Last weekend’s interview with Mary Lou McDonald by Hugh O’Connell attracted a lot of attention because McDonald had told him that she might well have joined the IRA.
Of course she did not, choosing instead to join Fianna Fáil while in college, and only joining Sinn Féin in 2002. She was elected to the European Parliament in 2004 but her attempts to be elected to Leinster House in Dublin West, in 2002 and Dublin Central in 2007 were unsuccessful.
In the January general election she got one of the highest percentage votes in the state and is now the leader of the party which won the largest vote share of any other party. Only a conservative candidate strategy denied them up to 15 more seats. Such are the fickle winds of politics.
She and Sinn Féín were however denied their coveted place in government as both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael immediately ruled them out as coalition partners. The reasons given were similar to the ground gone over once again in the O’Connell interview.
The fact is that very few people are now motivated to vote now in accordance to their attitude towards the IRA. That was proven during the 2020 election campaign when Sinn Féin was accused of complicity in the Paul Quinn murder and other events since the ceasefires, yet managed to top the polls.
As someone pithily commented – it would have been like Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil attacking one another in 1960s over Lemass or Cosgrave’s role in the Civil War. Asking McDonald about her own possible membership is an admittedly novel twist – but it will make very little difference to voters.
There is also the fact, which sits uncomfortably with many anti-shinners, that the only historical resonance to influence the election was Charlie Flanagan’s mistake in including the notorious RIC of the 1916 – 1921 period as being worthy of the same respect and honour due to those who fought them in the cause of Irish freedom. There is no doubt but that tapped into some unspoken folk memory and benefited Sinn Féin.
As for the IRA of the 1969 – 1998 period, for most voters they are a fading memory or something that had to do with before the time they were born. There is also a substantial number of people, and this appears to be beyond the comprehension of those still beating the old drum, who can understand why people joined the IRA in the context of what was happening at the time.
There are people who remember when the Troubles began and can recall loyalist pogroms so severe that the Taoiseach at the time, Jack Lynch, said the Irish government would not stand by. They will have lived through internment, Bloody Sunday and the many other atrocities which made it obvious that the RUC and the British Army were not about to defend Catholic communities.
It is a fact that the many of those who are most anti-national are happy to ignore or even excuse actions by the loyalists and British security forces in the period of the conflict. Indeed the more the history of that time emerges; with regard to the Glenanne Gang for example, the more it confirms that the British state was not only involved in collusion, but actively involved in atrocities against the northern Catholic nationalist population, and indeed in the bombing of Dublin and Monaghan.
That obviously does not include the many terrible things done, whether by accident or design, by the IRA but that time is possibly regarded with more of an historical detachment and judgment than those anti-republicans who are obsessed with the past realise.
The most ironic aspect of the attempt to drag Mary Lou into a debate about the IRA and whether she would have joined it, is that Sinn Féin can not even claim any longer to be a republican or nationalist party.
The IRA was stood down as part of an agreement which on Sinn Féin’s part saw them accept partition and their willingness to participate in administering British rule in Ireland. So it is not the fact that the armed conflict ended – which was a good thing – but that what followed equated to throwing the republican/nationalist baby out with the IRA bathwater.
Sinn Féin is now a tame middle of the road social democratic party which shares far more in terms of how this country ought to be run with the other parties in Leinster House than it does with the traditional republican opposition to the suborning of Irish sovereignty and the attempted destruction of Irish culture and heritage.
If anything the dredging up of the past simply serves to provide cover for Sinn Féin as it pursues that project.
John Dillion lives and writes from Tipperary