Throughout the Northern Ireland Troubles, a large and sometimes overlooked majority of both unionists and nationalists remained firmly opposed to paramilitary violence. Even while some of the most emotive events of the 1970s and 1980s took place in Ulster, people always believed that peaceful routes were available to pursue their political objectives.
At the end of the IRA’s campaign, in 1998, 70% of Catholics told the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey that they had ‘no sympathy’ for the reasons republican groups gave to justify their violence. Only 6% said they had ‘a lot of sympathy’ with the terrorists’ rationale.
Similarly, 74% of Protestants rejected the explanations loyalist paramilitaries used to justify their campaigns. Unlike Sinn Fein, the political wings of these organisations had always failed to gain significant electoral support when they competed at the ballot box.
Almost 30 years later, attitudes among nationalists seem to have changed dramatically. At the weekend, a poll for the Belfast Telegraph newspaper suggested that 69% of nationalist voters now agreed with the statement that there was ‘no alternative’ to the IRA’s campaign.
Sinn Fein’s success in recent elections supports the idea that opinions on the past are hardening. Many commentators have pointed to a growing trend among nationalist young people in Northern Ireland for using imagery and language that celebrates republican terrorism.
The Larne FC footballer, John Herron, had his contract terminated ‘by mutual consent’ this week, after he was photographed wearing a ‘pro-IRA t-shirt’ at a concert. A young woman was also suspended from her job at a Mercedes Benz dealership, when she was identified chanting ‘ooh aah, up the ‘Ra’ on a social media video filmed at the controversial West Belfast Festival.
How can we explain these attitudes, 24 years after the Belfast Agreement was supposed to change mindsets in Northern Ireland and deliver a peaceful future for the province?
One popular theory is that Brexit and the success of the DUP have ‘radicalised’ nationalist opinion. But Sinn Fein’s popularity, and the revival of IRA imagery, have followed a longer term upward trajectory that cannot simply be blamed on unionists and ‘Brits’.
It’s certainly much easier to glamorise and sanitise violence at a distance, when you’re not confronted with the human misery it causes every day on the evening news. Younger nationalists seem more inclined to accept that gruesome incidents, many of which took place long before they were born, were somehow necessary. At the same time, they have taken up a narrative that was propagated by an older generation and remained relatively unchallenged, as successive governments tried to keep republicans on board with the ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland.
The Belfast Agreement required Sinn Fein to sign up to Northern Ireland’s devolved political institutions, and nominally the right of people in the province to determine their own constitutional future, but it did not ask for penitence or any repudiation of the IRA’s campaign. The party was free to promote the lie that republican violence was a response to repression by the British state and unionists in Northern Ireland, rather than an attempt to force people here out of the United Kingdom.
The Provisional movement was much more candid about its aims when it was actually committing atrocities and its rhetoric did not focus on defence and reaction then.
You will hear many explanations for the rise of Sinn Fein, north and south of the Irish border, but it was always naive to believe that its new supporters would endorse only its modern political programme without embracing justifications for the IRA.
The extent to which unionists were hurt and shocked is frequently underestimated, as they watched their neighbours make a political movement, whose weapons had scarcely cooled from a campaign of sectarian murder, into the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, and then the leading political force across the island.
Sinn Fein’s healthy vote is the most glaring symbol of hatred in Ulster today, but the party brought about this outcome because it was allowed to do so.
In the 1990s, the republican movement was riddled with informers and desperate to bring to a close an unpopular ‘war’ that had failed to achieve its objectives. Despite its depleted situation, IRA prisoners were released without any apologies to their victims, and, when the Provisionals initially refused to disarm, rather than apply pressure to Sinn Fein, Tony Blair’s government was inclined to put the spotlight on unionists instead.
Through royal pardons, letters of comfort and the tacit understanding that former terrorists would sit in government, republican paramilitaries, who committed the majority of over 3,400 murders perpetrated during the Troubles, got an effective amnesty. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein campaigned energetically for a series of enquiries, inquests and criminal investigations that focussed on the relatively small number of deaths caused by the security forces. They encouraged the impression, to which many nationalists were already predisposed, that it was the UK state that was the principal aggressor in Northern Ireland.
Down through the decades, the rehabilitation of the IRA has also been enabled by broadcasters, commentators and historians who normalised Sinn Fein and its message. Murderers and extremists were allowed to portray themselves as legitimate politicians and even victims, relatively unchallenged.
The influential southern Irish journalist, Fintan O’Toole, recently wrote an excoriating condemnation of the claim by the party’s northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, that there was ‘no alternative’ to IRA violence.
Mr O’Toole is old enough, you see, to remember the organisation perpetrating atrocities like the massacre of nine civilians in the County Londonderry village of Claudy, which he cited in his article. That didn’t stop him, in the run up to the Republic’s general election in 2020, calling for Sinn Fein to be ‘brought in from the cold’ in order to form a ‘progressive’ government in Dublin.
In the south of Ireland this week, politicians from parties across the political spectrum marked the death of the original IRA’s famous commander, Michael Collins. The tributes were led by figures like Micheal Martin, the Republic’s prime minister, and Leo Varadkar, his deputy, who loathe the modern version of Sinn Fein and frequently deliver damning indictments of its continuing links to the Provisional IRA.
The contradiction that they can never quite square is that their state, the Republic of Ireland, is founded on exactly the same principles of justifying republican violence, celebrating blood sacrifice and demonising the British ‘oppressor’ that Sinn Fein maintains today.
These myths have been passed down through generations, causing new bouts of violence to flare up periodically; even while older republicans claim that, this time, the killing is not justified.
The fact that this mindset is increasingly shared by a new generation of nationalists, despite the Belfast Agreement and the possibility of change through a border poll, means that this pattern could yet be repeated in Northern Ireland.
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