When is bloodshed morally acceptable in the modern era?

Gerry Adams during an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, at Queen's University in Belfast
Gerry Adams during an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, at Queen's University in Belfast

In a recent interview published in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was reported as taking the view that in the context of what is judged as social oppression, in certain circumstances the use of force can be justified.

It is very debatable territory – not least when one considers that, while the definition of terrorism is not universally agreed, private armed groups that decide to take the law into their own hands and engage in violent attacks in the community are in all probability at least not far from being terrorist in nature from anyone’s perspective.

Ian Ellis

Ian Ellis

However, if one is not a pacifist, it follows that there must be a point at which the use of physical force does become morally justifiable, at least as a lesser evil. For that reason, it is generally accepted that there can be religious chaplains to national armies.

While there are those who would, and those who would not, describe the Northern Ireland Troubles as a ‘war’, in terms of war there is established moral theory.

While ‘war’ refers to armed action between two or more sovereign states, and ‘civil war’ is action in which at least two large groups of citizens are in armed action against each other, the theory of ‘just war’ is applicable to the use of arms in any context.

Just war theory addresses both the right to resort to warfare and the proper conduct in warfare once it is started.

Broadly according to the theory, going to war is held to be justified if it is a last resort, if there is a reasonable prospect of success, if armed actions are authorised by properly elected authorities, and if the action is proportionate to the danger.

Indeed, because of proportionality considerations, the use of nuclear weapons is highly problematic from a moral point of view.

There are also the obligations of international law when it comes to resorting to war. Standards of conduct during war are, of course, measured against the Geneva and Basle Conventions and the Geneva Protocol on bio-chemical warfare, and other treaties.

It seems almost callous, however, to theorise about war, because it is always a terrible experience.

Moreover, the extent to which the just war theory can be applied in the modern era is questionable, because modern weaponry has such massive potential for the killing and injuring of civilian populations, quite apart from the destruction of property.

So, in considering the moral weight, or lack of weight, in any violent action, one has to ask certain questions, such as: Is the violence proportionate to the threat? Are people not involved placed at risk? Are there any other means to achieving the goal? What is the considered opinion of responsible people and organisations?

When it comes to the Troubles, there is no doubt what people at large believed. They rejected paramilitary violence. There was no major opinion approving it. It was unlawful in both parts of Ireland and politicians routinely condemned it, as did church leaders.

It is always possible to introduce specific examples into any discussion about the use of violence to achieve political ends. What about the French Resistance? What about apartheid? What about Northern Ireland?

However, no two set of relevant circumstances will be identical and to allow the discussion to centre on those differences is to divert the discussion from the principles involved.

In post-conflict situations there can be a tactic of creating a narrative of the past that allows justification of violent actions, thereby seeking to absolve those who carried out what were in reality morally indefensible acts.

However, the narrative must be as faithful as possible to the actual events because only a proper narrative will allow a proper moral judgement.

• Canon Ian Ellis was editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette from 2001 until last year.