Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Did hunger strikers really starve themselves to death so that Martina Anderson could, decades later, call herself a political prisoner?

'Kitsch' has been defined as a way of seeing the world which wallows in cheap emotion. That's pretty much Sinn Fein down to a 'T', writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Martina Anderson speaking at the republican rally at the weekend, with Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald watching on
Martina Anderson speaking at the republican rally at the weekend, with Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald watching on
Kevin McKenna
WB Yeats
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

If Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald had told a republican rally at the weekend that Britain's days in Northern Ireland were "numbered", one could have put it down to an excess of that juvenile enthusiasm from which republicans south of the border tend to suffer whenever they pop north. It's called going native.

It's something else entirely when Martina Anderson MEP does it. Even she must see how provocative it is to have such a bellicose message delivered by someone who was once jailed across the water for planning a terrorist campaign alongside Brighton bomber Patrick Magee.

To then end with the Provo slogan "Tiocfaidh ar la" only makes it more menacing.

Naturally, Sinn Fein doesn't see it that way. The party genuinely seems to believe Sunday's "national commemoration" of the hunger strikers in Strabane was a dignified remembrance to which no one could possibly object and that it shouldn't be taken as the slightest bit threatening to stand there making the sort of speech that wouldn't have been out of place in the darkest days of the Troubles.

It's this complete lack of self-awareness that amazes every time.

Britain's decision to leave the EU is partly to blame for the growing divide. "Brexit derangement syndrome" has broken out on all sides and there'll be plenty more of the same before the affliction works its way out of the system, one way or another.

What was most striking about Sunday's rally, though, was not so much the sabre-rattling as how toe-curlingly cringe-making the whole thing was.

Sign In

When most people think about the hunger strikers, their principal memory is surely of the tragic waste of life and to despair at the nihilism which egged on young men to starve themselves to death so that Martina Anderson could, decades later, call herself a "political prisoner".

It also brings to mind the brutal, sectarian murders which took place in parallel with, and as a direct result of, the protest.

Many more died outside the H-Blocks than inside them, even if they've been largely forgotten.

Rather than a solemn commemoration of a dreadful part of history, the gathering in Strabane was more like a ceilidh at times. Martina Anderson was dancing in the street. Literally dancing.

Later, there was a concert in town by musical band The Irish Brigade. And why not? Everyone loves a good rebel song now and then. Most of us do so, thankfully, in an ironic way, enjoying the rousing tunes while rolling eyes at the cheesiness of the lyrics.

Tub-thumping speeches at rallies are what happen when those fancies are indulged without any of the aforementioned self-awareness. In those circumstances, you get kitsch.

The German novelist Hermann Broch once defined kitsch as a way of seeing the world which wallows in cheap emotion.

Kitsch, he said, describes things as you'd like them to be, rather than the way they are, relying so much on stock images and phrases from an imaginary past that they rapidly become cliches.

Martina Anderson's performance in Strabane was peppered with such moments, not least the finale, as she shouted "Tiocfaidh ar la" three times in a row while pumping her fist in the air.

She was rousing the crowd with a selection of republicans' greatest hits in the same way as a folk group belting out rebel songs. The drums and berets were all part of the act.

Well, it helps sell more memorabilia in the Sinn Fein online shop.

Among this year's new arrivals - a Bobby Sands sports jersey with his name on the back, like a footballer, along with the number 81. A bargain for only €39.99.

If anyone else was to scoff at this, they'd be accused of being disrespectful; but it's Sinn Fein which is making a mockery of the hunger strikers by marketing them in the manner of a star GAA team. Deep down, it must know it.

That's why, like all those who push oversimplified solutions to ancient problems, Sinn Fein hates two things more than anything else: awkward questions, and being ridiculed.

Once you puncture the sheer ridiculousness of an ideology, it loses its power. The best response would be to laugh at Martina Anderson's giddy belligerence, because it doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. But it has to be, remembering where similar words have led in the past.

On hearing about the recent death of former IRA chief Kevin McKenna, I briefly wondered whether men like that ever ask on their death-beds if all the killing and misery had been worth it, as the poet WB Yeats, writing in the last days of his life, admitted that he was tormented "night after night" by the thought of what his words may have inspired others to do.

Then, I heard Gerry Adams's unrepentant, defiant graveside oration for his departed comrade and realised how stupid it was to ever imagine they'd have enough humility.

Martina Anderson's speech on Sunday was more of the same. Her generation of republicans will never stop sentimentalising the past. If anything, it's getting worse as the distance increases from violence.

Why wouldn't they feel nostalgic about the Troubles? They made it through. They survived. What's disgusting is seeing so many young people around them at these events, having their heads filled with nonsense about the glory of dying for Ireland. Pouring that poison into their ears is child abuse.

If they really want the next generation to reach a ripe old age, stop whipping them up with lies.

In the end, Yeats had no answer to his own question and simply lay in the dark, listening in anguish as an owl dropped out of the sky and took a stricken rabbit; but at least he asked it.

That goes, too, for the anonymous Irish tweeter who's been describing how he recently spoke and interacted with the young man who shot 10 people dead in Ohio on Saturday night and how he's now plagued by the fear that he may have "emboldened him to commit these atrocities", adding: "All I have ever wanted is for people to be free".

He has "Tiocfaidh ar la" in his Twitter bio, too, proving that the lessons of mass shootings aren't only for Americans. Careless talk costs lives.

One slight reassurance is that the applause from the crowd in Strabane on Sunday sounded much more subdued than it would once have been.

Reportedly, there were also some disapproving mutterings about the appropriateness of jigging about so perkily at an event for men who'd starved to death.

People might be prepared to buy a Bobby Sands jersey, but that doesn't mean they'll always buy the bull that goes with it.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph