I have been working hard to overcome my hostility to Sinn Fein, recognising that after last month’s election they are now the party with the largest popular vote in the republic (although still only 24.5% of first preferences). I take the point, voiced by unionists as well as nationalists, that it is complete hypocrisy for the Southern constitutional parties to insist that the unionist parties share power with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, while they refuse even to talk to them. However, before I can have any real trust in them I need Sinn Fein to do three things.
Firstly, I know the IRA army council has existed for nearly a hundred years and arrogates to itself (for many years claiming absurdly and obscenely to speak for the Irish people) the right to declare war or peace (usually with the help of a so-called ‘general army convention’). We know from both the PSNI and the Garda Siochana that this army council still exists. What is its role? Does it oversee and dictate to Sinn Fein? We don’t know. I notice, disturbingly, that one of the members of Sinn Fein’s delegation for inter-party talks is Belfast man Martin Lynch, who is widely believed in the North to be the current chief of staff of the IRA. What is he doing there among all those elected politicians?
Wouldn’t it be timely for Mary Lou McDonald to announce that the IRA army council has abolished itself, on the grounds that the need for any kind of republican ‘army’ has gone, now that Sinn Fein, in obedience to the new Article 3 of the Irish Constitution (supported by over 94% of voters in this republic in 1998), has dedicated itself to peaceful methods to achieve Irish unification – now and for ever more?
Secondly, I need to know before Sinn Fein become part of the government of this country, that they explicitly recognise and respect our Constitution, including that new Article 3: that Irish unity will come about “in harmony and friendship” and “only by peaceful means”.
Recognising the Constitution also involves recognising the name of the country: Ireland (in the English language). It would be grotesque if we were to be represented abroad by a government which could not bring itself to use the internationally recognised name of the state, insisting on meaningless appellations like the ‘South of Ireland’. Why can’t Sinn Fein end this misuse of language once and for all by announcing that their central aim is to bring about, by peaceful means, the unity of the two acknowledged jurisdictions that are currently called ‘Ireland’ and ‘Northern Ireland’?
Thirdly, and most importantly, I need to hear the leaders of Sinn Fein express some genuine regret for the 3,600 deaths during the 1969-1998 Northern Ireland ‘troubles’. In an Irish Times podcast before the election Micheál Martin pointed to the party’s absolute lack of contrition: “Sinn Féin’s justification for the IRA’s war is a continuing one. There never has really been any contrition, and also to a large extent they want to shove down the throats of a new generation a narrative about the atrocities that were carried out which in my view serves to poison future generations.”¹
In a Dail speech on 20 February the Fianna Fail leader illustrated the Sinn Fein leadership’s ambivalence to IRA violence by citing the case of the current Northern Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, who was in the pub in the Belfast Markets area in 2005 when Robert McCartney was stabbed and beaten to death by a group of IRA men. She claimed “not to have noticed”: apparently she was one of the 70 people who saw nothing because they were in the toilet at the time!
The nearest Mary Lou McDonald comes to contrition is to say “the war is over.” I suspect there is little or no contrition or regret in Sinn Fein for the Provisional IRA’s ‘armed struggle’. I suspect Waterford TD David Cullinane’s triumphant election night shout of ‘Up the RA!” and his election agent’s claim that “we broke the bastards; we broke the Free State” are more likely to be the common, although now politically incorrect, sentiments in private party meetings up and down the country. When you’re winning electorally, under a skilled and attractive leader like McDonald (already universally and warmly known as Mary Lou), you don’t need the bloody militarism of the past any more.
My fear is the republican version of the North’s recent history – that all those deaths were unfortunate but necessary collateral damage in a ‘just war’ for a united Ireland – will over the years, as Sinn Fein moves into government and we move towards unity, become the accepted version. It is, after all, the winners of wars who write their history. It will be only too easy for republicans (as they have done for the past hundred years) to write unionists out of Irish history, and to claim that what happened in the North – where the IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British Army, the RUC and the UDR combined – was only the final episode in the age-old struggle between oppressed little Ireland and the bullying imperialist overlord next door.
This will not be helped by Brexit and the growth of English nationalism, which has fuelled a movement whose ultimate end will, I believe, be the break-up of the UK and a sharp move to the right in our neighbouring country. Nationalism always needs somebody to hate. The highly regarded left-wing English writer Paul Mason has warned that after Brexit “what [Boris] Johnson intends to deliver…is an intensified culture war, in which the EU and its institutions are depicted as the external, and migrants the internal, threat.”²
The external threat will presumably include Ireland. This is territory Sinn Fein feels comfortable in, and will return like with like. The belief that all the evil in Ireland comes from England (or Britain) has a long history, and the response over the past 150 years and more has often been “to burn everything English except its coal.”
However, this is not just about the past. If we are to manage the continuing problem that is the deeply divided North, we are going to have to work with the British, not against them. The most benign time in Anglo-Irish relations since independence was the 1998-2016 period – between the Good Friday Agreement and the Brexit referendum – when the two governments worked hand-in-hand to deal with the many problems thrown up by the difficult ‘stop-start’ implementation of that historic accord. That seeped down through the devolved institutions to the ordinary people. We had the Queen’s hugely successful visit to Ireland; the ‘chuckle brothers’ relationship between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness; north-south cooperation at unprecedented levels; and the beginning of a slow thaw in the great iceberg of sectarianism that is community relations in the North. All that was brought to a halt by the tragedy of Brexit and the return of the Northern parties to their tribal trenches.
We are still going to have to work with the British if we want any kind of slow, civilised, peaceful movement towards unity. One of the lessons of the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s is that when there is mutual mistrust and suspicion between Dublin and London, the poison deepens in the North. The alternative – not unattractive to more unthinking elements in the republican movement – would be a unilateral British withdrawal, with the deeply untrustworthy Johnson in the role of De Gaulle in Algeria in the early 1960s, and a return to widescale violence leading to a pied noirs-type flight of hundreds of thousands of bitter and abandoned Northern unionists to England and Scotland. Given the constitutional uncertainty now in prospect on the other side of the Irish Sea – notably the probable growth in post-Brexit support for Scottish independence – this is not necessarily a dystopian fantasy.
I have noticed among some Dublin friends a new hard-edged nationalism caused by successive British governments’ twists and turns over Brexit, culminating in the coming to power of the perfidious Boris. This, I believe, will only increase if Sinn Fein gets into power and such sentiments get official blessing.
For there is a xenophobic element in Irish republicanism too. I only hope the generous spirit of Leitrim TD Martin Kenny – who bravely stood out against protests at the impending arrival of a small number of asylum seekers in Ballinamore – will prevail over the weird ultra-nationalism of new Kildare TD, Réada Cronin, who had to apologise for a re-tweet echoing the old anti-Semitic canard that Hitler was a pawn of the Rothschild banking clan. Fintan O’Toole’s revelation that one of Mary Lou McDonald’s first outings as a Sinn Fein speaker was at a 2003 commemoration for Sean Russell, the 1940 IRA chief of staff and Nazi collaborator, wasn’t exactly reassuring in this context.³
I have to say I share the deep doubts about Sinn Fein voiced by Micheál Martin, a politician in an almost impossible position (if he wants to be Taoiseach), faced with the Hobson’s choice of the former party of the IRA or a discredited Fine Gael as his government partner. As an avid student of (and former participant in) Northern politics and history, he will remember several examples of bad faith by Sinn Fein (and the IRA) at key points in the peace process: notably at the end of 1999 when they totally undermined David Trimble by giving Senator George Mitchell the impression that the start of IRA arms decommissioning was imminent, when in fact it did not begin for another 21 months.
However, I have also met some generous, open-minded republicans in recent years: Martin McGuinness, a person with extraordinary human qualities of empathy and consideration for others; the former NI education minister John O’Dowd, now sidelined after challenging Michelle O’Neill for the Northern leadership; the former Belfast Lord Mayor Tom Hartley and the Donegal TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn. As I said, I am trying my best to be less hostile to Sinn Fein…trying hard if not always succeeding.
² ‘With the UK’s European door closed, it’s open season for xenophobia’, Social Europe, 24 February 2020
³ ‘The enigma of Mary Lou McDonald’, Irish Times, 15 February 2020