Michelle O’Neill presents herself as a symbol of a changing, more tolerant and empathetic society. The 16-year-old who sat her GCSEs days after giving birth and now wants to be “first minister for everyone” in Northern Ireland. It’s a personal story of triumph over adversity perfect for 2022.
What a pity this same woman’s views on terrorism seem hopelessly locked in the brutal sectarianism of the 1970s. How depressing that despite years at the heart of power-sharing and peace processing and political spin-doctoring, she cannot even attempt a more nuanced take than “at the time there was no alternative” to IRA violence.
That in an evolving society, in an era where the past is viewed through a critical lens, there remains a myth forever exempt from revisionism, fresh perspective, lived experience.
Realistically when Sinn Fein vice-president O’Neill continues to commemorate the IRA, there’s little she can say to bring solace to its victims. But like all politicians she has a responsibility not to add to the pain of all those still suffering due to the Troubles. Her podcast with Mark Carruthers caused huge hurt. Saying you wished “so many people didn’t have the horrible experience they had” while also maintaining there was no other way is incredibly crass. It’s just a long way of saying ‘tough’.
If we gave each victim of loyalist and republican violence the attention they deserve, we’d be talking for years. Cruel, cowardly and utterly pointless killings were carried out by all sides.
But since we’re talking about the IRA, let’s consider a few of those who apparently had to be killed to get us to this point: nurse Marie Wilson, squeezing her father’s hand under the rubble at Enniskillen; teacher Mary Travers shot dead leaving chapel; census taker Joanne Mathers gunned down in Derry; nun Catherine Dunne killed by a bomb; Margaret Perry, boyfriend of an IRA man, bludgeoned to death; RUC officer Colleen McMurray killed by a mortar; alleged informer Caroline Moreland, tortured then killed.
Of course, there was an alternative – John Hume never lifted a gun and leaves a greater legacy.
It’s the path the vast majority of Catholics, Protestants and neither took. The path of trying to live the sort of life people lived everywhere else in the advanced wealthy democracies of western Europe. The path of working at jobs, bringing up children, and having friends from all so-called sides. It’s that extraordinary resilience that should be lauded as the real heroism.
Instead O’Neill’s narrative feeds the “Disneyfication” of the IRA, responsible for about half of the 3,600 Troubles’ dead. Now, a new generation sing songs celebrating its murders. Twitter trolls mock victims, trying to rewrite history and justify Bloody Friday or Claudy.
But it doesn’t wash. Colin Worton, whose brother Kenneth was among 10 murdered Protestant workmen, cut through the guff: “At Kingsmill it was not a case of shooting armed men in a fair fight. My brother and his friends were armed only with lunchboxes and flasks.”
Lined up by their minibus, they sought to protect their Catholic workmate, terrified the attackers were loyalists who’d kill him, just as they’d slain the Reavey and O’Dowd brothers a day earlier. As Seamus Heaney pointed out, it’s these noble, courageous transactions that ultimately define us.
We don’t need myth-making about the past, thanks. What we need is honesty. We all see now how murky it was. We know now some of the occasions of collusion, just as we know the surprising extent of Army infiltration of the IRA ranks, just as we know the dreadful executions carried out to conceal it. We know of Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy. No-one has clean hands.
O’Neill’s comments aren’t a new crisis, but the fallout gnaws away at our collective sense of moving forward together. We need to get to a better place. Above all, to avoid endlessly retraumatising victims.
Whatever happens with our dirty war, ex-combatants will never want to line up to receive medals, bask in glory. Proud? Ex-prisoners from both sides have told me they rue the day they got involved. Wasted years inside, shunned on the outside. Sold a con, let down, betrayed, used.
If we acknowledge that most people rejected violence, we also must acknowledge there are those who’d never have been involved if they hadn’t been engulfed by conflict, felt frightened, compelled or coerced into whichever “cause” adorned their gable walls.
O’Neill’s father was a former IRA prisoner. Two cousins were in the IRA, one killed by the SAS, the other injured by them. Bonds of family loyalty run deep.
But as Dame Arlene Foster discovered before her, being “first minister for everyone” brings the most testing of moments and huge responsibilities. It’s not a soundbite, it’s a mindset.
Foster wrestled with the decision but finally attended the funeral of Martin McGuinness, who’d provided the graveside oration at the man she believed tried to murder her father.
Leadership in Northern Ireland is about working tirelessly for reconciliation. Nothing else.
The kind of change O’Neill talks about can only occur if she and those like her actually make it happen. There have been positive advances made by Sinn Fein such as attending jubilee events. Not all republicans will have welcomed these gestures but making them showed outreach, confidence and vision.
But this stuff has to happen every single day and keep on happening even when it is rebuffed.
Of course this applies to all of us, and to unionists as well. But surely it applies pointedly to republicans?
In his letter to a dying Martin McGuinness Lord Trimble wrote that the difficulties with peace then would have been faced with something like optimism had McGuinness been well. That’s an astonishing comment from a unionist to a republican.
But that McGuinness legacy is what Michelle O’Neill could aspire to emulate. To be that as a woman. To be that leader. To be that republican.
There’s an inspirational narrative in O’Neill’s own story. Being pregnant at 16 must have been daunting. She said that not everyone at her Catholic grammar school was “supportive”. Some prayed over her “like…I had sinned”.
But there is a consensus now from St Patrick’s Academy that those days are gone and that we live in more enlightened times. What a shame that Michelle O’Neill’s view of terror is still locked in the past and seems destined to remain so off-putting and distressing.