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History plays a part in understanding Boston bombing

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HISTORY has an uncanny ability to provide us with timely reminders, reminders that while much has changed, so much still remains the same.

On April 15 the US Supreme Court issued a ruling stating that they would allow for the transcripts of interviews with the late Dolours Price to be handed over to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

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Only hours later Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev attacked the Boston marathon. At the time of writing the brothers’ bombs had claimed three lives and injured over 170 innocent civilians.

Price, who passed away in January, was a former member of the Provisional IRA. In 1973 she was convicted along with eight others for their role in the Old Bailey bombings which had injured close to 200 people and took the life of one man who died of a heart attack he had at the scene. Alongside Price in the unit were among others, the now senior Sinn Féin member, Gerry Kelly and Price’s own teenage sister Marian.

Before her recent death Dolours, the older of the Price sisters, had participated in a research project undertaken by Boston College.

The aim of the project was to collect a variety of oral histories from both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries who had been active during the Troubles. They were to be utilised as a learning tool for those wishing to gain an insight into paramilitary activity.

These interviews took place under the proviso that they would not be published until after the participants’ deaths. However, when Price revealed in a newspaper and television interview that she had been involved in the disappearances of a number of IRA victims, the PSNI started proceedings to gain access to her interviews as well as any others with information relating to the ‘disappeared.’

The Supreme Court ruling seems to mark the successful end to their campaign.

In the aftermath of the Old Bailey bombings the media and public alike paid attention not only to the IRA’s motivations, but also to the individuals responsible. Particular focus was given to the involvement of the Price sisters, their age, gender and family. Why would two sisters, so young, wish to participate in the potential killing and maiming of so many innocent civilians?

What could possibly have led to them planting bombs on the streets of London? Forty years later and similar questions are today being asked about Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and similar headlines are being written.

At comparable ages to the Price sisters, and with both casualty rates close in size, the reaction in Boston this week has echoed that of London in 1973.

Taken in isolation these two attacks may seem similar. However, the broader picture could not be more different. The apparent motivations, ideologies, and organisation of both attacks were starkly different.

The London bombing was part of a broader Republican paramilitary campaign, and marked the beginning of a concerted effort by the Provisional IRA to target England, in order to ‘take the pressure off’ both Belfast and Derry.

The Price sisters were not operating alone. They had a broad support network within their active service unit, as well as within the wider IRA.

We are still unsure of the aims and motivations behind the Boston bombings. However, the initial evidence suggests that the Tsarnaev brothers were probably operating alone. It therefore appears that their attack does not represent a sustained threat to the United States, but a tragedy distinct in its isolation.

This will act as no comfort to the people of Boston. But it should provide the platform for US officials to partake in careful and considered investigation and response.

When the initial pain has subsided they must strive not only to bring justice for the victims, but also to gain a greater understanding as to why these two young men would resort to such brutal measures to achieve their, as yet unknown, aims.

As John Horgan and Mia Bloom of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism have pointed out in a recent piece the history of terrorist and paramilitary activity is awash with cases of siblings carrying out attacks together. We must learn from these historical case studies. However they cannot, and will not, offer all the answers we need.

But they may provide us with a stepping-stone to our understanding of what may motivate these siblings and their violent acts. This understanding must be multi-faceted.

It must focus both on the individuals and the wider contexts in which they radicalised and operated. There is no point in claiming that it will prevent all future attacks.

However, it will provide us with an opportunity to take the necessary steps to deter others from taking the same path to violence.

Dr John F. Morrison, originally from Sligo, is a senior lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of East London.

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