Earlier this month Mary Lou McDonald denied that the deletion of thousands of Sinn Fein press statements going back over 20 years represented an attempt to cover-up the party’s ‘soft’ position on Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The Sinn Fein leader had brazenly jumped that ship shortly after the invasion, leading the calls for the expulsion of the Russian ambassador to Ireland.
However as far back as 2015 Sinn Fein’s four MEPs abstained in a European Parliament resolution that condemned human rights abuses in Russia and criticised Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. In December Chris McManus, now the party’s sole representative in the parliament, voted against a resolution that supported Ukraine’s independence, stated that Putin’s military build-up at Ukraine’s borders represented a threat to Europe’s peace and security and called on Russia to respect its international obligations. McManus has abstained or voted against six European Parliament resolutions critical of Russia since 2020.1
We can expect a lot more rewriting of recent history – Irish history – if and when Sinn Fein gets into power in Dublin. The Provisional IRA’s 30-year campaign of violence will be rewritten as an unavoidable consequence of the peaceful civil rights movement in Northern Ireland when faced with the repressive Northern state. Multiple killers of off-duty policemen and UDR men like Seamus McElwaine and Francis Hughes will be portrayed as glorious heroes. And most importantly of all, the IRA’s campaign will be justified as the legitimate and righteous continuation of the 1916-1921 War of Independence against the British occupier, completing the unfinished business of winning Irish freedom, unity and sovereignty.
Many people in the Republic of Ireland will be open to this interpretation. Republicanism is a kind of underlying orthodoxy in Southern society. A lot of people in this state, notably Fianna Fail followers and supporters of left-wing parties, proudly call themselves republicans or republican socialists. In this period of centennial commemorations, many – perhaps most – people here find it easier to identify with the uncompromising Irish republicans of that era than with supporters of the compromising Irish Free State or John Redmond’s peaceful Irish Parliamentary Party (people like this are always in danger of being demonised as ‘free staters’,’shoneens’ or ‘west Brits’). With Fianna Fail now discredited after having spent too much of the past century in government, this adds up to one more psychological advantage for Sinn Fein.
Republican assumptions and language are shared by those who would never call themselves supporters of the Provisional IRA. You can see it in the small things. I am starting to see apolitical theatre reviewers refer to IRA prisoners in the Maze, who may have been convicted killers, as ‘political prisoners’, and a part-time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment as a ‘terrorist.’ The liberal intelligentsia is particularly guilty here: acquaintances of mine inveigh against the former Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris, a fierce critic of the IRA, with a vitriol they would never use against Gerry Adams or Mary Lou McDonald. With prominent anti-IRA voices like Harris, Kevin Myers and Professor John A. Murphy silenced by death or disgrace, there are few people left in the media and public life to take on the now ascendant Sinn Fein champions of republican violence.
It may not be politically correct these days, but it is worth reminding people forcefully of the extent of that violence. Between 1971 and 1998 the Provisional IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British army, the RUC and the UDR combined. Of the 1771 people they killed, 636 were uninvolved civilians. I’m going to repeat that in bold. Between 1971 and 1998 the Provisional IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British army, the RUC and the UDR combined. Of the 1771 people they killed, 636 were uninvolved civilians. Is there any other ‘freedom struggle’ in recent world history where the forces of ‘freedom’ killed nearly five times more people than the repressive state forces facing them? A Northern friend from a security force background has estimated that there are over 400,000 people with some past or present connection with the security forces in Northern Ireland – and the majority of them have the most vivid recollection of relatives, friends and comrades who were killed and injured by the IRA. Does that affect their view of Sinn Fein and its policy of driving on to an early united Ireland? You bet it does.
Which brings me to an interesting long article in the New York Review of Books this month.2 Because if Fianna Failers and Irish left-wingers are susceptible to Sinn Fein’s propaganda (and Irish republicans are world-class propagandists), that is doubly or trebly so for many (perhaps most) Irish-Americans, who support the IRA because it aims to drive the British out of Ireland, and most European leftists, who admire the IRA as Europe’s very own anti-imperialist guerrilla force. One rarely hears a well-argued contrary view in Europe or the United States. However the novelist Nick Laird, born and reared in Tyrone, has provided one in his excoriating review in that prestigious US publication of a new three volume collection of photographs of Northern Ireland – Whatever you Say, Say Nothing – by the celebrated French photographer of the ‘Troubles’, Gilles Peress, a former president of the Magnum photo agency, and now professor of human rights and photography at Bard College, New York, and senior research fellow at the Human Rights Centre at Berkeley University.
Laird is damning of the partiality and prejudice of this mighty photo collection and its accompanying text, most of it by Peress’s collaborator, an American lawyer called Chris Klatell. Both both Peress and Klatell are unashamed supporters of the IRA. For example, Klatell is happy to quote An Phoblacht, the Sinn Fein newspaper, as his source for an account of the disputed killing of IRA men by the SAS; and to describe two men as having been killed “on active service” when the bomb they were making exploded prematurely. Apart from other photographers, those thanked by Peress in the acknowledgements for “their hospitality, generosity and advice” are nearly all IRA members and Republican activists.
Laird calls the book “deeply partial, and by turns incomplete, ill-informed, outdated and patronizing.” He gives many examples of this. Here are two: Klatell describes Francis Hughes, who was to die in the 1981 Maze prison hunger strike, as “a charismatic and tenacious young member of the Provisional IRA referred to as the ‘most wanted man in the North of Ireland.’ The authorities captured him in a ditch after a shoot-out with the SAS, looking like a rock star with dyed blonde hair even though he was gravely injured.” What Klatell doesn’t mention is that “Hughes was convicted of killing three people and reputedly killed more than a dozen, with some sources alleging he was responsible for at least 30 deaths. Among the deaths he was linked to were those of a 77-year-old grandmother and a 10-year-old girl.”
Here is a second. “Klatell recounts Peress describing how, back in 1985, Daithi de Paor, an IRA man, had told him a story of the IRA bombing a costume shop: ‘For some reason, or maybe for no reason, the Volunteers decided they had an issue with the Indian man who owned the costume shop’ and decided to blow it up. After setting the bomb on the counter they drove away, but saw in the rearview mirror ‘the fucking Indian guy, calmly carrying the bomb out of his shop and chucking it into the street.’ So the following week they went into the shop, ‘froze the owner at gunpoint, and glued the bomb to the counter. Then they all stood round in awkward silence, holding the bomb down, waiting for the glue to dry.’ After recounting this story, Peress laughed. ‘No one else did. That’s a terrible story, they said. What happened to the poor Indian man who owned the shop?’ Gilles looked around in puzzlement. ‘That story wasn’t about the man who owned the shop’, he said. ‘It was about the glue.”
Laird concludes: “Realizing that murdering an immigrant for ‘some reason, or maybe for no reason’ might strike readers as despicable, Klatell tries here to put some daylight between himself and Peress, though with its black humour, casual gangsterism and purposeless violence this anecdote is somehow one of the truest things in the book.”
Klatell cannot imagine a Northern Protestant sensibility that is “anything other than grotesque”, says Laird. “Orange marches are ‘sadistic victory parades of the Prods, ecstatic in their imposition of humiliation’. To many people, not just Protestants, this might seem not only a caricature but a gross misrepresentation.”
Laird concludes that “among Americans the list of useful idiots for the Irish Republican cause is long, and Klatell, though he has clearly steeped himself in the history and culture of the North, has also, in the end, let himself be a tool of violent Republicanism. He is attempting to cement a story that simply isn’t true, the reality being more complicated and demanding than his scrapbook admits.
“It is, of course, possible to believe in the inevitability and desirability of a united Ireland without supporting or romanticising Irish Republicanism. It is possible to think that partition was a disaster and that Northern Ireland practised systematic discrimination against its Catholic minority for many years, while also refusing to justify, glorify or accommodate the horrific actions of Republicanism. That’s why the Social Democratic and Labour Party exists – to advocate for Irish reunification, though it has been largely eclipsed by Sinn Fein.”
Seamus Heaney is invoked repeatedly in these volumes. “What is missing is Heaney’s sense of a morally complicated place, a location where no one was exactly right but some were clearly wrong: ‘My sympathy was not with the IRA, but it wasn’t with the Thatcher government either”, the great poet wrote during the 1981 hunger strike. Laird recommends reading another engrossing book by an American observer of the North, which takes its title from the same Heaney poem as Peress’s collection: Say Nothing, by the New Yorker journalist Patrick Radden Keefe. Laird calls this a “masterpiece, and one of the best introductions you’ll find to the twisted state of Northern Ireland.” I could not agree more.
1 Elaine Loughlin, ‘Sinn Fein’s soft stance on Russia is clearly on the record’, Irish Examiner, 1st March
2 ‘Partial Reports’, New York Review of Books, 10th March