Belfast Telegraph

Why McElduff 'resignation' symbolises victory of modernisers over militarists in Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein may have disowned the most shameful part of the so-called armed struggle, but president-elect Mary Lou McDonald still faces awkward questions about future direction, says Malachi O'Doherty

The 'resignation' - if we can call it that - of Barry McElduff was a seismic event, the significance of which is not yet clear. The old art of Kremlinology (by which Western intelligence agencies used to interpret moves within the leadership of the Soviet Union) is nothing compared to the creative insight required to work out what is happening within Sinn Fein and the IRA.

One problem is that we are all now supposed to imagine that the IRA, like a butterfly, has flown away and has no presence on the political scene. This despite a report prepared two years ago to feed into what became known - laughably - as the Fresh Start, which said the IRA did exist, that it had a political agenda and that many of its members assumed that it had direct control over Sinn Fein.

What passed for assurance to the contrary at the time was the word of "Oglach" (volunteer) Martin McGuinness that he was controlled by no one.

Had he deployed his military title at the time, we might have had greater clarity about his meaning.

In an ordinary political party, McElduff would have been toast on the Monday after his video.

I said on Frank Mitchell's U105 programme that morning, after hearing Declan Kearney on Good Morning Ulster describe McElduff's behaviour as "indefensible", that he was certain to go.

And I said that with confidence, because I am used to treating Sinn Fein as a single, coherent organism, in which all members speak from the same script.

If Kearney was sending a signal through the media that McElduff was finished, then he was finished.

But there had been intimations of other readings of the situation the day before. Mary Lou McDonald had "liked" a tweet by John McAreavey defending McElduff, assuring us that he was a gentle person who would harm no one and who had the greatest integrity.

And then the ruling came that the offender was to get a meaningless three-month suspension. Political common sense had been overruled by a higher interest, whatever that was.

Gerry Adams, the outgoing "Uachtaran" (president) of Sinn Fein, said nothing, but we know some of his inviolable principles. One of them is that he will always cover for the IRA - even at the expense of political damage to Sinn Fein.

One may assume that he gave the IRA assurances, in return for its support for the peace process, that he would never undermine its legitimacy.

After the inquiry into the murders of senior RUC officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan, Adams said in the Dail that those IRA men who killed them had been doing their duty, as they saw it. He defended the tax-dodger 'Slab' Murphy as a "good republican" who was "not a criminal".

When he spoke of the murder of Tom Oliver, the Louth farmer murdered by the IRA after he reported the finding of weapons on his land, Adams said that there should be no investigation into the killing - this despite the fact that Sinn Fein was campaigning for prosecutions of British soldiers.

So, even when it makes him look inconsistent and embarrasses him and his party colleagues in the Dail, working away to persuade the Irish electorate that the shadow of the gunman has receded, even then Adams will speak up for the IRA.

And one must suppose that that is what happened when the question came before him and his colleagues in the leadership of what to do about Barry McElduff, who had succumbed to black humour about a sectarian massacre, or perhaps hadn't; had just blundered into an accidental black joke.

Of course, the IRA denies it conducted the Kingsmill massacre, but we all know that is a lie. Still, it stands over some lies and waives others. It persists in the lie that it did not bomb Claudy in September 1972; it has owned up to the accidental bombing of Short Strand and killing eight people there that same year, though the lie at the time that this had been a loyalist bomb did much to heighten sectarian tension.

Couldn't the IRA have settled for McElduff being dispensed with? Not if the follow-up was going to be the formal condemnation of the Kingsmill massacre by leading Sinn Feiners, and that is what would have followed.

The problem was that it followed anyway, when John O'Dowd went on BBC Northern Ireland's The View.

And that creates another question for O'Dowd and Sinn Fein, now that it has endorsed the position O'Dowd took by dropping McElduff.

If Kingsmill was shameful, what about Bloody Friday, the murder of Jean McConville, the battering to death of Paul Quinn and literally hundreds of other atrocities?

O'Dowd's remarkable words on The View and the subsequent inevitable discarding - however elegantly - of McElduff opened a line of discussion that the IRA and its staunchest defenders can't want. But it is also a debate which the political leadership of Sinn Fein will have to concede some ground on to preserve its credibility.

The military interest and the political interest were held in close combination by Gerry Adams. It seems unlikely that any future leader of Sinn Fein will be able to sustain that.

And we assume, of course, that the future leader of Sinn Fein will be Mary Lou McDonald.

We'll know if there is a contender tomorrow - the closing date for nominations.

Whoever leads the party next will have to accept that Sinn Fein's evolution away from the IRA has further to go. Adams took it part of the way, persuading the 'army council' to open space in which the party could grow, unhindered by having to defend atrocities.

He then persuaded it to end the campaign and to decommission substantial stocks of weapons - but all on the understanding that Sinn Fein would never disown the IRA campaign.

Sinn Fein must uphold the principle that the IRA's armed struggle was a good and necessary contribution to securing peace and justice for the nationalist people of Northern Ireland, however shaky that case is.

This week it has disowned a part of that campaign, albeit the most shameful part, the part it never really wanted to be associated with in the popular memory anyway.

Now the question for McDonald is whether she can hold the line there and insist she is not ashamed of the Shankill bombing, the shooting of civilians fleeing the Bayardo Bar bombing, the execution of supposed informers fingered by the chief informer Freddie Scappaticci.

For shame, once admitted to the discussion, has much to say that has gone unsaid for far too long.

Malachi O'Doherty is the author of Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life, published by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99

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