Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Sinn Fein left in a dilemma with its condemnation of violence and policing

Martina Anderson
Martina Anderson
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

The late night stabbing of a teenage boy at the site of an anti-internment bonfire in Belfast's New Lodge is a reminder, if any were needed, of how easily political and community leaders can lose control of a situation once passions are inflamed.

It starts with sporadic unrest, escalates to nightly riots and attacks on the police with petrol bombs and rocks, and soon the delinquents behind the mayhem are having stand up rows with elected local representatives who dare to ask them to take a step back.

No one can pretend they don't know where this leads. A similar escalation of tensions in Derry's Creggan ended with Lyra McKee losing her life after a prolonged period of trouble. How soon the well-meaning vow of "never again" is forgotten.

Sinn Fein has strongly condemned the "anti-social" elements breaching the peace. Its message to troublemakers is the same as that shouted by local residents at two young men as they climbed the bonfire: "You're only making things worse."

For all that, the party's spokespersons sound, when addressing the media, as if they're floundering in the face of this grassroots outburst of incoherent rage, and wondering how many young people they're losing to a dissident mindset, if not to the dissidents themselves.

Half of these deluded defenders of the bonfire appeared to be drunk, or worse. There's no reasoning with people who are off their heads.

But there were plenty of other individuals with more sinister motives, standing in the shadows, waiting their chance. There was a time when the Provos could have brought in a few hard men to turn the violence on and off like the proverbial tap. Those days seem to be long gone.

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Sinn Fein deserves some credit for standing up to the hoods. What would be equally productive is for republicans to honestly consider what message they've been sending out in recent times. Every time republican spokespersons laud the Provisional IRA campaign as a noble act of resistance - yelling "tiocfaidh ar la" to fire up the masses, as Martina Anderson tried to do at the recent hunger strikers commemoration - it becomes harder to urge others to keep a cool head.

Bringing trouble on to the street always led to the same ugly scenes. It hasn't suddenly become a bad thing. Refusing to acknowledge that is what puts Sinn Fein on the horns of a dilemma. How to celebrate the violence of the past whilst not encouraging violence in the future, when it's exactly the same?

Years go by, and they're never any closer to answering that question. That's why they struggle when hotheads in the community demand to know how Sinn Fein can call themselves real republicans when they're not also flinging themselves like lemmings off the metaphorical cliff in defence of a pile of wood.

Young people in republican and loyalist districts alike have been brought up to regard every setback as proof that their very culture and identity is under threat, and to over react accordingly. The louts risking a breakdown of law and order over a bonfire grew up at Sinn Fein's knee, and the tragedy is that they're still being drip-fed on the same old diet of cynical obfuscation.

Even whilst welcoming the arrest of suspects for the stabbings on Thursday night, Gerry Kelly was complaining that the police missed a chance to "defuse the situation" by not moving in to remove the bonfire when it was lower. Had the PSNI been too heavy-handed, and trouble had been broken out as a result, Kelly would have been the first to blame them for that as well. Sinn Fein can't keep riding two horses simultaneously. It has to choose one or the other before the whole stable ends up in flames again.

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