If republican sentiments about a shared future are genuine, it will take a great deal of self-reflection to nurture a climate of zero-tolerance of toxic abuse
‘Backward knuckleheads.” West Brit.” Some comments to Arlene Foster after sharing my article on stereotyping unionism last week. One user even wrote: “Hope some day the pro Brit Tory lovers in Ireland would accept their Irishness not English pro union crap.” Charming. She was also accused of victimhood for merely suggesting journalists from a nationalist background should seek to “understand the Orange culture rather than demonise it”.
Welcome to the New Ireland, Northern Ireland’s Protestants. Those posting messages like this see absolutely no irony or hypocrisy in urging unionism to partake in conversations around a shared future, when they are incapable of either sharing the present without causing offence, or of making an effort not to do so.
Last week Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan uploaded a Twitter video showing someone singing (badly) the rebel song Seán South from Garryowen at the Limerick hurlers homecoming, while fans, exuberant from the deserved all-Ireland win, waved flags and sang and cheered along. Like last week’s sweeping bonfire criticism, some used the video to wrongly claim the GAA is a sectarian organisation. The behaviour, however, did deserve criticism.
Seán South was an IRA man who was shot trying to raid an RUC barracks in Fermanagh in 1957. Not hard to see why unionists would find the singing of the song offensive, but others also found the spectacle troubling.
Journalist Cathal Mac Coille, in response to Quinlivan’s tweet, posted: “The GAA should be better than this.” In response, social media users wrote “f**k off you west Brit”, and called him “an establishment boyo”, among other insults.
Seán South is a well-known song, sung widely, and although about an IRA attack, few of those who sing it today would be IRA supporters. South was ultra-conservative, even by 1950s standards. Additionally he was anti-Semitic, founded a branch of Fr Denis Fahey’s Maria Duce, and believed movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Gregory Peck were communists, denouncing the American film industry as “Judaeo-Masonic controlled”.
Those who commemorate him generally ignore these facts. Most of those who sing about him have probably never heard them. It’s a persistent problem with romanticisation of “the republican struggle”. Few bother to interrogate the details.
Before anyone accuses me of being the Mary Whitehouse of rebel songs, I’ve sung a fair few myself over the years, guitar in hand, without examining the impact of the words on others. From Kevin Barry to Mairéad Farrell, and everyone in between, there isn’t one that I don’t know or haven’t chanted. When it comes to murder ballads, I was “nursed on a rebel knee”. I then wised up.
We all live on this island. In singing Seán South, not only was there little regard for northern Protestants who despise the IRA of every hue, but neither was there any thought for southern Protestants who generally don’t partake in the triumphalist singing of similar songs.
Depressingly, those who were vocal about bad bonfire behaviour last week issued not a word about the singing of a song venerating an IRA man at a GAA ground — blind spots which only illuminate their perceived hypocrisy.
Such behaviour cements a belief among northern Protestants that they would not be respected in a united Ireland. It is hard to argue with that, based on present evidence. Nationalists would be rightly outraged if a song celebrating the Shankill Butchers was sung at a football match. Why should unionists be expected to tolerate songs about IRA men?
Further, why are we condoning offensive behaviour towards legitimate criticism by failing to challenge it? Take this response to Baroness Kate Hoey: “Hoey ya oul hur (sic) ya this is why we need the United ireland (sic) so we can all sing this together.”
If republican sentiments are sincere about a shared future, then a colossal effort at introspection is required to foster a climate of zero-tolerance of toxic abuse, and to demonstrate empathy.
One missed opportunity toward reconciliation came on Thursday, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Friday, that awful atrocity which saw 22 IRA bombs detonate, killing nine people and injuring 130 others. The trauma caused to civilians was unquantifiable, as smoke engulfed the city centre and bits of bodies were shovelled like silt off Belfast’s streets.
In February, Sinn Féin voted against a motion to commemorate the anniversary, on the grounds they believed a wider “day of reflection” was appropriate. It was unfortunate, and looked mean, given the sheer scale of the horror caused on that day.
In May, Arlene Foster urged people to accept the court findings of another atrocity which took place 50 years ago in Ballymurphy, when she stated: “I commend the families for their tenacity.” It was a generous gesture. Unfortunately, there were no tweets from either Michelle O’Neill or Mary Lou McDonald sending thoughts to Bloody Friday’s families.
On Thursday those families urged former members of the Provisional IRA to come forward with information, to give them some semblance of closure. How refreshing it might have been had Sinn Féin responded with a similar call of their own. They didn’t.
We all have a responsibility to try and heal the hurt caused over decades of conflict. Some — usually those shouting the loudest for reunification — have more ground to cover than others.
It isn’t rocket science, and it shouldn’t be controversial to say so. Singing songs about the IRA’s “patriot dead” isn’t culture, just as burning effigies isn’t. Sinn Féin calling for truth and justice for victims, while not even acknowledging one of the most shameful acts in Northern Ireland’s history, does nothing but fester a weeping sore.
If this new Ireland is the same as the current Ireland, where we will continue to cause hurt to our fellow citizens, either carelessly or deliberately, count me out. There’s nothing patriotic about it.