(Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
It’s over a year since the devolved Executive in Northern Ireland collapsed, after the late Martin McGuinness, then deputy first minister, resigned. The pretext was a badly administered energy scheme, which Sinn Fein blamed on its partner in government, the DUP, but the republican party now rarely mentions the Renewable Heat Incentive.
For twelve months, civil servants have taken political decisions, without proper scrutiny from ministers at Stormont or Westminster. Despite the absence of an Executive, the secretary of state refused to implement direct rule, which is opposed by nationalists and the Dublin government.
Last week the prospect of unionists and republicans finally agreeing to restore power-sharing became even more remote, when Sinn Fein MP, Barry McElduff, appeared to mock victims of one of the IRA’s most infamous atrocities.
On the 5th January 1976, armed paramilitaries stopped a minibus carrying textile workers home from work. They shot dead ten men, all Protestants, and released one passenger, who was Catholic. The cold-blooded sectarianism of the ‘Kingsmills massacre’ was shocking, even for a province that had become accustomed to murder and brutality.
On the forty-second anniversary of these events, Mr McElduff decided to pose with a loaf of Kingsmill branded bread on his head and post a video of his antics to social media.
The West Tyrone MP, who is known for his ‘quirky’ sense of humour, claimed he intended no offence and was unaware of the significance of the date. Nevertheless, Sinn Fein suspended him from ‘all party activities’ for three months and called his actions ‘indefensible’. Then, after ten days of criticism directed at this lenient punishment, the party announced yesterday that he would be standing down, prompting a by-election in the constituency.
The sole survivor of the Kingsmills attack, Alan Black, welcomed Mr McElduff’s resignation, but Sinn Fein has been criticised for taking so long to act appropriately.
There is incredulity at the MP’s contention that his behaviour was a coincidence. McElduff has a long history of filming apparently light-hearted videos which he invests with a political sting in the tail and frequently his messages are steeped in the lore of the IRA.
His actions are a particularly glaring symptom of a profound problem Northern Ireland has with its unresolved past. No contrition or self-examination has been required from the most prolific perpetrators of murder, the Provisional IRA, or its political wing, Sinn Fein, during the ‘peace process’.
Republican leaders continue to commemorate publicly paramilitaries who were involved in some of the Troubles’ bloodiest incidents. They promote the idea that the IRA’s violence was necessary and justified, implying that its aim was to win ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’, rather than to force the British government and unionists into an all-Ireland republic.
A nationalist dominated council in Newry, close to the border with the Republic, named a children’s play park after Raymond McCreesh, who was caught with a gun used in the Kingsmills massacre. Despite interventions by Northern Ireland’s equality and children’s commissions, councillors refused to reverse their decision. On his personal blog, McElduff even hailed McCreesh as a “hero and martyr” and suggested the IRA man should be awarded a Nobel Prize.
Victims of republican terror are confronted regularly by Sinn Fein’s celebrations of the movement’s crimes. Those who object too strenuously are accused of opposing the peace process or harbouring a hostile obsession with the party, by its aggressive rabble of social media supporters.
Victims campaigners frequently receive torrents of vile online abuse. Ann Travers, whose sister was murdered by the IRA when it botched an attempt to kill her Catholic, magistrate father, was accused by a prominent republican activist of lying about having cancer. It’s a ripe irony that Sinn Fein says its current refusal to share power with the DUP is a result of its insistence on being accorded ‘respect’.
One of the party’s many negotiating ‘red lines’ is a demand that inquests are conducted into the comparatively small number of killings attributed to the security forces, during the ‘Troubles’. Sinn Fein takes this position knowing that there is very little likelihood of equivalent investigations into IRA actions.
Some two thousand murders during the conflict in Northern Ireland are attributed to republicans, approximately seventy percent of which remain unsolved. There simply aren’t sufficient resources to ‘police the past’ equitably, while the peace process has been nudged along by pardons and ‘comfort letters’ provided to members of the IRA who were ‘on the run’.
There is a common assumption that thorough application of the law, which would probably entail prosecuting senior members of Sinn Fein, could cause the power-sharing institutions to collapse for good or even result in a return to violence. The interests of IRA victims are secondary to maintaining some form of political equilibrium.
This lack of balance in ‘legacy investigations’ has allowed republicans to promote the idea that the state was the main aggressor in Northern Ireland’s conflict. In defiance of every serious examination of historical and statistical evidence, the security forces are portrayed as chief orchestrators of a ‘dirty war’ and atrocities are attributed to the provocations of double agents, rather than the paramilitary organisations that planned and carried them out.
The army and police certainly used methods that were sometimes controversial, and led to allegations of collusion, but their underlying aim was always to save lives, protect property and prevent a full blown civil war. Many of the 352 deaths caused by the security forces were the result of lawful, proportionate actions.
At times, it can seem like republicans believe genuinely that the British government was, for reasons that were mysterious and Machiavellian, fighting a war against itself.
McElduff’s forced resignation shows that, even for Sinn Fein, some events in the movement’s past are especially toxic but it’s a long way from a wider admission that the IRA’s campaign was unnecessary and unjustified. Disputes over how the past is understood will continue to damage Northern Ireland politically and prevent the community from absorbing the lessons of its traumatic history.
Young people are particularly susceptible to Sinn Fein’s attempts to reframe the “struggle” as a continuous campaign for “rights” and “equality” withheld by unionists and the British government. The view that the IRA’s violence was defensible often appears to be more mainstream now than when the bombings and shootings were actually taking place.
While Kingsmills has ended the career of one of its MPs, Sinn Fein does not yet even admit that the IRA was responsible for the massacre, despite overwhelming evidence at the time and a definitive report by the Historical Enquiries Team many years later.
Having spent the last year issuing sanctimonious lectures about ‘respect’, McElduff’s video threatened to undermine the party’s political message and that’s why, eventually, it became pragmatic to demand his resignation. Sinn Fein’s wider distortions of history and its ongoing struggle to justify the horror it inflicted are much more serious, lasting impediments to building a less divided society.
While celebrations of paramilitarism — both republican and loyalist — continue to be tolerated, politics in Northern Ireland will remain unstable and a return to violence will always remain possible.