Ben Lowry: It seemed barely possible for the appeasement of Sinn Fein to get even worse, but somehow it did

Well, many of us really thought it could not get any worse.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 19th June 2021, 10:37 am
Updated Saturday, 19th June 2021, 1:31 pm
Brandon Lewis hands Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein their Irish language act over the head of Edwin Poots. Cartoon by Brian John Spencer
Brandon Lewis hands Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein their Irish language act over the head of Edwin Poots. Cartoon by Brian John Spencer

Weak unionism and a weak Conservative and Unionist government giving special treatment to Sinn Fein.

We thought this because the culture of appeasement was already such an enduring feature of NI politics. The determination to keep republicans in Stormont has been a constant since 1998.

Such as in 2001 when Tony Blair could not get through an amnesty for the IRA via paragraph 20 of the Weston Park talks document of that year, and so moved his plans moved behind the scenes (in what became the On The Runs scheme).

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This determination to help IRA members who engaged in multiple calculated acts of terrorism came 20 years before elderly soldiers were charged over single killings which lacked pre-meditation.

Or the appeasement when republicans dragged their feet on decommissioning, spied at Stormont and broke into Castlereagh PSNI, resulting in power-sharing being suspended for everyone.

Or when the IRA murdered Robert McCartney and pulled off a heist at the Northern Bank, and the only sanction against Sinn Fein was that they were not invited to the White House weeks later, on St Patick’s day 2005. But all NI parties were dis-invited to ensure SF was not embarrassed — and at the very time that a US politician as influential as Senator John McCain was singling out Sinn Fein for criticism.

The determination to keep republicans in office was still unwavering, and barely 18 months later, in the autumn of 2006, the DUP had signed up to power sharing too.

Then there were sporadic crises: over the devolution of policing and justice; over the exposure of On the Run plan; over SF refusal to implement welfare; the Kevin McGuigan murder and the 2015 paramilitary report of ongoing IRA influence; the scandal of RHI was turned into a demand over Irish language.

And look where we are now in terms of feeble scrutiny of IRA: the Independent Reporting Commission in recent reports has not probed the status of IRA, to update us all after the 2015 findings, and instead has issued warnings such on topics like Brexit.

So it seemed the society-wide soft pedalling around republicans could not get worse, particularly not after the almost comical inability to find anyone accountable for the Bobby Storey funeral.

Yet this week it did get worse.

Edwin Poots has been deservedly ousted for his conduct, which has done almost irreparable damage to devolution. But the list of culprits for this disaster is much larger.

It includes a succession of Tory secretaries of state who have been sent here with no prior knowledge of the place, and are beholden to a Northern Ireland Office, which defers to Ireland’s republican inclined Department of Foreign Affairs.

I have often heard rumours from London that it will do something to change the neutral culture in the NIO but it never does. On its handling of legacy alone the department should have been disbanded, and replaced with a unit that uses the whole apparatus of the UK state to defend Northern Ireland’s place as an integral part of the nation.

Instead of such action, Boris Johnson’s government showed its neglect of the crisis facing the Union in Northern Ireland by installing Julian Smith as secretary of state in 2019, before realising within months it needed to sack him.

Not in time though to stop him delighting Sinn Fein by letting Simon Coveney of all people — one of the most interfering, pro nationalist Dublin ministers in decades — jointly author a deal to reward the republican Irish language blackmail that kept Stormont down for three years.

Unionist politicians actually paid tribute to Mr Smith on his dismissal. In case any of them have still not clicked as to why nationalists rhapsodised about Mr Smith, this week he was tweeting his support for Westminster imposing the Irish language act if unionists did not commit to the Sinn Fein demand to prioritise its implementation.

You might have thought that after the Boris Johnson Irish Sea border, imposed after almost four years of warnings of republican terrorist violence if so much as CCTV was installed at the land border, that London might for once have made things tricky for republicans.

You might think that after all the setbacks and humiliations and betrayals of unionists (including the spectacle of Sinn Fein being so sure of the 2014 mooted legacy structures are good for republicans that it has repeatedly demanded their introduction) a DUP leader would have insisted on such a firm line from London against the Westminster appeasement solution. But no.

I am already hearing people connected to the Tories blaming Mr Poots for this saga, by implying that he encouraged Brandon Lewis in such a course rather than vice versa. But even if this had been the sole idea of a unionist leader, we ought to have UK minsters informed and strong enough to refuse such a Sinn Fein abuse of the process of first and deputy first minister nominations to secure political gain.

It would be bad enough to reward via Westminster a party that boycotts parliament, and yet has special dispensation to receive expenses despite the boycott. But it is unpardonable when the party wants Northern Ireland to fail and at times shows that goal in political vandalism.

Sinn Fein’s evident joy in the early hours of Thursday, after Mr Lewis gave it its Westminster wish, was telling. So too was the graceless and cruel way that Michelle O’Neill in her Stormont acceptance speech to kick the DUP when it was down, scolding them for denying rights and being untrustworthy.

Republicans and others including the former Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn used social media to mock my appearances on BBC Radio Ulster Talkback on Wednesday and on BBC One The View on Thursday night, when I was scathing about this context of Sinn Fein conduct and its long appeasement.

I stand by every word of what I said, and said it because so few others do. I have heard more than one panel discussion in recent weeks full of criticism of the DUP (much of it deserved) but not a word about Sinn Fein, not even from ‘unionist’ voices.

Perhaps the incoming DUP leader will think that it will be enough to complain about the Westminster threat but do nothing about it.

There has been little sign so far that they will be under pressure from the Ulster Unionist Party to take radical action.

I understand the UUP disinclination to help a party that tried to destroy it, or to look extreme when the Greens and Alliance have not stood against the fast tracking of the Irish language above all else including health.

But every party with the word unionist in its name should be refusing to operate as normal amid this outrageous abuse of an abnormal system of mandatory power-sharing, that depends above all on trust that is not currently forthcoming from an increasingly confident Sinn Fein.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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