Joan Smith: Let bigotry go with the balaclavas

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Oh, for the good old days, when terrorists wore uniforms, gave warnings and had recognisable military objectives. Judging by the illustrations accompanying them, that seemed to be the subtext of some of the newspaper and internet reports on the IRA's decision last week to renounce violence. I can't be the only person who found it incongruous that a story about peace being declared - something we could do with more of in these troubled times - was the occasion for publishing so many photographs of men in balaclavas, holding guns in the air.

Of course, Irish republicanism has always had a glamour quite at odds with its tactics. These, we should not forget, included savage "punishment" beatings and involvement in straightforward criminality, as well as the so-called armed struggle. It is possible to sympathise with the IRA's aspiration towards a united Ireland while deploring the means it chose to achieve that aim, and to conclude that the kneecappings and murders of civilians did a great deal to delay it. It is also tempting to wonder about the timing of the announcement, and to speculate as to whether the IRA's leaders concluded that the current wave of Islamist bombings in London was giving terrorism a bad name.

As plenty of people have pointed out, the IRA never went in for suicide bombing, a tactic that carries a peculiar horror. But I don't think we should get carried away with nostalgie du fusil, to coin a phrase; what has happened in Northern Ireland since 1968 should be a warning as the mainland stands on the brink of what the Metropolitan Police Commissioner warns might be a protracted bombing campaign. Whenever terrorist violence threatens civil society, one of the first casualties is human rights, a proposition demonstrated in Derry in 1972 (Bloody Sunday) and in London nine days ago with the shooting by police of a Brazilian man unconnected to terrorism.

Fear polarises, producing the kind of megaphone politics that has been a repellent feature of Northern Ireland for decades. In a society dominated by images of soldiers and gunmen, gender roles tend to ossify or even regress, relegating women to the sidelines. It is no accident that some of the most galvanising challenges to the status quo have come from women - the Peace People in 1976, whose founders included Mairead Corrigan Maguire, the aunt of three children who were hit by a getaway car after its driver was shot by a soldier; and the sisters and partner of Robert McCartney, who have courageously campaigned for his killers to be brought to justice.

Such voices stand out because they emerge so rarely from the macho clamour of Northern Irish politics. The former secretary of state for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam complained that, during the negotiations that led up to the Good Friday agreement, she was relegated to the status of tea lady, as though local assumptions unconsciously infected visiting politicians.

It seems to be an inexorable law that societies in the grip of internal conflict are also the least socially progressive, something Northern Ireland has in common with Israel and South Africa during apartheid. When abortion was legalised on the mainland in 1967, the law did not apply to Northern Ireland, and in 1984 the Northern Ireland Assembly actually voted against similar legislation, ensuring that women would have to go on seeking terminations abroad. Ian Paisley's Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign is credited with the exclusion of Northern Ireland from the 1967 law that decriminalised homosexuality, an injustice that was not righted until 1982.

Much has been written in the past couple of days about the significance of the IRA's declaration, as well as its likely impact on Protestant paramilitaries. But renouncing violence is only the start of a long process, familiar from other countries, in which harsh and intolerant attitudes also have to be dismantled. We should be guardedly optimistic about Northern Ireland, but also watchful that a few dozen terrorists don't inflict the same kind of insidious damage on the politics and values of the rest of the UK.