsequently transpired, however, that Gardaí could find no link between this act and other Islamic extremist attacks in the world; i.e. no motive that would make this a terrorist attack could be identified.  

 What is terrorism anyway?

Terrorism is a very loaded term lacking an agreed definition. Legal definitions of terrorism are, generally speaking, not drafted solely for the state to have a condemnatory label at its disposal. Rather, they are—or they should be— linked to the perceived need for special counter-terrorist laws. Specific terrorist crimes, for example, tend to be different from ordinary crimes. They are offences created so that police do not have to wait for an attack to occur before they can intervene and prosecute.  Rather, terrorist offences tend to be what are called inchoate offences: they are generally offences that criminalise an individual’s actions at the preparatory stage, before they can carry out their attack. In this way terrorist offences are drafted to allow police to ‘defend further up the field’, intervening before an attack happens. A legal definition of terrorism is necessary to do this. For example, it should help to distinguish the ordinary farmer who is buying fertiliser from the person who carries out the exact same act of buying fertiliser; however, their purpose is to manufacture a bomb.

 However, when ‘terrorism’ is used in everyday discourse by people, the media or even politicians, they are generally not applying the legal definition of terrorism. Sometimes the term ‘terrorism’ may be used to try and make sense of the senseless. It may be used to describe political violence and, in particular, to de-legitimise certain forms of political violence. Other times, the motive for labelling something terrorism may be less benevolent.

 The Reaction to the Dundalk Attack

Following yesterday’s horrific attacks in Dundalk, a large number of people took to Twitter to speculate that this was a terrorist attack based solely on the (false) belief that the attacker was from Syria. Some questionable media outlets such as TheLiberal.ie also jumped to this conclusion. Myself and others were then subjected to a barrage of abuse when we stressed caution in labelling this attack as terrorist-related. Many of those hurling the abuse and speculating that the attack was terrorism self-identified as Irish ‘ethno-nationalists’; i.e. they were far right ideologically with explicit racist beliefs as to who should be allowed live in the state. Their primary reason for conjecting that what happened in Dundalk was terrorism was the false rumour that the attacker was Syrian. The irony (and hypocrisy) of Irish people concluding that a person is a terrorist based solely on their nationality is particularly amplified given that the attack took place in Dundalk, a town acutely affected by the Troubles.

 What this incident shows is that there are many groups which have a clear agenda when using the term ‘terrorism’. They use the term not to try and make sense of an attack or even to condemn it; rather, they label it as terrorism in order to exploit it to further their own poisonous ideology. One need only look to the UK to see that the rise of far-right extremism has gone hand-in-hand with the perceived increase in the threat from Islamic extremist terrorism.


What this incident also shows is that while Ireland has often been busy patting itself on the back for not seeing a rise in support for far-right anti-immigration parties as seen in other European states, there can be no room for complacency. On this note, Renua Ireland demanded that the Government recall the Dáil early in order to discuss the ‘public concern on the Dundalk stabbings’. This call came before Gardaí confirmed that no link to international terrorism could be established. 

None of this detracts from the terribleness of what happened in Dundalk. A crime does not have to be an ‘act of terror’ for it to be condemned. Surely, the senseless killing of an innocent man going to work is an evil enough act in and of itself?

 You can donate to the fund to help with the repatriation of Yosuke Sasaki’s body to Japan here.


Of course Ireland was going to be a thorn in the side of Brexit— has history taught us nothing?


A now demolished British Army watchtower near Crossmaglen, Co.Armagh

Many people are still shaking their heads in confusion, struggling to comprehend the fact that the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016. While rational explanations for the result have been proffered, the consensus appears to be that there is not one to be found. Brexit was, instead, a hugely emotive decision. Brexit stirred up something in the hearts of many British people: a nostalgia for empire, a fear of the other, or the emotive promise to ‘Make Britain Great Again’. Indeed, the very fact that the DUP supported Brexit despite all warnings as to what this may mean for the future of the UK should have been a strong warning sign as to the strength of emotions in the Brexit debate.

Similarly, there are many rational reasons as to why Ireland is resisting any attempt by the UK to impose a hard border. Economic factors feature highly in this debate, as do security and practical concerns. Many seem to have forgotten, however, that, like Brexit itself, the border in Ireland was, is, and will be an incredibly emotive issue. These emotions must be addressed or any attempt at a solution to the ‘Irish question’ will fail.

The Border Today

The border between Louth and Armagh along the N53 road looks like this today:


This same road (now called the A37) continues for another 5.5km (or 3.4 miles if you wish) until it crosses the Fane river and re-enters the republic (or the south if you wish) in County Monaghan:

 fane bridge

The beautiful ambiguity of the Good Friday Agreement that made peace possible is illustrated by these two pictures. The only indication that you are entering a different jurisdiction is the change in road markings and the road signs alerting you to the fact that the speed limit is now in miles per hour. The big constitutional question is pushed to one side. It is not forgotten but it is also not acknowledged except for whatever practicalities are required. It is still there but you have to look for it. If you don’t want to see it, you don’t have to.


 Irish emotions and Brexit

Brexit will change this. Brexit has to change this. If the UK continues its current negotiating strategy, Brexit will make the border un-ignorable. The impact will not just be practical but emotional too. When Irish emotions concerning the border are raised in the Brexit debate, it is usually done in a foreboding tone, warning at the possible return to violence. While this is a genuine concern, it is only a tiny minority of a minority that would consider this a legitimate response. Rather, the emotion dominating the vast majority of people living in border communities will be a profound sense of sadness and fear. Sadness that the spectre of the past has come back again more visible than in decades, and fearful as to what the future may bring.

 Anger will, undoubtedly, be felt too and faux surprise from the rest of the UK establishment that Ireland is an unforeseen stumbling block in the Brexit negotiations is particularly irksome. Likewise, Irish anger will not be defused by patronising op-eds conjuring up images of the Irish border as being about the rural peasantry smuggling a few milk churns, or hot takes calling for the Irish Prime Minister (because Taoiseach is not a word the British are familiar with) to behave himself  and stop acting like the bold little child that he is.  Indeed, it was almost inevitable that eventually certain parts of the British media would resort to crude, borderline racist Irish stereotypes reminiscent of the political cartoons of the Victorian era.

 Lessons from History?

Surely, if one were to reach back to Victorian Britain, rather than just look at the cartoons for some artistic inspiration, they would take heed from the defining issue of late nineteenth century British politics: Irish home rule. The magnitude of this question divided political parties and ended numerous careers; left an indelible mark on British constitutional law; and, ultimately, ended up in secession, violence, and the birth of a new state. In short, the question was not easily resolved and arguably has not been resolved to this day.

When, therefore, has a solution to anything between the UK and Ireland been straightforward? The answer is never. Merely talking about Ireland reveals insights into one’s particular political perspectives. Is it Northern Ireland or the north of Ireland? Ulster or The Six Counties? Is it Ireland, the south, the republic (should ‘republic’ be capitalised?), or the 26 Counties? Are we talking about the ‘Irish border’ or the ‘British imposed border in Ireland’?  The Good Friday Agreement, as illustrated by the pictures above, left the big questions to one side; perhaps for final resolution in the future when the passage of time would make them more manageable. Perhaps this perpetual suspension was itself the lasting resolution. Brexit has shattered this illusion, and sparse, disingenuous policy papers outlining ‘trusted traders’ and electronic customs regulations will not mend this carefully negotiated ambiguity.


Image Credit: http://bit.ly/2AD4ibt


If abortion is a matter of conscience for political parties, it doesn’t belong in the Constitution


2018 will more than likely see a referendum on the 8th Amendment of the Constitution in some form or another. At the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis last weekend, delegates voted in support of a motion to oppose ‘any attempt to diminish the constitutional rights of the unborn’ thus sending a clear signal to party leader Micheál Martin as to where the majority of members stand on the 8th Amendment. In so doing, however, the Fianna Ard Fheis has only demonstrated why complex issues such as abortion do not belong in a constitution.

What Belongs in a Constitution?

Generally speaking, constitutions are a collection of rules and principles that express the shared values of a political community. To illustrate their agreed upon status, constitutional provisions tend to be harder to change than other laws such as legislation. If everybody agrees with the values in a constitution, then why should there be a need to change them? Constitutions also tend to be drafted in broad terms to allow for flexibility and to accommodate a wide variety of scenarios that the drafters may not even be capable of envisaging at the time the constitution is enacted. Drafting constitutions broadly can also help to ensure the ‘agreed’ status of constitutional norms by leaving space for differing, potentially conflicting interpretations of the same provision to co-exist. Of course, constitutions may need amending from time to time and an overly-rigid constitution can pose its own difficulties. In the United States, for example, the amendment process is so rigid that often the only way of changing the Constitution is to appoint members to the Supreme Court who are likely to interpret the Constitution differently. This has led to the Supreme Court becoming overly-politicised, undermining the legitimacy of the Court and making the appointment of Supreme Court judges a core election issue.

While Ireland’s Constitutional amendment process is more straight-forward, this does not mean that we should be more flippant when it comes to deciding what to put into the Constitution. Brexit has illustrated that referendums are blunt tools, framing complex issues into simple binary choices; the forthcoming referendum on the 8th Amendment is likely to be equally polarising, with misinformation abundant.

The Role of the Oireachtas

Areas of life requiring complex laws and regulation, or issues around which there is considerable disagreement in the community on should not be contained in constitutions. Rather, constitutions establish institutions that are empowered to decide and resolve these issues. In addition, constitutions also include checks and balances on these institutions to prevent abuse of these powers. In constitutional democracies such as Ireland, the legislature—the Oireachtas— is designed to be the branch of government best-placed to resolve disagreement. Indeed, it is said that legislation is the very product of disagreement as the people’s elected representatives debate the relevant issues and vote upon them after careful deliberation. In turn, elections ensure that the people’s representatives are held accountable for their decisions.

In practice, however, the reality does not match up with theory and very often, political parties impose their own discipline to ensure that everyone within the party votes the same way. Thus, many of the disagreements that should shape and frame legislation are instead resolved behind closed doors in parliamentary party meetings after which party members emerge united on an agreed position. In ‘Westminster-style’ parliamentary democracies such as Ireland where the Dáil elects the Taoiseach and members of the government must be members of the Oireachtas, the Government can generally count on the support of a majority in the legislature. As a result, the legislature often ends up not being a forum for resolving disagreement though debate but instead merely ‘rubber-stamps’ the will of the Government.

However, there are some issues that may not be subject to a strict party whip. Although a rarity in Ireland where party discipline is extremely strong, free votes on ‘matters of conscience’ are common in parliamentary systems around the world. Abortion is often the subject of a free vote as views can diverge dramatically on the issue, even within political parties whose members should, by definition, share a common ideology. Each party representative is instead allowed to vote according to what they personally feel is the right choice. A free vote therefore is a signal that there is considerable disagreement on a particular issue.

Disagreement and the Fianna Fáil free vote

Despite the fact that Fianna Fáil members share a common ideological base, they still disagree on abortion. Thus, the Fianna Fáíl Ard Fheis vote to support retaining the 8th Amendment came after a motion calling for Fianna Fáil to support ‘a woman’s right to choose in the forthcoming referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution’. Nevertheless, it appears that Micheál Martin still intends to allow Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators a free vote on any bill to amend the Constitution on the issue of abortion.

 In so doing, the leader of Fianna Fáil has acknowledged that abortion is too contentious an issue for his party to have an agreed position on. However, the free vote on repealing or modifying the 8th Amendment will be different to a free vote in other countries on abortion. In Ireland’s case it is a vote on amending or repealing a constitutional provision. It is a free vote on enshrining a particular view on a contentious issue into the Constitution, taking resolution of this issue away from the Oireachtas, the body constitutionally designed to decide such matters. It is a free vote on an issue that is too controversial for a political party to agree upon but uncontentious enough to enshrine in a constitutional provision. Ultimately, it is conferring upon members of the Oireachtas the freedom to choose according to their conscience while denying this choice to women.

If a collective of like-minded individuals such as a political party cannot agree a uniform position on an issue like abortion, then such a provision does not belong in the Constitution. By voting to retain the 8th Amendment, the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis has only demonstrated why it should be repealed.

Image credit: http://bit.ly/2gq4BL9