This week I watched two depressing and disturbing videos which reveal the huge gulf of mutual misunderstanding, ignorance and loathing that continue to exist between the peoples of this island. The first was a 46-second clip from the front runner for the leadership of the DUP, Edwin Poots. Poots is a ‘creationist’ (who believes the earth was formed 6,000 years ago, rather than the 4.5 billion years ago that science tells us), an opponent of gay marriage and an unashamedly sectarian politician who has stated that the incidence of Covid-19 was six times higher in Catholic areas. He is happy to undermine 23 years of hard-won cross-border relationships by boycotting the North-South institutions of the Good Friday Agreement as part of a futile campaign to undo the Northern Ireland Protocol to the UK-EU trade agreement.
Unsurprisingly, in his video Poots never mentions division or conflict in Northern Ireland, nor the urgent need to make the North a warmer house for nationalists if unionists are to have any chance of keeping the province in the UK. Such people appear not to matter to him. He seems intent on appealing to the old fundamentalist core of the DUP, those who are hard right in politics, religion and culture, and who are seen outside the North as hopeless, backward-looking dinosaurs. People at the more open-minded end of the party hope against hope that Poots will prove more pragmatic if he gets to lead the next government (pointing out that it was he and Simon Hamilton who negotiated a package with Sinn Fein to get back into government in February 2018 – a package that was scuttled by their party’s MLAs on the grounds that it included an Irish Language Act).
These people would prefer Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as the ‘continuity candidate’ to follow Arlene Foster’s slightly more progressive and flexible line. But continuity is probably the last thing many in the party’s tiny electoral college (i.e. its Assembly members and Westminster parliamentarians) want after Foster’s error-strewn five and a half years. The likelihood of Donaldson, as the more presentable and slightly more centrist candidate, winning is lessened by what one close observer of the party calls the “mood of irrationality” among unionists about what can be achieved to unravel the Protocol.
The second video was the more alarming of the two. It is a slick and professional production glorifying the memory of Provisional IRA man Seamus McElwain, who was shot dead by the SAS while on ‘active service’ on the Monaghan-Fermanagh border 35 years ago last month. He was, the video informs us, “the most feared volunteer” in the south Fermanagh region, so notorious that British soldiers carried a photo of him on their rifle butts. He was sentenced to two life terms for the murder of members of the locally recruited security forces, UDR corporal and farmer Aubrey Abercrombie as he drove his tractor and RUC reserve constable Ernest Johnston outside his home. He was part of the mass Maze prison escape in 1983.
Eulogising McElwain on the video, Monaghan Sinn Fein TD Matt Carthy said he was an “intelligent, humorous, engaging young man”, widely held in “huge esteem and regard.” His brother Sean said he was “the kind-hearted, good-natured older brother that everyone would love to have.” He was a “perfect son” to his parents and “lit up many a room with his smile and quick wit…Seamus died so our children could have a better life.” He said it was the duty of Irish republicans to play their part in finishing what McElwain and his “fellow patriots” had set out to achieve. “We can agree on one thing, we’re all looking for a united Ireland and the time is now. The opportunity is here, and by working together we can build this new Ireland, the Irish Republic which Seamus died for.”
Travel a few miles across the border (a million miles in terms of consciousness) and you meet Kenny Donaldson, a thoroughly decent young Border Protestant who heads the (mainly unionist) victims group, the South East Fermanagh Foundation, and who has a starkly different view of McElwain. Pointing out that most of his victims were off-duty members of the security forces, Donaldson goes on: ” It was a hallmark of Mr McElwain’s approach that he murdered when those innocents were at their most vulnerable. Seamus McElwain is linked to circa 25-28 murders; he was a ruthless and psychotic terrorist”. Both Arlene Foster and the RUC believed McElwain was one of the gang who shot her father John Kelly, a farmer and reserve policeman, in the head (he survived) in an attack at his home in 1979.
South of the border, according to that most well-informed of commentators, Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy, the Sinn Fein narrative of the Northern conflict as “a noble and justified struggle for human rights quietly advances.”1 Leahy recognises and then dismisses unionist concerns. If Sinn Fein was leading the government in Dublin, he asks: “Would the Seamus McElwain commemorations become State events, or at least events honoured by the presence of ministers of the government? That – and what it represents – is the smouldering fear of unionists, beyond Brexit, beyond border checks, beyond the Irish language and all the rest of it. I think it is far fetched to be honest. But the fear is real.”
You can say that again. As a Northern Protestant who lived through the ‘troubles’ and is a proud citizen of this republic, I share that fear. Leahy is depressingly sanguine about the takeover of Irish commemoration and memory by Sinn Fein’s simplistic and one-sided narrative, which is deeply inimical to any coming together of the peoples of this island. “Irish politics will have to accept Sinn Fein’s ancestor worship; it is integral to the party’s identity, “he writes.
I believe Leahy’s predecessor as political editor, Stephen Collins, is closer to the dangerous truth when he writes that Sinn Fein continues to be “no ordinary party.”2 “[Matt] Carthy’s eulogy for McElwain should put paid to the naive notion that the Sinn Fein leadership is somehow trapped into an unwilling defence of the IRA because of old loyalties that have no great relevance to current politics. The fact of the matter is that Sinn Fein was, and remains, the political mouthpiece of the IRA. That is the fundamental reason for its existence. Carthy made no bones about it in his address last Monday evening, saying: ‘Seamus and all those who fought for Irish freedom continue to inspire us.”
But as Leahy says, for young people who vote Sinn Fein in the South “it is all ancient history anyway. Efforts to remind voters of the ‘armed struggle’ by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail tend to fall flat.” Sinn Fein are surely marching on to lead the next government in Dublin and it will be the folly of young, ‘north blind’ people who will put them there. That doesn’t lessen the duty of those of us who are older and wiser, who remember the awfulness of the Northern ‘troubles’, to keep reminding our younger fellow citizens that the relentless Sinn Fein campaign for an early Border Poll leading (they hope) to unity, is the one thing likely to re-ignite that conflict. In a Belfast Sunday Life poll last weekend (the usual warnings apply) 90% of unionists believed that “the prospect of a united Ireland could jeopardise peace on the island of Ireland”, as did 68% of Northerners as a whole and 62% of Southerners.
In an intelligent article last weekend, former Belfast Telegraph editor, Gail Walker, despaired of Edwin Poots becoming DUP leader and put the view of the ordinary, thoughtful unionist. “The Union needs to build allies. Not everybody content with the Union is a unionist. That may seem paradoxical, but it’s quite possible to have long-term aspirations which don’t involve the Union yet find it attractive in the interests of peace, stability, prosperity, opportunity. We already know that Northern Ireland has managed to gain levels of consent among nationalists. As Arlene Foster said in her resignation speech, there are people with ‘a British identity, others are Irish, others are Northern Irish, others are a mixture of all three and some are new and emerging.” She concluded that there was a significant section of the population in the North which had “modernised its sense of identity.”
But where are the strong moderate voices articulating this in politics? Why do Northern voters have a choice between a formerly violent ultra-nationalist cult (only recent converts to democracy, and then largely for tactical reasons) and a party of hard right religious bigots and British empire loyalists? Maybe in the next few years Alliance, with its impressive left-of-centre leader Naomi Long, will attract enough unionist voters to become a real electoral force (between the 2017 and 2019 elections it took 18% of DUP voters away from that party). Maybe the SDLP’s revival at the expense of Sinn Fein in Derry (where that party appears to have imploded) and in South Belfast will continue.
But what about the Republic, where Sinn Fein often seems to have undisputed ownership of the ‘national question’? Micheál Martin is doing his best with his embryonic Shared Island initiative, although at the moment it seems to be at the level of ‘talking shop’ events and ‘scoping studies’, and media interest in it is underwhelming. At the same time, absolutely the wrong message was sent by the failure of the two main constitutional parties to support the liberal South Armagh unionist Ian Marshall in his bid for a Seanad seat – for the second time.
As usual, Fine Gael seem to have no ideas. Would it be a good idea for the smart young Dun Laoghaire TD, Neale Richmond, who comes from a Church of Ireland background, to be appointed as a junior minister with a brief to come up with a new long-term political strategy to complement the Taoiseach’s largely economic ideas on bringing the two parts of the island together in as mutually acceptable a way as possible? In a future blog I will suggest some thought-provoking ideas on what might be included in such a strategy.
One of the problems is poor leadership. I simply don’t trust the present generation of political leaders – whether Boris Johnson in London, Mary Lou McDonald and Leo Varadkar in Dublin, Michelle O’Neill and Edwin Poots (!) in Belfast – to have the kind of wisdom and statesmanship to move us peacefully to the next phase of this island’s too often bloody history. Those brave leaders of yesteryear – Hume and Mallon and Ahern and Blair and Trimble and Ervine and Adams and McGuinness and Mowlam and Mitchell and Clinton – are long gone. As that great Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping once said, disputes that can’t be resolved except by war should be left to wiser generations. Maybe the next generation of politicians in Ireland will be wiser.
In the meantime, I would echo former Tánaiste Michael McDowell, a sensible centrist when it comes to Northern Ireland, writing this week: “Sadly, polarised politics rather than reconciliation is the current coinage. The North badly needs a decade of political quietude and conciliation.”3
1 ‘DUP can see the future, but cannot face it’, 1 May
2 ‘McElwain tribute shows Sinn Fein is no ordinary party’, 30 April
3 ‘The North needs reconciliation, not a referendum’, Irish Times, 5 May