Politics & Policy

Irish Antigone

A sister courageously defends her murdered brother.

“I will bury him myself. If I die for doing that, good. I will stay with him, my brother: and my crime will be devotion.” –Sophocles’ Antigone

This declaration, from the classic Sophocles drama, is spoken by Antigone, the sister of Polyneices, who has been denied a proper burial by Kreon, the king of Thebes, for leading a rebellion against his tyrannical rule. The eponymous protagonist seeks justice for her brother, in the face of a royal decree promising death by stoning to anyone who defies the authority of the state. She symbolically buries Polyneices nonetheless, sprinkling dust on his decaying body and ensuring his soul’s passage into the afterlife. Upon learning of this act of defiance, Kreon confronts her, incredulously inquiring, “You dared to break this law?” Antigone confidently affirms his suspicions, defending her actions with an appeal to the timeless morality of the Greek deities: “Yes, because I did not believe that Zeus was the one who had proclaimed it; neither did Justice, or the gods of the dead whom Justice lives among.” Thus all students of ancient Greek drama have come to know Antigone as a symbol of individual conscience confronting the malice and overbearing corruption embodied in Kreon, the wretched ruler of Thebes.


Today, the central moral tension of the Sophocles drama is being played out again, not in Greece, but in Ireland, where a sister is seeking justice for her deceased brother in the face of recalcitrant forces of evil. Esther Rafferty Uzell is defending her brother, Joseph Rafferty, who was gunned down in Dublin nearly one year ago by a member of the Irish Republican Army. Joe, aged twenty-nine, was a courier in the city and operated his own business in his spare time. He was a lover of Gaelic games and a fitness fanatic who worked out at the local gym. He was planning to return to college. He had recently bought an apartment to be nearer to his daughter, Sophie, who is five years old. He had absolutely no connections to the IRA or any criminal organizations in Dublin.

Alas, Joe will not be seeing Sophie again. On April 12, 2005, he was shot twice at close range with a sawed-off shotgun outside his home by a man who is known to be a member of the IRA and a prominent activist for Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing. The gunman’s point-blank shooting of Mr. Rafferty followed a six-month campaign of intimidation of the victim and his extended family, beginning in October of 2004 and lasting until Joe’s death. One Sunday last autumn, for example, the suspect threatened Joe that the “Ra” (shorthand for the IRA) will “put you in a van and bring you up the mountains,” which is code for the vicious punishment beatings the IRA systematically metes out to control Catholic enclaves, north and south of the border. Joe’s mother was told that the trouble would “end at your door.” Acid was sprayed on a family car and its windows shattered. And, Joe’s siblings were forewarned on several occasions that he would be killed. This was all for nothing more than a personal grudge some thug had against him.


Given the iron-fisted control it has over its members, the leadership of IRA/Sinn Fein would have been fully aware of how one of its own was targeting Joseph Rafferty. As Esther has commented, “The IRA has a communications network that is highly effective in every manner, horizontally and vertically.” The IRA godfathers, however, did nothing to halt the harassment. What is worse, today the organization is shielding the suspect from the Irish authorities, and has ordered its members not to cooperate with the Dublin police investigating Joe’s murder, even though the killer’s links to the IRA are common knowledge. In October, 2005, the Irish minister for justice, Michael McDowell, told the Irish senate that the “chief suspect in this case remains someone who would be regarded as a member of the IRA,” and he called this an instance of “cold-blooded murder.”

Joseph Rafferty’s family, including his sister, Esther, believes that justice will only be served once the person responsible for killing Joseph has been successfully prosecuted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Esther is, in short, an Irish Antigone, a fearless woman who is applying the eternal principles of morality to her brother’s tragic death. She has said that if she ever comes face-to-face with Gerry Adams, she will ask him when the leaders of IRA/Sinn Fein are “going to stop protecting murderers, when are they going to hand over the person who murdered Joseph, and when are they going to start telling the truth?”

Because this is unlikely to happen any time soon, the family is looking to those in positions of political power on both sides of the Atlantic to force the leaders of IRA/Sinn Fein to hand over the suspected killer and all of the related evidence in their possession. Esther and her relatives, including her sister and her brother-in-law, as well as Mr. Gary Keegan, a gutsy member of the Dublin City Council, have taken numerous steps to put pressure on IRA/Sinn Fein. The have held a series of meetings with Irish government officials, members of the media, several American politicians, and the Independent Monitoring Commission, which reports on the activities of paramilitary gangs in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Independent Monitoring Commission, in fact, confirmed in February that the killer of Joseph Rafferty is linked to the IRA. The leaders of IRA/Sinn Fein, though, remain uncooperative, thus casting themselves in the role of Kreon, the anti-democratic king of Thebes who ultimately wrought destruction all around him. A Dublin expert agrees with this comparison: Gerry Gregg, an Emmy Award-winning Irish filmmaker, has trenchantly remarked, “Democrats, after all, do not harbor murderers.”


Contrast IRA/Sinn Fein’s callous disregard for human life and the rule of law with the ethical and moral stance of the Bush Administration. The American Ambassador to Ireland, Mr. James Kenny, has lent his full support to the Rafferty family, meeting with them in Dublin on several occasions. Esther has spoken of the envoy’s humanity, noting that of all the people they have spoken to, Mr. Kenny “was the only person to ask how Joe’s little daughter, Sophie, was, how she was coping with losing her daddy. From then on I just knew he would help us in any way possible.”

In Washington, the Administration has announced that while the representatives of all Irish political parties have been invited to the White House on Saint Patrick’s Day, President Bush will hold a private audience not with the leaders of Sinn Fein, but with members of the Rafferty family. Esther Rafferty says that just “to be invited over is a bonus, but then to hear that we are also getting a private meeting with the President really conveys to us that he wants to help us. It’s great to see a President going out of his way to help, as we are only a dot in a very big ocean.” Ah, but here President Bush reveals his moral depth. He grasps how one of the fundamental lessons of Sophocles’ Antigone applies to this case: in a democracy the purpose of the state is to safeguard the dignity of each and every individual. This principle has inspired Western civilization since the time of the ancient Greeks themselves. Kreon incorrectly believed that the reverse was true: the individual must bend to an autocratic state. In our time, international terrorists, whether in Ireland, the Middle East, or Asia, embrace a modern, distorted version of the same: the individual must submit to the ideologies and organizations of terror.

President Bush hews to a different narrative, one that is in keeping with the finest traditions of Western political thought. He will vividly demonstrate his belief in the dignity of the individual on Saint Patrick’s Day, when he meets with the Rafferty family and other victims of Irish terrorism, including the sisters and mother of Robert McCartney, who, in an eerie prequel to Joseph Rafferty’s death, was viciously murdered by members of the IRA in Belfast in December of 2004. President Bush’s comportment will send the message that in a democracy it is the individual that matters most, that each and every victim of terrorism, whether in Dublin, New York, Baghdad, or Bali, has been subjected to evil forces contrary to the moral foundations of civilization.


At its core, this story, like the Sophocles play, is about a family coping with tragedy. It is a tale about a sister seeking a most human desire: justice for her brother. In one scene in Sophocles’ drama, Antigone speaks with her sister, Ismene, who is reluctant to defy Kreon’s edict against the burial of Polyneices. Ismene laments, “I cannot help, not when the whole country refuses to help.” In defiance Antigone responds, “I am different. I love my brother, and I am going to bury him, now.” When Ismene relents, and offers to assist in secret, Antigone exclaims, “No, shout it, proclaim it!”

The Rafferty family loves their brother, too. They shout their love for him. Like Antigone, Esther will not rest until he receives justice. This Saint Patrick’s Day, Americans face a choice: to follow President Bush’s humane example and help the Rafferty family shatter the wall of silence surrounding Joseph’s murder, or be cowed by the modern-day, Irish versions of Kreon, who, just as he did in Thebes, terrorize their people and deny justice to the innocent.

Joseph Morrison Skelly, a college professor in New York City, is the author of Irish Diplomacy at the United Nations, 1945 – 65, and editor of Ideas Matter: Essays in Honor of Conor Cruise O’Brien.


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