9 August 2021

It’s the innocent victims we should remember, not IRA ‘martyrs’ like Thomas McElwee

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Between late October 1980 and early that same month in 1981, 10 republican terrorists, all young men serving time in HMP Maze near Belfast, deliberately starved themselves to death. Their suicides, the culmination of a long-running protest to demand that the British government recognise their crimes as political, are regarded by modern day republicans as martyrdom, the apotheosis of the ‘armed struggle’ to end British rule in Ireland.

Sinn Fein, whose veneration of the seven IRA members among the hunger strikers knows no boundaries of taste, decency or restraint – at least as far as its many victims are concerned – is at the forefront of this commemoration. In many respects the Hunger Strikes launched what was until then merely a convenient mouthpiece for paramilitary gangsters on to the political stage. So, homage is due, as I am sure the Provisional Army Council – thought by police on either side of the Irish border to be the real power in Sinn Fein – will routinely emphasise.

But this weekend showed there are consequences for this incessant veneration, and not all of them working to the advantage of the only mainstream party in Ireland that regards the modern IRA as ‘patriots’. On social media on Friday, Michelle O’Neill, the theoretical leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, duly delivered the goods in memory of Thomas McElwee, at 23 one of the youngest of the hunger strikers.  Ms O’Neill tweeted, in Irish, that McElwee had ‘died for Irish freedom’.

There was, of course, no mention that McElwee, who chose the timing and manner of his own death, did so after not extending the same dignity to Yvonne Dunlop. Ms Dunlop, 27, a mother of three boys was incinerated in her father’s shop in Ballymena when an incendiary bomb detonated without warning. Just seconds before the bomb went off, she managed to alert one of her sons who otherwise would almost certainly have been murdered too. McElwee was part of the same IRA bombing team sent to devastate the overwhelmingly Unionist town. One of the bombs he was carrying exploded prematurely blinding him in one eye. For his part in the murder of Mrs Dunlop he was given a life sentence.

Yvonne Dunlop’s name has all been erased by those in Sinn Fein who have a vested interest in fostering a cult of forgetting about the victims of the IRA and recasting perpetrators of some of the most depraved crimes imaginable as involved in a struggle for human rights.

This strategy has a very rational objective. The party is riding high in the opinion polls against a governing coalition that is struggling with an increasing gap between the prosperous and families left behind. In identifying with the dispossessed of the former Celtic Tiger economy, and particularly with young voters who have only the haziest memories of the Troubles and plenty of problems finding somewhere affordable to live, Sinn Fein see a seam of potential support that could finally push them over the edge into government on either side of the border. In order to do this, at least for those potential recruits in parts of Ireland where conflict in the North was as remote as Africa, a constant effort of revisionism is required. The more insulated southern Millennials are from the base reality of Sinn Fein’s continuing glorification of violence against their Unionist neighbours, the more rooted their attention is in contemporary grievances, the better traction it will have at the ballot box.

Those who think this analysis is paying too much attention to lost and tragic history should look at the events of yesterday. When challenged on the party’s airbrushing of Ms Dunlop, a Sinn Fein official and former election candidate responded in a now-deleted tweet that unlike ‘natives’ Unionists don’t deserve to be listened to. This is news for the Unionist population in Northern Ireland, many of whom have roots in that part of the world longer than white people have been in North America. Subsequent tweets, supposedly to clarify, weren’t much better, containing the usual agitprop tropes describing the people Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald occasionally deigns to call her ‘unionist brothers and sisters’ as “colonial occupiers” in an “apartheid” state. Finally, after turning on the many people from the Republic of Ireland who called him out, and a hastily cobbled together apology (one suspects crafted for his use), all mentions of the incident were expunged.  

What this clownish and offensive behaviour tells us is that beneath Sinn Fein’s often comical or cynical (or both) attempts to humanise their relationship with unionists on the island of Ireland there are plenty of supporters and fellow travellers who, when their attention to the party line slips, are closer to the ‘one settler one bullet’ school of reconciliation. Meanwhile the leadership rides two horses – while actions like Mrs Dunlop’s slaying were regrettable and sometimes even wrong, the IRA perpetrators rolled out for worship across a blighted calendar of hate and destruction never are.

The years go on and the commemoration of the killers of Irish men, women and children, while getting a bit desultory, still requires genuflection. A constellation of grief emanated from the suicides of ten men. but far less is said of the 57 people killed by paramilitary violence during the course of the hunger strikes, many of them victims of the IRA.

None of those victims are remembered much outside their family circles. There are no annual commemorations in their name, no florid graveside oratories and nor will they ever be. No play parks or sports clubs will be named in their honour. When their plight is raised the danger to Sinn Fein is in being revealed as a party still chained to an inconvenient past they are doing everything to refurbish. No amount of word salad, the tortuous contextualising of foul deeds as ‘freedom fighting’ can square that circle. Which is why the cult of forgetting now extends to social media. If you can’t see it, maybe it never happened is the new corporate approach. Victims of the IRAs ‘martyrs’ like Thomas McIlwee, still in plain sight to democrats, don’t matter to Sinn Fein because they can’t. 

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Professor Ian Acheson is a former prison officer and Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

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