At this late stage it may seem unforgiving to argue that membership of or support for Sinn Féin cannot be made a routine, acceptable matter. It may seem too to be dwelling in the past or indeed to be showing a preparedness to risk the peace process. However, the problem with SF is not that it is an organisation putting a criminal or military past behind it. The problem is a great deal more serious; there can be no question of tolerance for anyone or any group with a history or record of involvement in or support for crimes against humanity. The true nature of what is now whitewashed as “the armed struggle” creates a categorical difference and places SF among those parties whose 20th century horrors make their existence in the 21st century an affront to civilisation.
SF argue not merely that the IRA has ceased to exist and that they are fully committed to peace, they also argue that the terrible things which happened during the troubles or the armed struggle were typical of wars anywhere and are best forgotten, that it is time to move on. Their proposition is that a war has ended and that its participants were good people caught up in a conflict and can now return to civilian life. This is a parody which decent people will never accept.
There is, however, a moderate case that wrongdoing should be forgiven and forgotten. That can apply to all manner of offence from traffic violations, through thievery and on to murder but it cannot apply to crimes against humanity. Such crime is a category in itself; it involves not an offence against the person or the state but against everyone and against what it means to be human. It cannot be tolerated, forgiven or be wiped away by a local peace deal. Perpetrators, their commanders and facilitators must be hunted for the rest of their lives; they must know that they risk being treated like those frail, old people finally apprehended decades after the end of WW2. Their supporters must never be allowed fully to enjoy the society of ordinary people.
There is variety in the pit of horrors that faces anyone looking at crimes against humanity and war crimes but one thing stands out: the intentional targeting of civilians. Let something be absolutely clear: all combatants select targets, they make a choice. Some choose civilians. That is to say, they choose to kill civilians rather than soldiers.
SF will say that the IRA was involved in a war of liberation, that they were fighting an army of occupation and crucially they will claim that civilians unfortunately die in all wars. Yes, civilians die in wars but when they are intentionally targeted, it is deemed a war crime, a crime against humanity.
Furthermore, the IRA campaign was not a military campaign blighted by the unfortunate deaths of civilians. Neither was it a military campaign during which war crimes were committed, crimes which dishonoured the majority of the fighting force. Rather it was a campaign in which civilians were routinely chosen as targets; the preference for civilian deaths was punctuated by military engagements.* The reality of the IRA’s armed struggle is a hideous inversion of SF’s warrior tale.
The Good Friday Agreement approved by the majority of Irish people involved among other features an end to IRA attacks in return for the Irish and UK states’ virtual amnesty for perpetrators, commanders and facilitators. It did not absolve, forgive or change the horror; it was a deal approved by citizens under duress. The IRA’s campaign remains a sordid series of crimes against humanity which was and is approved by SF. The Good Friday Agreement does not oblige any Irish citizen to join or vote for SF. Neither does it oblige any Irish citizen to engage socially with members and supporters of SF.
Well, there’s a small caveat. There is a constant low-level threat to end the “peace process”. In other words, if SF is denied what it sees as its rightful place within the establishment of a peaceful Ireland, that might lead somehow – despite the disbandment of the IRA – to renewed violence.
Their view is that SF must be successful and opposition – especially being truthful about their position in support for crimes against humanity – constitutes opposition to the peace process. Citizens are expected to accept the goblin tale of an honourable armed struggle, worthy of remembrance, even celebration. Dissent is met with anger and cries of betrayal.
SF has recruited many members, quite a few of them born after the end of IRA violence and enjoys the support of roughly 15 – 20% of voters. These people are not deluded, mistaken or intimidated. They are aware of what they are doing, they are making informed decisions, but their feigned innocence is aided by a common thread among journalists: that SF needs to break with its past by changing its leaders. It is a particularly sneaky argument which pretends that a veil of ignorance and innocence separates older from younger members. The reality is that those who might replace the current leaders joined the organisation before the killings stopped. Their present finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty, joined the year that Garda McCabe was murdered, a year in which civilians were bombed in Britain. It might then be argued that skipping a generation of potential leaders would work. However, a look at the celebrations on the election of their MEPs reveals pictures of Lynn Boylan hoisted on the shoulders of an alleged bomber. Her partner, Eoin O’Broin, is the SF spokesperson on Housing, Planning & Local Government. It is ludicrous to suggest that such people were unaware of the nature of their chosen party and do not now discuss it.
There are even younger members who, it is argued, were born years after the killings had stopped and who know nothing of the crimes. This is patronising nonsense which rests on the plainly silly suggestion that the decision to join a political party is a trivial matter, done without thought. Not so. When a young person joins a party, it is deliberate, a choice, the selection of one party from among others.
A similar range of choice faces voters of whom something in the region of 20% choose SF. It is this figure that reveals the extent of a dark stain on Irish society. A variety of evasions is offered to explain that these citizens are innocent of support for any kind of violence, never mind crimes against humanity.
It is said that at this remove from the ceasefire they know nothing of what happened or regard it as a history which should now be ignored. It is said that while they are aware of the crimes, they are voting for current policies and/or personalities, or are voting tactically against a despised government. It is argued that SF has become socialist or vaguely leftist and their relatively large support offers the possibility of a left-alliance majority government.
These are the arguments of those who despise ordinary citizens, who regard them as utterly uninformed, incapable of reasoned voting. That’s simply not true, though there are voters who may try to avoid responsibility by feigning ignorance. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of voters – including SF voters – are well aware of what they are doing.
The line that the past does not matter or matters less than current concerns merits consideration. It cannot be uncoupled from a clear look at what is being said not to matter or is being rated as relatively unimportant. Past involvement in minor transgressions or petty crime could be deemed unimportant with the passage of time. Major crime or even murder might be so regarded in some well argued circumstance. However, choosing to target civilians – crimes against humanity – time and again can never be disregarded. Similarly, when it comes to voting intentions, the very idea that such crimes could be less important than a policy or programme is abhorrent to civilised thinking.
It is time that Irish citizens paid attention to this phenomenon. Rather than pretend that it is something innocuous or some sort of misunderstanding or mistake, face it: a sizeable minority in Ireland are not overly concerned that a party with a record of support for a campaign of crimes against humanity continues to exist and/or they approve of that campaign.
There is an obligation on the rest of us to stand up for a basic point of civilisation: that the targeting of civilians is unforgivable. In this republic each citizen faces the decision of whether or not to acquiesce, to socialise without dissent with the one fifth of citizens who do not accept that point.
* It might be pointed out that of the deaths attributed to nationalist paramilitaries the ratio of security force to civilian casualties is not as bad as the ratios for loyalists or the security forces. However, three things must be emphasised. Firstly, the numbers killed by nationalists were greater. Secondly, the people injured – often hideously so – numbered in the tens of thousands. In discussion of casualties they generally receive relatively little attention and they were overwhelmingly civilian. Thirdly, the bombings of public places which characterised the conflict were repeated instances of a choice of targeting civilians.