SF won't be credible until it shakes off the mantras from old days of State subversion
Published 12/02/2016 | 02:30
No one should minimise the journey travelled by Irish republicans from war to politics. It has been a spectacular example of transition from all-out armed struggle against British military might and state security agencies to a gradual engagement, negotiations and, ultimately, a political settlement. The peace process, and Sinn Féin's contribution to it, has transformed Northern Ireland and delivered a comprehensive settlement ending the vexed quarrel between the UK and Ireland over the North.
Sinn Féin, in power-sharing government in Northern Ireland since 2007, has also become a significant political player in the Republic with a mandate for its radical leftist policies. But its advance electorally in the south, while impressive, is regularly interrupted by the party's collision with its own legacy issues. The controversy over the Special Criminal Court is just the latest.
For years, retention of weapons held back Sinn Féin's political advance, at least in the Republic. But it was strategic. However unpalatable in a democracy, Sinn Féin leveraged many concessions over the years of the peace process by retention of a massive arsenal. Its participation in talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was meant to be on the basis of permanent ceasefire and commitment to exclusively peaceful means. But there were breaches of ceasefires by paramilitary groups on both sides. The problem was that decommissioning of weapons was seen by Sinn Féin/IRA as an outcome of a final settlement rather than as a precondition for negotiations or progress in the talks. Indeed, ambiguity on weapons decommissioning was a major flaw in the Good Friday Agreement, but it was the best that could be extracted by the governments from Sinn Féin negotiators. So unionists led by David Trimble had to make do with vague language that weapons would be "put beyond use" in the future and side letters from then British PM Tony Blair.