Looping around old tropes is a denial of service to youth who hanker for meaningful change

Fionnuala O’Connor asks an interesting and usefully realist question in today’s Irish News: Is Michelle O’Neill expected to say IRA violence was unjustified? Fionnuala’s conclusion: history is not that simple.

When you join modern Sinn Féin you conjoin with what was at the time an unpopular campaign of violence that to its many thousand victims was out of whack with any supposed provocation.

It did, as Fionnuala says, no one any good. But for the purposes of the growth of Sinn Féin its members are required to view this long period of mayhem as something resembling a “public good”.

In the meantime Orange culture (which also celebrates a war, except it’s one that ended some 332 rather than 25 years ago) continues to be excoriated as though the mere mention of King Billy were a war crime.

This is the bit I don’t get. Is it okay for a Larne midfielder to wear “Tiocfaidh ar la, sing up the RA, ooh ah up the RA”, or not? Clearly it’s not OK with the club because he’s been suspended pending investigation.

But it chimes absolutely with the First Minister’s own view that the Provisional IRA (militarily active until 1997, and which did not stand down until 2006) was perfectly justified in exacting such a huge loss of life.

Instead of asking is she justified, or if Ms O’Neill has any real choice in the matter, pull the camera out a little. There is no other party on the island who holds such fundamentalist views on the recent past.

That’s easy to miss in an environment so hypersensitive to the insults from “the other side”. The mere mention of yoghurt or crocodiles these days even has moderates reaching for their metaphorical Lugers.

On the other hand “Up the Ra” is seen as youthful fun, good people letting off steam or Croppies (ironically a term for rebels in 1798 who were, in Ulster at least, majority Protestant) refusing to lie down.

No reasonable observer can expect Ms O’Neill deny her movement’s past or to accept in some way that its extensive 27 year campaign of violence was unjustified. It’s that very history that’s made her putative FM.

But how can such politics lead to reconciliation or change in the constitutional status it says it wants by bending history to its own inner emotional needs and putting tribal limits on its appeal for such change?

For want of a better term greater unionism (ie those who say they’d vote “remain UK”) has had a fix on the short-termism of its own tribunes and are gradually weakening their capacity to project tribal power.

Nationalism is not ready to confront its own fundamentalist tribal chiefs. Its voters continue to endorse them, no matter the cost to larger ambition or relations with less fundamentally minded fellow citizens.

On wider perspective this looping around old tropes (and what many of us see as old mistakes) is in effect a denial of service particularly to younger generations who are hankering for some class of change.

When Health Minister, before SF’s enforcement of a three year hiatus, Michelle warned the budget needed to run the heath service in NI would swallow the whole budget of 2016/17. Change was necessary.

Necessary, but not happening. Apparently we have to wait for demographic change, the nature of which is itself changing and making it less likely than most expect to do the heavy lifting for unity of the island.

We don’t live in the old world any more, where the croppies of fevered old Provisional imagination still exists. It was quietly legislated out of mainstream life during their war. The world of now is very different.

Today legacy issues concern 0.3% of the whole population according to a recent Irish News/Institute of Irish Studies poll. The economy by contrast concerns 40.3%, and healthcare reform some 22.7%.

When asked what should the number one priority of the new Executive be when it comes back, just 1.6% (the lowest of any party’s support) of Sinn Féin voters said it should put constitutional issues first.

72% also want Stormont to be reformed, not by the usual insider trading between the two main parties with the others standing outside in ciggie corner but through a convention of a broad range of citizens.

Yes life and history are complicated but the demands of the future keep coming, whether in housing, education (particularly technical education where the south is streets ahead of the north) or health.

Personally I’m libertarian enough to have very little time for those who take loud offence at the language of others. But saying your ‘la’ is ‘tiocfaidh-ing’ is one thing, making it happen is quite another.

The worst I can say of it is that it is both unmannerly and irrelevant to the pressing need for change (however you define that, whether it be in terms of economic, healthcare or constitutional outcomes).

But what’s notable from that Liverpool survey is that on the real economic issues, there is a remarkable consensus (and very little real dissent) on the actions needed to get Northern Ireland kick started again.

The truth is that slogans and culture war won’t make it happen. On some level a door must close on the evils of the past in order to move toward a better future. That will take consensus builders, not wreckers.

That may mean taking time for old wounds to heal and old hatreds to subside. Perhaps some very long time out from now (when much is forgotten), as Tolkien more poetically notes in Galadriel…

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost; for none now live who remember it.”

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