Sinn Fein’s defence of the appointments can’t be the last word

Well which is it?  A Robinson- McGuinness-led  joint move to take over the centre ground as well as the “extremes,” or a new wave of sectarian politics? I ask genuinely because I can’t be sure but hesitantly because I fear the sound of grinding axes. The lack of cool analysis so far suggests uncertainty over how to rate SF defiance of unionist sensibilities. Trite reactions like “moving on” are clearly not appropriate and serve only to irritate further.

The Sinn Fein appointments may be pay-off for the former prisoners and an answer to the dissident republican charge of sell-out. Outside the SF closed circle the human reaction to Anne Travers’ heartrending interview can only be sorrow and revulsion far beyond political allegiances. What do the SDLP think by the way? The pat responses from Gerry Kelly and Caral Ni Chuilin – “that’s it “- are not to put it mildly in the spirit of the reconciliation. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a second more soothing wave of SF comment will follow from the DPM at a moment of his own choosing.

Alex Kane’s strong article typically displays all the emotion which the Sinn Fein reaction equally typically denies. What do we think if this? Is the natural expression of righteous anger a sign of weakness or strength?  If the only available answer is that it depends on your audience, unionist or nationalist, we have retreated a few significant steps from the unity displayed at the murder of Constable Kerr.  Sinn Fein should accept that the division between conflict and post conflict is not rigid and absolute. If it were, why would we bother continuing to inquire into the past?

Which is the stronger political position, just wrath or the cold denial of any problem?  Alex can’t resist trying to hurt Sinn Fein back, a very human reaction to callous behaviour. He points to the natural limitation of their victories and rubs their noses in it as they pass the statues of Carson and Craigavon. Any hurt inflicted simply doesn’t compare, as of course  he knows. Might he have been better to adopt a more incisive approach, requiring a statement of regret and asking for ideas on where we go from here?

It is easy to make too much of Sinn Fein’s strategic ability. They probably feel under some threat from the dissident appeal despite their electoral successes, while they also like to exaggerate pressure for tactical advantage as we’ve seen for decades. This produced results for them when disarmament was the priority. That priority has not quite disappeared but it is much reduced

Unionists along with all opponents of violence over 30 years should take credit for their own willingness to come to terms with the past and stop beating themselves up about it. This is no one-off act. Many people chose to make a conscious adjustment every day for the rest of their lives. This is a big part of the price of peace.  It behoves all political parties to remember that.

Alex’s reaction to the appointments is psychologically authentic on the unionist side. Sinn Fein’s response is to say the least, seriously incomplete. A unionist-only response to the appointments is not enough. What is surely required is a political approach to everything including how to handle appointments, appropriate for a coalition of minds if not yet hearts, that all can live with.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London