Fionnuala O Connor: Is Michelle O'Neill expected to say IRA violence was unjustified?

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill
Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill

To make ‘reconciliation’ possible do republicans have to say IRA violence was unjustified?

If republicans say the IRA was wrong, that makes republicans responsible for the Troubles? While unionists, unless they’re feeling unusually imaginative, don’t have to say a thing. Well, perhaps that they built a Northern Ireland that was ‘a cold house’ for Catholics, nationalists, the northern Irish cut off by partition. Tick one of the propositions above, or more than one. Answer the first questions with yes or no.

In these the dog days of summer (grimmer and more apt name than ‘silly season’) the ‘sensation’ has been that Michelle O’Neill is concerned with republican opinion first and foremost. Party leader plays to her own supporters; hold the front page. She said the IRA had no alternative. She was ‘wrong’, it is said, which makes ‘reconciliation’ impossible.

It seems to me by this stage that only personal reconciliation between northern individuals is likely, even possible, and I suspect that more than a few people who have worked for decades to build bonds across divides are of a similar belief; that ‘reconciliation’ is not possible between most republicans and most unionists. Nor possible either between republicans and anti-republican nationalists. If republicans continued to key down IRA commemorations and practised the odd spot of modesty, it might make them more likeable beyond their own supporters. But what republicans say today is not going to change unionist behaviour, bah to that. They could change a mentality which supports blocking Stormont – and the appointment of O’Neill as first minister – as a protocol protest?

If the Provos against their entire history wiped the British/unionist slate clean, there would be a considerable number of objectors - also anti-unionist, anti-British government. Because saying the IRA were ‘wrong’ would suggest that the unionist state and British governments were ‘right’, which they were not.

Violence ratcheted up after 1970, yes, when the Provisionals broke from a republican ‘movement’ dominated by left wing Officials - who walk out of too many accounts as the nice guys. Though in December 1971 they killed unionist Senator Barnhill and tried to kill Stormont junior minister John Taylor after internment, killed five women cleaners, a gardener and a chaplain in Aldershot in revenge for Bloody Sunday, and 19-year-old Derryman Ranger Best, home to see his mother.

The ratcheting included internment, Bloody Sunday, unarmed youths and men shot by British soldiers, supposedly mistaken for gunmen. The initial killings of the Troubles were by loyalists in 1966, then by the RUC in 1969.

Yes, it would have been good if one IRA horror after another, Bloody Friday, Claudy, had not shadowed a Catholic/nationalist/anti-unionist argument recognised worldwide as very strong. But the exposure of Northern Ireland policing as partisan, past disguise or denial, came in Derry and Belfast in October 1968, early 1969, summer 1969.

As violence built into an apparently endless Troubles many nationalists could not see a peaceable and effective opposition to the state. There was a surge in emigration, massive demoralisation - no doubt among Protestants, certainly among Catholics.

The greater number, as republicans admitted then, did not want violence in their name. The greater number of nationalists continued to support the SDLP, who struggled to provide an alternative to violence. Participation? Partnership? Reconciliation? They agreed to power-sharing at Stormont, brought down by the 1974 strike backed by loyalist paramilitary muscle.

Ian Paisley, Harry West, Bill Craig’s Vanguard sat in on the strike ‘committee’ with the UDA and UVF etc and continued to sit with them through the loyalist Dublin-Monaghan bombings of 17 May. The British government of the day backed off, advised by their army that it could not fight unionists as well as the IRA.

The Troubles, like partition, did nobody any good. But Michelle O’Neill, her appointment as first minister delayed by a unionist boycott, should say there was an alternative to IRA violence? History, everywhere, is not that simple.