Sinn Fein is not a normal party. It sometimes feels impolite to point it out in the era of the Belfast Agreement. But the legal amnesty from criminal charges offered to IRA terrorists as part of the peace process does not oblige individuals to abstain from moral judgement of their political wing. Especially when it continues to venerate those terrorists.
The past year offered a grim reminder of this when the party’s leadership turned out in force, in the middle of lockdown, for a grim show of strength at the funeral of Bobby Storey, a Provisional IRA ‘volunteer’ who spent 20 years in prison for various offences.
But yesterday offered an especially visceral reminder when Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, led a series of official tributes to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Tom McElwee, who starved himself to death on hunger strike in prison.
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) August 8, 2021
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Tom McElwee after 62 days on hunger strike.Fuair sé bás ar son saoirse na hÉireann pic.twitter.com/u7jRW2Weqk
McElwee was in prison for a firebombing attack in which Yvonne Dunlop, a 27-year-old mother of three, was burned alive. Her name does not appear in Sinn Fein’s remembrances.
That absence is telling. Yes, in a post-conflict society such as Northern Ireland there must always be a degree of gritting one’s teeth and leaving the past in the past. But that is not what Sinn Fein is doing. Instead, they are actively commemorating murderers such as McElwee while drawing a veil over their victims as part of a very effective campaign to shape popular memory of the past.
So effective has this been that we sometimes lose sight of how remarkable Sinn Fein’s journey from the fringes has been. It was not, throughout the Troubles, the primary political vehicle for Ulster’s Catholic population and political nationalism — that was the constitutional SDLP. Nor did the party play any significant role in the politics of the modern Republic, which had a perfectly healthy multi-party democracy already.
Yet today it is Sinn Fein that holds the deputy first minister’s office in Belfast and poses an increasingly potent challenge to the traditional party system in Dublin.
Sinn Fein prays in aid of the Belfast Agreement when it suits it but still refuses to send its MPs to Westminster, tacitly refusing to accept the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK which the treaty guarantees. It seeks amnesties for IRA terrorists (while opposing them for everyone else) and refuses to assist their victims. And it is the same party that just last year, the head of the Republic's police service, the Garda, said was still institutionally connected to the IRA Army Council.
As far as Ulster goes, Tony Blair has much to answer for. It was New Labour that first made Sinn Fein look the more effective party of nationalism by giving them more concessions during the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement (because the SDLP had no guns to put down). He followed that with the St Andrews Agreement, which changed the system for choosing the first minister and created powerful incentives for voters to row in behind the largest party on each side.
Voters in the Republic don’t have the excuse of having a compact with terrorists built into the architecture of their state. If they are republicans, there are constitutional republican parties to choose from. If they share Sinn Fein’s professed left-wing values, there are principled parties of the left to support.
Choosing to give your support to a party that has connections to terrorists and launders the memory of their crimes is just that: an unforced choice.
One of the most serious objections to the government’s proposed amnesty for Troubles prosecutions — beyond the basic question of justice for victims — is that it risks giving the impression of false equivalence between the security forces and the terrorists. Sinn Fein’s ongoing effort to rehabilitate and lionise IRA ‘volunteers’ is another part of that effort, and demonstrates quite clearly that the shallowness of their commitment to peace.
Drawing a veil over the past is part of the peace process. Rewriting history is not. So for as long as Sinn Fein continue to praise the name of Tom McElwee, remember that of Yvonne Dunlop. Victims deserve commemoration. Murderers don’t.