Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: PSNI event in Derry is cancelled because dissident republicans object... but instead of denunciation coming from the Catholic Church and the SDLP, there is only silence

At least Sinn Fein is saying what is needed about Saoradh threat, which is more than can be said for others in 'civic nationalism', writes Eilis O'Hanlon

The Guildhall in Londonderry which was the venue for the event and (right) republicans taking part in the Saoradh Easter commemoration march in the city
The Guildhall in Londonderry which was the venue for the event and (right) republicans taking part in the Saoradh Easter commemoration march in the city
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

When Strabane native Michael Barr, a member of the so-called 'New IRA', was shot dead in a Dublin bar in 2016 by associates of a criminal gang linked to the INLA, activists from dissident republican group Saoradh said the blame lay squarely with "the southern state and its proxies" for trying to "draw republicanism, at a time when it is strong and resurgent, into a counter-revolutionary trap".

Well, of course they did. Heaven forbid that these towering intellectual geniuses should take responsibility for a sordid situation which they themselves had helped create.

The mixture of self-importance and paranoia in that statement was on display again this week as Saoradh bullied members of a youth group in Derry out of taking part in a conference at the city's Guildhall because it would have involved members of the PSNI.

Having no arguments worth the name, dissident republicans' only recourse is to silence those who would tackle problems through dialogue, rather than brute force.

It's not even as if the event, in which Long Tower Youth and Community Centre was due to participate, was a recruitment drive by the PSNI. It was simply a public meeting at which young people would be able to express their views on various issues around policing. As such, it would have been bizarre for the police not to be there.

How else are communities traditionally hostile to authority meant to make their voices heard directly?

On second thoughts, Saoradh, don't answer that. The criminal extremists that they support have already provided ample demonstrations of their preferred methods. The graveyards are a testament to it.

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What's worrying is that this incident may just be the tip of the iceberg. A statement on the group's website on Tuesday insists it acted after being "contacted by a number of concerned parents" and that "in recent months, Saoradh have contacted multiple schools and youth centres in regards to the involvement of British Crown Forces".

How many other people have been strong-armed into pulling out of legitimate community events because these thugs are throwing their weight around?

This tactic of protesting at venues in the hope that events are either cancelled altogether, or that individual participants pull out, is becoming increasingly common. And it's not only apologists for terrorism who engage in the tactic. Pampered university students regularly use it to "no platform" speakers whose opinions they don't like.

In Northern Ireland, though, protest always comes with an added undercurrent of menace, which is what makes this latest incident so sinister. As such, it was refreshing to see Sinn Fein take such a robust stance on the controversy, condemning Saoradh and standing four-square alongside the youth club in question.

It's impossible not to wonder whether party leader Mary Lou McDonald's recent comments about the PSNI having "zero credibility" have muddied that message, but those arguments are for another time.

Right now, Sinn Fein is saying what's needed. Sadly, the same cannot be said for others in the nationalist community who seem to have taken a step back from this issue, as if it has nothing to do with them. Silence is not an option when people are being intimidated.

Where has the SDLP been while all this was going on? The party has still not issued a statement on the matter, despite finding time in recent days to issue Press releases urging the Secretary of State to reform licensing laws.

With local elections on the horizon, ignoring such a huge story seems bizarre, especially when the party leader comes from the city. There's not a single mention of what happened - even on the Derry SDLP Facebook page.

Where, for that matter, are all those "civic nationalists" who last year co-signed a letter to the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, appealing for him to "defend the rights of Irish citizens" in Northern Ireland?

The right to attend meetings at the Guildhall without intimidation is at least as important as a desire to retain EU citizenship.

Indeed, some might argue that rights to free speech and free association underpin all other liberties.

The 1,000 worthies from the worlds of business, law, culture, sport and the wider community who put their names to that letter last November rarely seem to speak out consistently about the problems faced on a day-to-day basis by ordinary Catholics living under the malign surveillance of sectarian militants.

As for the Catholic Church, long gone are the days when priests and bishops engaged with real-life issues.

With their moral authority weakened by child abuse scandals, there's rarely a peep any more from the hierarchy. The message to the faithful is: you're on your own.

That's the only way that "multiple schools and youth centres" in Derry could have been what's politely described as "contacted" by Saoradh without it making a ripple before now. Everyone stays silent, because they don't want to be next. Vulnerable schools and youth clubs can be forgiven for that. But nationalist community leaders have no excuse for not breaking cover to speak out about it.

This collective washing of the hands is actually copper-fastened by the criticism of Saoradh for refusing to negotiate with the youth club before issuing its fatwa.

It gives Saoradh a legitimacy which they do not deserve and have not earned. The problem is not that they refused to negotiate, but that this would ever have been considered a desirable outcome in the first place.

Treating them as legitimate representatives of the community can only lead to further protests.

Put it this way: it's no wonder that a spokesman for Saoradh said they had a "keen desire" to negotiate. Each time they're indulged, they become more emboldened.

Of course, there's another empty chair in this conversation and that's the one belonging to Secretary of State Karen Bradley.

This week, in finally ruling out a "no-deal" Brexit, the British Government effectively confirmed that it has no intention of imposing direct rule on Northern Ireland, despite repeated threats to do so if the DUP and Sinn Fein are unable to agree terms for a return of devolved government.

That has serious implications for the talks process, not least that there is now literally nothing that the Northern Ireland Office can do to force the hand of recalcitrant parties. Far worse is that this repeated abdication of responsibility has created a political vacuum.

When there are no grown-ups left in the room, is it any wonder that activists are making merry mischief in the space that's left? Who's to stop them, after all?

Nationalists at community level need to stand up to dissidents, but the Government has ultimate responsibility to ensure people are safe to go about their business without Saoradh, or anyone else, harassing them.

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