Dissidents must hear true voices of the past
Gerry Adams' continuing pretence that the IRA had a 'good war' does nothing to discourage the new generation of republicans, writes Malachi O'Doherty
Sinn Fein has to change its argument against republican dissidents. It would not have impressed Gerry Adams when he was young and it is not going to impress republican purists who think that they should be carrying on the same struggle he then led.
Gerry says that the Provisional IRA was right to launch its campaign and that it achieved political progress through it.
And when other republicans come out and express remorse for what they did, the Sinn Fein leadership dismisses them as having personal problems and issues.
He is at peace with himself and any former IRA killer who regrets the past is shown little option but to leave the movement, or be quiet. What modern Sinn Fein should be saying to the purists is this: it wasn't worth it; we didn't get what we wanted, but we learnt that it is not possible to achieve a united Ireland by those means; we were infiltrated by informers and you will be too; you will spend decades in jail and you will find it hard to put your life back together afterwards, when your war is over and you have reached the same conclusion as ourselves.
They should be saying that many of their members are dying young, some are depressed and alcoholic. And the pattern is the same in the other paramilitary groups.
When you are 50 it is not easy to reflect on the fact you killed people and is particularly galling to remember past violence if you admit it achieved so little.
These are hard things to own up to. So it is understandable that Gerry Adams faces the cameras to talk about Jesus and assert that he is at peace with himself.
Maybe he is at peace with himself. Others are not, and they should be allowed their voice, not just because it might bring some relief to themselves but because their account of their experience is the most important message that the new militants have to hear. In Gerry's day, there were old republicans like Joe Cahill, Billy McKee and his own father who could endorse the value of armed struggle.
Without that endorsement, there could not have been the eruption of the Provisionals, most of whom hadn't republican tradition in their families and would not have dreamed a year earlier of joining the IRA.
We do not now have that strong body of older republicans saying that the war must go on, but we have something that is nearly as toxic; we have senior republicans in public life reflecting constantly on what a good thing their struggle was and sneering at former comrades who cast doubt in that vision. Their only dispute with the purists is the political argument that a resumed campaign will not work and is not wanted.
That is little different from the argument the SDLP put to the Provisionals through the 70s and 80s and the Provisionals know better than anyone how easy it is to rebut that. What is needed is an argument from personal experience which tells the new generation of enthusiasts for war that it leads nowhere but into grief, betrayal and political compromise.
Imagine the impact Gerry Adams might have had on Channel Four if he had delivered the insights the producers no doubt expected of him when he talked about Jesus. He might have said he knows what it is like to be fired by a sense of mission and to be touted on by those nearest to you, but that, in the end, he was unable to stick with absolutist, life-sacrificing commitment to the pure ideal; he preferred to settle terms and survive, and, what do you know, he is glad he did. For that is his experience.
But instead he has to keep saying that the Provisional campaign was heroic and good and driven by high ideals and that is a message that has the power to inspire those who want it to continue. He has to argue that it achieved political results, yet it settled for terms that were on offer in 1973. But it wouldn't matter if he was allowed that conceit if all that was at stake was his own self-regard; if there was no resumed violence.
If the IRA campaign was truly finished, Gerry might be allowed the personal fantasy that he fought a good war. But the campaign is back on.
We are now living in a time like 1970. Read the papers of that time, as I did for my book The Telling Year, and what you find is this universal sense that violence is a series of incidents rather than a pattern. The depth of the problem had not sunk in. We are now living with a Real IRA campaign which, though it is unlikely to match the scale of the Provisional campaign, is certainly much worse than those campaigns of Eta or many other active groups.
And what do we hear from those republicans who left violence behind? We hear trite remarks about "micro groups with no mandate" as if it mattered to the Provisionals in their day that few people supported them. We hear demands that the dissidents come out and make their case to the people - as if the IRA of 1970 would have debated politics with the SDLP.
What we need to hear is the clear message from republicans who killed that they now regret it.
And we are hearing it.
Brendan Hughes who led the Belfast IRA in the early 1970s and was OC in the Maze wept in front of former comrades and had to be comforted by them. Dolours Price says she now wants to help find the bodies of the Disappeared, but, more significantly, that she can't stomach the lies about the past. Richard O Rawe, who was PRO in the Maze during the hunger strikes, argues that Gerry Adams prolonged that protest for political advantage.
Antony McIntyre has written about standing in the dock watching the grief on the face of the father of the man he shot.
What all these people have in common, aside from their determination to be frank about how the armed struggle brought so little, is that they are all reviled by the Sinn Fein leadership for undermining the argument that armed struggle brought peace and justice and equality.
They are regarded as traitors when, if fact, they are saying things more true to the reality of the past.
It is not the voices of contented old soldiers that the dissidents need to hear now.
It is the voices of older, wiser people who would show them the damage and the grief.