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Fear factor Sinn Fein once held is consigned to the past

Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Not that long ago, Sinn Fein ruled republican areas with an iron fist. Little happened without the approval of the party.

Those who disagreed with its outlook generally kept their heads down. It was the wisest option because some who crossed the mainstream republican movement paid a heavy price.

Take a look at the Bogside bonfire and you'll see that's no longer the case.

In the wake of Kevin McGuigan's murder in 2015, Sinn Fein's northern chairman Bobby Storey insisted the IRA was not "the caterpillar that's still there". Rather "it's moved on, it's become a butterfly, it's flew away, it's gone, it's disappeared". Only the naive buy that, but the Provisionals have certainly evolved.

Those who wielded iron bars and baseball bats have either been retired or diverted to other activities. So challenging Sinn Fein doesn't carry the penalties that it once did.

The Bogside bonfire was bedecked with Parachute Regiment and Soldier F banners. In previous years, the 'enemies' identified have been closer to home.

In 2016, the pyre was covered in Union, Orange Order, UVF and Israeli flags and DUP election posters. Joining that lot were images of Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Raymond McCartney and Martina Anderson.

McCartney is a former hunger striker but that counts for nothing with those attending the bonfire. He is seen by them as somebody who has "sold out" republicanism.

Martina Anderson is one of the most high-profile female former prisoners.

The derision in which unionists hold the Sinn Fein MEP for her speech at the hunger strike commemoration in Strabane a fortnight ago is exceeded only by the contempt with which staunch republicans view her jig on the streets at the same event.

She has been accused of dancing on the graves of the 1981 hunger strikers.

Sinn Fein figures were out in force at the Gasyard Feile events to celebrate August 15.

Had they shown up at the bonfire and voiced their disapproval, they would have been given short shrift at best.

At the anti-internment bonfire in the New Lodge, Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly and Caral Ni Chuilin led from the front and joined forces with the PSNI in an attempt to have the pyre removed. Both were on the receiving end of extensive abuse from local youths. Most of those involved with the bonfire were anti-social elements with no politics whatsoever.

But the words of one bonfire builder at the centre of the stand-off will have made uncomfortable reading for Sinn Fein.

"I built the bonfire because the New Lodge did have a lot of people ripped from their homes (during internment), I feel they have to be commemorated," he told the Irish News.

"It's defiance against the British state as well. Republicans still need to be remembered, to this day there are still people in jail.

"I feel like I am standing up for the republican movement, there are people who have abandoned the republican agenda."

He claimed bonfire builders had been offered 250 tickets for a Feile an Phobail event in a bid to divert them from the pyre, but he had refused to go.

In the early years of the peace process, such an offer would likely not be refused - even if it was, nobody would boast about it.

Times have changed. Sinn Fein remains by far and away the dominant political force in republican areas, but its hegemony is not what it once was.

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