Photo by Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency
Artillery Row

From terrorism to triumph

Sinn Fein have nothing to offer Ireland but division

For those of us who grew up in the Republic of Ireland during Northern Ireland’s troubles, the surge in support for Sinn Fein in the 2020 Irish general election is mind boggling. Sinn Fein received the greatest share of first preference votes and came second in terms of seats won. This was a dramatic transformation for a party that had an abstentionist policy towards the Republic’s parliament that only ended in 1986. Not that it really mattered in the late 80s as the electorate had their own abstentionist policy when it came to voting for Sinn Fein in following elections. For the rest of the 80s, and well into the late 90s, they never gained more than a two per cent share of the vote. 

The fact of the matter was that while the troubles persisted, Sinn Fein were viewed as pariahs by most of the Republic’s population due to their support for and close links with the Provisional IRA terrorist organisation. It must be remembered that the IRA not only carried out atrocities in Northern Ireland and Britain, but also in the Republic of Ireland where they murdered those who got in their way while carrying out bank robberies and kidnappings. In the aftermath of the 1993 Warrington Bombing, which left two children dead, there was widespread public revulsion against the IRA that culminated in the largest peace rally in Irish history taking place in Dublin. Sinn Fein were never going to thrive electorally in the Republic of Ireland with IRA terrorism raging in the foreground.

How is it that within a few decades, Sinn Fein have gone from political outcasts to being viewed as likely to lead the next government in Ireland? The answer to this question starts with the Northern Ireland peace process. During the late 1980s, John Hume, the leader of Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist party, the SDLP, held talks with Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams in an effort to convince the republican movement to move away from terrorism.  At the time, Hume holding talks with Adams was controversial in that the constitutional nationalists of the SDLP abhorred the Provisional IRA and the contempt was mutual. I imagine those initial meetings between Hume and Adams may have been a little bit awkward. After all, a former IRA member admitted that some of his former associates in the IRA had contemplated murdering Hume. 

The Hume-Adams talks lay the initial groundwork for the Northern Ireland peace process. Unfortunately for the SDLP, the peace process eventually led to Sinn Fein establishing itself as the dominant nationalist party in Northern Ireland.

As the former Deputy Leader of the SDLP and former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Seamus Mallon stated:  “When we entered into discussions with Sinn Fein, we handed the baton to them in many ways… Maybe it was the price we had to pay for peace, but unfortunately we also legitimised them.”

Mallon was acknowledging that Sinn Fein were far from a normal democratic party. While the SDLP were instrumental in convincing Sinn Fein (and by extension the IRA) to abandon the armed struggle for peaceful and democratic politics, it was Sinn Fein who were credited for making peace despite the fact there would have been no need for peacemaking if the IRA and their loyalist paramilitary equivalents hadn’t put the peaceful majority through three decades of hell.

In giving legitimacy to Sinn Fein, the Northern Irish peace process has facilitated Sinn Fein in presenting itself to the electorate in the Republic of Ireland as just another political party, with legitimate goals and aspirations like any other party. This is despite the fact that both the British and Irish security services believe that Sinn Fein’s political strategy is still directed by the IRA army council, which hasn’t gone away

Many of their younger voters accept Sinn Fein’s version of the Northern Irish troubles

In recent years, Sinn Fein have appealed to a growing cohort of radical left wing younger voters by convincing them they offer the solution to the Republic’s ever worsening housing crisis as well as adopting a woke agenda on a range of social issues. Most of Sinn Fein’s new voter base in the Republic of Ireland didn’t come of age during the troubles in Northern Ireland, so they don’t have the same revulsion for Sinn Fein that many older voters do. It is true that some of their new supporters are merely entranced by their left wing economic policies and woke agenda and don’t share Sinn Fein’s obsession with achieving a united Ireland. However, by voting for them they may well ensure that this is the top priority of the Republic’s next government.

That said, it is a sad fact that many of their younger voters do accept Sinn Fein’s tendentious version of the Northern Irish troubles in which the oppressed Catholic minority were defended by the gallant “volunteers” of the Provisional IRA. When indoctrinating the young with this version of the troubles, Sinn Fein tend to omit the fact that the vast majority of nationalists, both north and south, were adamantly opposed to the IRA on account of the long list of atrocities they visited on the people of both Ireland and Britain. 

Unfortunately, there is also the fact that the well intentioned actions of various UK governments since the Good Friday Agreement have had the unintended effect of bolstering Sinn Fein’s narrative of the troubles among many young Irish people. This has occurred because the UK state correctly holds itself to a higher standard than the republican movement and has conducted high profile inquiries into the crimes committed by rogue elements in the security forces. While it was right and just for the former Prime Minister David Cameron to apologise on behalf of the state in the aftermath of the Savile Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, as it was more recently when the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised for the Ballymurphy massacre, the effect of the state holding itself to a higher standard is that the conclusions of these inquiries have been used by Sinn Fein as propaganda to justify IRA terrorism. 

If you are a young person with an interest in politics who has come of age in Ireland over the past twenty years, you will have consumed far more media related to inquiries into Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy than you will regarding the very many more historical atrocities carried out by republicans. After all, Sinn Fein aren’t offering to conduct any inquiries in to the Enniskillen Poppy Day Massacre, the Claudy bombing, the La Mons atrocity, the Birmingham and Guildford pub bombings and the thousands of other bombing and shooting incidents carried out by the IRA. Many of Sinn Fein’s zealous new supporters won’t have any knowledge of these incidents, or the fact that atrocities by rogue elements of the security forces like Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday were high profile because they were incidents of aberrant behaviour by security forces and not the norm. Can you imagine the justifiable righteous indignation that all of nationalist Ireland would erupt with if a current British government tried to justify Bloody Sunday or the Ballymurphy massacre? Now imagine you are a unionist and you see the electorate of the Republic of Ireland on the brink of electing a party that continues to justify IRA terrorism that was directed against your community. 

A Dublin government’s primary policy goal would be to rip Northern Ireland from the UK

Another factor in the surge of support for Sinn Fein in the Republic of Ireland is related to Brexit and the Northern Irish border. As the Irish-Briton and political commentator Liam Halligan has written, in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the then-Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny had set up working committees between Irish and British civil servants to resolve any cross border issues. However, this all changed when the self declared European federalist Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach and facilitated the EU to weaponise the Northern Irish border as part of Brexit negotiations. While many Irish people are apolitical, those who are political tend mostly to be enthusiastic about the EU. In allowing Brexit to be presented as a British threat to impose a hard border between both parts of Ireland, Varadkar has helped stir up a large degree of the kind of Anglophobia that, only a few years ago, many Irish people tended to view as the embarrassing rantings of a bitter minority. In watching his own party get thrashed by Sinn Fein in the recent general election, Varadkar shouldn’t really be surprised that after he whipped up a substantial amount of Anglophobia among the population, Sinn Fein would be the ones to beat him at that game.  

The prospects of a Sinn Fein led government would be a major destabilising force on the island of Ireland and for relations across the wider British Isles. In the Republic of Ireland, it would turn the stomach of constitutional nationalists who would see a Sinn Fein governed state give retrospective legitimacy to a terrorist organisation that once attacked agents of the state it would now lead.

As for Northern Ireland, for the first time since the partition of Ireland, a Dublin government’s primary policy goal would be to rip Northern Ireland from the UK. While the Good Friday Agreement allows for a united Ireland to come about through the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, there are no worse ambassadors for a united Ireland than Sinn Fein. Ironically, their very existence is the biggest political block to their greatest aspiration. Even the most moderate of unionists currently show no interest in hypothetical united Ireland arrangements proposed by moderate nationalists in which a united Ireland rejoins the commonwealth and maybe even has the Queen as joint head of state. If moderate nationalists can’t woo unionists, then there’s not much chance of a political party that stands over a thirty year terror campaign directed against unionism getting a look in. Besides, how could any unionist wish to be in a united Ireland with Sinn Fein as the governing party, when most of its members revile the very concept that a significant portion of the people of Ireland view themselves as British or Irish and British? 

If the dominant nationalist parties of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in the Republic of Ireland refuse to enter coalition government with Sinn Fein due to their links with the IRA, just how does anyone believe that unionists would ever counter such an arrangement after being forced out of the UK against their will? How can a substantial portion of the electorate in the Republic of Ireland not see that in voting for Sinn Fein, they will not get unity but only further division between the peoples of Ireland?

The frightening reality that emerges when scrolling through social media is that many of Sinn Fein’s supporters do see this, and they long for a unitary Irish state where they can dominate unionists and rub their noses in it. In 1921, after Ireland was partitioned, the Dubliner and leader of the Irish Unionist Party Edward Carson warned Northern Irish unionists to treat the Catholic minority with equal respect. The initial failure of the Northern Irish state to live up to Carson’s ideal was a contributory factor in the later emergence of the Northern Irish troubles. Do Irish republicans and their supporters not see that in their hypothetical united Ireland, their anti-British rhetoric and continued justification of IRA terrorism could sow the seeds of a future reenactment of the troubles, but next time perhaps on an all island basis? If such a tragedy were to unfold, then Ireland would have learned nothing from its history. 

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