Eilis O'Hanlon: SF children fall for fairy tales of North
Instead of challenging dangerous nonsense about romantic Ireland, Mary Lou encourages it
Wikipedia is notorious for its errors, but the entry on Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald is particularly full of holes. It claims, for example, that Mary Lou was born in Dublin; that she went to Trinity College; and even that she was a member of Fianna Fail right up until the late Nineties – all of which is very odd, because when she went on Newstalk Breakfast last week to lambast those who "from the comfort of a perch far away from the streets of Belfast and Derry ... point the finger and preach at nationalist communities there and didn't lift a finger to intervene when they could", it would have been a natural conclusion of listeners unfamiliar with the history to presume that Ms McDonald was talking from personal experience. Otherwise where was this great moral authority to condemn outsiders who didn't understand the reality of the situation?
Instead it seems that she was one of those pampered Southerners too, raised far from the crucible of conflict.
The truth is that there's no need for anyone to speculate about what they personally would or would not have done had they been born in Northern Ireland during that period, because thousands of people actually were and what they did in response to the situation is on public record. And for all that the North saw some of the most vicious sectarian strife in Europe since the end of the Second World War, most people behaved remarkably well in appalling circumstances. They worked hard. They brought up their children. They tried, as best they could, to live decent lives. These people were not perpetrators. The luckiest were horrified spectators. The unluckiest, victims. Their reward has been to be written out of history.
Terrorism always was, and probably always will be, a minority sport. It couldn't work otherwise. The small class of terrorists need a larger class of victims otherwise the maths of murder just doesn't add up. The IRA had an extensive support network of people egging on each atrocity, but it never had anywhere near the level of support claimed for it in hindsight. Even after republicans decided to give the ballot box a go in the wake of the hunger strikes, the party still trailed the moderate SDLP by a significant margin in every single election – Westminster, European, local, and Assembly – until 2001.
The figures bear only one credible interpretation. SF support rose as a response to the diminishment of IRA violence, and in no way stands up as a retrospective justification for the campaign.
Huge numbers of those supporting SF these days are too young to understand this and have become perfect fodder for simplistic fairy tales about resistance. That goes for the candidates too. Look at the faces on the posters from the recent elections. Most of us from the North have clothes that are older than some of these candidates. Who are these people? Where have they come from?
What's undeniable is that they have little, if any, personal experience of the conflict. All they have to go on are myths peddled to them by the old-timers, which are invariably accepted without question by a party still in the grip of hero worship.
That's why, in many ways, figures such as Mary Lou are much more troubling even than Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Men like that know what they did, for all that they might sugarcoat their own histories for public consumption; but in order to make the sugar stick, they need an intellectual Praetorian guard of articulate, personable proxies to do their dirty work for them. Who better than the sort of nice, middle class, university educated people who go on demos to protest when the guards are overheard making a joke about rape, but make excuses for brutal Latin American regimes whose police actually do commit mass rape, as long as the dictators proclaim themselves to be socialists?
Mary Lou is the current darling of this demographic, and Gerry needs her far more than she needs him. It doesn't hurt either that she's such a passionately impressive politician. She makes Adams look like a bumbling amateur in the Dail. She's so bullish in the face of criticism that finance spokesman Pearse Doherty is practically a shy retiring wallflower in comparison. But she does so whilst also maintaining an essential air of unknowability.
Part of that is because she's a woman, and women are mysterious even to each other in a way that men will never be. But there's something else going on there too. Of all the current crop of politicians, she is surely the hardest to read. She talks slowly, considering each word in a way that is unusual for professional politicians, who tend to talk as a substitute for, rather than as an expression of, thinking. Of all the SF representatives, Mary Lou seems the one most naturally suited to executive power, but she remains untrustworthy partly because she will keep peddling these childish fantasies about the North, either out of personal loyalty to Adams, or because she really believes it. Who knows?
Whatever her motivation, her rhetorical capability is being put to the service of untruth right now. SF does have "dark questions to answer" about its past, as Joan Burton said on Newstalk, and Mary Lou has no right to try and suppress them, or claim first dibs over her rivals on all issues relating to Northern Ireland simply because she belongs to a party with elected representatives on both sides of the Border. In fact, that makes her duty not to promote politically-convenient amnesia all the more onerous, because people die for fairy tales. Instead of challenging that dangerous nonsense about romantic Ireland, she encourages it.
Last week she even retweeted a video first posted by her party leader, featuring a young poet from Leitrim called Stephen Murphy, who, in an angry rap based on Yeats' iconic September 1913, wonders what all the traumas of Irish history have been for. Was it for the bankers? Was it for the speculators? Was it for Bertie and Biffo? Even the "hipsters" with their lattes and skinny jeans get it in the neck. As a poem, it ultimately falls short because it's self-righteous rather than self-critical. There's none of Yeats' honest disquiet about the "delirium of the brave". Of course, it would appeal to Adams and his dutiful retweeters, because it doesn't challenge their sentimental codology, but reinforces it.
There's no one better than the SF deputy leader at harvesting the energy of disillusioned young people; but she's too intelligent not to understand that such heightened youthful idealism can crumble into despair as easily as it soars to hope. They deserve better than a Pied Piper leading them astray with blarney. If Joan Burton has no right to opine on the North in its darkest days, because she wasn't there, then nor does Mary Lou, because she wasn't there either. If she had been, maybe she'd now be less gullible when Gerry starts waxing lyrical about the old days.