Let me start this by saying I do not wish ill of the dead or the dying, but more to examine the change in attitudes in our society, media and government over time. I will also add that I abhor violence of any kind, for any cause.

As I was a growing up in the 1960’s there were numerous terrorist groups that dominated the news. The ANC — African National Congress and the Provisional IRA were the two that stood out.  The ANC because of their struggle against apartheid and the Provisional IRA because they were close to home and not only carried out their program of terror bombings in their own country but in ours too.

Nelson Mandela was fundamental in setting up and organising the armed wing of the ANC — it was his suggestion and one that got him arrested and imprisoned for 5 years with hard labour in 1962. The following year when the rest of the group was arrested and tried for plotting to overthrow the government by violence Nelson Mandela was brought forward and included in the charges which resulted in life imprisonment.

Whilst in prison he became a potent symbol of resistance as the anti-apartheid movement gathered strength. He consistently refused to compromise his political position to obtain his freedom — i.e. he refused to renounce violence which gathered pace during his imprisonment.

Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography that as a leading member of the ANC’s executive committee, he had “personally signed off” in approving these acts of terrorism. The late SA president PW Botha told Mandela in 1985 that he could be a free man as long as he did just one thing : ‘publicly renounce violence.’  Mandela refused. That is why Mandela remained in prison until the then President FW de Klerk freed him unconditionally. The bottom line?  Nelson Mandela never publicly renounced the use of violence to further the ‘cause of freedom.’

I watched with the rest of the world as he was released on February 11, 1990.

He went on to achieve his aims to dismantle apartheid with the then President FW de Klerk  co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 .

He went on to become President of South Africa between 1994 and 1999.

Meanwhile, at home, the Provisional IRA was carrying out a campaign of terror, bombing targets in both Ireland and in Britain. The most famous of which was the Brighton Bombing at the Grand Hotel In Brighton during the Conservative Party Conference in an attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher who was Prime Minister at the time. During the IRA’s 25 year campaign in England, 115 deaths and 2,134 injuries were reported, from a total of almost 500 attacks.

Fast forward to today — Sinn Féin — the political wing of the Provisional IRA holds parliamentary seats in both the Irish National Assembly and in the United Kingdom Parliament.  Martin McGuinness — known as the Butcher of Bogside — and Gerry Adams, the leader of the Belfast Brigade, both sit as Members of Parliament and have even shaken hands with the Queen.

Let us remind ourselves here of the definition of terrorist — from the Oxford English Dictionary —

Definition of terrorist — a person who uses terrorism in the pursuit of political aims.

Definition of terrorism — the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

There is no doubt at all that all these men were terrorists, the death, the bloodshed and the fear and terror was very real.  I still hold an elevated security clearance because of the IRA.  I was married to a man who worked as a civilian communications engineer for the army — I drove him to work — therefore I had to get special clearances.  I still unconsciously  look under my car each time I gets into it for bombs or other devices.

I would like to put forward another definition — one prompted by a discussion amongst friends of mine about the nature of extremists.

One friend proposed the following definition — “It’s a pejorative label over-used by government and media to vilify and demonize those who protest against either the status quo, government stance or socially accepted conditions.”

Another responded with “One of many labels regularly misapplied — along with ‘terrorist,’ ‘conspiracist’ … in fact most things ending in ‘ist.” — which of course was the launch point for my thoughts on our use of the word terrorist combined with the fact that we now have so many differently labelled terrorists — cyber terrorists, environmental terrorists, bio-terrorists and of course state terrorists, where governments control their populations by violent means — quite literally a reign of terror.

I have no doubt that Mandela, Adams and McGuiness have never seen themselves as anything other than freedom fighters.

I am curious as to what prompted the sea change in the view of the general populace. The answer has to be when it becomes useful for the powers that be to have the “terrorists” working with them rather than against them, or when it becomes apparent that they need to adopt the cause that is being fought for.

This is the first change from terrorist to freedom fighter. This is where the media starts changing their tone — fed, of course, by government pressure. I think pressure within South Africa and world-wide condemnation of Apartheid led to Mandela’s redemption, and the desperate desire for peace in Northern Ireland (at any cost) — which had been the holy grail of British Politics — was the redeeming factor for Adams and McGuinness. So one was people driven and the other government and media driven.

There is no doubt that Mandela is a remarkable man — he may already have shaken the terrorist label with most people. For me, he will never be the saint he is proclaimed to be, first and foremost he will be the terrorist who refused to renounce violence, the statesmanship and everything he achieved in later life will always be secondary to that. Ultimately, the checks and balances are not for me to make — that is between him and his maker.

For McGuiness and Adams it is going to take a lot longer and many never happen for those other terrorist groups of that age like Baader Meinhof/Red Army Brigade, although the Basque terrorist group ETA — Euskadi Ta Askatasuna — has now started the process towards partaking in government by renouncing violence and disbanding their military arm.

One thing is certain, however — domestic terrorists stand a far better chance of evolving into the freedom fighters they always thought they were — foreign terrorists do not stand a chance.


  1. This really is a stunning topic, Nicola, and I thank you for addressing the difficulty of the situation.

    I’m trying to think of USA examples from hero and terrorist over time. I guess the original invasion when the Indian Wars were in full rage — and the White Man was the terrorist/freedom fighter — as were the Native Americans dually split as viewed from the other side.

    The KKK, while brutal, never really found a reliable footing in mainstream politics. Sure, there were some famous Southern representatives with Klan ties, but there has never been anything official or promoted by demand.

  2. I am glad I am not the only person who found trouble with trying to find an American example – I wonder if that makes the USA truly free ?

    I did wonder if Malcolm X qualified or not and decided I was not well enough informed to make a judgement.

    1. The Revolutionary War is tempting to use, but since that was a founding war, I’m not sure it counts. If it does, then all the Founding Fathers were terrorists — in the eyes of Queen and her Army.

      We have been fortunate that we have been pretty much home-terrorist free for most of our existence. There have been hiccoughs here and there, but generally, the local terrorists have been one-offs.

      The Civil War also had its divisions. I don’t think many people, though, see John Wilkes Booth as anything but Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.

      Malcolm X is an interesting example. I’m not sure his reputation has closed the circle yet, though. Martin Luther King, Jr. was only a “peaceful terrorist” in the prejudiced minds set against him. The Black Panthers never really went mainstream or turned it around — same thing with the American Indian Movement.

      The Weather Underground may be a grey, divisional, example.

  3. Martin Luther King, Jr was another that crossed my mind as well. I have been reading around to see what I had missed from this , and could not find anything other than mentions of the other groups – nothing significant . There are examples from other countries – Yasser Arafat from the Palestine Liberation Organisation being the main one.

    I suspect also that what used to be called guerrilla warfare is now called terrorism.

    1. Well, MLK, Jr. was never violent. His protests were peaceful. He was not terroristic, though terroristic threats and tactics were used against him.

      Arafat is an interesting example, as is, I’m sure to some, Castro in Cuba.

      I linked my article about the Altalena in your piece — it’s fascinating how perspectives change on this topic that comes straight down to viewpoint:


  4. I found your link to that post most interesting – and it supports the idea that the definition of terrorist is a moveable feast and very much down to individual perceptions.

    Casto and the face that graced a million student bedsits – Che Guevara

    1. Yes, Che has been a t-shirt posterboy for a long time now — and I bet 99.999% of the people who wear his face have no clue who he is or why he became famous.

      It is all about perspective — which side of the bullet are you on — the side coming at your head, or the one leaving your gun?

  5. That should have course be Castro – not Casto !

    I agree with your thoughts on the lack of knowledge and understanding about Che Guevara’s role in recent history.

    As a third party it is interesting to examine and question Mandela’s journey – I cannot claim to be a third party as far as the IRA are concerned – I still have an active and elevated security clearance rating because my second husband was a civilian working for the army and I had to be cleared to go on and off base with our car. I remember having to look under my wheel arches and checking for foreign objects before getting into the car and being taught basic evasive driving skills and what a rudimentary bomb looks like.

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