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Sinn Féin’s triumph is a victory of forgetting The exultant party doesn't want to disown its IRA past; it wants to selectively celebrate it

Gerry Adams has long worked towards Sinn Fein power in the South. Party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, right, has achieved this. Credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Gerry Adams has long worked towards Sinn Fein power in the South. Party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, right, has achieved this. Credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

February 11, 2020   13 mins

Sinn Féin could be forgiven for believing that tomorrow belongs to them. The party topped the first preference poll nationally in Saturday’s election, seizing the youth vote and the middle-aged one, and becoming the highest-polling party among every age group apart from the over-65s. In a stinging electoral rebuke to the established order, a Sinn Féin candidate outpolled both the Fine Gael leader, Leo Varadkar, and the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, in their respective constituencies. No one can say yet what shape a future Irish government will take, but it will be a radically different one.

Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader, is exultant. Gerry Adams — now billed on his Twitter feed as an ‘Optimistic Activist’, and cultivating an increasingly bardic, elder statesman appearance — posted a clip of himself and colleagues enthusiastically singing the IRA song Come Out Ye Black and Tans with lines such as “and the dirty English feet they walked all over us”, and “tell them how the IRA made you run like hell away”.  The lyrics of the song, although officially referring to the old IRA of the War of Independence era, take on a darker, sharper flavour when sung by a Belfast-born former leader of the modern Provisional IRA campaign.

The same song was belted out by Sinn Féin’s Dessie Ellis and his supporters, draped in a giant tricolour, at his victorious election count in Dublin North-West (Ellis, who served 10 years in prison, was once better known as an accomplished Provisional IRA bomb-maker and explosives expert). To be fair, Sinn Féin didn’t save all the songs until after the count: during the campaign itself, a party election van toured Kingscourt, Co Cavan on behalf of candidate Pauline Tully with the chorus “ooh, ah, up the ‘RA!” blasting out the windows (Tully later claimed that “perhaps” the audio had been superimposed on the recording).

There was a time when such republican triumphalism would have wholly alienated mainstream opinion in the Republic of Ireland. Yet today, although many Irish people have indeed indicated their strong unease with such scenes — a discomfort that will no doubt find its voice in coming weeks — a growing number of Irish voters now interpret it as forgivable nationalist exuberance.

That is not how it will sound, I fear, either to the families of more than 1,700 people killed by the Provisional IRA during its long and bloody campaign, or to unionists of any variety in Northern Ireland.

Why does support for Sinn Féin plummet sharply among the over-65s? Perhaps because a 70-year-old, born in the Republic of Ireland in 1950, would have been 20 or so when the Troubles began in Northern Ireland. Over nearly three decades, he or she would have witnessed the raw pain and chaos unleashed by republican and loyalist paramilitary violence. For many of this generation, Sinn Féin remains synonymous with the Provisional IRA, and to them the atrocities committed by the IRA were not abstract, but very real.

For today’s younger Irish voters, however, IRA violence belongs to history. For those with the inclination to romanticise it, the organisation’s long campaign is now distant enough from their actual experience to count as a form of radical chic. For others, that history may simply dwindle in importance when set next to the current appeal of Sinn Féin’s energetic promises on house-building, health service funding and heavily flagged support for causes such as trans activism. Those who wanted to shift politics to the left could always have voted for Brendan Howlin’s Irish Labour party, of course, but its campaign was widely felt to lack Sinn Féin’s pizzazz.

The scale of Sinn Féin’s success has taken Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael by surprise. It has also taken the party itself by surprise: such were its expectations, it fielded only 42 candidates in the race for the 159 seats. But the fact that there has been a sudden, seismic political change in the Republic of Ireland does not greatly surprise me.

In UnHerd last December I reviewed Fintan O’Toole’s book Heroic Failure, The Politics of Pain, in which he argued, among other things, that Brexit was a uniquely English act of self-harm partly inspired by a misplaced nostalgia for Empire. I disagreed, because I thought that many of the destabilising factors that led to the ‘Leave’ vote in the UK – a housing crisis, income inequality, precarious employment among the ‘working poor’ and a widespread unease about the meaning or dividends of national identity – were held in common with Ireland, and could well erupt there in a different form.

While the UK “somnambulist state” had long ignored voters’ fundamental concerns, I wrote, Ireland would be foolish to do the same, “and to believe that just because Ireland isn’t England, the painful fall-out from such a question is inevitably very far away”.

The fall-out has come even sooner than expected. Irish voters were reacting to long-term Fine Gael policy failures on housing, welfare provision and healthcare, the Irish version of the “somnambulist state”.  The result was a localised brew of the populism that has already intoxicated so many other countries – in this case embodied in Sinn Féin’s combination of energetic Left-wing economic pledges, zeal on ‘social justice issues’ and pugnacious Irish nationalism, all bound up with its chilling legacy from 30 years of armed conflict.

What did surprise me a little, however, was the muted response from a commentator such as O’Toole, who has previously been so intensely and eloquently exercised by populist surges in the UK and the US. Yet, with Sinn Féin electoral successes already looming last week, he quickly concluded in a column that “there can be no progressive government in Ireland without Sinn Féin”. Sinn Féin was a “party of change”, he said, “a radical party” – and although he personally was very uncomfortable at its history, “younger people” have decided that the “political statute of limitations on atrocities” had expired.

O’Toole said, however, that on no account must ministers in a Dublin Sinn Féin government seek instruction from very senior IRA figures, as they had done in Stormont: “This is intolerable in a democracy. If Sinn Féin were to take office in Dublin, a precondition would have to be a strengthening of the official code of conduct for ministers to explicitly ban such unaccountable influence.”

But who, exactly, might police this ‘precondition’? Would Mary Lou McDonald, for example, be prevented from discussing policy matters with her former party leader Gerry Adams, or Adams be stopped from discussing anything he liked thereafter with the broad range of ‘veteran republicans’ in his acquaintance?

The idea that assiduous Irish government officials could somehow effectively prevent or sanction the flow of information between Sinn Féin and the IRA is frankly ludicrous. But such statements nonetheless offer a window on to a worrying illusion, that it is somehow possible to invite Sinn Féin into the running of the Irish state and fully expect the party meekly to abide by new rules.

This electoral outcome is what Gerry Adams has long wanted and worked towards. He is not likely to lose interest in it now. Back in 2017, a former member of the IRA’s West Belfast brigade said this about Adams to Henry McDonald of the Guardian: “He still thinks he can push them on to power in the south [Irish Republic] as his final achievement. So he will be staying around, in the back room, working the controls.”

Many in the Republic of Ireland will point out that Sinn Féin has long participated in government in Northern Ireland (admittedly with a recent three-year break, when Northern Ireland had no power-sharing government at all). But the Stormont administration is devolved, with ultimate power still remaining in London. It was designed as part of a difficult, complicated package to persuade republican and loyalist paramilitaries to exchange a violent 30-year conflict for electoral politics, and is therefore a uniquely odd political structure — consisting of compulsory coalitions in which ministries are doled out like fiefdoms to different parties, the mechanism of government is prone to freezing, and irregular financial practices once thrived (as was exposed during the ‘ash for cash’ RHI scandal).

The democratising of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland delivered a welcome cessation of sectarian violence. But it has also paramilitarised democracy: driven Northern Irish voters to the political extremes, entrenched sectarianism, permitted loyalist and dissident republican illegal activity to flourish in working-class areas, and failed to resolve the ongoing horror of paramilitary beatings and shootings, which hardly ever result in a conviction. None of this is an enviable template, I would think, for the Republic of Ireland.

The Republic, in contrast, is an independent sovereign country, which ultimately resolved its own painful arguments over independence and partition to forge a largely successful and confident modern state. It did not need to beckon Sinn Féin and its Provisional IRA legacy into government; its voters have done so not by compulsion, but by choice, because of dissatisfaction with their existing establishment. They have signalled their desire for a very different political party. But I am not sure that all of Sinn Féin’s new voters have realised exactly what forms that difference may take.

Most modern political parties are haunted by similar things: the long legacies of bad policies, ideological schisms, media gaffes and personality clashes. Sinn Féin is unusual, however, in that it has a particular problem with mothers — mothers who pursue the party leadership asking for justice, even while it is attempting to conduct soft-voiced conversations with a forgetful electorate.

The late Jean McConville is one such mother. A working-class widow, the mother of 10 was seized from her West Belfast home by a group of IRA members in December 1972. She was driven across the Irish border and into County Louth, where she was shot in the back of the head and secretly buried on a sandy beach — or, in the terminology of such killings, ‘disappeared’. McConville’s traumatised young children were split up and sent to care institutions.

As adults, a number of the McConville children courageously began to ask the IRA questions about their mother’s death. They requested answers from the then Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. The more that came to light about the McConville murder, the more troubling it became for the public image of Sinn Féin: two former Belfast IRA members with close involvement in the McConville murder, Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes, both alleged that the order for the killing was given by Adams himself in his role as their Belfast ‘officer commanding’, something which he denied.

The McConville case — long the subject of newspaper articles — was recently forensically examined in an Orwell prize-winning book Say Nothing, by the US writer Patrick Radden Keefe. It details the IRA’s contemptuous attitude to the human rights of those it regarded as opponents, not least the right to life.

Adams has now retired as Sinn Féin President, ceding the role in 2018 to Mary Lou McDonald, who has spearheaded the party’s electoral drive in the Republic of Ireland. McDonald does not carry the same whiff of cordite: she was born and educated in Dublin and has no direct IRA involvement, although she has in the past been active in IRA commemorations. Yet McDonald, too, was haunted by a mother throughout this election campaign. This time the mother is alive, and her name is Breege Quinn.

Breege Quinn, an elegant, quietly determined Cullyhanna woman, and her husband Stephen, are still seeking justice over the death of their 21-year-old son Paul, who was beaten to death in an October 2007 attack carried out by local members of the IRA.

Paul and a friend were lured to an isolated cattle-shed in County Monaghan on the promise of work. The phone call had come from another friend, who was forced to make the call under threat. Paul arrived to find about a dozen masked IRA men waiting for him.

It was an intensely brutal and professional operation. His attackers beat Paul with nail-studded clubs and iron bars for over half an hour. At one point, an assailant shouted out to his horrified friends, confined in a nearby shed: “Can you hear your friend squealing?” Paul Quinn died in hospital: every major bone in his body had been broken and his ear was hanging off.

The local Sinn Féin politician Conor Murphy — now a Sinn Féin finance minister in the resurrected Stormont government — said at the time that the IRA was not involved in the murder. He also said: “Paul Quinn was involved in smuggling and criminality, I think everyone accepts that.” A subsequent report from the Independent Monitoring Commission found that current and former members of the Provisional IRA had been involved in the murder, although it concluded that the attack did not happen with the authorisation of the leadership.

When Paul’s death became an issue in this election, Mary Lou McDonald denied that Murphy had made an allegation of criminality about Quinn, until journalists confronted her directly with Murphy’s quotation to the BBC at the time. At that point McDonald admitted that Murphy had indeed said it, whereupon he – at last – apologised for his remarks and “unreservedly withdrew them”.

In the immediate aftermath of the Quinn killing, Murphy had done everything he could to minimise any suggestion of IRA involvement, including making an allegation that caused continuing pain to the Quinn family. The allegation was only retracted 13 years later, under considerable political pressure in the heat of a landmark general election.

Quinn’s family say that Paul was in fact murdered because he got into arguments with the local IRA. The IRA members resented the fact that he seemed unafraid of them. In that, this terrible killing followed a recognisable pattern for the post-ceasefire IRA — its recurrent, disproportionate fury at young, physically strong Catholic men who refused to kowtow to local IRA authority.

Over 20 years ago, I reported on the IRA murder of Andrew Kearney, a 33-year-old West Belfast man who had reportedly been involved in a fist-fight with a north Belfast IRA commander in which the IRA man came off worse. That victory was unlucky for Mr Kearney, because in July 1998 — only a few months after the Belfast Agreement was signed — at least five IRA men battered their way into his flat in the New Lodge, where he was looking after his two-week-old daughter. They disabled the telephone and the lift, overpowered Kearney — allegedly with chloroform — dragged him out to the landing, shot him three times and left him to bleed to death.

I recall meeting his white-haired mother Maureen Kearney, a life-long Irish republican who was now doggedly demanding answers from Sinn Féin: as a gesture, she took her son’s funeral bill to Sinn Féin headquarters, but never got a reply. Gerry Adams called at the house to commiserate with her loss, and promised to return, but never did. Maureen Kearney died a year later, broken-hearted. No-one was ever convicted of Andrew Kearney’s killing.

Then, in January 2005, Robert McCartney — another 33-year-old Belfast Catholic man — was murdered outside a Belfast city centre bar. An altercation had occurred between McCartney and his friend Brendan Devine and a group which included prominent IRA men and numerous Sinn Féin representatives. It ended in a ferocious attack in which McCartney and Devine both had their throats slit: McCartney died in hospital. More than 70 people were in the bar at the time, yet there were no witnesses. During the dispute, it appeared that they were all in the toilet. After the murder, the IRA sealed off the scene, removed CCTV and forensically cleaned the bar.

Mr McCartney’s sisters and fiancée fought a long-running international campaign to bring his killers to account. Despite a trial involving three men — including one who was charged with McCartney’s murder — no-one was convicted. The case failed due to the lack of witness testimony and undisputed evidence.

One of the two men charged with, and acquitted of, affray in relation to the McCartney attack, Jim McCormick, was the Sinn Féin treasurer in South Belfast at the time. He was later sentenced to 14 and a half years for the attempted murder of another man, Joe Henry, by stabbing.

The McCartney case had notable similarities with a murder that happened a few months later, in Dublin, of a 29-year-old called Joe Rafferty. Rafferty, a hard-working courier and fitness fan, had got into a dispute with another local man after the man allegedly assaulted his sister. The man threatened him, speaking of his connections to the IRA, and the threats escalated, followed by approaches of Rafferty’s worried family to a Sinn Féin councillor to have the threats withdrawn, and his reported assurance that nothing more would come of it. In April 2005, Rafferty was shot twice and killed as he left his Dublin flat to go to work. An Independent Monitoring Commission report found that “a member or former member of PIRA may have been involved” and that members of Sinn Féin and PIRA “were aware in advance of the threat and did not take sufficient action to prevent it”.

In 2016 the jury at an inquest into Rafferty’s murder delivered the verdict that he had been unlawfully killed by a person unknown. Rafferty’s sister, Esther Uzell-Rafferty, said, “that line is hard to listen to because we know who killed Joseph. It makes me so angry” – but, to secure a conviction, they needed more witnesses to come forward with information.

Despite the ongoing torment of the families involved, a popular line of argument during this election has been, “Why does this stuff even matter? It’s all in the past, isn’t it?” Sinn Féin, under McDonald, are keen to represent themselves as progressive and forward-thinking, increasingly distanced from IRA violence while simultaneously profiting from a carefully sentimentalised and historicised vision of “the armed struggle”.

Yet this election has shown that Sinn Féin does not want to disown its IRA past; it wants to control, curate and selectively celebrate it — to turn the agonising human detail of an intensely sad, squalid sectarian conflict into something hazy, generalised and noble.

The real stories stubbornly resist that narrative. Andrew Kearney. Robert McCartney. Joseph Rafferty. Paul Quinn. All these post-Belfast Agreement killings — of fit young Catholic men who could handle themselves in a fight — have certain factors in common. A perceived slight by the victim against a local IRA member or members. An IRA retaliation of extraordinary violence, resulting in murder. A cover-up, a public denial of IRA involvement by Sinn Féin, and the spreading of rumours about the victim’s alleged involvement in criminal activity. The intimidation and silencing of witnesses. The politically soothing judgement that the killing was not “officially sanctioned” by the IRA at the highest levels. A persistent campaign by relatives of the dead man who refuse to be cowed by the IRA, resulting in a measure of media attention — which, when it reaches a critical point, leads prominent Sinn Féin politicians to utter conciliatory words and publicly seek contact with the victim’s family.

When the spotlight moves away, however, the “concern” for victims quickly evaporates. An insight into how Sinn Féin really views those who have been harmed or bereaved by the IRA was given by a 2017 WhatsApp chat linked to the Sinn Féin TD Dessie Ellis and used by party members.

When the prospect of a snap general election was raised, one user complained that it would result in the media being “on the phone to Cahill, Stack, Quinn and all and every other waster they can wheel out with a sob story”. The names cited referred to Mairia Cahill, who went public with the testimony that she was abused as a teenager by a senior IRA member and that the IRA covered up the abuse; Austin Stack, the son of a Portlaoise chief prison officer murdered by the IRA in 1983; and the parents of Paul Quinn.

Sinn Féin is clearly resentful of the fact that these individuals speak to the media at all. They’re supposed to know their place, and keep quiet. A common theme among Sinn Féin supporters on social media during the election campaign was that the media had disgracefully ‘exploited’ the Quinn family. It fell to journalists such as Suzanne Breen, an experienced Northern Ireland reporter and commentator, politely to remind Twitter users that she had been covering the Quinn story in detail since Paul’s murder in 2007, when his parents first began their campaign for justice. If the public hadn’t paid attention before, it wasn’t for a lack of available information.

A significant proportion of the Irish electorate, however, has decided that Sinn Féin’s history is no longer an issue – and the principle of democracy is that what voters want, or think they want, voters get.

Yet, looking North, there is one particular paradox of Sinn Féin’s success. Since it is the most hardline nationalist party, its poll-topping performance has already caused some to talk of a border poll and a united Ireland as a genuine possibility. At the same time, the triumphalist nature of its republicanism also makes unionists much less likely to see their future in an agreed united Ireland.

Post-Brexit, some Remain-voting Unionists – particularly among the middle classes – were softening in their attitude to joining an economically successful, socially liberal Republic of Ireland. One component of this softening was the belief that the air in the Republic of Ireland was not as toxic, in sectarian terms, as that of Northern Ireland, where the loyalist UDA and UVF and Sinn Féin regularly commemorate members linked to appalling deeds which in any conventional war would be considered war crimes.

Sinn Féin’s sudden accession in the Republic will have stalled that instinct in some unionists, and replaced it with a deep apprehension. The atmosphere has changed: even the most post-political unionist would now think twice about entering a united Ireland to the theme tune of “ooh, ah, Up the ‘RA!’”.

There’s a line of Milan Kundera’s, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The steep ascent of Sinn Féin towards power in the Republic of Ireland represents the temporary triumph of forgetting. In the past the party, too, has shown itself to be very effective in enforcing silences. One can even sense a silence spreading in Ireland now, as many of those who are normally loquacious on Twitter fall uncharacteristically quiet on their opinion of the election results, as if trying to puzzle out their own place in the altered political order. I predict that ultimately Sinn Féin’s victory will create a new ideological schism in mainstream Irish society.

Once the election excitement dies down, however, Ireland must surely brace itself for a different and searching national conversation. The questions for Sinn Féin, and the grieving relatives, won’t go away, you know: memory has a way of knocking to be let back in.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.


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