Sinn Féin: a lot done, more to do if it wants our respect

Sunday Tribune, 14 June

Mrs Smith had dusted the parcel every day for two weeks and kept it on her telephone stand in the hall. Not many people dust their next-door neighbour’s post, but she wanted it pristine for their arrival home from holiday. It would also show that there had been no sneaked preview of its contents.
Mrs Smith was Protestant, middle-class and well-liked on her ‘mixed’ road. Her neighbour, Mr Murphy, was a well-known Republican with a brother who still makes the news occasionally. On the other side of her lived a Catholic family whose uncle was an outspoken cleric who constantly angered the IRA. A few doors down lived another Protestant, a Second World War RAF man. Across the road from him lived a German family. By today’s standards, the road was hardly multicultural, but in 1978 Ireland it was an Olympic village.
When she heard the tyres on the Murphys’ driveway, Mrs Smith grabbed the parcel and hurried out. Curiosity was killing her.
She saw the colour drain from Mr Murphy’s face as he watched her approaching. He waved her away. His family ran indoors. She stared at the parcel in the same disbelieving way soldiers stare at a wound before the reality of pain rushes in.
The explosion lifted everyone off their feet.
Fortunately for Mrs Smith, it happened several hours after her drama on the driveway. Mr Murphy had helped the terrified woman place the letter bomb on the ground. The army later detonated it before an excited crowd of rubber-necking kids.
Mrs Smith wasn’t her real name and Murphy is an alias too. Their story is a forgotten episode from the Troubles. It didn’t happen in the north. It happened on my road in leafy Glenageary, south Dublin when I was 11. Things like this didn’t happen in Glenageary. The memory took root.
In 1981, the green shoots appeared. The older kids sat in their gardens talking about the hunger strikes and recalling the bomb which nearly killed Mrs Smith. A friend wore a ‘Bobby Sands MP’ badge which was replaced by a ‘Bobby Sands RIP’ badge when summer arrived. A world away from Belfast, the Troubles had spread down the clipped lawns of Glenageary again.
The hunger strikes politicised a generation of middle-class Irish youth. Some went on to become notorious. They had their heroes and you didn’t dare disrespect them. They weren’t my heroes. They were too blood-stained. Bobby Sands’ death was heroic, but his poster was never on my wall. I have never supported Sinn Féin.
A quarter of a century on, they are sharing power in the north. The last I heard of my friend with the Bobby Sands badge was he had settled down with a Protestant girl. Times change. People change. Not everyone though.
Last week there was braying from the usual quarters about Sinn Féin’s demise here. One paper called them ‘revolting’. Enda Kenny sacked Fine Gael’s director of elections for linking his party with them in a possible coalition. Some people refuse to acknowledge change.
Some perspective wouldn’t go amiss. Everything Sinn Féin does must be measured against how much they have changed. Nobody in the 1980s would ever have envisaged them saying the war was over. They have said it.
In the South, we conveniently forget how our democracy was born out of radicalism. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s founders fought a savage civil war. They are now ‘respectable’.
In Brussels, Dublin is represented by a man who was interned in the Curragh for IRA membership. Former Official Sinn Féiner, Proinsias De Rossa, is now a Labour party statesman.
Eamon Gilmore first ran for the Dáil in 1982 for the Workers Party. That party had links to Official IRA/Sinn Féin. He, too, is a respected statesman.
Change is always possible. History proves that, with every turning of the democratic tide, radicals are either rinsed, reshaped and polished or washed away. Sinn Féin should be encouraged to fully immerse themselves.
That said, it’s not easy to like them. On Tuesday they disgraced themselves with their reaction to councillor Christy Burke’s resignation from the party. He claims it under-funded his by-election campaign as they concentrated on Mary Lou McDonald’s. Despite being a former IRA prisoner, Burke is widely respected for championing Dublin’s underprivileged. Not by Sinn Féin, though. In the North, they paint murals of their heroes; in Dublin they let them go to the wall. Aengus Ó Snodaigh demanded he resign his newly retained city council seat and “return what is a Sinn Féin seat to the party”.
A “Sinn Fein seat”? Do they think they own a place on the council? Are direct elections meaningless? The sense of entitlement was worthy of Fianna Fáil. The spat revealed, again, that they still don’t fully understand democracy. Burke has served his fellow citizens for 25 years. The seat belongs to them and they chose him – not Sinn Féin – to occupy it. They are free to choose their own heroes.
Sinn Féin has come a long way since the bloody 1980s. That should be constantly acknowledged. However, it still has a long way to go. It still has to earn our respect. It can start by accepting the wishes of the people of Dublin.
It also needs to learn that if you don’t respect your own heroes, you can hardly expect others to respect you.

dkenny@tribune.ie

June 14, 2009

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