Northern Ireland

John Manley: Commemorations are problematic but criticism won't make them go away

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald with deputy Lleader Michelle O’Neill (left). Picture by Mark Marlow/PA
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald with deputy Lleader Michelle O’Neill (left). Picture by Mark Marlow/PA

Amid the politicians’ virtual radio silence in the weeks since last month’s local government election there’s been a lot of noise about Sinn Féin’s south Armagh commemoration. It’s an event that’s been happening for at least a decade, away from the gaze of the media and seemingly not causing offence to anyone.

In recent months it’s clear there’s been a concerted effort by the DUP to continuously highlight Sinn Féin’s association with the IRA. It’s nothing new as a tactic but the increased frequency with which the past is raised – some 28 years on from the IRA ceasefire – suggests it’s an issue that chimes squarely with the party’s base. The DUP has been short on credible causes in recent years, so casting up the IRA campaign puts it on a much surer footing. Anti-Sinn Féin elements in the south employ a similar tactic, while at the same time eulogising the ‘old IRA’.

But regardless of Sinn Féin’s historical association with the Provisional IRA being exploited for political purposes, it’s important to recognise that the party’s commemoration of those often responsible for many of the Troubles’ most abhorrent acts does cause hurt in some quarters.

Likewise, the glorification of the British state forces and loyalist killers grates with many nationalists.

Yet nobody is suggesting we do away with all commemorations and memorials – though some would like to dictate which ones are acceptable and which aren’t. What’s required is a respectful acceptance that we had a bloody conflict in which both sides suffered and that both sides, and all in between, have a right to remember their dead in a dignified manner. Glorification and celebration are inappropriate in such circumstances.

However, commemoration can become problematic for those who hold public office and profess to represent everybody. A taoiseach or first minister represents the state and arguably therefore should not be commemorating those who sought to destroy that state.

Yet it’s also moot whether Mary Lou McDonald actually said that she wouldn’t attend an IRA commemoration if taoiseach – her words and phraseology were ambiguous, deliberately perhaps. If she did say so, it’d be significant but for now we can only guess at what Mrs McDonald really meant.

There’s no doubt that Sinn Féin, in the south especially, is in the midst of a sanitisation process, where the IRA and armed struggle are now mentioned only obliquely. Events like Sunday’s in south Armagh are likely to become less common.

The further we get from the conflict, as the wounds of the Troubles generation are healed or forgotten, so the appetite for remembering the dead will likely wane. However, the DUP stirring the pot for political purposes and claiming the moral high ground won’t make that day arrive any sooner.