Playing politics is preferable to playing war on the streets
Only in the topsy-turvy, surreal world inhabited by Sinn Fein and the IRA could playing politics be seen as worse than playing gangsters, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
Jaw-jaw is better than war-war. So goes the old adage, but it's been turned on its head since Kevin McGuigan was shot dead. Now jaw-jaw is considered just as bad as war-war. In fact, to listen to some Sinn Fein representatives, jaw-jaw is tantamount to war-war by other means.
That's the only conclusion to draw from the repeated accusation being made by Sinn Fein that its critics are "playing politics" over the issue of whether, in what form and to what purpose the IRA still exists.
It was certainly the charge laid at Mike Nesbitt's door following his decision to pull the Ulster Unionists out of the Executive. Gerry Kelly MLA was even heard to claim that the UUP was "electioneering".
He made it sound as if electioneering was a thoroughly disreputable activity; far more reprehensible than, for example, blowing up the Old Bailey.
The same kneejerk accusation was also thrown at Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin after he urged the Irish government to get tough with Sinn Fein over its ongoing effort to whitewash the IRA as some harmless old boys' club. For this, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams lambasted Martin for being "motivated entirely by party political and electoral interests".
On Sunday, it was the turn of Brian Stanley, Sinn Fein TD for Laois-Offally, to take the Republic's foreign minister, Charlie Flanagan, to task for remarks he made on Irish radio. Flanagan's offence was to point out - reasonably enough, one would've thought - that no one believes a word Sinn Fein says on the matter of the IRA and to call on republicans to do more to help the police catch murderers.
As if on cue, Stanley said that minister Flanagan should - oh, go on, have a guess - "stop playing party politics with the institutions and agreements". Since when was "playing politics" worse than playing cowboys and Indians on the streets of Northern Ireland with real guns?
In fact, wasn't an agreement on all sides to "play politics" meant to be the foundation stone of the entire peace process, on the premise that the more people played politics in Northern Ireland, the better, because playing politics was preferable to all the known alternatives? Politics is healthy. Politics is normal. Politics can even be fun - if you do it right.
So, yes, unionists do want Sinn Fein to take some damage from the Chief Constable's admission that the IRA retains the capacity to do very bad things and are using the current crisis to that end; and, yes, of course Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour in the south want Sinn Fein to do badly at the next election and are prepared to use every available stick to beat them.
Why wouldn't they? That's what politics is - you deploy all the rhetorical tools at hand to weaken the other guy, for the perfectly valid reason that you happen to believe your side of the argument is the right one to be on.
Mainstream parties in the south aren't seeking to undermine Sinn Fein's support for the thrill of it, after all, but because they regard the prospect of Sinn Fein in government as a disaster for the country, allowing republicans to retrospectively justify IRA atrocities, as well as implementing Left-wing policies that would turn Ireland into an economic basket case.
They might be right about that, or they might be wrong, but that's what they genuinely think, so they're obviously going to use whatever they can to warn voters off from Sinn Fein's populist oratory.
You can call that electioneering, because that's exactly what it is - it's about winning elections - but there's nothing wrong with that, either, because electioneering is also healthy and normal and it was part and parcel of civic life a long time before Sinn Fein started stamping its feet and ordering everyone to stop.
You can't have a healthy democracy unless you actually practise democracy and the cut and thrust of argument and debate is an integral, glorious part of it. Are we really now supposed to abandon it because it causes Sinn Fein difficulties? To heck with that.
Even if Sinn Fein's opponents are playing political games, every single one of the games they're playing is a legitimate one to play in a democratic society. It's right there in black and white in the blessed Belfast Agreement: "We reaffirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues."
Sinn Fein's rivals are practising those "exclusively democratic and peaceful means". The only ones who aren't doing so are republicans.
Only in the topsy-turvy, surreal world inhabited by Sinn Fein and the IRA could those practising politics be accused of damaging it, rather than those who want politics to shut up shop in deference to gunmen.
Sinn Fein's argument is that playing politics is irresponsible in the current climate because doing so might lead to a collapse of the institutions and, therefore, a return to violence. But if there was a return to violence, from whatever quarter, most reasonable people would agree that it was those who returned to it who'd be to blame, not those who "provoked" the men of violence into it by having the audacity to behave as if they lived in an open society with a right to freely express their opinions.
It's now been 17 years since the signing of the Belfast Agreement. If that isn't long enough for democratically elected politicians to be able to speak their minds without being accused of putting peace at risk, how long would be considered acceptable? Thirty years? Fifty? Never?
The last one, probably. This has nothing to do with timing. It's indicative of a certain cast of mind. Sinn Fein simply doesn't accept that republicans should ever be subjected to routine democratic criticism, or punishment, not because the peace process can't handle it, but because they can't handle it. Hence they seek to stage-manage their pathological inability to handle problems by turning it into a virtue and by accusing their critics of "trying to create a crisis", as if the crisis began, not when IRA members decided to collude in the murder of someone they suspected of having challenged their authority, but when their opponents declared that enough was enough.
In other words, they're claiming that the present crisis isn't being caused by violence, or their own duplicitous attitude towards that violence, but by the exercise of democracy itself.
Well, politics has been around a lot longer than Sinn Fein. It also has a more honourable history. If it comes down to a choice, the answer is clear.
To paraphrase the famous tagline from Trainspotting: Choose politics. Choose democracy. Choose life.