When Sinn Fein agreed to sign up to exclusive partnership with the DUP at Stormont, the republican party immediately faced criticism from within the nationalist/ republican community due to the manner in which Sinn Fein were seen to be led by the nose into an Executive in which Arlene Foster had explicitly ruled out a nationalist holding the Justice Ministry (for the second consecutive mandate.)
Compounding the sense that Sinn Fein were playing the subordinate role in a purportedly partnership administration was the fact that the senior DUP figure, Simon Hamilton, used the airwaves to dismiss out of hand any notion of the DUP conceding an Irish Language Act as the price for republicans supporting a unionist Justice minister.
As of today, it is still unclear if Sinn Fein succeeded in gaining anything from that concession, and even if they did, the fact that any deal clearly involved republicans paying up front and agreeing to not go public with the quo for the quid that was Sugden’s promotion is revealing in and of itself.
But more of a concern for Sinn Fein as they attempt to sell the idea of an equal partnership with the DUP at Executive level has been the explicitly sectarian actions of a number of unionist-controlled local government councils which the republican party appears at a loss with regard to how to counter.
Last month, the DUP-dominated Causeway, Coast and Glens Borough Council halted the development of a community centre in Glenariff purportedly due to the presence of gates near the site inscribed with the names of two republicans who had been killed some 90 years ago.
The Sinn Fein response was to condemn the act at a local level.
On Friday morning, the DUP-dominated Mid and East Antrim Borough Council employed private contractors to destroy a 1916 memorial erected in the overwhelmingly nationalist village of Carnlough.
Intriguingly, the Sinn Fein MLA, Oliver McMullan, has stated that the PSNI confirmed to him that they liaised with the contractors to ensure that they would be safe whilst removing the memorial during the early hours. McMullan also condemned the council’s actions as “utterly disrespectful.”
He did concede that those erecting the memorial on council property did not have permission to do so. But, tellingly, he added “their view was that the council wouldn’t have allowed it anyway, and they wanted to put something up here to remember 1916.”
Now, where would Oliver McMullan get that idea?
During late Spring and Summer, the DUP dominated Mid and East Antrim Council has voted to ensure that tens of thousands of pounds will be spent commemorating the 90th birthday of the British Queen Elizabeth II, British Armed Forces Day, the Battle of the Somme and July 11th bonfires.
Yet the very same council ensured that no funding would be provided for nationalists to commemorate the Easter Rising.
At one level, the council’s action was entirely legal and, if followed through on a consistent basis by statutory agencies, could be utterly transformative in terms of northern Irish society.
This is the same borough at which an illegally erected crown sits atop a Larne roundabout (Council retrospectively applied for and received planning permission, a process denied those behind the Carnlough memorial.)
Across the Six Counties, there are numerous loyalist memorials that were erected illegally, and there are hundreds of loyalist flags currently fluttering from lamp posts (including those inside the grounds of at least one Catholic Church) that could conceivably be removed were the PSNI to demonstrate similar enthusiasm to co-operate with similarly willing government bodies.
And that’s before we even begin to consider how quickly the PSNI and the relevant statutory agency could have moved in to close down the still illegal loyalist Twaddell campsite.
But what makes this action all the more troubling is that, unlike many stories arising from contentious flags, the memorial was sited in an overwhelmingly nationalist area, making it the equivalent of the numerous loyalist memorials dotted across loyalist communities that never warrant a comment.
For the council to operate with such haste to remove the erection of what must be one of the first (if not the first) republican memorial in the council area demonstrates a troubling degree of hypocrisy consistent with the majoritarian unionist mindset which seeks to arrest the development of an equal and shared society across the north.
That poses a challenge to nationalist political parties to find an effective strategy to counter an unfettered majoritarianism at council level which makes a mockery of Sinn Fein’s attempts to sell a Fresh Start as a shared and equal initiative.
Of course, there are many ways in which the DUP agenda could be countered, not necessarily inclusive of a reciprocal flexing of muscles in majority nationalist councils.
In the first instance, the precedent has been set.
The PSNI have demonstrated a willingness to facilitate the removal of illegally erected memorials. There is no reason why the PSNI can not be directly challenged to remove the loyalist flag erected in the grounds of a catholic church in Dervock (this is the third consecutive year that the PSNI have looked away when presented with the opportunity to act against those seeking to intimidate parishioners in Dervock.) The PSNI have also left themselves vulnerable over the illegal Twaddell site, not to mention the plethora of loyalist memorials across the north.
But republicans should challenge Mid and East Antrim Council to legally support the erection of a republican memorial in Carnlough. This is the same council that supported the erection of a UDR memorial in Ballymena only a matter of months ago, and therefore putting the majority unionist council members on the spot over the issue would be a smart tactical move.
Ironically, in the majority nationalist town of Magherafelt, plans are afoot for the erection of two monuments that can provide a model for a shared and equal society.
Both the Royal British Legion and the Co. Derry and Antrim Republican Graves Association have submitted plans for monuments which will seek to remember British soldiers killed in conflict and republicans involved in the Easter Rising along the same Broad Street that acts as the town’s main thoroughfare.
The town and council district may be overwhelmingly majority nationalist, but the culture of tolerance that has been developed is such that it is very likely that both monuments could end up being erected in what would be a powerfully visible manifestation of what a shared and equal society in Northern Ireland can look like.
Magherafelt can point the way forward. The unionist politicians of north and east Antrim mustn’t be allowed to disrupt progress to a better society.