Tuesday 18 June 2019

Deflecting IRA question wasn’t an option for Gallagher

Brian Lynch reveals a chilling warning on the consequences of indulging Sinn Fein’s ambitions

‘I DO not like condemning people . . . I wouldn’t like to politicise grief."

That was Sean Gallagher’s reply last week to the Sunday Independent’s written questions about Martin McGuinness’s IRA connections. Some days earlier, David Kelly had asked McGuinness for help in finding the murderers of his father, who was a soldier.

But imagine if he had asked Gallagher instead. And imagine if Kelly was told, “I wouldn’t like to politicise your grief ”. It’s remarkable how a little word like ‘your’ can make a vaguely fancy but impersonal sentiment smell like a big cloud of lukewarm gas.

Until the David Kelly moment, Sinn Fein was depending on the candidates being polite about the past. The party was also depending on the Irish people staying at home. And it still is. Voters who are too bored or too annoyed to vote will increase McGuinness’s percentage of the poll: on election day, every Sinn Fein supporter will be out seizing the power of the ballot box with both hands.

Remember, too, that many of them are shy of telling opinion pollsters the truth about their intentions. So, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if McGuinness takes more than 20 per cent of the vote. The silent second-preference vote could even put him in with a chance of winning. In that event, Gallagher’s gassy non-political grief would be historic, had he not dramatically changed his stance yesterday.

But if a candidate is dumb by choice, civil servants are silent because they are not allowed to say what they think. During the long years of the peace process, the best of them understood the depth of the dilemma into which that process had plunged this State. Arguably the most intelligent and influential of all these public servants was Dermot Nally, who was secretary to the government from 1980 to 1993.

Because Dermot Nally died almost two years ago (on December 30, 2009), I now feel free to quote from a letter marked “private and confidential” that he sent me about Pity for the Wicked, my book-length poem on Northern Ireland. A section of that book accuses Martin McGuinness of responsibility for a specific crime — the use of Patsy Gillespie as a human bomb to kill himself and five British soldiers — but other sections speak harshly of the Official IRA bombing of Aldershot, of named loyalist murderers and of political leaders here and in Britain.

Considering Nally’s closeness to the peace process, I didn’t expect a response to the book. I had sent him a copy (and dedicated it to him as a patriot) because we had worked together in the Taoiseach’s Department from 1973 to 1979. To say I was surprised by his letter would be an understatement. Actually, I was amazed by his frankness.

What Nally says turns on a famous quote from Ceasefire, a poem by the Northern Protestant poet Michael Longley: I get down on my knees and do what must be done And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son. Nationalist critics thought the lines showed how “good Protestants” should behave towards the IRA. But in the introduction to Pity for the Wicked I said that King Priam’s act of submission had been misunderstood. The kiss is “plainly hypocritical” — Priam does what must be done in order to secure the return of Hector’s body, and for no other reason.

To the book as a whole, Nally responded thus: “The issue on which there is now a division of principle is how do we get away from the rhetoric of cudgels, torches, spears, bombs, bullets, bank robberies and baseball bats . . . and from obsolete and destructive theories of unity.

“One view is that the ‘unifiers’ will not accept anything less, come what may, and that every step they take has that end in view, unalterably and implacably. You can work out the implications. They must retain their arms believing that in any negotiation the threat of violence is always useful — despite honeyed words about democracy and consent: and they will continue on this course, no matter what majorities, North or South or on this island, think.

At the same time dialogue with the governments is essential for their purpose. “Has anybody recently estimated the cost of ‘unity’? When I stopped working, way back in the early Nineties, the British contributions to Northern Ireland stood at about £4bn-£5bn a year. I don’t know what it is now, but it would probably be a significant proportion of the total yield of taxation in this State; and that is an estimate in total cash terms alone, not counting the effects on investment, jobs and prosperity here generally.

We shouldn’t necessarily assume that the Brits will continue to pay for a united Ireland. Has anybody recently asked the people of the South what they think? “The second view is that once you engage a terrorist organisation in talks, they become so involved in the mechanics of power and governance that they become part of the solution.

“If I knew which option was preferable I would indeed be a lot happier than Priam, who, no doubt, at my age, I’ll soon be joining.” Which of Dermot Nally’s options seems most apposite now? Will Sinn Fein “not accept anything less [than unity], come what may, and that every step they take has that end in view, unalterably and implacably”?

Brian Lynch is a member of Aosdána. ‘Pity for the Wicked’ was shortlisted for the 2007 Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize set up to honour the British Ambassador blown up by the IRA in 1976

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