Archive for February 11, 2020

Much of Ireland still needs to reckon with the IRA

The recent electoral success of Sinn Féin brought with it the inevitable tide of accusations related to the party’s support of the IRA during the conflict, once again showcasing that much of the Irish Republic has not even begun to examine its own history and relationship to it.

The inability or unwillingness to put things in context or to try to understand why things happen without condoning them is immediately dismissed as appeasement. Sinn Féin are to be forced to wear the hair-shirt, without ever asking what it was that led them to do what they did in the first place.

One of the greatest PR coups ever pulled off is in the teaching of Irish history, whereby the IRA lost all legitimacy just about the time that the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – the two parties that have ruled since the foundation of the state – broke away from it.

Until then it was OK to shoot men in the back or in their beds, or to bomb a barracks without a thought for passers-by, or to shoot someone or hearsay that they were an informer – but once the two major parties had no more use for the IRA, they were to become a pariah.

That IRA is an IRA the Irish people can understand, but not the IRA of Derry and of West Belfast. There is a notion that, despite their previous violent history pre-independence, the Provisional IRA should have played by all the rules of war and the Geneva Convention, a notion that completely ignores the context and conditions of the time.

Context is important. When comedian Steve Coogan parodied “Come Out Ye Black And Tans” on his TV show, the clip went viral in no time as Irish people howled laughing at the irony of an Irish lookalike taking over the British airwaves to tell them a thing or two – a few months later, the meaning of the song is once again changed to mean anyone singing it is an IRA supporter and to be condemned.

Legions of soccer fans have interjected praise for the IRA into songs sung in stadiums around the world, and little is made of it. Hipsters and twentysomethings have use the IRA almost as a meme for years, the cultural substance of their humour shifting constantly – and not because they support physical force Republicanism.

The point of Coogan and the song should not be lost; everything that occurs does so in a context, whether by a comedian or the supporters of an election candidate who have just received good news.

Sinn Féin have spent the last month of the campaign being cast as shadowy figures controlled by unelected representatives with a propensity for violence – and yet people still find it inexplicable that some less-controlled elements would celebrate their electoral victories by singing such songs or chanting “Up The Ra”.

Virtually nothing the IRA did is to be condoned, apart from its efforts to finally make peace – but it is absolutely essential that we try to understand why the organisation came to be, why people joined it and why it did what it did. This is not the same thing as legitimising or excusing it; by choosing to condemn it rather than understand it, we are dismissing the reasons for its existence as unimportant or irrelevant. That in itself – that the nationalist people of Northern Ireland felt abandoned and betrayed by the Republic – is one of the major reasons for its longevity.

Part of the reaction is also the bitterness of the established elites who were swept away in the last three elections – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael performed disastrously, prompting them to try to police the triumphalism of others.

Much is also made of the youth of Sinn Féin’s voters and that they had no memories of their own of the Troubles, but Sinn Féin picked up votes from across the generations.

That raises the point that the commentariat refuse to consider – what if people knew well what the IRA had done, all of its brutality and atrocities, and decided to just move on, deeming them no longer relevant?

For that is essentially what happened with the established parties – they were quickly absolved of their sins when they underwent their democratic conversions, and the murders planned and perpetrated by Michael Collins and his men are now celebrated as an integral part of the struggle for independence.

Everything – everything – depends on context.

Much of the reason for this – the clean break between the acceptable and unacceptable versions of the IRA, the tone-policing, the false indignation to score political points – is that Sinn Féin were until recently muzzled by the press, and it did not cease with the abandonment of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act.

One of the things conveniently forgotten is the Arms Crisis in 1970 when the Fianna Fáil government of the day actually drew up plans to send arms to defend nationalist communities in the North – the political descendents of those who made those plans are among the most vociferous in condemning Sinn Féin today.

It would be hard to point to a single columnist and say “that person writes from a perspective that is accepting of the legitimacy of the IRA”, or even one who displays some level of nuanced understanding of why they came into being at all.

In a case of history repeating itself, the IRA supported by Sinn Féin no longer exists, but the IRA still exists, so to speak. Dissident Republicans still lay claim to the mantle, despite the absence of conflict in the North and the prospect of reunification on the horizon.

But as with every other aspect of Irish politics, we are quick to say that we do not understand, or that something surprised us, or that something is simply wrong.

What is lacking is a willingness to understand why we were surprised, or why we don’t understand, or why someone might do something we believe to be utterly wrong.

Doing so requires us to put our pearls down and to ask ourselves difficult questions – what did we in the South do when communities in the North were under siege, when Catholics were discriminated against in housing and employment and when they were burned out of their houses?

That is not the same thing as condoning it. It is not the same thing as appeasement. It is not the same thing as giving a pass.

The murders, the torture and the bombings perpetrated by the IRA are an appalling stain on Irish history, one that cannot be washed away either by seemingly celebrating them as Ellis, Cullinane and others did, or by refusing to understand them in the context in which they occurred.

Because until we reckon with the IRA we will be fighting this battle forever, when there is so much more that needs to be done.

 

Ireland votes to change, but gently

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

- Warsan Shire, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”

Faced with a record number of homeless, a totally dysfunctional health service and a generation unable to afford to move out, the Irish people have finally voted for change – but they are not quite ready to rip the century-old sticking plaster of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael from their skin just yet.

Irish people are suffering, but not all of them, and the cry at the ballot box on Saturday was tempered by the murmur of contentment from those for whom change might mean not enjoying the same privilege as they once had.

The exit poll on Saturday night when the polls closed was seismic in that it put the Sinn Fèin cat among the otherwise unflappable political pigeons – but for every peal of the bell calling for a new Ireland, almost half still voted for the establishment parties.

Almost, but not quite half. The two main parties sliding under 50% was a key moment, but discerning what they are gradually being replaced by is not as easy as it looks.

On the one hand they are being directly supplanted by Sinn Féin – young (but not exclusively so), energetic and hungry for something different.

On the other hand, there are a plethora of independent candidates and smaller-party TDs who are as yet untried.

The Social Democrats – a party I have strong links to – look to be among the big winners. Comprehensive policy documents and common-sense arguments look to have resonated and the party will most likely end up with five or six seats, but at council level some of the decisions taken by the party have been dubious at best, and the more streetwise in Irish politics will seek to use their enthusiasm against them.

The Greens have also made considerable gains, but it’s hard to discern exactly where they are on the political spectrum – this, after all, is the party that blithely supported Fianna Fáil as they destroyed the Irish economy.

In a supposed progressive victory, there may yet be less female TDs than in the previous Dáil when the dust settles.

As usual, climate change-deniers like the Healy-Raes have been rewarded for their parish pump politics, and the bye-word for corruption in Irish politics, Michael Lowry, has once again been returned to the Dáil.

Despite their worst election performance since 1948 (and possibly ever), Fine Gael are still haughtily insisting that they were right all along and that it was an ignorant electorate that failed to recognise their greatness.

They will always have a core vote of wealthy people keen to protect their own interests, but for them to succeed they also need the blue-collar vote – that has now gone to Sinn Féin, and it may not go back for a very long time.

Micheál Martin has run a classic Fianna Fáil campaign, immediately abandoning everything he said in the run-up to polling day as he attempts a power grab. From ruling out coalition with Sinn Féin, he is now a democrat who respects their mandate – a sleeveen move as arrogant as it was predictable.

The most popular party in the country is Sinn Féin, for the first time in living memory, and leader Mary-Lou McDonald immediately came out swinging, saying she wants a government without the big two parties.

The road from here on in is fraught with danger for Mary-Lou. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael habitually destroy junior coalition partners and she would do well to steer clear of both, but doing so would require shoring up a coalition of the willing – people who share their core principles, but who are flexible enough to understand the give and take of minority government.

Success there would likely hasten the demise of the the two right-wing parties and perhaps eventually force a merger – failure, and Sinn Féin could go the way of Labour, blamed for not delivering on their mandate and consigned to the sidelines as punishment, opening the path for Ireland to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Ireland has voted for change, but not in the kind of revolutionary way that one might have expected; the old remain conservative, the young impatient, and somewhere in between is where McDonald must begin to build her government.

What speaks against the broad left coalition is its traditional fractiousness and political puritanism – what speaks for them is that their opposition have no principles, apart from the pursuit of power. If they seek to block the kind of progressive change that people have voted for, they will be punished accordingly.

Time will tell if this election changes the course of a young country, or if it is a mere bump in the road. Recent electoral history elsewhere have shown us just how easy it is to slip back into old ways in search of security.

Change, but change gently, is what the Irish people have asked for.

 

 

Ireland’s #GE2020 – Exit Poll Report Card

A quick look at last night’s figures – the PR-STV system means that they only tell a small part of the story, but it says something about the national picture

 

FG – 22.4% – C

Could have – should have – been so much worse. Tone-deaf, arrogant, out of touch and still a little more than one in five voted for them.

SF – 22.3% – C

What might have been – time will tell if the late effort to drag their name through the mud made a difference, but Sinn Féin could have expected 25% or more, given the ineptitude of the big two.

FF – 22.2% – B

The destroyers of the nation are back, but will probably never regain their previous pomp. FG’s incompetence played right into their lap, but they still did’t maximise the vote. Constant attacks on Sinn Féin showed up their utter ignorance of Northern Ireland past and present, and they would do well to drop the pretence of being a Republican party.

GP – 7.9% – D

For an election supposedly about the climate crisis, this is a poor return. Still struggling to get over their previous disastrous stint in government, offered very little tangible outside their wheelhouse.

Labour: 4.6% – F

Last sting of a dying worker’s movement which has been nothing but a disappointment since 1913. Rudderless, spineless, futureless.

SD – 3.4% – B

Considerable increase from last time out with extremely limited resources -  what it returns in terms of seats remains to be seen, but if it delivers the likes of Gary Gannon to the Dáil it will benefit them hugely. Produced a LOT of policy that was clear-headed, if not highly-noticed.

SPBP – 2.8% – D

Should have been up around 7-8% in a country stuck in the vice-like grip of market capitalism on steroids, but somehow it didn’t translate. Again, they will be transfer-friendly so they may punch above their weight in terms of seats.

Independents and others – 14.5%

If Michael Lowry gets in again we may as well invite the Tans back.