In a response to the revised version of my last blog published in the Irish Times, which began with a laudatory profile of Julie-Anne Corr Johnston of the Progressive Unionist Party, a reader called Joe Nolan chastised me in the following words: “This lady is no different to any of the innumerable young females canvassing for Sinn Fein in the upcoming general election. Yet one person is feted as the most impressive politician in 2015; the others are part of a political party demonised relentlessly in the media in this state and portrayed as an impediment to political progress on the island by many, including yourself.”
Because of that general election – expected within the next month at time of writing – this criticism forced me to think again about why I, and people like me, do ‘demonise’ Sinn Fein and see it as an impediment to political progress in Ireland.
First of all, as a former journalist who spent many years reporting from and working in the North, I have to admit to a grudging admiration for the Sinn Fein leadership, and particularly Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. These two men have shown huge leadership and vision in undertaking the extremely difficult task of persuading the Provisional IRA to make the transition from terrorist violence to democratic politics over a period of three decades and more. They are still playing a key role in that politics long after their co-authors of the Northern Ireland peace process – Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, David Trimble and John Hume – have left the stage.
And they have human qualities which are worthy of admiration. I remember Gerry Adams’ courage in going into the lion’s den of loyalist East Belfast to attend David Ervine’s funeral in 2007. He showed a different kind of courage when having to deal with child sex abuse accusations within his family at a particularly fraught time in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement. I have personally experienced Martin McGuinness’s courtesy and thoughtfulness, and listened to unionist-minded senior civil servants sing his praises for the same qualities.
But these men are not made of the same stuff as other democratic politicians – or leaders in any other area of Irish society. They have spent most of their lives as revolutionaries, wielding violence for political ends and taking enormous risks in the fanatical pursuit of their ultimate aim: Irish unity. I once recall asking McGuinness a question he didn’t like during an interview and to which he responded that I was ‘demonising’ the republican movement. I saw the flash of steel in his eyes and I remember thinking: “This is a man who has sent out men to kill people”.
That is at the core of what worries me as Sinn Fein stands ready to be in government in both parts of Ireland. How committed to democracy are their leaders? To what extent is Sinn Fein still run by a secretive and unaccountable cabal of senior republicans – most of them former members of the IRA army council? Is the thinking of these people still informed by the kind of ruthless militarism – or perhaps an equally ruthless Leninism – that sees the gaining of power by whatever means possible as the ultimate goal (or rather the penultimate goal)?
In the words one of the key architects of the peace process, Fianna Fail’s Martin Mansergh (in an interview in Deaglán de Breadún’s excellent book on the rise of Sinn Fein, Power Play): “The perception is that all the important decisions are taken by a kind of politburo, a group of eight to ten people. Adams and McGuinness don’t take decisions on their own. It’s not necessarily a fixed group. I am not convinced it’s formalised and it’s not the army council of old, as it includes people who were never involved in the IRA or are too young to have been involved; if it’s the army council, it’s a civilian version…The feeling that the Sinn Fein people sitting at the cabinet table wouldn’t actually have the power to make definitive and in principle irreversible decisions, that is what other parties would find uncomfortable about working with Sinn Fein.”
I also worry about a thuggish element I still see when I come across Sinn Fein marches in Dublin and border towns. The ghosts of Kevin ‘Jock’ Davison and Kevin McGuigan loom large. The sight of Adams praising former IRA chief of staff and criminal super-smuggler Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy is another troubling sign. Of course, I am now a middle class Dublin resident of a certain age (although unusual in coming from a Northern Protestant background) – but I am also a slightly disillusioned Labour Party supporter and would normally be looking for a party of the left to vote for. However nothing in my political, social and religious background would incline me to support Sinn Fein.
I would also disagree with them radically on how we should move towards a united Ireland. Given that the great majority of people in the Republic are not interested in this Sinn Fein article of faith if it means higher taxation or threats to social peace, the party will have a mountain to climb if and when they get into power here. As I have said many times in these columns, I believe the only kind of unity that will work will involve the real consent of a significant proportion of Northern unionists, and for that reason it remains a distant dream. Sinn Fein’s strategy comes out of a shorter-term realpolitik founded on demographics. It is based on the calculation that in the near future republicans and nationalists will have an electoral majority in Northern Ireland. This conveniently overlooks the fact that even 49% of the North’s population being virulently opposed to enforced unity is a recipe for only one thing – renewed conflict.
None of that will stop the current, largely Northern leadership. Their current aims are to become the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, thus entitling them to the First Minister’s job; and to hold the balance of power in the Dail (in an Irish Times interview last year Adams talked about the possibility of “a three or five party coalition”). If they get into office in both jurisdictions, their ministers will be able to meet each other in the context of the North South Ministerial Council, which they will present as a further step along the road to unity. Fresh pressure on the British for a Border Poll will be the next step.
Is the Southern electorate ready for all this? At a time of renewed if still fragile economic growth in the South (and an extremely uncertain international economic and political climate) and relative stability in the North, are they ready for the return to insecurity and destabilisation that these moves will cause? I think young people in particular are going to come out and vote Sinn Fein in numbers (as I might do if I was a young Dubliner with no knowledge of the North and a concern for equality and social justice). I only hope they don’t sleepwalk us into putting the party of the Provisional IRA into power.
P.S. Another interesting series of Thursday lunchtime talks (starting at 1 pm) – this time on aspects of Dublin life in 1916 – will take place in Dublin Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green over the next two months. On 25 February Padraig Yeates will open with ‘Political and social life in Dublin in 1916’; on 3 March Elaine Sisson will speak on ‘Irish education and Pearse’s St Enda’s school in 1916’; on 10 March Mary Muldowney will talk about ‘Women in work, trade unions and the Irish Citizen Army’; and the final talk on 24 March, by Martin Maguire, will be ‘Dublin Protestants and the Easter Rising’. Entry is free and all are welcome.