'There can be no progressive government in Ireland without Sinn Féin.' Thus said Fintan O'Toole, usually described as Ireland's leading intellectual, writing in the Irish Times
when it became clear, over the weekend, that Sinn Féin had scored a large victory in the Republic of Ireland's election, with a narrow majority over the two main parties (though with fewer candidates running). 'Progressive'? The word needs parsing.
Sinn Féin has, in the electoral campaign, been faced with questions from journalists and others as to its past. Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader, dismissed or waffled around questions of Sinn Féin's links with the IRA and its many crimes. Eoin Ó Murchú, a former RTE (public broadcaster) journalist, was quoted by Ruth Dudley Edwards in a powerful piece in the Belfast Telegraph
as writing that the recent publicity over the murder of a young man named Paul Quinn by the IRA in 2007, for an unproven crime of drug dealing, 'was a sordid effort to distract attention from the real issues in this campaign. Give the chancers their answer. Get out and vote Sinn Féin, and get your friends and relatives to do the same; make it clear that dirty tactics don't work'.
These 'dirty tactics' include the attempts, led by the parents of the murdered Paul Quinn, to force Sinn Féin to face up to the reality: that the IRA murdered their son, with no due process, and had issued no apology or regret, only justification for the crime. For Sinn Féin, as one candidate said brusquely on Monday, in answer to a BBC question: 'the past is past'.
Does that matter now, to the voters of Ireland – and to the non-voters of Northern Ireland – who may soon be faced with a 'progressive' government with Sinn Féin as part of it? The party has lost no time in demanding a united Ireland, one of the main planks of its electoral campaign. That the Belfast Agreement of 1998 laid down that no unification can take place without the agreement of both the Republic and Northern Ireland, and with both the nationalist and unionist communities, was not part of the unification demand. Should we not, in the name of democracy (Sinn Féin's vote was the largest in the constituencies where they stood) agree in finding a place for it in a future Irish Government, and get on with negotiations?
No. For these reasons.
Sinn Féin functioned throughout the IRA's campaign in the north, from 1968 to 1998, as its spokesman and propagandist. It was not linked to the IRA: it was the IRA. And is still. Three months ago, the Police Service of Northern Ireland issued a statement to the effect that the IRA's Army Council 'retains oversight' of Sinn Féin. It had made that judgment in its Paramilitary Assessment in 2015, and saw no reason to change it.
That is, that a party seeking inclusion in the governance of a democratic state, still – unlike its neighbour – a member of the European Union, is overseen by a military committee. It is unique in Europe. While that remains the case, it must be a reason for the two major parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, to continue to shun Sinn Féin as a coalition partner. The genuinely progressive parts of the SF programme – accelerated home building, greater investment in a faltering health service – should teach the two main parties, especially to the governing Fine Gael, a lesson. But to see the justice of these demands does not obviate the need to hold a quasi-military grouping at arms length.
Boris Johnson claims to have learned that lesson. The surge of Tory support by former Labour voters in central and northern England, his government believes, had as much to do with anger at being – as they see it – left behind, as with 'getting Brexit done' and dislike of Jeremy Corbyn. But, unlike a quarter of the Irish voters, disproportionately young, the former Labour voters did not vote for apologists for terrorism – but for the party of the centre right.
Sinn Féin has never made a reckoning of the years of terror. Nor, indeed, have the Loyalist paramilitaries, whose response to IRA terror was, after a few years of it, as brutal and unjust as that of the IRA. Like the IRA, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, with other smaller units, protested that they were 'protecting their communities'. In fact, they were betraying them.
Both have left behind a legacy of unaddressed hatred and grievance. Neither has made a public declaration of repentance, nor acted to bring together two communities in the north which still regard each other with suspicion, and still believe that the arms may have been put aside, but not thrown away.
It's legitimate for Irish politicians who may now be contemplating coalition with Sinn Féin to point to the government of Northern Ireland, and note that Sinn Féin has, for most of the years since the agreement was signed, been the major nationalist force in the region and the leader of the group has been the deputy prime minister. But it is not a coalition: the unionist party in government – presently the Democratic Unionists – represents the unionist community, Sinn Féin the nationalist voters. And it is a government of a part of the United Kingdom, which continues to set overall policy.
A Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition is now a distinct possibility since Micheal Martin, the FF leader, appeared open to talks after the results were announced. What the price of Sinn Féin coalition would be still has to be spelled out. But the price exacted by Martin, if he becomes Prime Minister, must be to demand a public renunciation of control by the IRA Army Council, an apology to those whose family members were murdered, and a signed commitment to respect the Belfast Agreement.
Without that, no 'progressive' government can exist. Progress, of any stripe, is killed at birth by subservience to overseers who presided over, and might resort to, terrorism once more.