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June 01, 2005

The Cost of Playing "Let's Pretend": an American perspective on the demise of the Irish moderates

Posted by Joyce Lee Malcolm

The 2005 general election results in Northern Ireland were disastrous for the more moderate parties. The Ulster Unionist Party lost 5 of its 6 seats. The SDLP managed to win 3 seats - the same number of seats it had won in 2001 - but also lost substantial ground from 2001 in terms of its share of the vote. Joyce Lee Malcolm - Professor of History at Bentley College - offers a US perspective on this outcome and argues that the vote of the moderate parties fell as a direct result of successive British government's mollycoddling of Sinn Fein/IRA. The views expressed in this article are those of its author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

Game's over, and the Irish people have lost. For the past decade the British and Irish governments have been playing "let's pretend" in Northern Ireland. While neither government would ever admit to doing deals with terrorists, they pretended that the Irish Republican Army - folks known for blowing up fish-and-chip shops and shooting opponents in the knees - were not at the bargaining table or eligible to be included in a future government, and could even be coaxed to go straight, to lay down their guns and achieve their aims peacefully. That approach might be excused as pragmatism or wishful thinking and did lead to an IRA cease-fire of sorts. But then there was the little matter of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political shills, the folks who did sit at the negotiating table and were to play a leading role in future Northern Ireland ministries. Although most Sinn Fein leaders were, and still are, leaders of the IRA, everyone was supposed to pretend Sinn Fein were an ordinary political party, prepared to rely on the ballot, not the bullet or the threat of the bullet. What's the harm in a little pretence for the greater good? And concessions might work wonders.

In fact concessions did work wonders. Nearly every aspect of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, passed with such high hopes by the people of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, was put in place. Each group and government went through with the often painful concessions they had pledged, a sacrifice in return for peace and power-sharing. The Irish Republic changed its constitution, IRA prisoners were released, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was dismantled and its Special Branch destroyed, Sinn Fein was given key ministerial posts, and the British left. Every group carried out its pledge except - surprise, surprise - the IRA. Their ceasefire continued, but their promise to disarm and disband never happened. When Protestants became upset over this duplicity, the governments made much of vague IRA promises "to begin decommissioning" - calling it disarming would give offence. When continual promises failed to yield results, the IRA made gestures. But only gestures.

In return for these IRA gestures the British and Irish governments pressed Irish Protestants to make yet more concessions to Sinn Fein/IRA rather than abandon the Agreement. In the process the two governments ignored Catholic moderates and dealt only with Sinn Fein, the guys who knew the guys with the guns. Since 2002 when the Ulster Unionists pulled out of the government, shutting it down the fourth time, there have been numerous attempts to re-start power-sharing, always on the same basis - deals with Sinn Fein, appeasement of the IRA. Signs of IRA criminal activities - gun smuggling, bomb-training for narco-terrorists in Columbia, stealing documents from Special Branch, spying inside Stormont, money-laundering on a grand scale - were treated not as evidence of its refusal to change its ways but as regrettable embarrassments.

The U.S., home to more people of Irish descent than Ireland, has been an interested bystander and not always helpful. The Department of State had to be pressured by Margaret Thatcher to prohibit IRA fundraising in America where it was easy to be blasť about an organization whose bombs were dropping somewhere else. Then in April 2001, after passage of the Good Friday Agreement but notably before 9/11, the State Department quietly added the splinter CIRA (Continuity Army Council) and the main PIRA (Provisional IRA) to its list of terrorist organizations, in the case of PIRA sandwiched between the illegal Spanish Communist First of October Antifascist Resistance Group and the Pakistani Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Army of Mohammed. And although the British and Irish governments continued to pretend that there was some meaningful distinction between Sinn Fein and the IRA, the American Department of State did not mince words. It simply branded each group as a "clandestine armed wing" of Republican Sinn Fein and Sinn Fein respectively. [It should be added that neither group was at this stage a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, a category which carries legal restrictions, such as the blocking of funds and banning of fund raising. This status was conferred on another splinter, the Real IRA, in May 2001 and the Continuity IRA in December 2001]. That is not to say the US did not do its share of pandering. In 1994 Bill Clinton famously invited Gerry Adams to the White House. But in March 2005 George Bush did not.

By then the lid had blown off the game of pretence. On the Sunday before Christmas 2004 the IRA kidnapped the families of two bank managers preparatory to pulling off the largest bank robbery in British history, the theft of some £26.5 million from Belfast's Northern Bank. Their van was seen crossing the border into the Republic. The police, The Times reported, ranked the IRA as Europe's biggest organized criminal gang. Barely a month later what remained of the Sinn Fein/IRA mask was yanked off to reveal another side of their power. A Belfast IRA leader and his cronies brutally murdered Robert McCartney, a former Sinn Fein supporter, in a pub brawl. McCartney was stabbed, one eye was gouged out, his throat was cut and, as one commentator put it, he was "gutted like a fish". He was left to die. No one in the pub was permitted to call an ambulance while the IRA men removed all forensic evidence, threatening the large crowd with death if they gave evidence to the police. But, unlike the families of some four dozen other Catholics slaughtered by the IRA, McCartney's sisters publicly challenged witnesses to come forward. To quiet the enormous outrage and calls for Sinn Fein to disband them, IRA leaders offered to kill the men responsible. McCartney's sisters rejected that solution, preferring proper criminal justice procedures.

With all pretences gone, with an Irish Republican official identifying three top Sinn Fein leaders as members of the IRA Army command, it seemed that something might actually change, that governments might insist that no deals be done with Sinn Fein. What we got instead was an announcement by the Northern Ireland Secretary that the four Sinn Fein MPs were to be stripped of their Parliamentary allowances. But what's £500,000 to a group that has just nabbed £26.5 million? Beyond that there has been a deafening silence from the Blair and Ahern governments. Given that silence, is it any surprise that in the May 5th elections the moderate Catholic and Protestant parties of Northern Ireland were decimated? Protestants have found deals with Sinn Fein worthless and dangerous. Sadly, Catholic voters, in returning Sinn Fein members, prefer to live under the rule of thugs and terrorists who have some clout in London and Dublin. The cost to them is high. No witnesses of the McCartney murder have come forward. Sinn Fein discourages Catholics from joining the new police force, enabling it to argue the police are unrepresentative.

Leaders in London and Dublin may prefer their game of pretence and hope even these embarrassments will be forgotten. The view of The Times is that:

moonshining and bank theft do less to deepen sectarian divides than continued bombings even when accompanied by criminal intimidation.
Translation, appeasement is to continue. But the voters of Northern Ireland know appeasement doesn't work. It's time to call a thug a thug, round up the criminals who have been terrorizing both communities, and insist if Sinn Fein wants to play a role in government it must play a straight political game and disband its private army.

Joyce Lee Malcolm is Professor of History at Bentley College and author of Guns and Violence: The English Experience.

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While I agree with most of what you say, I would prefer it if you used the term unionist rather than protestant. The dispute is about nationality and borders, not about religion. There are plenty of Catholic unionists and have been protestant republicans.

Posted by: Patrick Crozier at June 3, 2005 03:25 AM

What about the role of the BBC in all this?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 3, 2005 08:26 PM

As a matter of slight pedantry, "an Irish Republican official" who identified the three SF leaders as members of the Army Council of the IRA is Michael McDowell, Minister for Justice ("an Irish Republican official " makes him sound like an SF councillor or something)

Otherwise a very penetrating analysis. I would love to think that the 2004 Local/European elections were the high water mark of SF's electoral performance. After McCartney and the Northern Bank, surely voters down here finally realise that SF aren't these cuddly, cool revolutionaries, the political wing of Glasgow Celtic, but the embodiment of the most sinister and destructive force in Irish history?

I would love to think so. Perhaps. Traditionally, in Irish (Southern) politics, new parties emerge every so often (Sean McBride's one, the PDs) acheive dramatic early success and then, like a star collapsing, either go out of existence completely or reach a sort of steady state much reduced from their initial aspirations.

Sinn Fein are, on the one hand, the oldest party here - but on the other one of the newest. Within living memory, Sinn Fein's status in the media and among most voters here was roughly analogous to the BNP's in Britain (indeed, I sometimes wonder if the BNP are watching the amazing ascent of SF to respectability are taking notes) I remember that when Section 31 (the legal provision that prevented the voices of SF members being broadcast) was about to be lifted, media commentators that this way they could more easily smash the vile lies of the cowardly IRA apologists, and thus SF would retreat weeping to obscurity.

Not exactly what happened, is it?

In any case, SF have successfully exploited a certain resentful, envious streak in the Irish mentality, as well as hitching themselves to buzzwords like "equality" and such, and (perhaps most importantly) shown themselves very adept at handling pothole-type issues.

Add to this all the eight-hundred-years-Black-and-Tans type stuff, which whatever else one thinks of it is fairly potent magic. Incidentally, the "political wing of Glasgow Celtic" comment above is deliberate - I've noticed a definite upsurge in those hooped green-and-white jerseys, with the concomitant singing of "rebel" songs and armchair republicanism that accompanies that. How tragic that the squalid sectarian rubbish played out in Glasgow (projected, of course, from Belfast) has become a growth industry down South.

In any case, with the benefit of an established and powerful "brand" and the benefit of being a "new" party with plenty of apparently idealistic and sincere fresh-faced youths amidst the various bank robbers and murderers, SF have succeeded in greatly increasing their representation here. Will they come close to government? I would love to believe that they won't, not in the forseeable future. It is very very unlikely Fine Gael or Labour would join forces with them. It is not impossible that Fianna Fail, a party whose raison d'etre is being in power, rather like the old Christian Democrats in Italy (fine gael being very similar, just less successful) despite all that Bertie Ahern has said publicly, would.

Posted by: Seamus Sweeney at June 5, 2005 12:48 AM

While neither government would ever admit to doing deals with terrorists, they pretended that the Irish Republican Army - folks known for blowing up fish-and-chip shops and shooting opponents in the knees - were not at the bargaining table or eligible to be included in a future government.... But then there was the little matter of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political shills, the folks who did sit at the negotiating table and were to play a leading role in future Northern Ireland ministries.

Gee, I wonder who's side Joyce Lee Malcolm is on? Cover up dear, your bias is showing.

Posted by: illovich at June 6, 2005 11:15 PM
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