5 May 2022

Don’t pretend a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for reconciliation


Sinn Fein would have NI voters believe they have changed. With unctuous faux-sincerity, their leader Mary Lou McDonald even calls Unionists ‘brothers and sisters’ these days. Yet poke under the bonnet a bit, and this remains a party that venerates the most cold-blooded of sectarian murderers.

The Troubles-era murders of three brothers in South Fermanagh will not sway any voters in today’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections, even if they are recalled to mind. But they ought to make clear to anyone casting their ballot for Sinn Fein that, whatever their motivation, they are not doing so in the cause of reconciliation.

McDonald has called the IRA campaign that executed three defenceless Protestants ‘justified’. Granted, she later tried to qualify these comments by saying that she wished such murders had never happened – a wish fervently shared by the one remaining sister of Ronnie, Cecil and Jimmy Graham, whose murders were all too typical of the relentless campaign of terror visited by Republican extremists on the Protestant minority living on the Fermanagh border.

The details of these attacks and the callous, intimate nature of their cruelty are bad enough. But it is the failure of one mainstream party, alone in Western Europe, to distance itself from acts of barbarity not unfamiliar to the streets of Bucha or Srebrenica that stands out. Here are the acts that Sinn Fein defends as ‘war’ – a homely genocide of an Irish family who held a British identity and who were targeted and annihilated for doing so.

Ronnie was ambushed and killed while at work delivering coal in 1981, leaving behind two children. The same year, Cecil was spotted visiting his Catholic wife and newborn son, and executed with 16 shots on leaving the property, with no chance to defend himself. In 1985, the IRA managed at the second attempt to murder the last brother, Jimmy. He was riddled with bullets, 26 in all, as he waited to pick up children in his school bus to take them on a swimming trip. A local priest at the time, described to the writer Colm Toibin how his killers cheered with glee and fired shots in the air as they fled from their gruesome handiwork.

Nobody has ever been brought to justice for any of these murders. If the present government’s reckless proposals on amnesty are forced through Parliament, no one ever will be in any meaningful way. Republican terrorists do not have the monopoly on suffering or bestiality – plenty more of this sort of horror was inflicted by Loyalists. But the determination of the IRA cell to wipe out this male bloodline and their horrifying joyful glee on ‘mission accomplished’ is a landmark of sectarian hatred.

All of the Graham brothers served in the locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment, a home service battalion of the British Army which is not without controversy. But there is no question that the Grahams were wiped out for anything other than their British identity and in an effort to terrorise the already brutalised minority Protestant population in South East Fermanagh, hard against the Irish border.

It’s worth repeating that both McDonald and her Northern counterpart Michelle O’Neill believe that actions like these – a mainstay of Republican paramilitary activity – were ‘justified’. McDonald, an unlikely insurgent if ever there was one, has gone further to say that she would have joined the IRA had she been north of the border at the time, and not distracted by the benefits of a bourgeois Dublin upbringing. O’Neill makes routine visits to IRA shrines and speaks at commemorative events. She has said of the actions of the IRA which must include the wiping out of the Grahams. ‘We are proud of our freedom struggle’. If that’s pride, I struggle to think what shame might cover.

You could argue that, far from being the progressive agents of change they style themselves at election time, Sinn Fein and its Army Council shadow leadership are still chained to their past and need some latitude, even some recognition, for stopping murdering their neighbours. Indeed, they have become very successful in creating a ‘cult of forgetting’ over past atrocities. This is driven by an endless revisionism of history that focuses obsessively on contested killings by the British state – a tiny minority in the awful balance sheet of fatalities – and casts victims like the Graham brothers as their own perpetrators, in a foul inversion of reality. Their likely success in today’s polls is in part a vindication of this tactic. As Orwell said, ‘who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past’.

Despite the electoral smoke and mirrors, what’s beyond argument is that an unrepentant Sinn Fein enters today’s race for Stormont with the keys to the First Minister’s office within its grasp. You cannot cast this ballot without sin. You are endorsing a party that knows where the bodies lie, literally and figuratively, but refuses to bring any closure to the families of civilians slaughtered in Enniskillen, Teebane, Claudy, Bloody Friday and a whole litany of IRA sectarianism. If you are voting for this party, whatever else you might tell yourself, you are in no way, shape or form voting for a reconciled future with your neighbours.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.