Ruth Dudley Edwards: 'IRA hard men are still in charge and waging war through their lawyers'
Sinn Fein/IRA might have stopped killing, but their destructiveness means they're still a cancer on our island
This column is packing its bags, so I thought I'd do a bit of a trip down memory lane.
Just over 25 years ago, in January 1994, after Section 31 of the broadcasting Act was allowed to lapse, Sinn Fein - excluded specifically since 1971 - arrived on the Irish airwaves. This sparked an intense debate in the UK about the fate of its ridiculous equivalent. Announced in October 1988 after a string of savage killings, this typical British compromise involved preventing 11 loyalist and republican organisations from directly broadcasting, leading to the nonsense of actors reading transcripts of their statements. But having seen the first RTE interview with Gerry Adams, I wrote for an English newspaper my first political article arguing the ban should remain.
I made my living as a writer of books, but for about 13 years I had been intensely involved in trying to encourage dialogue in and about Northern Ireland - not least during my 11-year stint as a committee member of the British-Irish Association and eight years chairing the British Association for Irish Studies. I knew many of the leading players in London, Dublin and Belfast, and though paramilitaries were not welcome in either organisation, I had met many IRA sympathisers. My perspective was - as it still is - simple. There was no justification whatsoever for political violence of any kind in the Republic or the United Kingdom.
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I had been brought up in a Dublin Catholic nationalist world, but had long since become an atheist and during the 1980s had concluded that while nationalists were much better at public relations than were unionists, they were less nice than they seemed, and if you put in the work you would find that seemingly dour and truculent unionists often concealed hearts of gold.
I was all too well acquainted with the catalogue of tragedies. For instance, there had been 90 murders in Northern Ireland in 1993, with republicans responsible for 39 and loyalists 48. As usual, the perpetrators had got off lightly: 68 of the dead were civilians, eight were soldiers and six were policemen, but there were only seven dead paramilitaries. Over the course of the Troubles, republicans were much more prolific murderers, but loyalists had been galvanised into action by the secretive talks between SDLP leader John Hume and Gerry Adams which they thought symptomatic of a pan-nationalist conspiracy to bring about a united Ireland.
During that year, the IRA exploded three bombs that attracted a great deal of attention: the Warrington bombing in March that killed two children, the April attack on the City of London that caused damage costing more than £1bn and the October bombing of a fish shop in the Shankill Road that killed nine Protestants and one IRA perpetrator. Loyalist sectarian attacks had included the murder of seven Catholics and a Protestant at a Halloween party in a pub restaurant in the village of Greysteel.
I had always opposed the ban of Sinn Fein on civil liberty grounds, I said in my article, but I had changed my mind for two reasons. I had come to realise that you have to have order before you can have the luxury of liberty, and I had realised that the spokesmen for Sinn Fein/IRA (they were pretty well all men in those days) would make mincemeat of journalists. And so it proved to be in the Republic and, after the ban was lifted in September 1994, in the UK.
It wasn't just that Sinn Fein had invested heavily in training and were always well prepared and well rehearsed, it was that they had utterly mastered Newspeak, intimidated interviewers, entranced those turned on by the whiff of the cordite, and were utterly unscrupulous. People complain that politicians lie, but actually mostly they just tell fibs. Sinn Fein politicians lied and lied and lied again utterly shamelessly about everything, and somehow succeeded in persuading much established opinion that to criticise them or query their motives was an attack on peace. "Just because I never killed anyone doesn't mean I'm a bad person," wrote the Belfast Telegraph columnist Lindy McDowell.
With the help of the Department of Foreign Affairs, all too many journalists were persuaded that they were players in the peace process who must not upset the IRA. It was because so few were taking them on that, to my astonishment, I found there was a niche for me. I happily joined the stable at the Sunday Independent where Aengus Fanning let the likes of Eoghan Harris and Eilis O'Hanlon write stuff that caused apoplexy among appeasers in both governments. Fortunately, the then proprietor, Tony O'Reilly, steadfastly refused demands and pleas from Sinn Fein, their fellow-travellers and their enablers to fire us.
Looking back now, while of course it is good that the killing has pretty well stopped, there's plenty to be concerned about. Northern Ireland has been brutalised by generations of terrorists who have destroyed tens of thousands of lives and who seem, to law-abiding citizens, to have got away almost scot-free. Take for instance the latest injustice endorsed by both governments. Although only 10pc of the Troubles-related deaths were attributable to the State (most of them lawful), because they kept records and they don't practise omerta, the justice system is already loaded against them. But legacy arrangements exacerbate that alarmingly. Now £55m is being provided to investigate 93 deaths, 40 of them terrorists, and 51 of those chosen are thought to have been killed by security forces, with only 17 attributable to republicans.
Sinn Fein is, in my view, a cancer in both parts of the island. The hard men of the IRA army council are still in charge and though they're not killing these days, they steadfastly continue their war through the use of their lawyers to attack those loyal to the State. And at every turn, they encourage their activists to undermine unionist culture and self-confidence. They are interested only in power, are wreckers, and while talking peace and reconciliation, have continued to fan the flames of hatred.
The shiny-haired women coming off the Sinn Fein production line obediently eulogise the terrorists who brought misery to everyone. How can we be happy that Irish Catholics vote knowingly for murderers? Protestants don't.
I always said that I was content for Northern Ireland to become part of a united Ireland if its people were happy about it. But that was and is impossible without trust, which the Provos' viciousness and deceit made impossible. The amoral deeds done by British and Irish governments with Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams after the Good Friday Agreement succeeded in destroying the centre ground in Northern Ireland and gave bombers moral equivalence with their victims. And we now see another generation of brutal fools who want to kill for Ireland, and many young loyalists swearing to resist a united Ireland.
I'm sorry that this is a rather bleak note on which to end, but may I say how enriching it has been to write for this paper, how much I've learned, and how greatly I have appreciated the readers who supported me.
I'll be back from time to time, though. This isn't goodbye. It's just au revoir.