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Kevin Myers: Don't blame others: public figures must claim ownership of their historical sins

IT'S been a mixed week for truth. On the plus-side, a stunning blow for historical realism was struck by Michael Lillis in his letter to 'The Irish Times', in which he noted the deplorable failure of successive Irish governments from 1922 to 1969 to ameliorate the appalling conditions endured by the Northern minority.

Indeed, throughout those decades, no Irish administration made any attempt through the League of Nations, the United Nations, or diplomatic channels in Washington or London, to end the institutional discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland. Instead, official Irish government policy was to Sulk, Scowl, Posture & Pout about the injustice of partition, like a peevishly slothful adolescent.

Michael Lillis is not just another letter-writer. The architect of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, he is arguably the most influential diplomat in the history of the State. His observations prompted a welcome of considerable importance from Professor Eda Sagarra, daughter of Kevin O'Shiel, from Tyrone, a legal adviser to the Free State in its early days.

I disagree with her assertion that Michael Collins was genuinely concerned about the position of Northern Catholics, for he ruthlessly used that minority for terrorist attacks on the new RUC (most of whom were southern Catholics). But that aside, her contribution powerfully augmented the original Lillis argument: it is surely time for different groups to accept their own historical responsibility for the past hideous century, rather than to endlessly allocate blame to others.

However, such reasoned gravitas was tragically lacking in Micheal Martin's dismissal of the Northern Ireland Assembly's recent call for an apology from Fianna Fail for its role in the formation of the Provisional IRA. Blaming solely the unionists for that tragedy, he declared: "This DUP effort to rewrite history and to attempt to shift responsibility to Dublin is a fiction too far."

Clearly, he hasn't learnt from the Adams version of Occam's Razor: that untruths may not be perpetually recycled without a quite compelling reason. The Fianna Fail minister of 1970, Neil Blaney, repeatedly boasted that he had helped set up the Provisional IRA. The late Colm Condon, the Fianna Fail Attorney General and prosecutor during the Arms Trial, affirmed that he had traced the conspiracy right to the heart of government.

Malachy McGurran of the Official IRA reported that Jock Haughey, brother of Charles Haughey -- as Minister for Finance, the key-conspirator -- arrived in Armagh with guns and money for McGurran's unit, with much more to come if they joined the Provos. Official IRA units across the North were thus suborned with cordite and cash, and the war was born, with Fianna Fail its midwife.

Moreover, throughout the subsequent decades of bloodshed, successive governments in Dublin refused to implement the necessary measures to end the IRA campaign, and most particularly, to close down the IRA stronghold in South Armagh. The first security force victims of the Provisional IRA campaign, RUC men Samuel Donaldson and Robert Millar, were murdered there in 1970: 27 years later, the last soldier to die in the Troubles, Stephen Restorick, was murdered in that very same area.

And all useless, useless deaths: for what was achieved? Power-sharing, as had been agreed at Sunningdale, just three years after the Millar-Donaldson killings, but now with the Republic's constitutional claims to the North permanently extinguished. Was there ever a terrorist campaign as idiotically counter-productive as the Provisional IRA's, achieving less, de jure and de facto, than the greater republican cause had been holding in its hand in 1973? Almost 40 years on, the pillar boxes in Crossmaglen remain red, and the brown government envelopes through the front door still are marked OHMS.

YET two republican claims are partly justified. One is that the Palace of Westminster knows almost nothing about Ireland. This has been true for so long that it must now be accepted as a constant, and complaining about it is as useful as denouncing Hungary's shocking lack of mackerel fisheries. The second (and related) claim is that London hears the Irish gun more keenly than the voice of Irish reason. For decades it had steadfastly obstructed the patient and courteously expressed nationalist demands for Irish self-government, but almost overnight yielded to the threat of violence from the Ulster loyalists.

So, we cannot expect much useful cross-channel help to resolve our problems. Therefore, rather than continuing to blame others, as the DUP and Fianna Fail have once again -- yawn -- been doing, Irish politicians and church leaders must start accepting some historic responsibility for the sins of their predecessors.

Admittedly, the auguries are not good. The queen's studied and gracious words last year in Dublin were almost instantly misinterpreted by republicans as an apology, and thereby a vindication of their own preposterous war. The way to forestall such an outcome is almost simple. In this potentially deadly decade of centenaries, all public figures must, ab initio, modestly disarm themselves of any moral superiority and instead start claiming ownership of their own tradition's historical sins. On the lines created by the great George Mitchell, we may call this disarmament The Lillis Principle, though some might detect slightly older roots. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

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