Newton Emerson: Is Sinn Féin repositioning again?

Sinn Féin MP John Finucane speaks at a 'South Armagh Volunteers Commemoration' in south Armagh last weekend
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane speaks at a 'South Armagh Volunteers Commemoration' in south Armagh last weekend

One of the patterns of the peace process has been Sinn Féin ruthlessly abandoning its stoutest defenders the instant they have served their usefulness.

This was clearest in the first decade after the Good Friday Agreement, with its totemic issues of decommissioning, IRA disbandment and recognition of policing.

Time and again, leading republican voices were left to proclaim not a bullet, not an ounce, right up until the cement began to pour.

There was a sense of this last week over the IRA commemoration in south Armagh. For all the comment the story provoked, there was almost total silence from Sinn Féin itself.

MP John Finucane, who addressed the event, was unavailable for interview. Party statements merely repeated that everyone has the right to remember their dead – legal hokum and a political platitude.

Caution was partly explained by last week’s anniversary of the 1996 murder of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe. Killing police officers is a crime even under Sinn Féin’s definition of the Troubles: police are not combatants in a conflict unless declared to be part of the military. This fact has been shoved into the corner in Northern Ireland but the Republic is another matter.

The South Armagh ‘brigade’ of the IRA killed 42 RUC officers and around 50 other civilians during the Troubles, in addition to 123 soldiers. Victims included several high-profile cases south of the border. Members are also considered responsible for the 2007 murder of Paul Quinn and the subsequent cover-up, for which no political excuse is possible. Mary Lou McDonald is still ridiculed for calling Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, the former South Armagh IRA leader, a “good republican”.

Finucane’s speech was much as expected, although not beyond criticism on its own terms. He spoke of “pride”, yet the IRA is ashamed to admit the Kingsmill massacre.

He linked commemoration to recognising “contributions”. Which of the 200-plus murders were contributions?

What was said was perhaps less important than who was present, or more correctly, who was not present. The South Armagh event has previously been addressed or attended by senior Sinn Féin figures. Martin McGuinness opened the first one in 2010, Gerry Adams delivered the oration in 2018 and Conor Murphy usually appears.

Finucane was by far the most prominent representative in attendance last Sunday.

While absences could have many explanations, the overall impression was of a party weighing up its metaphorical bullets and ounces.

Repositioning now appears to have begun. On Monday, in response to media questions, McDonald gave gnomic answers on attending Provisional IRA commemorations should she become taoiseach.

“I will be a taoiseach for everybody”, she said. Pressed further, she added that “there’s a set pattern of what the taoiseach attends and does not attend”.

Taken together, her comments could mean not attending Provisional IRA commemorations at all, or attending them but not in an official capacity, or including the Provisional IRA in state commemorations.

The latter is certainly the long-term goal but it cannot be presumed Sinn Féin will pursue this in haste, or in a straight line, or that it will ultimately succeed. The party will judge progress and might change the goal – there have been comparable rethinks of the unthinkable before.

Little more than a decade ago, it was received wisdom that Sinn Féin could never fully recognise policing and justice, so everyone else would have to recognise community policing and restorative justice by the IRA.

Criticism of Finucane from unionists and others has asked how a Troubles victim can address an IRA commemoration.

McDonald turned this around during Monday’s questions, saying the North Belfast MP “had very traumatic experiences in his own childhood”.

In other words, being a victim entitles him to address the commemoration.

Among the few shared principles our society has evolved on dealing with the past is that no expectation should be placed on victims. They cannot be asked to forgive, or condemn, or take any view of politics or history – or be consistent.

We extend this understanding to political leaders. There is a neat symmetry in Arlene Foster having raised the initial objection to last Sunday’s commemoration. When she became first minister in 2015, many people would have had views and hopes on how Foster might use the moral authority of her own Troubles trauma to heal historic wounds. Most people still felt this was entirely her choice and nobody else was entitled to criticise it.

Finucane is the same. However, it should be no surprise if Sinn Féin moves the commemoration issue further on.