WHEN THE DÁIL sat to express its sympathy to the family of murdered Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams took the opportunity to apologise to the families of security service personnel, like Detective Garda Jerry McCabe, killed by Republicans during the troubles. The political nattering classes reacted with revulsion in what has become a familiar political script surrounding Sinn Féin.
Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman Niall Collins told the media that the statement “makes me sick”. Politicians from the government benches similarly lambasted the republican front man for his expression of contrition. In previous debates, Gerry has been taken to task for republican deeds during the troubles that have never seen an apology or, in some cases, acknowledgement.
Gerry is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, and it’s an entirely politically cynical strategy from Sinn Féin’s political opponents in the Dáil.
Successive Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour governments fought long and hard to bring Sinn Féin and their republican brethren to the table so that the killing and dying could end in Northern Ireland. They argued with, cajoled and begged unionists to come to the same table with people who they were waging an ongoing and brutal civil war. People came together from both sides that had had bullets pumped into them and sat down to try and make peace.
One of the key stumbling blocks in Northern Ireland, as in any peace agreement, is the compromise between seeking justice and leaving the past behind. Irish governments signed up to an agreement whereby killers, from bomb makers to trigger men, would walk free from prison. They negotiated a deal where sworn enemies would sit side by side in a democratic system set up to be rigged towards 50/50 fairness.
Negotiators from the Irish side breathed a huge sigh of relief whenever loyalists and republicans would simply sit together and talk.
That was then, this is now. The difference now is that Sinn Féin is active and moderately successful in Irish politics south of the border. They are present in the Dáil in greater numbers than ever before, and in most every engagement between them and other parties the old history is dredged up. Gerry Adams could be putting down a question to the Taoiseach about water meters and he’d start responding with his usual bumbling comparisons to the Troubles.
Adams has been rightly and roundly criticised for the halting move towards apologising for the murder of Jean McConville. Then, when he stands up to apologise for the killing of Jerry McCabe his opponents tell him they’re sickened by it. In reality, Irish politicians are sickened by the success Sinn Féin is having in democratic politics, and are clutching at whatever they can to discredit the party.
I believe that Sinn Féin have some of the looniest of looney-toon ideas and policy proposals. They would, if in power, drive this country straight off a cliff. But that’s not the default argument used against them. It’s dragging up the past and attacking them on the troubles, just a few short years after Irish politicians of the same parties broke their hearts trying to get republicans and unionists to bury the hatchet.
Sinn Féin is now a party of the democratic system. There is no use, beyond political expediency, in dragging up the past time and again as the default response to any political point that Sinn Féin is making. It’s disingenuous and flies in the face of the spirit that was engendered around the Good Friday Agreement.
As we’ve seen with the actions of dissident republicans, like the Real IRA, and around the recent flag protests by loyalists in the north; the peace we enjoy is tenuous in places. I’d rather frustrated republicans follow the lead of people like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness into political activism than see them pick up a petrol bomb.
A story recently emerged from British state papers claiming that Dessie Ellis, a Sinn Féin TD, was involved in up to 50 IRA killings. He has denied it. However, he is a self-admitted former member of the IRA and was sentenced to ten years in prison on explosive charges. Was he involved in those particular incidents? Either way, I’m not sure what the value of bringing it up today is.
Today Dessie Ellis is an elected representative protesting the property charge, hospital bed closures and austerity in general in his community. If he was involved in any as-yet-unacknowledged actions in the past, it would be very good in my opinion. Irish politicians from other parties would, however, attack him for his ‘sickening’ apologies after attacking him for not making them. It’s hard to win.
The cats and dogs in the street knew that Ellis, McGuinness and others were in the IRA before they admitted it. Now that they’re involved in democratic politics, the price we asked unionists to pay is probably one politicians in the south should consider: Bury the hatchet, because no good is to come from constantly harping on about what went on in the past bar landing a few cynical political punches.
The apology for the murder of security personnel should be taken for what it is: Perhaps overdue, but a proper statement of contrition for the past. Only the families of people like Jerry McCabe can judge if the apology was sincere and take it how they will. Irish politicians who weigh in otherwise are just looking to save a few votes, and that’s a cheap price to put on our long-awaited peace.
Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.