Maurice Fitzpatrick: Why SF must stop attempting to rewrite recent Irish history
Sinn Fein should take the lead in espousing a more transparent approach to dealing with the past, writes Maurice Fitzpatrick
The Sinn Fein presidential candidate selection process will continue to feature in the news during the holiday period. Sinn Fein's would-be Uachtaran will subsequently provide a stockpile of Sinn Fein PR to convert into votes during the next general election here, where Sinn Fein is rising to prominence considerably.
Sinn Fein realises that there will very likely be significant shifts in the political structures of Ireland as the Brexit chaos proceeds. It would be unconscionable for Sinn Fein to miss the opportunity to exercise its potential, unique among Irish political parties, to be in government on both sides of the border when those structures are negotiated. In the North, while Sinn Fein and the DUP are both remiss in refusing to implement the central provision of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Fein may yet see the benefits of pushing for a deal when Stormont talks resume. In the South, Sinn Fein's fervid desire is to migrate from the opposition benches in Dail Eireann, where it has languished for nearly two decades, and become a coalition partner in Government. For Sinn Fein, then, manoeuvrings to get into government exceed all other concerns.
Nevertheless self-examination on the part of Sinn Fein of its suitability to accomplish the New Ireland that today is its mantra would serve the party well. Sinn Fein's credibility as a broker of a New Ireland depends on its ability to break with its past in an authentic and convincing manner. That entails a public denunciation of the IRA's violence (1969-1994) as a futile terror campaign. This would enable Sinn Fein to publicly renounce, immediately and without prompting, the actions of anyone in its organisation who humiliates people of both the unionist or nationalist traditions by glorifying the violence perpetuated by the IRA during the Troubles. This leads to the final move required of Sinn Fein, an outgrowth of the above: it must stop attempting to rewrite recent Irish history.
Absent these moves, Sinn Fein's credibility will continue to be vitiated by doubts about its total rejection of the approach it took in the past. The strategy is obvious, yet its implementation is politically very difficult for Sinn Fein.
Challenging the appointment of Drew Harris as Garda Commissioner on the floor of the Dail during Leaders' Questions on June 27, Mary Lou McDonald, in reference to Harris's prior affiliation with the RUC and that organisation's collusion with loyalist terror, observed that Harris "has to demonstrate that he in no way subscribes to the toxic, vindictive policing culture which necessitated the disbandment of the RUC". Given that McDonald publicly demands a repudiation of the political climate that prevailed during the Troubles, then surely she can publicly denounce the IRA as she does the RUC?
Sinn Fein's position on contentious legacy issues continues to preclude it from forming a consistent view of its past, even within its own party. For example, Sinn Fein Member of the European Parliament and a favourite for the presidential nomination, Liadh ni Riada, in a Hot Press interview last July, speaking about the IRA campaign during the Troubles, stated that she is 'uncomfortable with the use of the word terrorism, because it's a blanket description of what atrocities there were'. Furthermore, ni Riada said that she is reluctant to designate the Birmingham pub bombings (which killed 21 and injured 182 innocent people) as terrorist attacks. Whereas Gerry Adams, in a BBC interview on February 4, 2018, unequivocally condemned the Birmingham pub bombings.
This variability in condemnation understandably makes it hard for members of Sinn Fein who were not in the party during the Troubles to position themselves in relation to the historical narrative of their organisation - since the narrative itself is elusive. They are faced with the dilemma of needing to put distance between themselves and their party's violent past and, simultaneously, the need to anchor themselves in its tradition. Hence the conflation in Mary Lou McDonald's inaugural speech as President of Sinn Fein of "the war is long over" with her shouting "up the rebels" and "tiocfaidh ar la".
As paradoxical as this position is, it nevertheless replicates itself in the language Sinn Fein uses to garner support at community level, particularly in the North. Surely, though, Sinn Fein, under new leadership, can demonstrate that it has embraced new politics with a new idiom to match? While it does so, some magnanimity on the proposed Irish Language Act could liberate the party from a red-line of its own creation that has become self-defeating.
Sinn Fein's full embrace of the rule of law - a necessity of its equivalence with other political parties - is apparent in its condemnation of the dissidents. Furthermore, Mary Lou McDonald's use of the designation 'Londonderry' on a recent visit to Derry was widely seen as conciliatory. On the basis of the logic of these positions, could McDonald now condemn punishment beatings, protection rackets and personation at election time in Derry, and call for the arrest of the perpetrators of those crimes?
A documentary film I completed last year, In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America, shows how John Hume, throughout the Troubles, was an important bulwark against the falsities propagated by those in the North who sought to justify violence and criminality, and hold people of both communities to ransom. Instead, he advocated reconfiguring the relationships between the divided people in Ireland.
At a geopolitical level, Hume forged an alliance in the US Congress and the White House in the 1970s, which evolved in the 1980s and into 1990s, to rebalance the power relationship between Britain and Ireland. A senator as prominent as Ted Kennedy and a Speaker as effective as Tip O'Neill controlled both houses of congress on Irish issues; together they ensured that a succession of US presidents, from Jimmy Carter onwards, would constructively engage on the 'Ireland Question'. Those US presidents did so on the basis of John Hume's strategy that resolution of Northern Ireland's political problems could only occur through non-violent political activity, in full recognition of the nationalist identity, involving representatives of all political backgrounds and equal rights for all. That strategy was adopted as US foreign policy towards Northern Ireland, and it brought US involvement on the ground through a series of special envoys.
Back home, although the broad nationalist community rejected violence, the ambivalence of Sinn Fein towards the use of force endured into the 1980s. At that time, the Hume-Adams dialogue was inchoate. The objective of their dialogue was to end IRA violence which is why, at the inception of the private talks, Hume wrote to Adams, in reference to the gains of the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985), that British acceptance of agreement among the people in Ireland as a condition of their withdrawal from Ireland nullified the use of force. The tilt within the Republican tradition towards accepting the necessity of non-violence was crucial. As Gerry Adams acknowledges in In the Name of Peace: 'We wasted years. Not through any foolishness on our part but I suppose through naivete.'
Sinn Fein can, and should, take the lead in espousing a more transparent approach to dealing with the past, and abandon its mode of erasing or denying its responsibility for the suffering of the Troubles. With every stroke of the revisionist pen, that process towards fuller co-operation between the two traditions in the North becomes more strained, something antithetical to the New Ireland for which Sinn Fein strives. It falls to interviewers, when questioning Sinn Fein, to demand that Sinn Fein demonstrates the steps it is willing to take to secure that future.
In this year of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement and the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, with Brexit affecting the relationships within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain, there is a need for clear political direction in Ireland, North and South. Is it not now, more than ever, important to assert, in the John Hume vein, the futility of any armed campaign past or present to achieving a shared future? And should we not resist the rewriting of history, and challenge those who would unravel the carefully woven threads of the Good Friday Agreement to instead work determinedly within its framework?
Maurice Fitzpatrick's documentary, 'In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America', screens on RTE One on Tuesday at 9.35pm. He is the author of 'John Hume in America: From Derry to DC' (IAP, 2017) and Poynter Fellow at Yale University.