THIS is how Declan Kearney opened his speech in the House of Commons last Wednesday: “British colonial interests and successive government policy have been at the root of political conflict in Ireland, and between our countries for centuries.
“British government strategy and its threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ in the period of the 1921 negotiations after the Tan War was the midwife for the Irish Civil War, and the catalyst for partition.
“That led to the onset of unionist one party misrule in the North of Ireland for 50 years. The constitutional, political and economic structure of the northern state was the context for over 30 years of war and armed struggle.”
Now then, do you see what he did there? He very neatly managed to justify the IRA’s campaign by blaming it all on the British and the unionists. So, let’s get a few things clear. Northern Ireland (yes Declan, that’s the name of the country) exists because a majority who live here wish it to exist. As far as I’m concerned you can have a border poll anytime you like, because I’m happily confident that a comfortable majority will continue to vote for Northern Ireland’s (look how easy it is to say) existence.
At the end of March 1972 the Stormont Parliament was prorogued. By 1974 – at the latest – local government had been reformed; the Housing Executive and Fair Employment Agency were in place; the British and Irish governments had underwritten power-sharing and an ‘Irish dimension’; the unionist monolith had crumbled; the SDLP had become a potent voice for the nationalist minority; and there were small, yet very powerful signs that Northern Ireland was changing.
But the IRA chose to ignore all of this and committed itself to a full-scale ‘war and armed struggle’. And please, don’t try and convince us that the IRA were revolutionaries or freedom fighters. They were not – they were terrorists: killing, bombing and destroying because they believed that that was the best way of bullying the UK government into withdrawing from Northern Ireland, or bullying unionists out of their beliefs.
They failed to do either. Indeed, they failed so spectacularly and so completely that they now share power, in Stormont, with unionists, in a deal underwritten by the British government!
Yet not one single word of apology did we get from Mr Kearney. Not the tiniest indication that the so-called ‘armed struggle’ was a bloody, futile, utterly barbaric vendetta which (as far as I can see) was calculated to hinder rather than foster peace.
The IRA psyche requires martyrs and it also requires everyone else to be seen as the oppressor. If that means armed troops on the streets for very long periods and gullible young men starving themselves to death for propaganda purposes – then so much the better.
I am not blind to the reality that successive unionist governments did nothing to make Northern Ireland a comfortable political home for Roman Catholics: indeed I was writing about it back in the 1970s.
But the stupidity and ill-judgments of those governments was no justification for what the IRA did from 1970 to 1996; particularly since the unionists were no longer even in government. This was blood lust masquerading as ‘liberation’.
Reconciliation is a multi-faceted beast: but it begins and ends with utter, unvarnished, unconditional truth. If Sinn Fein clings to the belief that the IRA’s ‘armed struggle’ was always justified and remains justifiable then, in my opinion, there can never be a process of reconciliation between Sinn Fein and mainstream unionism. Yes, we can continue with the conflict stalemate that keeps the DUP and Sinn Fein around the same Executive table, but let’s not kid ourselves that it can credibly be described as ‘reconciliation’.
Here’s my other difficulty with Sinn Fein’s reconciliation project: described by Mr Kearney as “calling for an all-inclusive national discussion on reconciliation leading to the development of a national reconciliation strategy”.
By ‘national reconciliation’ Sinn Fein means a united Ireland. Fine and dandy – that remains their end goal. But it is not the end goal of unionism, so I don’t see how mainstream unionism and Sinn Fein can construct a reconciliation process based on mutually contradictory end goals.
Sinn Fein has actually acknowledged this, which is why both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have spoken of the need to persuade just ‘a section of unionism.’
Is reconciliation possible? Clearly not on Sinn Fein’s terms alone: nor on unionist terms alone, either. But it is possible within the parameters of the Good Friday Agreement, if unionism and republicanism focus – for the next few years at least – on governing Northern Ireland together rather than simply playing the ongoing game of veto, stalemate and prioritising the ‘interests’ of their own side.
That said, I don’t think Sinn Fein has a particular interest in turning Northern Ireland into a successful, cooperative state.
My gut instinct is that the Sinn Fein reconciliation project, first outlined at the start of the year, is a cosmetic, self-serving piece of propaganda: primarily designed to convince the grassroots that the unity strategy is still firing on all cylinders. It isn’t, of course.
The failed ‘armed struggle’ has been replaced with Stormont jobs, photo-ops with Peter Robinson, handshakes with the Queen and nodding through ‘Tory welfare cuts’. Other than discovering that Gerry Kelly wears Union Jack underwear it couldn’t get any more embarrassing for Sinn Fein.
All of which explains why Mr Kearney used his House of Commons (it’s just a wonder they didn’t book the room for Guy Fawkes’ night!) speech to put a wrecking ball through the reconciliation project.
Like just about everything else that Sinn Fein has touched since 1970 it has singularly failed to persuade, fool or outmanoeuvre unionism.
As both Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt have indicated, neither the DUP nor UUP is afraid to have the ‘uncomfortable conversations’ that Sinn Fein is asking for.
But maybe Sinn Fein needs to face up to some very uncomfortable realities of its own before inviting the rest of us to get them off the very bloody hook they have been suspended from for a very considerable period.
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