Belfast Telegraph

Why Micheal Martin is a key unionist ally against resurgent republicanism

If the DUP want to see off Sinn Fein, they need to adopt the tactics that defeated the IRA: hit them hard, often and from different angles

By William Matchett

Courageous security forces crushed the Provisional IRA. If Northern Ireland is to prosper, courageous unionists need to crush Sinn Fein.

Tribalism is the Provos' genome. They tried to destroy the state by keeping its two communities apart and distrustful of each other. Sinn Fein has the same genetics. The complete Provo set was violence and hypocrisy. They denied their dirtiest deeds, blamed others and silenced the opposition.

Effective security ended the terrorism, but not the duplicity. That was for a British Prime Minister.

But Tony Blair lacked the bottle to make the Provos atone for their atrocities. The Belfast Agreement was a job half-done. Local politicians must finish it.

The task is harder for 20 years of republican "rights and equality" fairytales that a political process moved out of the fiction section and turned into bestsellers.

From redefining victim to rewriting the past, the "Ourselves Alone" cult have got their way and flourished for it. Given an inch, they've taken a mile. Morality and the truth have been turned upside down.

Like the worst years of the Troubles for security, unionism's mission looks impossible. The current big test is the Irish Language Act - yet another Sinn Fein-manufactured crisis and brightest red line in the current political impasse.

Sinn Fein politicised the Irish language to make it difficult for unionists to accept. Unionists would do well to copy the best bits of the security solution - hit the right spot hard, often and from different angles.

Provos were arrested with a regularity that shocked the army council far more than the nationalist community. Even on the rare occasions when the SAS killed "volunteers", the nationalist reaction was muted.

As long as security's attention was on the right people - and in the intelligence war we got very good at this - Catholics were not that bothered, especially those in impoverished areas living under the Provo jackboot.

An unpopular "armed struggle" could not cope. More "volunteers" were being put in prison than could be replaced. Having started the Troubles by declaring war on the state, they sued for peace. Loyalist terror groups followed. The crisis was over.

Or, as my friend, IRA leader, "informer" and author Sean O'Callaghan put it in describing local security forces: "They were of the soil, as their enemies in the IRA were, and they proved more resolute and fearless in protecting their children, homeland and way of life than those who opposed them. They were often frustrated by having to observe the rule of law, but it proved the right way. They were determined to outwit and outlast the IRA - and they did."

The bad bits of the security solution are also relevant. Internment, for instance, was a poorly conceived catch-all mess that outraged nationalists and, as their anger swelled, so did the ranks of the Provos.

To hurt militant republicanism is to understand it. An example in the political arena is Micheal Martin. He hits Sinn Fein where it hurts. The Fianna Fail leader speaks in simple right and wrong terms, lifting the debate out of tribal politics and pulling Sinn Fein out of their comfort zone.

Sinn Fein's fatal flaw is the past. Hypocrisy's enemy is the truth.

Micheal Martin is repulsed by a republican reign of terror in the Troubles and condemns "cult-like" figures in Sinn Fein.

He slams Provo murders as inexcusable, recently highlighting the horrific case of Tom Oliver (43), a Co Louth farmer executed by the Provos in 1991.

They claimed he was a police informer. Tom Oliver's family (he had seven children) was afraid to speak out in fear of retribution.

Torturing to death Tom Oliver was "politically motivated" and the offenders should not be pursued, according to Gerry Adams. Sinn Fein does not want any justice system to investigate Provo killings, but to investigate only the ones that they pick.

Micheal Martin has made it clear that Fianna Fail will not enter a coalition with Sinn Fein to form a government in the next election - a case of "do what I say, not what I do" when it comes to the "north", which typifies the huge challenge facing the DUP.

Micheal Martin is a Jack Lynch, or Liam Cosgrave, Taoiseachs who detested the Provos. Not since Gerry Fitt, whom the Provos despised and went to great length to undermine, have unionists seen a nationalist leader like Micheal Martin. And, in my opinion, the SDLP and Northern Ireland have been the poorer for it.

On the crucial issue of the legacy of the past, the SDLP followed Sinn Fein's orbit. Although the Adams factor has hardened the unionist mainstream, one criticism of the DUP is that a polarised electorate also suits them and, as a result, they were too cosy with their Sinn Fein partners when in government.

For many, only Jim Allister of the TUV was hitting Sinn Fein's weak spot with any real force, or frequency.

Within unionism, agreeing an Irish Language Act is contentious. Refusing it, however, hurts the nationalist community, not Sinn Fein. This is the dilemma.

Not only is political courage about being fully committed to hitting the right target, but also taking care not to harm the other side, not rubbing their noses in it when your side has gained and not throwing cheap shots. The damage caused to David Trimble's UUP is a reminder of just how hard this is to pull off. But it is the right way.

I have not felt threatened, or disadvantaged, by the Irish language, and I say this as someone who works in Maynooth alongside friends who are fluent Irish speakers. Indeed, the best television documentary I have watched is in Irish.

An Tost Fada (The Long Silence) is about a Protestant enclave in Co Cork that Tom Barry's IRA persecuted in the War of Independence. The main character is George Salter (92), a Church of Ireland canon and fluent Irish speaker.

I met George at a screening of An Tost Fada at a history festival in Skibbereen and was inspired by his faith and grace. Before it started, an academic handed out leaflets against it - I took several - and, when it ended, a Shinner went on a rant.

I am not concerned with the Irish language being formalised in law and sensibly implemented. My concern is that it will be corrosively divisive. In other words, it becomes an extortionately expensive, unequal and highly controversial statutory arrangement, because this is what happened for a similar Sinn Fein red line on the past that has, effectively, silenced negative views of the Provos.

The DUP are undoubtedly aware of this in contemplating how to sell a deal that includes an Irish language Act to their constituents. I am sure Arlene Foster will want the unionist community - particularly working-class Protestant areas - back-paid for a political process that has heavily favoured nationalists, in addition to moving forward on a fairer footing.

Hypocrisy is crippling the political system and Northern Ireland, holding back everything, from health and education to the economy and culture. To halt this, regardless of Stormont rule, or direct rule, a mandatory coalition, or voluntary coalition, the set-up for the past needs changed to a level playing field and the ashes of Gerry Adams' Trojan horses scattered on it. And, if a crisis shelves Stormont again, let it be for a red line that reads: MLAs who condone murder cannot get into government.

As I said, it takes nerve.

  • Dr William Matchett is the author of Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA. He is a senior researcher at the Edward M Kennedy Institute for Conflict Prevention at Maynooth University.

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