Category: Archive

A View North Rewriting history a dubious undertaking

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Franklin Roosevelt when asked about U.S. support for the particularly nasty Nicaraguan dictator Somoza, replied: "He maybe a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch."

In a sense that seems to be the message coming out of the Irish government these days in relation to its changing attitude to the varieties of militant Irish republicanism. Recently, the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, in a speech during a Wolfe Tone event, drew a contrast between the so-called Real IRA and hunger striker Bobby Sands. He denied that RIRA members had the right to call themselves republicans and suggested that Sands would never have supported the August 1998 Omagh bombing, carried out by the dissidents at the cost of 29 lives.

Clearly, he now sees the Provisionals as the "good" republicans.

There are certain problems in following this line, beginning with Sands himself. In 1976, as a member of the Provisionals, he was arrested and charged with nine others in connection with a bombing attack on the Balmoral Furniture Company in Belfast. That was during the period when the Provisional IRA was bombing the heart out of the North’s towns and villages. In those days, they were the unreformable sonsofabitches (to use FDR¹s term) who intended to remain so, bombing and shooting until Britain declared its intention to pull out of the North.

It is not known what Sands would have thought of the Omagh massacre other than being repelled and horrified by it, as all normal human beings are. He died long before the Provisional leadership adopted the current course and before it became obvious to them that what they term the armed struggle was doomed to failure. The organization to which he was loyal and for which he gave his life had, after all, been responsible for atrocities that were different from Omagh only in their scale. The Bloody Friday bombings, and the bombings in Claudy, Birmingham, Coleraine, and La Mon House had all caused multiple deaths and horrendous injuries to ordinary civilians. They were classified by the Provisionals as "mistakes" over warnings not acted on promptly enough. But in the case of the Birmingham bombs, the warning was so vague that it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the bombers fully intended to kill innocent people. Twenty-one of them died that night — most of them young men and women out for a night’s fun.

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No doubt Bobby Sands must have regretted the loss of life inflicted upon civilians in these and other incidents associated with the Provisionals. But as far as I know he did not dissociate himself from the organization because of them.

The temptation to rewrite the past to make it conform to the propaganda needs of the present is especially strong when an ideologically motivated movement such as the IRA changes course. But the Taoiseach should realize that he cannot make the Provisional IRA of 1976 into the Provisional IRA of the peace process. However much he might feel the need to do so, history will not let him — that is, as long as people continue to pay attention to it.

As leader of Fianna Fail, of course, Ahern, should be well-acquainted with ideological contortions. Fianna Fail was created by a split in militant republicanism. Eamon De Valera had grown weary of wandering in the political wilderness to which Sinn Fein’s non-recognition of the Dail had condemned him. He had also concluded that physical force was no longer a serious option for militant republicans in the south – except, of course, when it came to repressing them, which he did violently, and more successfully than any Unionist or British politician then or since.

The subsequent history of Ahern’s party is the history of coming to terms with partition, learning to work with it, and the realization that if it is to be ended, violence will not be the means. What was left of the IRA and Sinn Fein were heading in that same direction from the mid-1960s onward until they were derailed by events north of the border — events which produced the Provisionals.

At first, it was thought by many that the Provisionals would prove the exception to the rule that militant republican movements eventually become constitutionalists without ever achieving their main goal — the ending of partition. They seemed to represent a return to a sort of republican "fundamentalism." This interpretation came from accepting Provisionals’ hard-line statements at their face value and not taking into account the possible effectiveness of British state strategy at containing the armed campaign. British success in the twilight war of terror and counterterror eventually forced the Provisionals to accept that their armed struggle was doomed to failure. They became part of the pan-nationalist front which includes the SDLP and the Dublin government, pursuing their goals through constitutional politics.

Remarks made by various political figures over recent months suggest that Sinn Fein may be preparing to take yet another, decisive step down the road to becoming an "ordinary" political party. There has been much speculation about a possible coalition government that would involve Sinn Fein, assuming the party wins two or more seats in the next Irish general election.

When the taoiseach was asked about this some weeks ago he gave an interesting response, saying that Sinn Fein would have to resolve its relationship with the IRA first and reminding us that the Irish constitution mandates that there is only one Irish army in the state. It is not difficult to translate what this means: "no guns, no government." The Irish Independent, which carried the story, headlined it "Disbandment of the IRA ‘a must’ if SF to share power with FF."

Amazingly enough, the Unionist community did not pounce on this as they should have done as yet more proof of the Irish government’s double standard when it comes to the North. After all, Ahern has been desperately trying to prevent David Trimble, the UUP leader, from going back to that very policy, which he fears would lead to a collapse of the power-sharing executive. Unionists might ask, Why is it OK for an Irish prime minister in Dublin to make it a condition of government but not a first minister in Belfast? The Irish government has been similarly accused over its refusal to include the convicted killers of Irish police officers in the benefits attending paramilitaries who have signed up to the Good Friday agreement.

The Irish put it down to "creative ambiguity." But there is a less polite way of saying it.

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