My core contention in writing this column is that for more than 400 years there have been two clashing politico-religious cultures on this island – Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist – and that for the past century these have been forced into the ‘narrow ground’ of Northern Ireland, with disastrous consequences for all concerned.
I hold that before Irish people can come together peacefully and harmoniously in the same political unit, there have to be mechanisms in place to allow them to come together in other ways – socially, culturally, economically. That wise man, the business leader Sir George Quigley (who died in 2013), observed that major constitutional change in Ireland “has to obtain legitimacy if it is not to prove destabilising and even impermanent. Achieving legitimacy in this context must surely start with the recognition that there are in this situation two mutually opposed ‘principles of legitimacy’ which are strongly held – one nationalist and one unionist – and that some common ground would have to be found on which the divergent aspirations are transcended in a general consensus. The Good Friday Agreement recognises this in its espousal of the principal of consent for constitutional change. It would be a delusion to suppose that change could be achieved through some simple majoritarian process rather than by negotiation.”1
There is precious little common ground at the moment. This came home to me last month when I read Sinn Fein leader Mary-Lou McDonald’s speech to the National Press Club in Canberra in Australia in the same week that I visited the victims organisation, the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF), in Lisnaskea in Fermanagh.
McDonald is a powerful orator who clearly believes it is her destiny to become the woman who will unite Ireland. In Australia (as elsewhere) she made headlines by predicting that a Border Poll on Irish reunification would take place “in this decade.” Her reply to any question about the risk of renewed violence in the North in the event of an extremely narrow vote for unity in that poll – this time certainly led by loyalists – is always the same. “The war is over”, she says.
It is worth quoting her words in Canberra at more length. She was asked by a journalist how she would ensure that such a Border Poll did not reignite violence in Northern Ireland. “The process for reunification will be orderly. It will be peaceful, and it will be democratic. I will not give an inch on that, and really believe there is a strong onus on every political representative and leader to state that categorically. I will not even countenance the scenario you have painted. That cannot happen under any circumstances, and I say that as one of the effigies that was hanged on a bonfire. People decided for peace. The truth is – a big bonfire, a bus lit on the Falls Road – these are very limited phenomena. The war is over. We are moving to the future, and there is no appetite across wide society to return to armed actions and conflict. I cannot accept – I don’t think any democrat could accept – that some unspoken possibility of perhaps tensions somewhere would throw us off our democratic course.”2
When McDonald says “the war is over”, what she really means is that the guerrilla/terrorist war the Provisional IRA waged in Northern Ireland and Britain for nearly 30 years is not necessary any more because Sinn Fein are winning the battle to move towards Irish unity very effectively now without violence. They are already the largest party in Northern Ireland and will certainly be the largest party in the Republic after the next election, in early 2025 at the latest. And they have reached this enviable position by playing down the drive for unity – their core ideology – in both jurisdictions, and focussing on the housing, health and cost-of-living issues that really concern ordinary people, and are so urgent now that we are in an inflationary spiral caused by the war in Ukraine and the resulting potentially catastrophic rises in the cost of oil, gas, wheat and other staples.
However her declaration that as leader of Sinn Fein (the party of the IRA) she will “not give an inch” on her determination that the process of reunification will be orderly and peaceful is extraordinarily arrogant and hypocritical. Arrogant because order and peace in the North in the event of a very narrow vote for unity are not within her gift. Hypocritical because, in common with everyone in her party, absolute and unconditional support for the IRA’s 1970-1997 campaign of violence is a compulsory requirement for membership. When was the last time you heard anyone in Sinn Fein criticising the actions of the IRA? The answer is ‘never’. And the IRA Army Council is still there somewhere in the background, with Garda Commissioner Drew Harris confirming this as recently as 2020.
McDonald’s arrogance is there too in her fanatical belief – common to all republicans – that unity is inevitable, that there is no alternative.”We’ve built the peace [after 30 years of IRA murder and mayhem – AP], and we now look to the next phase: the reunification of Ireland. We are living in the end days of partition. The momentum behind Irish unity is unprecedented,” she said in Canberra. My understanding of the Good Friday Agreement was not that Irish unity would be the next step, but that the reconciliation of the warring communities in Northern Ireland would be the first step along a road that could possibly – but not inevitably – lead to unity.
Which brings me to the victims group in Fermanagh. At the back of a half-empty factory estate in Lisnaskea are the comfortless offices (a far cry from the splendour of the National Press Club in Canberra) of the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF), overseen by an impressive young man from south Armagh called Kenny Donaldson. Donaldson is adamant and even-handed in his insistence that republican and loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces must all be held to account for past atrocities.
For the past 24 years his group has undertaken the difficult, unsung work of representing, counselling and providing services for those whose family members were killed by republican and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, the Republic, Britain and further afield during the Northern conflict. For obvious reasons, their work focuses in particular, although not exclusively, on civilians and members of the British and Northern Ireland security forces killed (murdered, they would say) by republican paramilitaries (‘terrorists’ they would call them in unionist South Fermanagh, which was one of the Provisional IRA’s most active ‘killing fields’).
As Sinn Fein strides towards gaining political power in Ireland and both recognition and respectability internationally, these are the forgotten people. There are literally thousands of people on SEFF’s books, most of them unknown to the uncaring world outside their families and friends. Who, for example, has heard of the five BBC engineers and building workers who died when they were blown up by a landmine on their way to repair a TV transmitter on Brougher Mountain on the Fermanagh-Tyrone border in February 1971? Nobody has ever been prosecuted for this atrocity, although it was widely believed to be an IRA bomb meant for the security forces (the battery used as the device’s power source had been bought in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim). For the sad record, those who died were BBC engineers Malcom Henson from Lancashire and William Thomas from Carmarthen in south Wales; and local men George Beck, John Eakins and Harry Edgar, all from Kilkeel, County Down.
Who remembers the names of the 21 civilian victims of the November 1974 pub bombings in Birmingham, admitted by a former senior IRA man in 2014 but never officially claimed by that organisation? In Ireland this terrible attack is largely remembered because six innocent Birmingham-based Irishmen served 16 years in jail for it before a lengthy campaign led to their convictions being quashed by the Court of Appeal “It is often said that the greatest act of injustice was experienced by the Birmingham Six, but surely the greater injustice was the decision taken by a terrorist organisation to mass murder innocents – and to this day continues to deny victims and survivors the truth of the events that unfolded on that fateful day which saw their loved ones massacred,” says SEFF in one of its publications.
Who remembers the 11 Royal Marine bandsmen who died in an IRA bomb at their barracks in Deal in Kent in September 1989? Or Maheshkumar Islania, an RAF corporal originally from India, and his six-month-old daughter Nivruti, who were shot dead by IRA gunmen in Wildenrath in Germany in the following month? Or the two Australian tourists – Stephen Melrose and Nick Spanos – who were killed in front of their wife and girlfriend in May 1990 by black-clad gunmen when they stopped for a meal in a Dutch town which was popular with off-duty British servicemen? Or Tom Oliver, a County Louth farmer and father of seven, who was abducted and killed by the IRA in July 1991, his body dumped over the border in south Armagh?
All these people left behind stricken families and devastated lives. They are just a few examples of the thousands of people who are are obliterated from memory as Sinn Fein march onto their promised land of unlikely all-Ireland amity and harmony. There has not been a single prosecution of anyone involved in any of these IRA attacks. There has not been a scintilla of admission (with the singular exception of the Birmingham bombings man), let alone repentance, from those responsible. Nobody in this republic knows or cares about them. It is little wonder that Northern unionists ask if the lives of these forgotten people – and so many like them – are worth less than those who were killed by the British Army in Derry and Ballymurphy, whose cases have been the subject of constant and highly publicised international campaigns over half a century.
The South East Fermanagh Foundation continues its unheralded work from its offices in Northern Ireland and Britain. One of its publications, Terrorism Knows no Borders, also features 56 people (out of an estimated total of 105) killed in the Republic by the UVF, the IRA and the INLA, including those who died in the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings, Lord Mountbatten and his companions blown up on his boat in Mullaghmore in 1989, and other civilians, soldiers, prison officers and gardai. Another publication, Uniting Innocent Victims, includes victims of ETA attacks in the Basque country. Kenny Donaldson is currently in Rwanda on a study visit to learn how they have worked to bring people together in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in that country.
One of SEFF’s most moving projects is a travelling exhibition of quilts, remembering the individual people from all sides who were killed/murdered during the Northern ‘Troubles’. The project’s three key messages are: “1) violence was futile and totally unjustified; 2) those remembered were wholly innocent, and 3) the legacy of those represented will live on amongst those left behind.”
In its introductory brochure, the organisation says: “Memorial quilts allow us to tell the story of the ‘Troubles’ in a very human way, encouraging people viewing the patches to consider the individual being remembered and not simply the badge or affiliation they had with a particular organisation which for some made them a ‘legitimate target’ for assassination. These individuals’ lives had worth not only to their families but to their colleagues, friends and the wider community at large. Ordinary men, women and children from right across the community were treated as collateral damage during the ‘Troubles’, and this continued with the concessions granted [to] terrorism and its political annexes within the Belfast Agreement and subsequent agreements (both overt and covert). This continues to exist to this day due to the justice, truth and accountability deficit being borne by innocent victims/survivors of terrorism.”
This is a small voice for justice and truth that needs to be heard throughout this indifferent island. In this jurisdiction it is all but silent. And with Sinn Fein moving into government here in the near future, it will not only be silent, but officially silenced too.
1 The Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland, No.8, Spring 2013, p.27
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.