Are we afraid of talking about Ireland’s violent past and possibly violent future?

This is a blog about letters to the newspapers. I know it’s dangerous to generalise from the particular, and especially the particular of one’s own tiny experience. But I can’t help seeing a pattern in recent rejections of my letters to the Irish Times, and wondering whether it isn’t part of a general trend in attitudes to Ireland’s violent past and possibly violent future.

In the past two and a half years I have had three letters to that august organ rejected. In that time I calculate I have had 12 letters published (I admit I am a serial letter writer to that paper!) – on subjects ranging from the Opsahl Commission to legacy issues to bicycles on trains to young people’s ignorance of recent Irish history – so I am not at all paranoid about the attitude of the the Irish Times (a former employer of mine) to my views.

But I find it interesting that those three rejected letters all contained elements about two very sensitive subjects which people in this Republic rarely, if ever, want to talk about these days: the 30 year campaign of violence by the Provisional IRA and the possibility of future loyalist violence in the event of a narrow victory in a Border Poll for Irish unity. But first the letters:

In October 2020 I wrote a letter in support of then Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s Shared Island initiative. It included the following paragraph:

Sinn Fein’s push for a Border Poll so as to achieve the narrowest possible 50.1% vote for unity is madness, running the considerable risk of re-igniting the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’. In its policy papers over the past 20 years that party has not outlined a single new idea about how, if and when that happens, we are going to cope with the 49.9% of Northerners who will remain stubbornly – and often bitterly – opposed to such an outcome.

That letter was not published.

In April 2022 I wrote a short letter in response to an article about collusion between the Ulster Defence Regiment and loyalist paramilitaries, asking why the writer had not mentioned the huge discrepancy between the numbers killed by the UDR and those killed by republican paramilitaries. This letter read:

‘UDR Collusion in Britain’s Dirty War’ was an interesting if partial article by Micheál Smith. One extraordinarily revealing fact was omitted: the Ulster Defence Regiment and its successor, the Royal Irish Regiment, killed just eight people in the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ between 1970 and 1998, compared to the 2,002 people killed by the Provisional IRA, the Official IRA, the Real IRA and the INLA combined (figures taken from the authoritative ‘Lost Lives: the stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles’, by David McKittrick and colleagues).

This letter was not published.

Earlier this month I wrote a letter following Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald’s speech in Kerry about apologising for and forgiving atrocities committed in the Civil War. This letter read:

Mary Lou McDonald is to be congratulated on her speech at Ballyseedy urging the descendants of all sides in the Irish Civil War to apologise for atrocities committed in that conflict (‘All sides in Civil War need to apologise, says Sinn Fein leader’, March 6).

But she is also guilty of hypocrisy. As leader of the former political wing of the Provisional IRA, she needs to apologise and ask forgiveness for the nearly 1,800 people killed by that organisation much more recently, in the Northern Ireland ‘troubles.’ The IRA killed nearly five times more people than the British Army, the RUC and the UDR combined. Of the 1,771 people they killed, 636 were uninvolved civilians.

Until she stands alongside the families of the victims of Bloody Friday in Belfast, Claudy, Kingsmills, La Mon, Teebane, Enniskillen and the Shankill Road and apologises to them, I for one will not be taking her talk of apology and forgiveness for those who died in our 100-year-old civil war too seriously.

This letter was not published.

I believe that as Sinn Fein move closer to power – and therefore respectability – it is becoming increasingly unfashionable to refer to its past as the political wing of a violent secret army. Up to 2020 a Dail session was hardly complete without a taunt from the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail benches to their Sinn Fein opposite numbers about their support for that violence. Those voices have become stilled in the past few years. Compare the furore over Waterford Sinn Fein TD David Cullinane being filmed singing ‘Ooh, Ah, Up the Ra!’ after the 2020 general election with the widespread belief, voiced by comedian Tommy Tiernan among many others, that such a song was “harmless” when it was sung last October by the Irish women’s soccer team. This change of tone has happened in a surprisingly short time: in fact, in the three years since Sinn Fein did so surprisingly well in that election and started to look like a prospective governing party.

It’s happening in Northern Ireland too. A young Belfast unionist friend (in her thirties) with friends in both communities tells me: “I think it’s become this thing where some people don’t want to talk about the past. It’s impolite to mention it. ‘What about the IRA?’ has become something you can’t say. People feel that if they bring it up they will be viewed as a hard-line unionist like Jim Allister.”

Maybe 26 years after the IRA’s last official killing – I am not including the beating to death of Robert McCartney, Paul Quinn and others by IRA members – it is inevitable that people will forget, and will want to forget, the horrors of the IRA campaign of 1970-1997. For a man in my seventies like me – a working journalist in Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s and coordinator of the Opsahl Commission in the early 1990s – the memories of that murderous violence over three decades remain particularly vivid. It seems a very, very long time since constitutional politicians like John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Garret Fitzgerald and Conor Cruise O’Brien used to criticise IRA violence on a weekly basis.

Probably if I was a Dubliner in my twenties or thirties it would seem like ancient history, irrelevant to my concerns about the cost-of-living, housing and health in this prosperous republic in the third decade of the 21st century, and seeing the now peaceful party of republicanism as just another left-wing electoral option. I have to say that when I look at the total mess the coalition government have made of the housing crisis – most recently in their decision to end the temporary eviction ban before putting in place any new tenant-protecting measures – and if I were a young person with no knowledge of the North, I too would be tempted to vote for the former party of the IRA and its impressive housing spokesman, Eoin O Broin.

And of course the loyalist paramilitaries are terra incognita for the Southern public, largely because they are also terra incognita for the Southern media. People here simply see them as ‘beyond the pale’ bogeymen: inheritors of a sinister tradition of anti-Irish bigotry and violence from the ‘Black and Tans’ and B-Specials of the early and mid 20th and the UDA and UVF of the late 20th century. So who in their right mind wants to conjure up the prospect of such terrifying groups again becoming active? It’s ‘head in the sand’ time when it comes to Ulster loyalism. It’s easier just to write off the DUP and their attitude to the Protocol as just the latest in a long line of examples of ‘stupid unionism’ at its most blinkered, and to consign that party and its hundreds and thousands of supporters to the dustbin of history.

But the paramilitaries and their thousands of members haven’t gone away. Knowledgeable nationalists and unionists agree on the likelihood of violence in the event of a premature Border Poll. As that straight-talking political scientist, Brendan O’Leary (a nationalist), puts it: “Given Irish history, especially in the North, the recurrence of significant violence may happen, whatever action or inaction occurs in the South over the next decade.”1 Former DUP First Minister Peter Robinson says: “Every sensible person recognises that to have a Border Poll with a 50 or 51 or 52% result, on a constitutional issue like the future of Northern Ireland, is certain to be violent. There is no other likely outcome in those circumstances, if the result is tight.”2

I realise that increasingly I am a voice in the wilderness. Will that old unionist-lover not shut up and keep up with the times, younger and more nationalist people will demand. But I will not shut up. I will continue to urge people not to vote Sinn Fein because of their past involvement with and present justification of political violence. It is sometimes forgotten that my kind of moderate, non-violent nationalism comes from a noble tradition which runs from O’Connell to Hume.

PS I haven’t written about the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework this month because I have little or nothing to add to the millions of words the media have already spilled about them. However I recommend (particularly to my unionist readers) a recent letter to the Belfast News Letter by the retired professor of history at Queen’s University, Liam Kennedy (originally from Tipperary), who is one of the few Irish academics who tries to understand the unionist point of view. He wrote on 16th March:

In late 1972 I attended a mass rally in Patrick Street in the city of Cork (the ‘real capital’ of Ireland, according to locals).The protest was against Ireland’s imminent entry to the then European Economic Community. The meeting began with the reading of the 1916 Proclamation, which set the tone. Speaker after speaker, mainly from Irish republican backgrounds, decried the loss of sovereignty involved.

In a way, the purists had a point. There was a loss of sovereignty, particularly in relation to agricultural policy. However, the pooling of sovereignty implied by coming under the aegis of the Common Agricultural Policy opened decades of higher prices and higher farm incomes for generations of Irish farmers. In industry the benefits were even greater as multi-national Ireland caught fire.

Today, the Irish Republic has one of the highest incomes per head of any developed country, without any need of subsidies from outside.

If anything, the European Union has enhanced Irish sovereignty. The Irish state and people now have the resources, and hence the power, to implement social and economic programmes that would have been unthinkable as a small, backward agrarian economy circa 1972. This after 50 years of political independence and much patriotic guff.

Fast forward another 50 years and Northern Ireland or, more accurately, Northern unionists are embroiled in a parallel ‘sovereignty’ debate. Should someone invoke a reading of the Ulster Covenant to mirror the Easter Proclamation of 1916? Indeed, should the critics of the Windsor Framework prevail, what glorious future beckons? Political stalemate for a while, another inconclusive election, a boycotting of Stormont, followed by direct rule. By the end of the decade, joint sovereignty?

Victory for the purists and the legally-minded theologians of sovereignty. And to hell with people’s welfare as far as economy, health services and education are concerned.

Oh, and incidentally, a Union mislaid along the way.

1 Making Sense of a United Ireland, p.252

2 Padraig O’Malley, Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland, p.81

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