Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Why Sinn Fein denouncing dissident violence, while glorifying its Provisional antecedents, is a circle the party can never square

Republicans are merely squabbling over who has the bragging rights to the toxic legacy of the Troubles, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Gerry Adams attends a rally on Monday called in support of the former Sinn Fein president after the attack on his home
Gerry Adams attends a rally on Monday called in support of the former Sinn Fein president after the attack on his home
SF President Mary Lou McDonald
The aftermath of the attack on Gerry Adams's home

The "industrial, firework-type devices" which were thrown recently at the homes of senior republicans Gerry Adams and Bobby Storey in west Belfast may have been small in comparison to those which the organisation endorsed by those two gentlemen routinely launched in the direction of its enemies, but they were large enough to potentially cause serious injury, or worse.

In calling a rally at the old Andersonstown barracks site on Monday to show solidarity with two veterans under attack by dissident upstarts, Sinn Fein was only doing what any party would do in the circumstances.

It was hard, all the same, not to be reminded of the old adage that you should never waste a good crisis, even if the speech by new leader Mary Lou McDonald did not, it has to be said, quite reach the rhetorical heights that might have been expected.

She's a fearsome advocate when it comes to denouncing the Republic's social and economic ills, but the formulaic anti-partitionist stuff still feels like a role which she's clumsily learning how to play.

Mary Lou's address also raised more questions than it answered, not least about the continuing hypocrisy of Sinn Fein denouncing dissident republicans while openly celebrating the violence of the IRA. That circle stubbornly refuses to be squared.

The best that the Dublin woman could come up with is that "those intent on this disruption have no political plan, have no political strategy, have no vision for the future". Is she saying that it would be justifiable to engage in mass civil disruption, as in Derry of late, or to throw bombs at people's houses, as in Belfast, if the people behind it did have such a strategy or vision?

Because, if so, then the bad news is that dissidents do have a plan. It might be crazier than a bag of cats, but it is a plan and Sinn Fein should know that better than anyone, because it's the exact same plan which it championed for decades before deciding to give constitutional alternatives a go.

The so-called "physical force tradition" is hardly a recent innovation. Indeed, Sinn Fein directly attributes the progress made by the nationalist community to the armed campaign of the Provisional IRA.

As long as the party's fresh generation of leaders keeps repeating this toxic lie, then dissident republicans will be able to wallow in the same iconography. That genie cannot be expected to meekly crawl back in the bottle just because its presence has become an embarrassing hindrance to those who once happily pulled out the cork and released it.

Mary Lou McDonald tried to sidestep that glaring contradiction by drawing on a familiar formula: "Unlike the cowards who attacked their family homes, Gerry and Bobby are genuine republicans."

This distinction between who is and is not a "genuine" republican, or who has the right to call themselves by that term, is not the solution to the problem of internecine violence. It's the cause of it.

Dissident republicans think in exactly the same way - namely that they are the "real" republicans, and their opponents are heretics damaging the true faith.

One of the first groups to appear after the Provo ceasefire of 1997 pointedly called itself "The Real IRA" to take on that mantle of authenticity. These squabbles over who has the right to the crown of Irish republicanism are as ancient as the hills.

Historian Brian Hanley and journalist Scott Millar co-authored a book about the Official IRA and Workers' Party. It describes how, in the 1960s, younger members of the nationalist community were turned away from an Easter commemoration for wearing Celtic rather than GAA jerseys, on the grounds that they were ... you guessed it ... "not real republicans".

Republican Sinn Fein, which split from the main party in 1986 on the issue of absentionism, still claims to represent the only "real" republicans.

The late Martin McGuinness was even warned that he wasn't welcome at the paramilitary funeral in Derry in 2015 of Peggy O'Hara, mother of INLA hunger striker Patsy O'Hara. He was considered a traitor, too. At the age of 76, Peggy stood for election on a platform to "Smash Stormont", accusing Sinn Fein of accepting a "partitionist settlement".

Mary Lou may be the latest player to take to the field and join in this never-ending political game, but she's far from the first and certainly won't be the last.

Her strangest argument to Monday's crowd was that "those involved have no right to claim to be Irish republicans because, in their sectarianism and their anti-social activities, they are the very opposite of republicanism".

In that case, as she must know, the Provisional IRA were also the opposite of republicans. It's absurd to say "real" republicans wouldn't take part in anti-social, or sectarian, activities when that's exactly what the republicans she does consider "real" enthusiastically did.

Unfortunately, it got worse.

"Let me be absolutely clear here today," Mary Lou continued. "The people who launched these attacks are enemies of our community."

This is a classic line of attack used by hardline political groups against those who challenge their authority.

It goes right back to the French revolutionary Robespierre's assertion that the government during the Reign of Terror "owes nothing to the enemies of the people but death".

The Nazis were equally fond of the term. Chairman Mao, too. Lenin also denounced his own opponents as "enemies of the people". The idea is to turn anyone being described that way into a persona non grata.

If dissidents are enemies of the people, then so were members of Provisional IRA during the long years that Gerry Adams and Bobby Storey were directing the republican movement.

Why, then, does Sinn Fein keep exalting them, while pretending to be as horrified by violence as any Victorian lady at the sight of a bare ankle?

The root of Sinn Fein's problem is that dissidents refuse to take orders from their elders and betters. In that, they've had some powerful teachers.

When the Real IRA joined with other dissident groups in 2012 to form the "New IRA", a statement from the group's self-styled army council declared: "The IRA's mandate for armed struggle derives from Britain's denial of the fundamental right of the Irish people to national self-determination and sovereignty." Now where could they possibly have got that nonsensical idea?

It's a mystery all right and there was nothing said at Monday's rally to challenge that mythology.

Irish republicans are merely arm-wrestling over who has the best claim on that sick legacy.

They're also the only ones who think it's worth fighting over.

Belfast Telegraph

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