Belfast Telegraph

When does a 'comrade' transform into an 'eejit'?

Whatever your view of Martin Connolly, he is still the most logically consistent politician in the republican family that demonised him, argues Henry McDonald

Once upon a time - three years ago to be exact - Gerry Adams would have no doubt spoken about the then-Sinn Fein councillor Martin Connolly in warm fraternal terms.

Connolly was part of the mainstream republican family, and would have been well-used and well-versed in the mantras of the Provisionals.

Mantras such as republicans not getting into the 'politics of condemnation' - a term leading Sinn Fein figures deployed almost on a weekly basis each time they were quizzed about various IRA murders and atrocities.

Connolly became an "eejit" in Adams' eyes in the first weekend of August 2010, when he shocked the world with his response to an attempted murder bid on his niece.

The Independent Republican councillor repeated that same mantra that Sinn Fein representatives used to wriggle out of awkward questions about the morality of the IRA's violent campaign.

In spite the fact that a dissident booby-trap bomb could have killed his niece - a policewoman - and a child strapped into a baby seat inside the car, Councillor Connolly replied: "I'm not going to get into the politics of condemnation. It hasn't done any good in the past, nor will it do any good in the future."

Regardless of the apparent callousness of his remarks, Connolly has actually been the most logically consistent politician in the broad and fractious republican family over the last 10 days.

No matter how repulsive you might find his response to what could have been a double-murder of a woman and a child, Connolly's position reflects traditional republicanism and its attitude towards the security forces. It also, paradoxically, illuminates the central problem facing mainstream republicans, particularly Sinn Fein: the durability of ideology.

Last Tuesday evening, the other leader of Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness, dismissed the republican dissidents as either a collection of criminals, MI5 agents, or simply the deluded.

McGuinness painted this picture of the Real IRA, Oghlaigh na hEireann, or Continuity IRA after a third botched booby-trap bomb attack, this time against a former policeman in Cookstown.

It is undoubtedly true that some dissidents fund their activities via criminality (for all republican movements it was ever thus); there is no doubt that the security services must have penetrated these anti-ceasefire groups at some level and, as history shows, any 'armed struggle' is in the long run doomed to failure, with those that prosecute it either leading to Maghaberry prison or possibly even Milltown cemetery.

However, it is an uncomfortable fact that many of those signing up to join these organisations are volunteers driven by a sense of ideological commitment to the cause of a united Ireland, rather than any personal gain.

They have been reared in a culture where the memory of men in masks brandishing guns to advance political causes is still revered. They were told from the time some of them were on their mother's knees about 'freedom's sons', the 'glorious dead', the recalcitrant minorities, those still attached to he 'legion of the rearguard', who kept the flame of armed republicanism alive even in times when Ireland seemed to be leaving its violent past behind.

No one in this small, enclosed biosphere ever told them that this project was never going to work in the first place - not in 1956, not in 1969, and not now in 2010.

The simple, emotional lionising of those that went before is enough to convince a minority of the young today among the nationalist underclass to have another go.

Of course, Gerry Adams has more than a point when he reminds us that, electorally speaking, the dissidents lack support and that, conversely, northern nationalists overwhelmingly back Sinn Fein's peaceful political strategy.

The Sinn Fein president issued a challenge to Martin Connolly in the light of his refusal to condemn the attempted murder of his niece: "Let him go forward at the next election. At the time when he left the party, it was on a bogus run against our position about policing, but the electorate will have their say on that in due course."

On that, Adams is probably right - unless voting trends are dramatically reversed, Sinn Fein will take back Councillor Connolly's seat in next year's scheduled local government elections.

The vast majority of nationalists do no want a return to the past. Nor do they give any succour to the three main anti-ceasefire organisations. Yet electoral strength (or, to be more accurate, the lack of it) has never been a deterrent to republican 'armed struggle'.

Remember those opening lines of the 1916 Easter Proclamation, which sparked a rising that in its initial phase did not have democratic support: "Irishmen and women in the name of God and the dead generations . . ."

Recall, too, that when the IRA ended its border campaign in 1962, it actually criticised the Irish people, in its final communique, for not being ready for national revolution. Terrorism has always been, in essence, an elitist pastime conducted in the main by those that know what's best for the people. Depending on your theology/ philosophy, God either doesn't exist, or at least seeks no legitimacy through the ballot box.

It is that other part of the first sentence Padraig Pearse read out at Dublin's GPO, those 'dead generations', which still haunts us from the grave. For this sullen, angry, and alienated minority within a minority currently engaged in mayhem and for now attempted murder, the 'business' is still unfinished.

With apologies to Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin, the songs these children of the ceasefire learned on their streets lauding past fighters and prisoners remain the same.

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