Sinn Fein’s incapacity to address the PIRA’s campaign illustrates a broader failure to make post GFA politics work…

So how long will our politicians do nothing? Well, there’s never really any such thing as “nothing”. In film, a pause in the action is often an opportunity for the audience to evaluate what’s gone before and make some thought space for what might come next.

In the current dropped tempo of Northern Irish politics, the Irish Times chose to reassess that odd piece of business from Sinn Fein last week over legacy and castigates them for using a transparently unsustainable approach to dealing with Northern Ireland’s past:

Sinn Féin’s description of the British government as the “main conflict protagonist” during the Troubles suggests the party is incapable of addressing the responsibility of the republican movement for the death and destruction caused by the Provisional IRA’s long campaign of violence.

It is worth pointing out once more that the IRA killed about half of those who lost their lives during the Troubles, far more than any other group involved in the conflict. The figures are stark. The IRA killed 1,696 people, the British army 299 and the RUC 56. In fact the IRA killed more Catholics than any of the Loyalist terror groups.

To describe the British government as the main protagonist without fully acknowledging the violence carried out by republicans indicates not only that Sinn Féin is incapable of facing up to reality but that it is determined to force its own wilfully distorted version of history on to everybody else.


Party deputy leader Michelle O’Neill sidestepped the issue of IRA violence when launching Sinn Féin’s 30-page submission to the British government’s consultation on how to address the legacy of the Troubles.

When asked about the casualties caused by the IRA, O’Neill came up with the facile evasions that have been Sinn Féin’s stock in trade for decades.

“When we look at the conflict there are very many different narratives of the past. The first step in reconciliation and moving forward is actually recognising that to be the fact,” she said.

This is an unacceptable evasion. The first step towards reconciliation is not blaming somebody else for the terrible things that happened in the past but accepting responsibility for one’s own actions.

O’Neill suggested that there were different narratives of the past but instead of accepting the logic of that position, Sinn Féin continues to repeat the hackneyed old claim that it was the fault of the British.[Emphasis added throughout]

In cold, objective terms, such a one-eyed view of the past is farcical. It’s not just the excessive numbers they killed, but the Provisional’s well-documented aim to slay far more than they did. Yet they privately pursued a public interest defence for their own misdeeds with the British.

That shadow of a deal (which was only made public in an internal trawl for material relevant to the letters of comfort case by Mr Justice Sweeney) coincides the fact that few old Provos faced prosecution after 1998. Indeed, some of them seem to have lived a rather charmed life since.

South Down Sinn Féin MLA Emma Rogan spoke passionately at the weekend about how the Ombudsman Report into the killing of her father and five others in the Heights Bar in Loughinisland might never be acted upon and that relatives would struggle for justice.

Ironically this same point has recently been enlarged upon by the contemporary irregularities within the policing and judicial system in the Mairia Cahill case. A perplexing case upon which Sinn Fein has found itself uncharacteristically tongue-tied.

That’s not always the case. In the News Letter, there’s a piece by Jackie Nicholl who lost his baby son in an IRA bomb in 1971. His experience of the Victims and Survivor’s forum is instructive:

I then got word that I was on the forum. I thought that I would be able to bring a new perspective to it. People had told me the forum had republicans on it, and I said, well I didn’t care the religion of anyone who was a victim. I was willing to listen.

The first meeting I went to there were four men facing me, and they wrote down everything I said. Robert McClenaghan, whose grandfather was murdered in the loyalist McGurk’s bar bomb, was one of them.

I assumed that people take notes. I thought nothing about it, I just thought if they are writing down my experience and not putting a twist on it, I am happy.

On one occasion Nicholl challenged McClenaghan for only criticising loyalist paramilitaries, assuming that it was a shared understanding that all paramilitaries had been wrong. Not long after he was sent a copy of McClenaghan’s record as a bomber in the IRA, a fact he had not been appraised of…

To think that my son, my beloved son, was killed by an IRA bomb and I had been tricked into sitting alongside an IRA bomber.

I went to the commissioner and said that I was resigning because I could not sit beside an individual who actually boasts that they carried out bombs, sometimes small, sometimes large, in Belfast city centre.

She said to me that she was unaware of his background until he became a member of the forum. I said what did you do when you heard? She said: there is nothing I could do. She later wrote me a letter saying she was sorry I had left but I never got the sense she was sympathetic to me.

Nicholl records his experience of what he felt to be the incompetence of the police, matched years later by the HET when they even got the names wrong of those who had died in the bomb that day (two adults, two children). And finally the Victims forum.

That bomb killed a young Catholic man working in the shop on Shankill that took the bomb, two kids (17 months and 2 years), and the commissionaire employed to check baggage on the way in. Nicholl’s wife is quoted in Lost Lives:

I saw it on television in England and I says to the sister: “that’s terrible, you know, babies getting killed”. I didn’t realise it was Colin and I’ll never to the day I die forget seeing that fireman with the baby wrapped in a blanket.

Not only was no one convicted of their baby son’s murder, no organisation ever had the nerve to claim it. Lost Lives records it as a revenge bomb for the one that killed McClenaghan’s grandfather, with suspicion pointing directly at the paramilitaries that McClenaghan eventually joined, the PIRA.

The Nicholls, as [likely] victims of the Provisionals, are prodigiously more numerous than those killed or murdered by the British security forces. Yet, scan the courts for the highest number of activist cases related to the Troubles, and it’s largely old cops and soldiers who are on the hook.

For all the flim-flam and indirect innuendo, there’s no real prospect of an amnesty without an exposition of guilt in some form. All victims have a right to some form of justice. And as we saw in the Saville Inquiry, even when granted immunity old IRA men never tell.

For the state’s part, failing to admit the differences between perpetrators and victims lumps even greater cost on the shoulders of victims: an outcome of the political horsetrading after each break-down in the Stormont (of which there have been many over the last eleven years) institutions.

Putting a bomb victim in the same room as a bomber without even bothering to tell them, is a profound governance failure. It also begs the question as to who (if anyone) runs a reality check over these arrangements? Or who challenges such arrangements for human rights compliance?

With vanishingly few exceptions, the human rights lobby has been happy to camp on the lawn of the state over Troubles’ era state infringements, but remarkably hesitant to tackle such contemporary and ongoing transgressions against victims by the state.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the whole legacy process has, whether by an unhappy accident or surreptitious design, become protagonist-centred. In fact, we’ve got here by a series of debilitating short-term fixes and focus on what people can control and do in the here and now.

To borrow from similar blockages in South Africa, Colleen Magner notes:

the work of changing things is not about transcending the past so that we see the world in the same way, but about the willingness to commit to the issues and to staying in relationship with each other, even when we don’t want to because it seems to be the more difficult option. [Emphasis added]

On some things, there is simply no way to reconcile two or more views of the past. And we really shouldn’t waste our efforts trying.  No one expects SF members and supporters to view the Provisionals campaign as criminal, but nor should SF expect others to accept their view that they aren’t.

This is view is strongly held within Sinn Fein and amongst more supportive public commentators, such as Andree Murphy who roots Stormont’s collapse back to the DUP’s support of Jim Allister’s SpAd Act of 2013…

…when the DUP did it was clear that republicans were in government with a party that did not value the building of restorative relationships in a post conflict setting. The DUP were cockahoop about a Bill which would criminalise republicans. [Emphasis added]

The Act did not criminalise but legislated that people with a criminal record could not become SpAds. To almost every party other than SF, the Provisional’s campaign was and will remain a series of criminal acts. That view is also shared by their many, many victims.

As the Irish Times notes above, this demand that SF’s narrative be accorded unofficial status of primus inter pares not only defies logic (or “a disturbing and childish tendency to grab everything to themselves” as Denis Bradley said of Saturday), it offers no basis for progression…

If that is the best Sinn Féin can do, there is little prospect of finding an agreed approach to the past, never mind finding a way for the two communities in the North to work together in the present.

The current pause gives us time consider what we’ve been asking of the vast majority of victims. And perhaps also to give some victims whose expectations have been raised in ways that are only likely to be dashed in the long run because of sub rosa arrangements between SF and the British.

But that in itself is indicative of a much larger failure Post the Belfast Agreement, all parties have struggled to keep an eye on the future, and the longer-term “what if’s..”, not just Sinn Fein.

Granting SF and the DUP complete power at St Andrews pushed back the future and deepened the shadow the past by giving them just one thing to run each election on (“we’re us, not them”), negating any term time policy achievements by perpetually focusing on intercommunal animosity.

Rather than granting them the security to deepen their offering and take risks with each other, it only seems to have opened them up to a series of mutual acts of self-undoing.

But by and large, it has been the victims rather than our politicians who have paid the highest price. We surely owe them a lot more than this foul tasting, short-term and profoundly fatalistic fudge?

Mick Fealty – Slugger O’Toole 9/10/18


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