Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Sinn Fein ard fheis survey: The change is genuine, but attitudes are harder to shake

The Belfast Telegraph survey showed that Sinn Fein figures like Martin McGuinness have been leading from the front, rather than just following opinion, when they condemn dissident terrorism. More may be needed.

On Monday Mr McGuinness queried whether those we questioned had all been Sinn Fein members, but anyone who attended the ard fheis would be in no doubt. Security was so tight that nobody got into the building without credentials.

Besides that, the students who carried out the survey for us checked that each person they questioned was a party member.

Mr McGuinness should not have been too surprised. He leads a movement which supported armed struggle, without any popular mandate, as an article of faith for generations. Now it has changed tack to a peaceful political strategy. The practical change is genuine, but attitudes are harder to shake.

It is not a lifetime since Mr McGuinness said that informers should be killed, or that Mitchel McLaughlin said that a killing authorised by the IRA was not a crime.

They would say that such judgments no longer apply, now that we have the Good Friday Agreement, but it is no surprise that some of their followers are not 100% clear on the distinction.

The ard fheis was filled with displays commemorating dead volunteers and recounting years of struggle in a highly emotional and uncritical way; stalls sold 'Sniper at Work' badges as well as plaques, T-shirts, books and posters commemorating martyrs and atrocities of the past. Old habits of mind die hard. This could take time, maybe until the death of the Troubles' generation, to work through, and that is, frankly, too long.

Sinn Fein should not be surprised or exasperated that the DUP require reassurance and clarification from time to time; this is not a theoretical question for many of them.

The IRA put a bomb under Arlene Foster's schoolbus when she was a child and shot her father in the head, nearly killing him. Peter Robinson entered politics because a friend was murdered by the Provisionals. Republicans also suffered trauma and violence, enduring the deaths of loved ones, both innocent and combatant.

Yet, when every allowance is made, these two parties will have failed if they cannot work together and, as Professor Rick Wilford of Queen's recently warned, the atmosphere at Stormont is becoming increasingly sour. They often seem at daggers drawn, eager to score points off each other.

Finding a strategy for dealing with the past and building a shared future is no luxury. It is a pressing and practical political problem they must resolve.

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