a measure of the incomprehension

In the Irish Times, Vincent Browne gives his reaction to Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams’ speech at the weekend Ard Fheis, and argues that it “seemed bizarre, , unless this was intended as reassurance [to the internal republican audience]”. But the article is also interesting for the way it compares with Vincent Browne’s previously stated views.. although, it should be said, those views remain firmly in favour of a benign interpretation of events.Of the Ard Fheis speech, Vincent Browne has this observation –

The speech was aimed not at the wider national audience, whatever that was at 5pm on a Saturday. It was directed at an internal republican audience, which seems bizarre. So much of the speech was a reassurance to the republican heartland that he at least was keeping the republican faith. There was the invocation of the 1981 hunger strikers, the commemoration of 1916, references to the “courage” of the IRA and praise for the IRA “cessation” now over 10 years ago. Yes, this is the 25th anniversary of the hunger strike and the 90th anniversary of the Rising, but to have devoted so much of the speech to these anniversaries seemed bizarre, unless this was intended as reassurance.

Let’s look at what he has to say today about Adams and McGuinness, in relation to the Northern Bank robbery –

It has been obvious there have been such internal tensions for well over a year. The Northern Bank robbery was almost certainly conducted without the prior knowledge of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and, incidentally, the Irish Government knows this but has not acknowledged it. In the early months of 2005, there were signs that Gerry Adams had lost control of the movement.

Vincent described such a scenario before, in February last year, as part of his benign scenario, but then it was described in these terms

If they [Adams and McGuinness] did not [know about the bank robbery], the situation may be even more perilous. It would mean that they are no longer in control of the movement, that others are in charge and running things to a very different agenda.

Of course, one reason why he now embraces the losing control argument, is that subsequent statements can be interpreted as Adams regaining control.. which he wastes no time in describing

He regained it in April when he made his speech asking the IRA to stand down. The response took far longer than he or Martin McGuinness anticipated, which suggests some internal opposition. And the form of the “standing down” seems not to have been exactly along the lines favoured by Adams. But he won that day.

Except, Vincent Browne also has his opinion on record, on July 27 2005, of what that standing down would actually amount to – “a ball of smoke”

The IRA is not going to disband. The IRA is not going to end what is called criminal activity, not for now anyway. The IRA may decommission most of its weapons but it will retain some, writes Vincent Browne.

Senior members of Sinn Féin will continue to be involved in the IRA. More than likely there will be some internal rearrangements which will perpetuate the IRA in some other guise, allowing deniability and cover.

The argument he put forward then was that it didn’t matter, that policing was the only issue of concern.. and that a decision on that by Sinn Féin could wait. As I said at the time, I remain unconvinced by the argument he presented.

Back to Adams’ speech, and Vincent provides some missing details from Adams’ memories of 1981 –

For genuine personal reasons, as well as politics, it is understandable Gerry Adams had to recall the hunger strikers. But for many Irish people 1981 will be remembered for other reasons as well. A total of 117 died in the conflict that year and republicans murdered 64 of them, including: Norman Stronge, a retired unionist MP, along with his son, James Stronge (48), killed “as symbols of hated unionism” by the IRA; five British soldiers murdered at Camlough on May 19th, right in the middle of the hunger striker deaths – they (John King, Paul Bulman, Andrew Gavin, Michael Bagslaw and Grenville Winstone) are never remembered; several off-duty UDR and RUC members, many of them murdered in appalling circumstances; and the Rev Robert Bradford, a Westminster MP murdered on November 14th, 1981.

So in that same year of the hunger-striker deaths, the IRA murdered two representatives of the community with whom they now want to share power. And they wonder why the current representatives of that community are reluctant to do so, when they do not and have never uttered regret or an apology for those deaths.

And he ends, apparently, somewhat puzzled by the choice of rhetoric by the SF president, although that preference for the benign interpretation isn’t far beneath the surface words –

The unionist community deeply distrusts Sinn Féin and with understandable reason: Sinn Féin, they believe (reasonably), was the instrument of a war of terror and murder inflicted against their community for a quarter of a century. Of course, other factors play a part in current unionist obduracy. But unionist distrust is deepened all the more by the likes of Gerry Adams celebrating the memory of the foot-soldiers of that war of murder and terror and the ideological inspiration for that war (the 1916 Rising), while uttering not a word of compassion, regret or sympathy for the terrible hurt inflicted on the unionist community.

Gerry Adams may have to use rhetoric now that soothes republican anxieties and in the long term maybe he is right to do that. But for him to be surprised that unionist obduracy is hardened as a consequence is a measure of the incomprehension there is on both sides of the sensitivities of the other.