Opinion: Sinn Fein right to fear historians

Connal Parr, academic and commentator
Connal Parr, academic and commentator

In a bravura intervention the Emeritus Professor of Irish History John A Murphy recently warned in the Irish press that the Republic’s political culture should be wary of allowing Sinn Féin anywhere near to government.

Far be it from me to disagree with Murphy’s at times masterful assessment, but a spell in power might be exactly what is in order for the party.

If Sinn Féin was smart it would stay out of office and keep building and building its present protest vote over the coming years in a kind of constant opposition.

Yet the organisation has always been like the moth to a flame when it comes to power.

It will jump at the very first sniff of government and will enter any coalition arrangement as it has done in Northern Ireland.

There, promises will be broken – as they invariably are by all political parties – and Sinn Féin will be forced to follow the same cuts that any Irish government will have to undertake, thereby revealing to the Irish electorate that its ‘Left wing’ rhetoric is nothing more than hot air. Subsequently, the protest vote will fall apart, as it did for the recently-roasted Irish Labour Party once it entered office.

By voting for the June monitoring round, Sinn Féin has now agreed to the first of what will be drastic budget cuts at Stormont. This makes a nonsense of the party’s always dubious ‘socialist’ and ‘anti-austerity’ credentials.

If it was any of these things it would withdraw from the Stormont Executive immediately and denounce any budget constraints as it has been doing down South. It will never do this, and ironically those in Ireland – as well as in England, and many Unionists – who consider the party to be some kind of revolutionary threat assign the party a radicalism it does not possess.

The projection of these fears, paradoxically, contributes directly to Sinn Féin’s kudos and expansion.

In Northern Ireland almost all problems are, of course, still completely bound up with how the province fails to deal with the past.

People forget quickly how well those at the top have prospered from the ongoing stalemate. But for those who tell us there is no such thing as cultural warfare there are now, as was revealed this month, Bobby Sands Gaeltacht Scholarships (what next from the provocateurs – the Mad Dog McGlinchey Prize for Music?)

Again, it is only the beginning of such symbolic provocation.

Some commentators – who have clogged up the internet with verbiage ever since – took Sinn Féin’s protestations that there is no such conflict at remarkable face value.

It was said following the Boston College episode that history was the real casualty.

After his arrest for the still-unresolved murder of Jean McConville, the way Gerry Adams went out of his way to name and berate Professor Paul Bew was telling.

Adams is right to fear the Bews and Murphys of the world.

It is they, as historians, who have the potential to deflate the mythologies, mis-remembrances and empty slogans that Adams and many who follow him live by.

Republicans are fond of telling us about how they read books and histories in contrast to the ‘uneducated’ of Unionism (and indeed other groups they disagree with).

Yet a basic consultation of such histories would in fact reveal that most of the Civil Rights demands they claim the Provisional IRA secured during their armed campaign were achieved before the organization was even born at the end of 1969.

No matter: keep saying something again and again and eventually it is seen to be true. Except, that is, to the historians.

l Belfast historian Dr Connal Parr currently holds the Senior Scholarship in History and Culture at Oxford University