The Middle East with a northern accent
When republicans take up the cause of Gaza, writes Eilis O'Hanlon, they're really fighting a battle closer to home
Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30
Bertie Ahern is never asked to comment on what should be done with the Irish economy. It would never even occur to anyone in the Irish media to ask him to do so, because Fianna Fail is generally seen as having been responsible for the financial crash which brought the country to its knees.
Probably unfairly. There's not a single politician in Ireland who wouldn't have ridden the pig's back the way that Fianna Fail did. They may have spent the lolly which came from the property boom differently - People Before Profit, for example, might have bought everyone on social welfare their own jacuzzi - but none of them would have cut off the supply.
Stamp duty alone was bringing in so much cash that it must have seemed as if King Midas had taken up residence in the Department of Finance and was turning everything he touched into gold. Once it dried up, they'd all have been faced with the same impossible problem of how to bridge the Micawberish gap between income and outgoings, and we'd still be up to our oxters in debt.
Either way, the point remains: Bertie appearing on TV and radio to discuss the Irish economy is about as likely as Shane MacGowan being asked how to look after your teeth. Yet no one in the Irish media seems to consider it at all peculiar right now that Gerry Adams is being regularly invited to pontificate about the conflict in the Middle East.
Sinn Fein is the second or third most popular party in the State, depending on the latest opinion polls, and no doubt the party's supporters are waiting eagerly at home by their wirelesses to hear the latest thoughts of Chairman Adams and company. None the less, one would think, just once, that someone would interrupt Gerry Adams as he goes off on a spiel about the immorality of using bombs on civilians to ask how he squares this in his own head with being leader of an organisation which did just that, for nearly 30 years, before finally stopping and giving democratic politics a go.
Yet when Adams also responds to the gaoling of Ivor Callely by pontificating on "the need to keep our politics and public life under continuous scrutiny", no one even cracks a smile, much less asks the obvious question. Scrutiny, is it? Some might say that scrutiny starts at home. Similarly when Drivetime decides to get Padraig Mac Lochlainn TD on the line to talk about the publication of a report criticising the Department of Justice for having a "closed and secretive" culture, no one ever says: "Hey. Padraig, I know a closed and secretive organisation we could talk about"
Senator Kathryn Reilly was at it too, when, speaking during the recall of the Seanad, she insisted that Ireland should not "buy and sell military equipment with a country that is massacring civilians". You mean, as the IRA did when it took receipt of massive arms importations, including RPGs, and flamethrowers, from regimes with such a delicate concern for the human rights of civilians as Libya under Colonel Gadaffi (Lockerbie, anyone?) - or when it bought guns from arms dealers in the US with links to organised crime, not a bunch of lads known for their humanitarianism.
When Sinn Fein speaks on events such as those in the Middle East, the important thing to remember is that is not simply detached humanitarianism. Gail Walker, Belfast Telegraph deputy editor and columnist, put it best recently: When someone from Northern Ireland tells you what they think about the Middle East, they're not really telling you what they think about the Middle East, they're telling you what they think about Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein's rage against Israel is merely another manifestation of its rage against Britain. They think of Israel as a land of settlers, with no right to be there, imposed on a native people, the Palestinians, by a vindictive colonial power. Sound familiar?
When Padraig Mac Lochlainn, speaking at the protest outside the Dail calling for the Irish government to expel the Israeli ambassador, talks of an "oppressed people beaten down for decades", it's not a picture of dusty streets in Palestine that he's conjuring in the crowd's mind but one of the back streets of Belfast and Derry. Senator David Cullinan even called for a "peace process based around justice" in Gaza. Peace with justice? Now where did we hear that slogan before?
Morally speaking, Sinn Fein sees itself as the Irish version of the Palestinians. Mac Lochlainn made that clear at the same rally. "We in Ireland know all about our history." He even name-dropped the 1916 Proclamation. Adams, meanwhile, issued another statement on Gaza which made play of the fact it was the 17th anniversary of the IRA ceasefire. They're not drawing these analogies by accident.
What they're saying when they declare that Israel is wrong now is that they, Irish republicans, were right back in the day. But the most interesting thing about any conflict, is when one of the players is prepared to say: We were wrong.
Sinn Fein only came in from the political cold when it finally realised that its central aim - the expulsion of the British presence in Ireland and the establishment of a socialist republic against the wishes of a million unionists - was, quite literally, unachievable. Most people with a functioning brain in the North had realised this all along, but republicans were, to use Seamus Mallon's famous phrase, "slow learners". If they have anything to teach Hamas, it's that it can never make peace or achieve anything for the Palestinian people until it recognises that the state of Israel is there to stay.
But Sinn Fein won't say what real friends should be prepared to say to one another, preferring instead to maintain a comic-book version of the Middle East - with Mac Lochlain telling Palestinians at that rally, for instance, that "we will never stop until you have your freedom".
The message it's giving out is: See what colonial settlers do to the native people and how right the natives are to fight back. But Sinn Fein did stop before Ireland had its own "freedom", as it would see it. That's the real lesson it has to teach Hamas, not a futile one of resistance.
It's easy to call for sanctions against Israel or the expulsion of ambassadors, when such actions would have no consequences for Sinn Fein. Harder to do so when there would be a price to pay. Sinn Fein never turned down a single invitation to the White House when the US-led "war on terror" was killing more civilians than Israel ever did. Any of their concerns about US policy were tempered by the knowledge that many Irish Americans wouldn't have taken kindly to Sinn Fein criticising the US post-9/11 and would have expressed dissatisfaction by closing their wallets. Jewish-Americans, though, don't support Sinn Fein, and therefore aren't a cause for worry. That seems to be the general thinking. That's not leadership, it's populist self-indulgence.
By treating Adams in particular as if he was a disinterested observer of world affairs, when Sinn Fein is simply using the issue as a retrospective endorsement of its own brutal conflict, RTE is contributing to an Orwellian wiping out of history.
There's a novel called La Fete by French writer Roger Vailland, in which two men bemoan the fact that young people in the 1950s have become uninterested in politics and that the Bolsheviks are now "figures of the past, like the disciples of Socrates." A similar thing is happening in Ireland right now. The violence which the Provos inflicted on innocents in the name of "Irish freedom" now seems remote, possibly even romantic, to many young people.
What they don't see is that republicans are still fighting that conflict, through symbolism and story these days rather than the Semtex and sectarian strife of their predecessors, and that everything, even terrible events on the other side of the world, can be corralled into the fight. The airwaves remain their preferred battleground. Does no one in authority at RTE ever listen to their own news programmes and wonder why the airwaves have become such a pushover for Sinn Fein snake oil salesmen?
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