Although Sinn Féin are sometimes seen in media and academic circles as almost Stalinesque in their management of party politics and agenda setting, their most recent attempts at policy direction suggest a party in disarray.
This is no more in evidence than in the area of dealing with the past. (Of course, the ineptitude may be just what Sinn Féin wants its opponents to think to lull them into a false sense of security.)
It is true, as Henry McDonald has suggested, that the party has developed a commemoration programme that operates on an ‘industrial scale’. Although it lost some hardliners, it has also been relatively successful in managing long-term change processes involving acceptance of devolution and policing reform.
They have been relatively successful too in promoting the idea that the present dispensation is transitional – as opposed to the possibility that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has actually solidified partition.
Sinn Féin’s Historic Ghosts
Yet the party was rather flatfooted in its response to the empirical and moral challenges posed by the memory of the Hunger Strikes. As regards the empirical questions: within the movement, spokespersons indulged in blatant emotionalism to keep the concerns of families in check, while in the press they obfuscated over the nature of their strategy in prolonging the strike.
As Rogelio Alonso points out in his incisive analysis of the Provisional republican movement, the moral question of whether Bobby Sands et al died for cross-border cooperation has never really been faced up to by Sinn Féin; it remains lurking like a traumatic memory or half-repressed guilt in their development of a narrative of peace.
The uncertainty over dealing with the past resurfaced over the appointment of Mary McArdle as special advisor to the Minister for Arts, Culture and Leisure. The legislation to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future has been rejected by Sinn Féin. For instance, it described the idea that ex-prisoners should show remorse for their actions as equivalent to demanding ‘sackcloth and ashes’ treatment.
The role of special advisors falls under notions of political patronage – they are not elected and not accountable, except to their ministers. It is therefore a deeply political role.
The dual strategy of claiming victimhood for terrorists while delegitimising an attempt to restore scrutiny to the democratic process is an attempt to forestall debate, to de-politicise. It is also craven and cynical – and that is exactly where the holes in Sinn Féin’s policy direction appear.
Sinn Féin and the Maze
The strategy is replicated in the party’s inevitable welcoming of the announcement to go forward with the establishment of a Conflict Resolution Centre on the site of the Maze. Seanna Walsh, for example, has deployed a rather ambiguous use of the word ‘sanitise’, in asking why anyone would want to airbrush the history of the site.
As Alex Kane has pointed out, this notion misses the point: politicisation has already occurred through the decision to spend taxpayers’ money.
Walsh believes the fact that stories need to be told justifies the project: ‘All sorts of interesting conversations began as a result of those cups of tea [in the gaol]. However, it would be surprising if these stories deviated far from the norm: 1. ‘Big Ian made me do it’; 2. ‘I wanted revenge because the “Brits” beat up my da/brother/me/ransacked our house/shot innocent people’.
The plea to education is as ridiculous as the narrative of prison to peace is inane: Are we supposed to educate our children that they shouldn’t shoot unarmed men at their breakfast in case they might go to gaol? The Maze does not contain universal stories of righteous opposition to oppression. It is not Robben Island and the IRA is not the ANC.
Peaceful, justifiable opposition to discrimination once did occur in Northern Ireland and the civil rights movement made serious advances towards equality; the terrorists’ campaigns stymied and killed those advances. The danger in airbrushing history and morality remains real and present, and is often cloaked in half-baked banalities about lesson-learning, lesson-sharing.
Narrating the Troubles
An alternative reading of the prison-to-peace narrative might conclude with the moral that peace is a privilege, not a right. In other words: terror pays, and it is only when terror is acquiesced that governance (of a sort) can begin.
The Maze then is less a lesson to share with the outside world, but becomes rather another stick to beat the citizens of Northern Ireland over the head with: ‘Don’t expect too much; don’t raise your hopes of anything but a divided society; peace necessitates ethical compromises’.
Republican stories of repression-response or loyalist ideas about elite manipulation of the working class are easy sells; they are much easier tales to tell and to hear than histories about mobilising against discrimination or testimonies of those left struggling with the trauma inflicted by terrorists.
In part, it is the inability to recognise this gap that causes so much offence. Finola Meredith writing in the Belfast Telegraph points out that there are ‘precedents’ for the Maze project.
Berlin has a museum, she explains, on the grounds of the SS and Gestapo headquarters. But her parallel is arguably misleading, the Topography of Terror, as the museum is known, makes a particular effort to differentiate between victims and perpetrators – deliberately using those very straightforward terms.
The ways in which Sinn Féin have approached the Maze debate in Northern Ireland does little to convince that the Conflict Transformation Centre will contribute much to knowledge about either conflict or transformation.
Sinn Féin on the Past
As a party of government, Sinn Féin cannot plausibly continue to pursue ethnicised, particularistic agendas. Until now, its policy seems to be to ‘bank’ concessions in the debate over dealing with the past such as the Maze decision and move forward, drawing on their capital and returns to continually hollow-out the Northern state.
The cracks show when it speaks to different audiences – praising anti-Thatcher protests or ignoring dissident attacks one day while rolling out Martin McGuinness the next to issue strong condemnations. And the illogicality of its policy is gradually catching up with it as Adams’ recent interview on RTÉ revealed.
The cracks also show when the party speaks of reconciliation. Reconciliation as set out in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is ill-defined but nevertheless is substantially different from that inherent in Sinn Féin’s policy: where the former is inclusive and premised on the sacrifice of almost 4,000 lives, the later consists in survivors of the conflict reconciling themselves to a republican vision.
Sinn Féin’s reaching out to unionism strategy is a nonsense and the reheated Hume-isms of its Agreed-New-Ireland-Reconciliation strategy are in tatters. When Declan Kearney speaks of ‘generosity’, ‘acknowledgement’, ‘understanding’, his words do not ring true. Or rather, they only ring true in the glib sentimentality of a Seanna Walsh.
As a party of government Sinn Féin needs to address this deficit. Its myopia is offensive on many levels – I am emphatically not suggesting that Bloody Sunday was anything but an atrocity; rather, Sinn Féin’s return to it and other outrages renders them nothing more than totemic totems as somehow justifying the PIRA murder campaign needs to end for ethical reasons.
It should also end for political ones: Sinn Féin’s strategy is positively contributing to the undermining of democratic functionality and thus counterproductive to fostering peace.
The problem of course is that Sinn Féin needs to repaint the past to avoid facing up to the compromises it has made. Of course, to do so would be to admit that the IRA’s decision to take a war to the ‘Brits’ was profoundly misguided; to admit the political and strategic vacancy of the decision to continue that war after the fall of Stormont and during the Sunningdale Assembly; to admit the moral degeneracy of prolonging its campaign despite the rising death counts during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
In short, such a change in policy direction would be to admit republicans’ key and unjustifiable role in the perpetuation of murder and mayhem and the subsequent abandonment (except in rhetoric) by Sinn Féin of their vacuous, undemocratic and imperialising project.
Lost in a Maze
However, this can only go on for so long. Indulging the party may stave off the inevitable collapse but unless Sinn Féin begins to articulate a vision of politics based on social responsibility rather than craven self-interest, a vision of society based on pluralism, inclusion and accountability rather than universal blame and exculpation then it will continue to run into delusional dead-ends.
Despite the Orwellian-sounding Maze project, Northern Ireland has not yet entered a Bizarro world where language becomes strips of meaning and history can be rewritten to serve contemporary needs.
Sinn Féin’s credibility gap will continue to grow unless the party changes course – no amount of conflict transformation rhetoric or multi-million pound peace projects can plaster over the bloodied past.