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.