The online world should be credited when it gets something right. And on Twitter an account titled ‘On This Day the IRA’ gets something very right. Granted, it’s not your usual internet fare. It includes no videos of cute animals sneezing. It is simply an archive-rich account which records what the IRA did on that day in history.
Naturally, each day brings more than one thing to commemorate. On the day I’m writing, the account records James Keenan and Martin McGuigan, two Catholic 16-year-olds blown up by the IRA in 1979 while they were on their way to a Saturday night dance. There are also anniversaries from 1977 and 1988, and Reginald Williamson, a 46-year-old father of two who was killed in 1993. The girlfriend of the off-duty RUC member was driving behind him in a separate car after a night out together. She described the effects of the under-car bomb going off. A bang, a scream, and then, as she ran over to her boyfriend, the first fruit of the IRA’s labours: ‘I looked down and his legs were gone.’
Aside from families, friends and this sombre account, few people remember these dead. Few joined the ranks of famous victims who emerged from larger, or state-caused, atrocities. The families rarely got any apology out of the IRA greater than ‘Sorry our car bomb went off early, or in the wrong street’.
If there was any justification for this, it was that in the North and the South of Ireland things needed to move on. For two decades, such sentiment held because the peace held. This in spite of disturbing corners, such as those secret portions of the Good Friday Agreement that allowed the loved ones of people killed by British soldiers to seek justice, while the families of those killed by the IRA were expected to watch their murderers walk free, and sometimes into government.
Now elections in the Republic of Ireland have come along to further unsettle this moral equilibrium. Three weeks ago Sinn Fein won more votes than any other party, and as a result the political wing of the IRA is negotiating to form a government in Dublin. True, there have already been upsets. Soon after the election there was a Labour-like scandal when it turned out that one of SF’s new elected representatives, Reada Cronin, had a social media history that even Baroness Chakrabarti might have thought fishy. Among other things, Ms Cronin appeared to favour the idea that the Rothschild family conspired with Adolf Hitler to bring about the Holocaust.
Over the days in which Cronin was forced to do the usual apology tour, I’m sure I was not alone in feeling that there was more to say. Have we become so preoccupied with online crimes that actual crimes have begun to take a back seat? Or is there perhaps a certain boredness — a certain tedium — with stating the bleeding obvious? Whatever the explanation, while the press were focusing on one Shinner’s anti-Semitism, a voice in my head kept shouting: ‘What about the paramilitary wing? What about the death squads? What about all the dead — all the Jameses and Martins and Reginalds?’ A party so unbothered, if not proud, of its actual crimes will hardly be detained by a few online infelicities.
True, the party has spent recent years adapting to the new ‘social justice’ mantras that have swept Ireland even faster than every-where else in recent years. SF have almost managed their rebrand from murderous nationalists to social justice internationalists. Though it has included some grindingly noisy gear changes. Four years ago a Sinn Fein senator in the North claimed that the 1981 hunger strikers died for gay rights. How I would love to have seen someone say to a naked Bobby Sands, sitting in his cell: ‘So I hear you’re doing all this for the gays, Bobby?’ For his response would likely have been neither diverse nor inclusive.
But it is all of a piece. While most people weren’t watching, the Shinners dolled themselves up for a new generation. And the election results showed how many people in Ireland were persuaded by this. Deciding in the process that the past was less important than the future, as though the two were separable. So we can now observe a party trying to form a government whose relatively kindly face is Mary Lou McDonald — a woman very happy to shout the IRA slogan ‘Our day will come’. The Dail is adorned by Dessie Ellis, a former IRA man reported to have been linked to around 50 murders. Even the party’s younger sparks like David Cullinane are happy to toe the old line when it comes to the murderers. Cullinane concluded his election night address with all the old slogans, including ‘Up the RA’ [IRA]. Picked up on by the national press afterwards, Cullinane said he had nothing to apologise for and in any case, his comments were about the past, not the future.
The discovery that Gerry Adams is on Sinn Fein’s negotiating team cast further doubt on that — curiously, though, Sinn Fein didn’t announce his involvement in the talks. Only when the party’s own internal documents were leaked and revealed that Adams was on the team did a new generation have another chance to get used to the idea that Sinn Fein don’t always tell the truth.
So is it all in the past? Not according to Ireland’s own police chief, Drew Harris, who this week said what everyone in the intelligence and policing community knows — which is that Sinn Fein the political party is to this day still overseen by the army council of the IRA. Meaning that the next Irish government could be led by the only party for miles — or decades — around that comes with all the advantages that can be accrued in a democracy from having your own armed assassination gang.
Perhaps this is what history always feels like. Politicians lie to gain power. Memories fade. As the ‘On This Day’ account reminds us, people get away with murder. But Sinn Fein’s success is a reminder also of one of the great mysteries of Ireland, both North and South: how a people famous for remembering everything can have forgotten so much.