Tradition: “A thing some of us do here when the political going gets tough…”

I was asked this morning by a senior party official whether there would be any positive effect in Sinn Fein’s voter numbers because of the dissident campaign. Will it? I don’t rightly know. At this stage you might think that everyone who had planned to jump ship from the SDLP has already done so. But may be not.

However, in the Guardian Glenn Patterson gets close to the nub of the problem of the IRA. It is not an organisation as such, but an idea, or in a more historical context as Glenn puts it, a tradition, or:

…a thing some of us do here when the political going gets tough or just not to our liking. (Some of us do a thing called UVF too; we have in the past done a great many other things in the name of the state.) All the adherents to this tradition style themselves Óglaigh na hÉireann – “Irish Volunteers” or “Soldiers of Ireland” (and the official name of the Irish Defence Forces, which is a whole other civil war story) – and they have all committed acts on a par with the murder of Constable Kerr.

We have dignified such events in our recent past, or at least sanitised them by saying that they occurred in particular circumstances, circumstances that our peace process will help us all to understand and, if not forgive one another for, at least accept at face value. The implication is that the participants in the conflict were not so much acting, as being forced to act: “History made me do it”, the very argument of course that the various Óglaigh new kids (or not so new kids) are using now. Even in the most extreme circumstances there are choices to be made.

Martin McGuinness’s forthrightness has, as I say, been welcome and refreshing. But someone, some time soon, has to have the courage to say that while the aspiration to Irish unity was always legitimate, the means employed – the under-car bombs, the vans filled with explosives, the shootings of informers and civilians as well as members of the armed forces – were always wrong. Not unfortunate, not “to be regretted”. Wrong.

It may not in itself stop this version of the IRA, but it ought at least put clear blue water between those who really do believe that politics is the only way to effect change, and those who believe it is the only way when they have decided for the rest of us that it is.

I recently spoke to another senior politician who thought that the troubles would always be with us whilst there is partition (or from a unionist perspective, substantial alienation from the joys of the Union). Which may be one reason why there is unlikely to be any big, single, glorious prizes on offer within Northern Irish politics for the foreseeable future.