Fascinating OpEd in yesterday’s Irish News from Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin. It’s the first time since I remember that a senior political leader in the Republic has taken the gloves off with anyone in Northern Ireland, let alone the First and deputy First Minister.
So what is it that’s got his goat?
Nothing less than the DUP’s motion in the Assembly (hot on the heels of the SDLP using the same mechanism to embarrass both ‘ruling parties’) criticising the Dublin government’s role in the troubles.
What’s interesting about Martin’s attack on the Stormont Castle (aka OFMdFM) parties is that it imputes a corrosive commonality of interest between the two, with the DUP focusing their rage on Dublin rather than its partner in government, Sinn Fein.
But first he cuts at Labour and Fine Gael:
What has happened that would allow otherwise responsible and civic minded public representatives ignore the historical facts and revert to an old language of confrontation, aggression and disrespect?
The first and most obvious conclusion is that the new Irish Government is no longer maintaining the sort of close and involved relationship with Stormont as the Governments I was privileged to serve in always did. Fianna Fáil Governments over the last ten years made some well documented mistakes, but taking progress in the North for granted was never one of them.
The fact that this issue got to the point where the First Minister is signing his name to a motion based on a false and facetious analysis of history and is heedless of the effect it would have on the relationship with Dublin represents a major failure in North–South politics and the Irish Government does need to answer questions about how it came to this.
From here it gets interesting from a northern point of view. Fitting Martin’s strategy of using the heavy mortality figures from the IRA’s thirty year armed campaign to negatively brand Sinn Fein’s credentials in the south he also puts Sinn Fein on side with the DUP’s attack on civil authority in Dublin:
…something profound is happening in the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin. At one level, if this is evidence of the two parties becoming comfortable with each other’s histories, it could be spun as a positive development.
I know, as a former Minister with responsibilities in the North, of the massive effort that was put into bringing Sinn Féin into democratic politics and of the wasted years of frustration as Dublin, London and others in the North worked hard to try and bring Sinn Féin and the DUP together. In that context, you could argue that a motion rewriting the history of the conflict which suits this relationship, is progress of a sort.
But is it positive progress? I for one don’t think so. For a relationship to develop real bonds of trust, it needs to be based on truth. While Sinn Féin and in fact the DUP may take comfort from a fiction which moves responsibility for what happened in Northern Ireland over the border, the problem for both is that it just isn’t true.
The DUP has sought an apology from the Irish Government. I listened to some of the contributions made during the debate and it is clear that the pain and anger caused by the activities of the IRA is still raw and still real. I understand this anger. Indeed, I share it. But surely if an apology is to mean anything, it must be genuine.
It must be offered by those who hold moral responsibility for the actions involved. The death of almost 1,800 men, women and children at the hands of the IRA was a hideous crime against their neighbours, against their country and against the proud ambitions of Irish Republicanism.
And he continues with a defence of civil authority over insurgency:
If the DUP wants to point a finger of blame for the emergence and subsequent activity of the Provisional movement, it needs to look much closer to home. It could begin by seeking to better understand the role of a Northern Ireland Unionist Government that actively discriminated against Catholics and then sought to crush a legitimate and peaceful civil rights movement. A disastrous decision then exploited by those who thought the interests of their community were best served through violence.
Even more appropriately, it could speak directly to its partners in the current Northern Ireland Government. It could ask First Minister Martin McGuinness to tell the truth of the IRA under his command. It could demand that Sinn Féin Leader Gerry Adams account for his tenure on the Army Council of the IRA and ask him to answer the charges made by Brendan Hughes regarding the abduction, murder and disappearance of the body of Jean McConville.
I know personally, from my time in Government and from the work of members of my family in the Garda Siochana of the effort and sacrifice made by Ireland’s police and army to thwart the activities of the IRA. While the Republic escaped the worst excesses of murder and sectarian violence, with some notable and sickening exceptions, the threat posed to the stability of this state by so-called Republicans was no less severe than it was in Northern Ireland.
Like the SDLP, there is little margin for Martin in attacking the DUP just for the sake of it. In reality this combines as a defence of the Republic with a powerplay in Sinn Fein’s own backyard.
After last week’s confrontation of Gerry Adams on RTE, it’s clear that Martin is looking for opportunities to revivify SF’s past. Tarring them by association with a truculent and unfocused attack on the civil powers in Dublin by the DUP merely sugars the pill.
And not just for southerners but for northern nationalists too.
Fianna Fail is in no position to fulfil any speculation of moving their political troops north of the border. Yet who else speaks as directly as this to those northern nationalists who still have problems endorsing, even retrospectively, the IRA’s armed campaign?
For any talk of their early demise the Soldiers of Destiny haven’t gone away you know…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty