Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Blind and deaf to the real violence in the north of Ireland

Eoin Ó Murchú:

We all know, in this part of Ireland, that the North is awash with sectarian hatred and bigotry. However, we prefer to close our eyes and our ears, pretending either that both sides are just the same, or that republicans have in some mysterious way "provoked" the sectarianism that is endorsed by unionist politicians, especially in the DUP but not exclusively so.

Both sides are not the same. In council areas where there are non-Unionist majorities, real efforts are made to be inclusive, with rotating chairmanships, access to committees for all councillors and so on. Very rarely does this happen where the unionists have a majority.

In the Irish Times, Susan McKay has movingly described the situation in Ballymena in the aftermath of the sectarian murder of Michael McIlveen, when one DUP councillor went as far as to suggest that the murdered teenager "would be going to hell because he was not a saved Christian".

Yet all of this is ignored by the major media commentators in the south, and no effort is ever spared to dredge up issues that can be used to attack Sinn Féin and blame them for everything.

It is ironic that this means that a real critique of Sinn Féin is made impossible. The strengths and weaknesses of its economic and social policy cannot be teased out and examined because there is only one agenda – to condemn.

I was reminded of this with the recent dredging up of the terrible story of Jean McConville. Of course, her family wants to deny the idea that she was actually an informer but, irrespective of that, the killing of a widowed mother of 10 young children must tug at the heart strings whatever the justification or lack of it.

The North's police ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, after talking with the RUC Special Branch and British military intelligence (organisations renowned for their commitment to truth and integrity?), boldly declared that Jean McConville had not been an informer.

But why did the IRA kill her? Whether to do so was right or wrong, they clearly believed she was an informer, based on their knowledge of the area and its people at the time, and they quietly issued a statement confirming that they still held that view, while acknowledging that her family couldn't accept it.

Immediately, the dogs of propaganda war were let loose. Sam Smyth, on Today FM's Sunday Supplement, ranted that Gerry Adams must be held to account; sundry politicians, who ignore the ongoing sectarian realities of the North, jumped in to condemn the IRA and all associated with it.

There was no acknowledgement at all of the most important point: that is, the concerted efforts that have been made, particularly by Gerry Adams, to move us all away from a situation of violence and counter-violence. Let's not forget that Jean McConville was killed at a time when the British Army was launching violent attacks against the nationalist community in Belfast.

Instead, Adams was once again demonised by those who seem to believe that the proper place for a Croppy is lying down so that the unionists can walk on them.

If Adams is defeated, make no mistake about it, this would not advance the cause of peace or democracy, but its opposite. Adams is still engaged in a knife-edged argument that justice, including an end to sectarian discrimination and official bigotry, can be won through political means.

With the possibility of establishing powersharing and mutual respect between political factions receding in the face of unionist obscurantism, do those who are rushing in to use the tragedy of Jean McConville to attack Adams even bother to think what their sordid hypocrisy could lead to?

The worst thing is that the present hysteria has very little to do with the atrocities of war – and all war is an atrocity. It is about the challenge that Sinn Féin might pose to the nature of the Free State. I say "might", because there are obvious contradictions and ambiguities in their policies, such as their attitude to the European Union and the compromises they might be willing to make for coalition.

And when the commentators and political opponents screech out that Sinn Féin has a distance still to travel before it enters "democratic politics", we should remember that what they mean by that is that Sinn Féin must surrender to the system of privilege and class discrimination to which all other parties, including Labour, have succumbed.

Sinn Féin has not yet succumbed and under the leadership of Adams probably never will – and that's what spurs the hatred and ugly chorus of denunciation.

As to the armed struggle, I was one of those who opposed it, who believed that it would make things worse rather than better. But I was also one of those who recognised that the armed struggle was a response to injustice and state-organised violent repression. The British started shooting people long before the Provisionals hit back.

We now – almost miraculously – have the chance to put violence behind us, though sectarian loyalist murder gangs are still in action. But none of the established political parties in the south care a damn about that. Shame on them.

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