WE IRISH are a people enamoured by plucky underdog myths. Cúchulainn defending Ulster against Queen Maeve’s Connacht hordes. King Billy on his white horse saving Ireland from Rome Rule. Ulster’s blood sacrifice at Gallipoli and the Somme. Modern Ireland rising like a phoenix from the death throes of the 1916 revolutionaries.
A myth is open to a plethora of meanings, some paradoxical. “A myth is like a gun for hire, a mercenary soldier: it can be made to fight for anyone,” according to distinguished American scholar Wendy Doniger.
In life, as with myths, some things simultaneously can be true and untrue. For example, someone might be a paramilitary leader – and also take risks for peace.
Let’s consider Bobby Storey’s funeral this week. It was always going to be contentious. But the jammed West Belfast streets and graveyard last Tuesday also raised legitimate concerns, on public health grounds, in an era of social distancing.
We need to unpick some of the strands here. Those looking on from the Republic are often bewildered by events in the North, yet are ignorant about parallels in the Irish State’s history.
Michael Collins had men killed on his orders, including former comrades. Today, he’s an icon of the Irish State.
This reverence for dead provos seems anachronistic to people in the Republic – another sign that ‘they’ (Northerners) do things differently. Valedictory pomp is integral to Irish history, however. Pádraig Pearse came to prominence delivering the oration at Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s graveside in 1915.
Bobby Storey is one of those people about whom some things simultaneously can be true and untrue. He was what the IRA call a combatant. And he supported the peace. He spent more than 20 years in prison, but upon his release was as an enforcer of the Good Friday Agreement – the muscle keeping in line republicans opposed to the peace process. He wasn’t just brawn. Storey was said to be the IRA’s director of intelligence.
He is largely unknown outside the Republican movement, but without the active backing of people such as him the peace settlement would have floundered. Twenty-two years on since the Good Friday Agreement, there’s a sense in the Republic that peace was inevitable.
Believe me, there is nothing predictable or preordained about conflict resolution. It’s nothing short of a miracle that the Troubles ended – key people took chances, a leap of faith. After all, the Middle East is still a mess despite multiple attempts to find a settlement.
Storey was part of that drive towards peace. We can’t minimise the things he did – he was active during the years when the IRA engaged in a campaign of carnage, with abductions and deaths from shootings and bombings. And he rose through the ranks to become a senior provo, the movement’s director of intelligence.
But during a pandemic, West Belfast turned out in force to mark his passing. Why? Some might say it was to shout ‘Up the ’Ra’. Many others say it was to acknowledge his contribution.
The disconnect between Northern Ireland and the Republic is apparent in the mystification with which people south of the border view republican funerals. Is it deliberate blindness? Is ignorance a choice? We’re a tiny island, after all. It seems that selective amnesia is widespread and wilful in relation to the North.
Sinn Féin leaders have been attacked for flouting social-distancing guidelines. Undoubtedly, people were elbow to elbow. The leadership could have asked the public to stay at home or used its battalion of stewards to move among the crowd and separate them. Also, in excess of a hundred people were in the church.
It was a mistake to suspend the rules for this funeral and implies that rules are for other people. Sinn Féin in government needs to lead by example. Many families were unable to see their loved ones laid to rest as they would have wished during lockdown.
Michelle O’Neill said she was sorry for hurt caused and accepted that no family’s grief mattered more than another’s. It’s a start, but it’s not exactly an admission of error.
Arlene Foster has called on her to step aside while police investigate whether lockdown breaches took place. Except for Sinn Féin, every other party in the power-sharing administration – Alliance and SDLP included – wants her to move aside temporarily. The Deputy First Minister ought to accept the principle of being held accountable and cannot dismiss valid criticism as political point-scoring.
Even apart from the public health issue, unionists must feel dismayed, bitter and let down by such funeral trappings for people who, let’s face it, were trying to kill them. Those thousands of deaths racked up during the Troubles were not inevitable and cannot be disregarded.
Why would such crowds choose to pay their respects to Storey at a time when the advice is not to congregate? Is it because he was behind the 2004 Northern Bank robbery, and was instrumental in helping 38 provos to escape from the ‘escape-proof’ Maze Prison in 1983, the largest jailbreak in Irish or British history? Or is it that he lent his weight to the peace process? Or can both simultaneously be true?
No need for peace if there was no violence, say some. Absolutely. But violence came from various directions during the Troubles. Storey pointed to Bloody Sunday among reasons why he volunteered at the age of 16: in Derry, 14 unarmed civilians, part of a demonstration protesting against internment without trial, were shot dead by British paratroopers running amok.
It took until 2010 for the Savile Inquiry to expose official lies that the dead were gunmen and bombers.
Nevertheless, the IRA became fiendishly adept at violence and Sinn Féin remains reluctant to apologise for its part in the death toll. That said, leaders such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were instrumental in delivering peace. There was no guarantee they’d carry the movement with them.
Reflect on this. Collins didn’t have as much success with the peace settlement he helped to negotiate. Let’s go back to 1922. The treaty which ended the War of Independence was accepted narrowly by Dáil Éireann – but civil war ensued. Former comrades turned their guns on one another.
That’s a bloodthirsty period in Irish history, a blot on our creation myth in which the spirited Irish cast off the mighty British empire – and any wobbles in the Northern post-peace process pale by comparison.
The republican leadership sold the idea of compromise to its rank and file in 1998. It cannot be taken as a given that the foot soldiers were automatically going to put their weapons beyond use and accept the political strategy. Republicans refused to do it in 1922, after all.
In life, as with myths, sometimes most is won when something is lost. Republican funeral displays may be traditional, but in a post-conflict society the time has come to give them up. And let’s go easy on the mythmaking.