Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Terrorism Week: Happy to be of service to the IRA

Daredevil 205

What makes this book special is that it is the only major comic book to give support to a terrorist organisation, which brings into question the views, knowledge and judgment of the writer (Denny O'Neil), the editor (Bob Budiansky) and the editor-in-chief (Jim Shooter). The story revolves around a murderous Irish villain called the Gael with a simply pathetic habit of leaving clover on his victims. He is a rogue operative of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

A little Irish history

Wikipedia gives a good, balanced account of the history of Northern Ireland

Ireland was colonised by English conquerors in the middle ages, and the northern part was colonised as an act of policy, with groups of Englishmen and Scotmen forming the majority of settlers. These settlers were predominantly protestant, while the existing Irish were mainly Roman Catholic. By the time Ireland became independent from the United Kingdom in the 1920s, these settlers had lived in Ireland for several centuries, and were firmly committed to staying in the United Kingdom (UK). To solve this problem, only three quarters of the island formed the country known as Eire, commonly Ireland.

The northern part of the island, still part of the UK, had a substantial Catholic minority who in the main wished to join Eire ("Republicans" or "Nationalists"), and referred to their area as "the north of Ireland". The Protestant majority who generally wished to stay in the UK ("Unionists" or "Loyalists"), called the same area "Ulster". The term "Northern Ireland" is the term taken to be politically neutral. If you think I'm being fussy about this definition, that's because all this matters a great deal to those involved, and is important in understand this issue of Daredevil.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Northern Ireland had developed into a mini-state where the predominant political force were the Unionists. The Republicans felt themselves to be oppressed, and by any reasonable standards they were. In 1969 the prolonged period of fighting known as "the Troubles" started between Republicans and Unionists. The British army was sent in, initially to protect the Catholic minority. The Irish Republican Army, originally formed in 1916, launched a campaign aimed at removing Northern Ireland from the UK.

In 1972, British paratroopers killed 13 unarmed civilians, including boys, after a civil rights march in Derry (known to the Unionists as "Londonderry"). Thereafter, more Republicans came to see the British army as an occupying force, and the IRA's membership increased. Often their targets were military, but they frequently targeted civilians. In total, the IRA is estimated to have killed 1700 people during the Troubles. Protestant paramilitary organisations also regularly committed murders. There were also dissident republican factions such as the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) and the "Real IRA", some of whom engaged in fratricidal conflicts with other Republican organisations. Ditto with Unionist paramilitaries.

A plebiscite was held in Northern Ireland in 1973, with a large majority (aided by a nationalist boycott) voting to stay in the UK. Only the most optimistic republican would believe another plebiscite would have a different result.

It's also worth pointing out that the IRA was only supported by a minority of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland. If you took the population of either the island of Ireland, or the United Kingdom, you would find that the IRA was supported by a tiny minority of the population.

Northern Ireland seems now to heading towards normalcy, following a prolonged, exhausting and stumbling peace process. The IRA has recently announced that their armed struggle is now over, though some Unionists have questioned whether this is so, citing a recent armed bank robbery and the recent pub murder of a Catholic man, both by the IRA.

Was the IRA a terrorist organisation?

To sum up, at the point this issue came out (1984), support of the IRA involved believing both in a United Ireland, and in the use of paramilitary force to obtain it. This involved killing civilians. The IRA's attacks included letting off bombs in pubs and in department stores. Other uses of force included punishment beatings, kneecappings (shooting victims in their kneecaps) and exile ("Leave Northern Ireland in twenty-four hours or we'll kill you").

I know there's this stuff about how "one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist", but I think that the moment you let off a bomb in a public place you become a terrorist. Of course the IRA were terrorists. You can argue that terrorism is justified in certain circumstances, but you can't reasonably argue that what the IRA was doing wasn't terrorism.

What is the evidence that Daredevil #205 supported terrorism?

In Daredevil 205, Denny O'Neil does not make the slightest attempt to portray the IRA in a even-handed manner.

Glorianna Breen: My father ... he worked for the IRA, the anti-government rebels.

Straight off, we have a contentious statement. "Anti-government rebels" is how the IRA would describe themselves - it's a Republican phrase. Unionists would say "terrorists". A neutral phrase might be "paramilitaries". Remember, language matters in this conflict.

Hotel doorman: She went in about ten minutes ago. 'Course I can't be positive it's the O'Breen girl.
IRA member 1: If she matches the description, tis probably her goin' to her aunt.
IRA member 2: Thanks for keepin' an eye open fer us, Hannigan.
Hotel doorman: Happy t'be of service t'the IRA.

Note the jolly inoffensive doorman, happily providing the IRA members with information, without any question of whether this information might be used for violent or illegal purposes.

IRA member 1: An enforcer, he is, a hit man, he'd be called in America, worked for the IRA an' then went bad.

A strong implication from this is that the IRA are good people. And this in the middle of an amiable (following an obligatory fight scene between Daredevil and the IRA agents) conversation. Either Matt's well-honed sense of justice has momentarily deserted him (a sensible precaution would be to treat these members of an organisation illegal in both the UK and Eire as being criminals) or else he doesn't think justice east of the Atlantic matters.


The I'd just gone sixteen when I killed my first, a British corporal, he was, a fuzzy cheeked boy no older'n meself. Over the years, I came to realize that the patriotism wasn't important to me, the killin' was...

At no point in this issue is there any indication that the IRA is an organisation which uses terrorist methods. The Gael is bad because he has betrayed the IRA. The IRA is a positive, "patriotic" organisation. There is no mention that their killings might have been aimed against civilian as well as military targets. This is simply not a balanced portrait of the IRA.

It's just the characters supporting the IRA, not the narrative

Now there is a argument which says that these characters are all IRA supporters in one form or another, and that therefore their dialogue is realistic. Which is true in the sense that this does accurately present their world view (but unrealistic in the sense that O'Neil's Irish accents are awful).

But this will not do. A writer is responsible for the voices of their characters, but also for presenting a balanced portrait. If there is no character who gives an alternative view of the IRA (a British diplomat perhaps, or a kneecapping victim), then it is the duty of the writer to introduce one. If there is none, that is the choice of the writer, and they should be judged accordingly. By repeatedly showing the IRA in a good light, and not showing any alternative view of them, O'Neil has wittingly or unwittingly used his story to show support for that organisation.

Support or Ignorance?

I can see a sliding scale of possible motives for Denny O'Neil here, with "IRA supporter" at one end and "Ignorant comic book writer" at the other. It's possible that O'Neil's grasp of Northern Irish politics was limited - he at no point mentions Northern Ireland, and his characters come from Dublin (in the Republic of Ireland). (He certainly shows his ignorance in not knowing that the phrase "hit man" is commonly used in the UK and Ireland). He might not have known the IRA killed civilians. He might have been concentrating purely on his character, the Gael, and have been unaware of how offensive his story actually is.

This issue, horribly unbalanced, was covert propaganda for the IRA, aimed at a primarily foreign audience who could be expected to have little knowledge of the intricacies of Northern Irish politics. Marvel should never have allowed it to be published: editorial staff are there to make sure that stories like this get spiked. That it didn't points to a serious failure by Budiansky and Shooter.


Anonymous Vic Fluro said...

The Essential Iron Fist also has a loveable IRA terrorist in it... a man Iron Fist is proud to call friend! He says he's sorry, you see. Iron Fist at no point says "Um, shouldn't you be talking to the police or something? You know, about that big bomb you let off that you're so apologetic for."

(Chris Claremont and John Byrne can be thanked for that one.)

12:46 pm  
Blogger Harvey Jerkwater said...

A shocking number of Americans have a blind spot towards the IRA. In part it's because the acts of terror don't get a lot of press over here. Over here, they're abstract murders, not actual dead people.

Almost all of folks of Irish descent in the US came from famiies who immigrated well before the start of the Troubles, and the whopping majority were Catholics from what is now the Republic of Ireland. Their idea of the Troubles based on grandparents' reminscences of Ireland, the occasional news story, and a handful of romantic preconceptions. Yeah, that'll skew perceptions badly.

The IRA's "resistance to occupation" sounds noble if you don't bother to see the details.

8:55 pm  
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