PC Keith Palmer died a hero - a human shield protecting against an attack on democracy
On Wednesday afternoon a panel of three new MSPs was speaking at a Holyrood event about their first year as politicians. They talked of their excitement at being elected but they also spent, I felt, an inordinate amount of time describing safety concerns. What, I thought, has democracy come to when the personal safety of our elected members and their staff has crept so far up the political crib sheet that we are discussing the pros and cons of locks, cameras and bars rather than policy, laws and constituents?
And then the news broke from Westminster.
It was chilling and it reminded me of the day when Jo Cox was murdered – the shock shunting the everyday into a different paradigm. Moving everyone from all sides of the political divide into that one corner, united in sorrow that such a morally vacuous act had robbed us of someone so brimming with energy, optimism and generosity of spirit.
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I wished then, as now, that I had known Jo Cox. She was, it seemed, Labour’s well-kept secret. A woman just doing the job she was elected to do and sprinkling some magic along the way. She kept her light hidden under a bushel. And it made me like her even more.
For her to be the one singled out to die seemed so wrong. But no more awful for loved ones to comprehend than the random sequence of events that left PC Keith Palmer lying dead and bloodied on the cobbles of New Palace Yard.
Keith Palmer died a hero, a human shield to the Mother of All Parliaments. And the symbolism of him desperately being given CPR and mouth-to-mouth by MP Tobias Ellwood, a Foreign Office minister and former army officer whose brother had been killed by terrorists in the Bali bombings of 2002, cannot be lost on those who believe in the freedom of democracy.
PC Palmer wasn’t the only one to die and that will not be forgotten but he was the only one who looked into the eyes of the man that killed him and instead of running from terror, faced it.
But there was also something obscenely gawkish about the week’s news. It began with fulsome tributes to Martin McGuinness and ended with the usual wordy attempts to understand the tragedy at Westminster where a terrorist had wreaked his nihilistic carnage.
Something just didn’t sit right with the claims in the immediate aftermath of the Westminster attack that terrorism doesn’t pay when political leaders were busy paying homage to McGuinness whose own journey from gun to government saw his gifts as a peacemaker far out-shadow the trail of death, pain and destruction that he left in his wake as a senior commander in the IRA.
McGuiness too was a politician I wish I had met. I am a child of the 60s, the terror of the IRA marked my teens and still affects how I behave now, particularly in London. I wouldn’t be the first or last to have wanted to ask McGuinness, ‘why?’
In February 1996, my husband was working in the City when a massive truck-bomb exploded in the financial district of Canary Wharf. It killed two people and injured 250. Selfishly, I was just relieved none of them were him. It was signature IRA. Two warnings had come. The fear had heightened. The buildings were evacuated. People ran for their lives. But giving a 90-minute warning meant that while architectural damage was devastating – £150m worth of office damage looks like a warzone – the human collateral was, thankfully, small. Nevertheless, it did what it was designed to do – reinforce the idea that things could have been so much worse. And paralysis by fear is what terrorists gorge on.
That Canary Wharf bomb ended the fragile ceasefire but it also set us on the road to the Good Friday Agreement with the realisation – a critical moment of truth by all sides – that both peace and war were options in this long bloody battle but that neither was a given.
McGuinness was on his road to redemption.
What motivates an Islamic jihadist clearly differs from what motivated the IRA paramilitaries. Global annihilation versus self-determination within a United Ireland. And yet terrorism is now viewed through an apocalyptic prism with one enemy. Generally, we would accept that not all people living in Northern Ireland supported the IRA and so too it is a mistake to believe that Muslims are to blame now. The only thing terrorists have in common is the use of terror.
And what now for our politicians? Following the killing of Jo Cox, many said they were concerned that the adversarial nature of politics was spilling over into actual violence.
A police unit set up to investigate crimes against politicians has dealt with more than 50 complaints in its first six months. Here, Police Scotland is investigating death threats and online abuse directed at Scotland’s First Minister and other Scottish political leaders.
And yet in reality, the ties that bind together politicians of different parties are often as strong as those within the same party.
On the day terror visited Westminster, my three new MSPs; Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative, talked of fear but also displayed an admirable united front that can surely be a buffer to some of the more damaging perceptions that politics is all about combat.