Belfast Telegraph

Unionists will point to Michelle O'Neill's double standard over Provo and dissident violence, but isn't it better that the Sinn Fein leader supports the rule of law?

As with Martin McGuinness' similar denunciation, the tactically astute thing to do is draw mainstream republicans further along that path - not throw the gesture back in their faces. By Malachi O'Doherty

A Sinn Fein leadership that supports the rule of law is better than one that doesn't. It is easy to spot the anomaly in Michelle O'Neill's condemnation of petrol bombers in Londonderry this week in that she preserves the myth that past petrol bombing - and worse - was all to the good, just what the country needed. But she is not going to change her mind on that.

Neither did Martin McGuinness, who went to his grave proud of the IRA he had led and still rationalising its most grisly violence as, at worst, necessary.

But McGuinness is now a hero of the peace process. His contribution has been recognised by many unionists and Protestant church people.

On Easter Monday O'Neill tweeted that those who had petrol bombed the police should be "brought before the law". And so they should.

Sinn Fein's journey towards this kind of clarity was a difficult one. On the day of the Omagh bomb - August 15, 1998 - the party was slow to condemn mass murder, tried to hold onto the principle that republicans had the right to fight for Irish freedom, even if the Provisional movement had chosen a different course for itself.

Confronted by the untenability of that position the leadership deliberated and approved a statement of condemnation and Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness joined in the heart-rending memorial ceremony a week later.

There was hypocrisy in this. It presumed that the Provisional movement had the exclusive right to validate a bombing as a noble blow in the long struggle.

But, still, it was better that they had done this than that they hadn't.

We might never get them to the point of conceding that the IRA campaign was futile and bloody, but if they will join us in saying that such violence has no legitimacy now and that the police have the legitimate right to contend with it, then that is better. It draws an end to the equivocation.

A further turning-point on the way to this was the statement from McGuinness - Oglach McGuinness - after the murders of soldiers at Masserene Barracks in Antrim in March 2009. He damned the gunmen as "traitors to the island of Ireland". And he stood beside Chief Constable Hugh Orde when he said it.

Yes, you may say this was a bit rich coming from the IRA leader who would have sanctioned hundreds of murders, including that of census collector Joanne Mathers.

But the tactical, politically astute move then was to draw McGuinness further along that line of thinking, not to throw his gesture back in his face.

If that makes the anomaly all the more stark, between approving past violence and condemning present violence, then the burden of that anomaly rests on the shoulders of republicans themselves. It is for them to deal with it: "But, mummy, you said...".

And it is well to be aware that the problem that O'Neill is wrestling with now is the resurgence of activity among dissident republicans.

They have created disturbances in Lurgan and Derry in recent days.

Perhaps more embarrassing for Sinn Fein is that some dissidents are able to initiate votes in councils which draw Sinn Fein members into unnecessary quarrels.

Take the vote in Derry City and Strabane District Council last week. Independent republican Gary Donnelly had urged a vote calling on local schools to ban the British Army from recruiting. This was hardly necessary, since most schools, if there are any, that would pay heed to Donnelly or the wider republican movement, were unlikely to be inviting Army recruiters in anyway. The council has no power to dictate to schools what they do.

The whole question of Army recruitment is entirely outside their remit.

Raising an irrelevant question perhaps even has the potential to encourage some schools to invite the Army in when that was not something they were thinking of doing. So, what did Donnelly gain?

Quite a lot, actually, for a single independent republican beating the old drum.

He got 24 councillors to support the motion, including many from Sinn Fein.

But Sinn Fein is a party that prefers to pick its own issues. This one drew the wrath of Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie, a former soldier, who reminded Sinn Fein that the person keeping people safe by defusing a dissident bomb is a British soldier.

Donnelly was probably pleased with that response. It points to Provo failure. So much for Brits Out. The Army didn't go; soldiers are still here and will be for as long as dissidents keep making their bombs.

But leaving others to bear the burden of their anomalies isn't easy. Who can feel anything but sympathy and compassion for Jackie Nicholl, who has left the Victims' Forum after discovering that another member whom he had befriended was an unrepentant IRA bomber?

Robert McClenaghan (60) was appointed to the forum in 2017 because his grandfather Philip Garry was killed in the UVF McGurk's bar bombing in 1971. Mr Nicholl's baby was killed a week after that atrocity in an attack many at the time saw as a retaliation.

McClenaghan sees no anomaly here at all. He is proud to have been an IRA bomber and also to have campaigned for fuller disclosure about the bomb that killed his grandfather and 13 others.

Presumably, he has known all along what contempt his bombing activities attracted.

He doesn't live in a bubble. He has a rationale in which he is not a hypocrite, but he must know that most others do not share it.

We are stuck with this. McClenaghan is unlikely to agree that his own bombing career makes him morally no different from those who killed his grandfather.

Similarly, O'Neill will continue to believe that Provisional IRA violence was commendable and noble, while the same actions carried out by dissidents are "undignified".

Donnelly will continue to tweak the noses of Sinn Fein councillors and call them back to the true cause.

Dissident republicans will continue to plant bombs and we will continue to depend on British soldiers to defuse those bombs.

Young hoodlums will continue to riot. Some of them will grow out of it and some will have their lives ruined by it, whether by injury or arrest or trauma.

Northern Ireland will continue to stumble through its anomalous peace process in the hopes that a future generation will fret less about the past, give up on celebrating murder - if only by forgetting about it - and get on with life.

Belfast Telegraph

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