What are we to make of Sinn Fein's latest experiment with the language of regret when it comes to the murder of Lord Mountbatten just after his nephew’s Royal funeral? It's not hard to be cynical about the Shinners. This is after all the political party that appointed a convicted terrorist bomber as Director of 'Unionist outreach' not so long ago. A party that dragged its feet on pensions for victims of paramilitary terrorists in their attempt to include injured perpetrators. A party that police services on either side of the border says is run by shadowy figures in the army council of the IRA.
Their uncamouflaged leader, Mary Lou McDonald chopped up a word salad in an interview on Times radio this weekend and came up with a new side dish in obfuscation. Referring to the murder of Lord Mountbatten and three others in a group that included children (who were clearly visible to the bombers who blew them to pieces in Mullaghmore harbour in 1979) she said, 'I can say of course I am sorry, of course, that happened.' Much in the way you'd apologise for neglecting to feed a neighbour’s cat while they were away.
Her remarks were prefaced by something about the Brits being just as bad which is standard issue context when there is even the slightest acknowledgement of the damage the IRA visited on its own people.
For all that, some commentators have fallen on McDonald's grudging words as evidence of an exciting new phase in Sinn Fein's strategy for respectability. Well, I have a bridge to sell you and it’s strewn with landmines. The whiff of cordite is still electoral kryptonite in both parts of Ireland and those in the party longing for political ascendancy in either jurisdiction know it. At the same time, there can be no straightforward admission that the IRA’s campaign was cruel, futile and wrong. If the blood sacrifice – usually other people's blood – was disowned, the psychological fallout would destroy Sinn Fein and to be fair, perhaps put rocket boosters under existing dissident factions desperate to supplant any traitors to the cause of Irish freedom built on the bones of Irish people.
These reasons explain the eternal syntax gymnastics when it comes to terrorism and Sinn Fein’s modern manifestation. The push of the ballot box and the pull of the Armalite is a tension still visible in every attempt to explain and justify the bloody past. ‘Sorry for the harm’ isn’t the same as ‘sorry for the harmers.’ The distinction is quite deliberate. Middle class Mary Lou, a Dubliner born a universe away from the privations and the sadisms of the Killing fields of Ulster would be toast if she ever tried to connect the moral chasm between effect and cause – and she’s all too aware of her limits.
I suppose we should be thankful that the only thing republicans are trying to murder these days is the English language. Moreover, there’s an unpalatable truth that Sinn Fein’s dramatic electoral gains in the Irish Republic is fuelled by young voters who care more about the cost of living that the cost of violence before they were born. The new republican insurgency is through social media with as little mention of the IRA as is decently possible. And it works. This is not a normal political party, as Ireland’s former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is fond of saying. It will not operate to the same standards of morality held as normal for every other mainstream party in the free world. It continues to refer to monsters who murdered people wholesale in the most bestial of circumstances as ‘patriots.’ It cannot apologise properly for the depraved acts of its paramilitary wing, not least because a fair few of those ex-combatants are holding up (or holding hostage) the institutions of government in Northern Ireland. Far from being modern, it is utterly chained to the past.
Benjamin Franklin once said, ‘never ruin an apology with an excuse.’ As long as Sinn Fein continue to calibrate any genuine remorse for the IRA's indefensible slaughter with endless sophistry and caveats, they ruin any chance of rapprochement with the people they occasionally refer to as, ‘their Unionist brothers and sisters.’ An olive branch wrapped in barbed wire is not enough.