Sinn Fein is not a normal political party. Don’t take my word for it, the charge is laid by the Irish Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, in his frequent clashes with the party’s leader Mary Lou McDonald in the Irish parliament.
The Shinners smell power in the South. According to the latest polls they are the most popular party in the Republic of Ireland. Meanwhile the Irish political ruling class have long disdained Sinn Fein, a party that sees itself as the authentic inheritor of the 1916 uprising that ejected Britain from most of Ireland. But Sinn Fein shouldn’t be let off the hook for their unrepented and inextricable links to the Provisional IRA who, above all other combatants, perverted the cause of Irish unity with 30 years of sectarian slaughter.
In an interview with the Sunday Times last weekend, Martin challenged Sinn Fein to apologise for this murderous relationship. It could be his price for a future coalition but it’s something he knows Sinn Fein in its current iteration can’t and won’t do. The psychology of the Troubles as a ‘just war’ is a reeking comfort blanket but absolutely necessary to hold in senior Provos who, according to both police forces on the island, still pull the strings behind the scenes.
Martin has demonstrated a rare empathy for Unionism that evaded his predecessors, saddled as they were with the torture of the Brexit land border divorce. Moreover, he has publicly rejected the overtures of Irish Unity campaigners riding the wave of Brexit tumult to agitate for a border poll as soon as possible.
His deliberately consensual ‘shared island’ philosophy sticks in the craw of these fundamentalists who, for all their slick sophistry, see Unionism as essentially an irritating false consciousness and would be happy for the narrowest of victories in a border poll, whatever the price. A ‘shared island’ is a place divested of the nativist bigotry that animates far too much of Irish nationalist sentiment. It fits in with the vast majority of polls going back over the last decade that confirm two things – the constitutional issue is at the bottom of a list of priorities for ordinary people and in any case, there is a persistent majority for the status quo.
Unionists ought to make a strategic decision to do business with a Taoiseach who shows a genuine willingness to see their constitutional legitimacy and work with them. But there is a price to pay here too. Martin has described what he sees as a Faustian pact between securocrats in the British establishment and Sinn Fein/IRA with it in the interests of neither to reveal the often-squalid underbelly of the Troubles, where it is alleged the state was complicit in murder and the IRA was riddled with informants, many of whom were and remain in the public eye.
The idea of ‘legacy’ is beloved of Northern Ireland’s burgeoning legions of often publicly underwritten human rights academics, activists and institutions. Perhaps it’s because the term is a conveniently unscientific way to even out the scales in the balance of murder in the Troubles that leans so heavily towards the IRA. You would be forgiven for not being aware of this point given the relentless focus of activists on the human rights of the relatively small number of people killed in disputed circumstances by the state. That’s a focus sadly lost on the families of victims of terrorist violence in Fermanagh, for example, where 95 per cent of the murders committed by those industrial human rights abusers, the IRA, remain buried and unsolved. Somehow this deep reservoir of violated lives never seems to detain our human rights elite for very long. It’s a puzzle.
For all that, Northern Ireland still needs a way to reconcile the past. In its centenary year, it would be an act of strategic generosity for Unionists to reach out beyond the laager and grasp the hand of a neighbour like Micheal Martin to do the business of creating an island of two peoples at peace with itself. The irony here is that in doing so, the chances of both maintaining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and the contemplation of a ‘new Ireland’ are both served well. Martin reacted to suggestions that he had softened his position with Sinn Fein saying, ‘politics evolves.’ So too must Unionism. Or it is toast.