Sinn Fein’s northern leader is delusional if she thinks people don’t see through her ‘that was then, this is now” whataboutery, writes Eilis O’Hanlon.
The late Cardinal Cahal Daly called it “the commonest form of moral evasion in Ireland today”. He was referring to whataboutery, the familiar practice of deflecting criticism of acts of violence by groups with which one agrees by immediately pointing to acts of violence by those with whom one disagrees, and loudly demanding: “What about this? What about that?”
Like all good definitions, though, it’s become misused, to the point where anyone who exposes the hypocrisy of certain speakers when they condemn violence, despite having enthusiastically supported it in the past, is also accused of engaging in whataboutery, when all they’re actually doing is struggling to reconcile two entirely contradictory points of view.
That tendency has emerged again following the terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert in the Manchester Arena on Monday night, which killed 22 people. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams called it a “shocking and horrendous attack on children and young people”. The party’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill signed the book of condolence at Belfast City Hall, calling the attack “unthinkable”, and saying she’d watched events unfold with “shock and horror”.
“I condemn it,” she added, with none of the ifs and buts that generally accompany such statements.
O’Neill did all this only weeks after attending yet another commemoration for Provisional IRA members killed on so-called active service. Defending that decision, the Co Tyrone woman described those who died at Loughgall as “Irish patriots”.
The terrorists that Michelle O’Neill proudly celebrates murdered children too, and far more than were killed in Manchester. The “patriots” whose memory she venerates indiscriminately slaughtered people quietly going about their business in public places.
Just because the men she celebrates did it for a united Ireland, and the Manchester bomber most likely for a worldwide Islamic caliphate under Sharia law, doesn’t make it any more acceptable.
The only difference is there was no 24-hour news back then, and certainly no social media. Atrocities did not unfurl in real time; people at home didn’t see the full horror for themselves. If they had, the IRA may have been shamed into stopping sooner.
Irish republicans would have us believe that their terrorism was different. That their bombs were nicer. They look at the suicide bombers and insist: “We’re not like Themmuns.” Are they sure about that?
Isis may carry out more of what the IRA used to call “spectaculars”. Even so, homegrown jihadists would have to significantly intensify their operations to come anywhere near to matching the more than 2,000 killed by republicans and more than 1,000 by loyalists.
How do Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Adams have the gall to express sympathy for a city which the republican movement itself devastated with the largest bomb in Britain since the Second World War, showering people more than half a mile away with glass and debris?
That a warning was given that day in 1996, and the area evacuated in time, is no excuse. It was pure luck that no one died. Only a sick mind expects credit for luck.
“Martin McGuinness was not a terrorist,” declared Adams during a graveside oration for the former Deputy First Minister. But what was the proxy bomb that murdered civilian chef Patsy Gillespie and five soldiers if not an act of terrorism? What were Claudy, Enniskillen, Bloody Friday, Harrods, Brighton, Warrington?
Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Adams should feel disgraced that the republican movement whose memory they paint in rosy colours was an early adopter of the nail bomb, as witnessed to barbaric effect in Hyde Park, years before Monday’s bomber, who used the same type of device to kill and maim, was probably even born.
The dead are no less dead because the cause in whose name they were murdered is one that Sinn Fein shares. They may delude themselves that the IRA didn’t target civilians, but its volunteers were prepared for civilians to die, and were reckless with innocent life.
Only last year, former hunger striker Pat Sheehan – who was jailed as a teenager for trying to bomb a cash and carry store, of all things – said that moving on from the past “may mean an apology” for the 1996 attack in Manchester, but he added that the British government would need to accept its responsibility for conflict in Northern Ireland in return.
That’s not how repentance works. You’re either sorry or you’re not. Turning an apology into a negotiation is politics, not ethics, and that’s what is once again on display this week from Sinn Fein.
Politicians who supported terrorist violence in the past, and condemn it when it happens now, just expect us to be too polite and diplomatic to point out their hypocrisy.
At the very least, they should answer why the violence which they backed is any less reprehensible, because you can’t take the credit for moving away from violence without also accepting it was wrong in the first place.
Why keep bringing this up? That’s what some people will say, frustrated that those who suffered at the hands of terrorists in Northern Ireland won’t conveniently shut up and let those who supported it then, and continue to justify it in retrospect, reap the electoral benefits of joining the chorus of condemnation.
It’s because of a suspicion that they’re not being honest, and not saying what they really think.
The same goes for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who cosied up to Sinn Fein for decades, and now fervidly rewrites history to make it seem as if he was a behind-the-scenes negotiator for peace.
It also goes for Dianne Abbott, who’s lined up to take charge of tackling terrorism as Home Secretary in any Labour government after June 8, who once hailed the fight for Irish unity as “our struggle”, saying “every defeat for the British state is a victory for us all.”
Like Adams and O’Neill, they cry foul when their past words are thrown back at them, as if it’s unfair to expect them to either withdraw or stand over them.
What really goads them is that they can’t. It’s their own words that are the problem, not the fact others refuse to forget.
“When you’re in a war situation, I’m not saying ethics are put on hold, but I think you have a different template.” That’s what Pat Sheehan once said.
Those who bombed Manchester this week, 21 years after the IRA set the same example, would totally agree.
Republicans were far closer to Themmuns than they like to believe.