‘Putting manners’ on whom precisely?

Gesture politics has a way coming back and biting you,particularly if gesture is all it turns out to be. Martin McGuinness has taken exception to Tom Kelly’s piece in the Irish News the other day. In today’s version of the paper he fights back, mostly at the expense of Kelly’s acceptance of the OBE.

Tom Kelly is a political opponent of Sinn Fein.

His column (February 5) is one long, ill-thought-out and incoherent attack on the Sinn Fein leadership and on me in particular.

This is not surprising given that Tom is a long-standing supporter of the SDLP and that party is currently embroiled in problems of their own making. These problems result from an equally ill-conceived advert in The Irish News printed in the name of the party leader.

I reject entirely the misrepresentation of my position contained in Tom Kelly’s article. Of course the vast majority of public service workers are hard working and conscientious.

I am in contact with these workers every day, many of them are my constituents and some are members of my immediate family. I salute their dedication and commitment. But of course Tom knows full well that I was not referring to ordinary health, education or other public service workers.

He knows that I was referring to the small usually faceless elite which has been responsible since the creation of this state for the nightmare that brought the nationalist community to the point of open rebellion in 1969.

Since then this permanent government of unionists and securocrats in the Northern Ireland Office and London have been responsible for institutional sectarianism, religious discrimination, internment, Bloody Sunday, torture, collusion, state executions, wholesale imprisonment of young nationalists, persecution of the Irish language, the demonisation of whole nationalist communities, censorship of Sinn Fein… I could go on and on and on.

Many of those responsible for this litany of oppression were honoured by the English queen for their service and loyalty. Tom might want to explain to us his rationale – Irish nationalist, democratic or socialist – for his grateful acceptance of a similar ‘honour’ (the Order of the British Empire, OBE) from the English queen.

Whatever Tom Kelly thinks about Sinn Fein, he cannot question the commitment or motivation of our political representatives and activists. We have lost friends and family members to the death squads. We have been interned, imprisoned and censored.

Our interface with the English queen has been very different to Tom’s. Irish republicans played an historic role in demolishing the British empire of which Tom is now an honoured ‘officer’. We will continue to challenge inequality and privilege wherever it occurs.

By going back to the negotiating table again and again we have achieved equality, human rights and accountability mechanisms which will help us to ensure that the abuses of the past are never repeated. Sinn Fein will use these mechanisms on behalf of all our people.

Tom might have a problem with our approach but the letters after our names derive from the people who vote for us – not from the English queen. I commend him to put his opinions before the electorate as I do. That’s democracy.

Martin McGuinness, MP

And yet, what McGuinness’s colleague John O’Dowd said: “It is Sinn Féin’s intention to put manners on the entire civil service, to anyone who is there working for the community and the people… they need to be ensuring they understand one thing, they are there working for the people.”

Given the kind of drift we have seen under direct rule it is possible to understand the kind of battles O’Dowd may have had in mind. But his terms of reference directly contradict those of McGuinness’s apologia.

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