Monday’s edition of the Irish News carred quotations from Sinn Fein Chairman, Declan Kearney. Speaking at the party’s summer school in West Cork on the subject of reconciliation, Kearney said there was “no excuse” for the devastation wrought by the Shankill bomb and in addition made several substantive claims as well:
“….no right thinking republican has ever galmorised war. We should not seek to romanticise war, or armed struggle, nor the actions of the IRA in this, or any previous generation”.
The only discernible caveat from his remarks was that:
“…..a political context forced the use of armed struggle as a last resort..”
The initial claim that there was “no excuse” for the Shankill bomb, echoes similar sentiments about the “indefensible” Claudy bomb, the “shame” felt by a senior republican on the fortieth anniversary of Bloody Friday, alongside other remarks about Enniskillen and other incidents. On the one hand, this appears a retreat from previous republican rhetoric about the ‘regrettable’, yet supposedly ‘necessary’, acts committed in prosecuting their bloody ‘war’.
The use of absolutist terminology such as “indefensible” and “no excuse” begs the question of whether Sinn Fein will simply retrospectively condemn the PIRA armed campaign, one incident at a time, whilst quietly slipping in that caveat about the apparent necessity of “armed struggle”.
In this respect, an attritional war of claiming credit for ‘historic’ announcements or concessions can be built, without retreating from the central position of justifcation of that campaign as a whole and potentially ruffling feathers internally.
This position, although intellectually dishonest, given that each of the incidents declared beyond the pale of moral defensibility are entirely consistent with countless other acts of terrorism in their campaign, thus appears to be seen to serve a political purpose, particularly that of image softening in the Irish Republic.
Contortions of logic regarding the legacy of the past within SF are nothing new. If we compare the soveriegn HET with the HET lacking credibility , we can see a varying disposition on the usefulness of that body that is entirely related to outcomes, namely the effects of individual findings on the credibility of the accepted party narrative. It would appear truth is still a relative, elastic concept when it comes to defining the past.
Yet Sinn Fein’s á la carte approach to reconciliation is not without risks and unintended consequences for the republican movement. Kearney’s shellshock when taken from the scripted path in an exchange with UUP leader Mike Nesbitt neatly illustrates this discomfort outside certain limited parameters.
Kearney’s comments in relation to “romanticisation” require particular scrutiny. This is an extremely live issue, given the well-publicised ‘re-enactment dramas’ of republican commemoration culture, recently involving children dressed up in terrorist/police uniforms with replica weapons, at Dungiven and Mullaghbawn, with the latter resulting in the threat of loss of European funding.
If regaling impressionable children with tales of the glories, excitement and adrenaline of ‘war’ in a dramatic fashion is not a form of romanticisation of terror, it is hard to imagine what could fall within Kearney’s definition.
Interestingly, prominent republican Sean ‘Spike’ Murray appears to suggest the days of ‘re-enactment dramas’ ought to end, with such displays “at variance with current republican thinking and direction”.
Whether this will represent significant cultural change within republicanism remains to be seen. However, it opens up more interesting questions about how the logical absurdities of the present republican position may be weighing heavily on new priorities, namely the transition from a ‘movement’ to a mainstream, de-toxified opposition party fit for electoral success in the Irish Republic.
How deep will the rabbit hole go?