Most hawkish speeches at Sinn Féin ardfheis made by Southern doves

Mary Lou McDonald and Paraic MacLochlainn are more usually associated with modernisation of party

Mary Lou McDonald claimed at the Sinn Féin ardfheis today that the party’s detractors are trying to push the line at in the absence of violence ‘all was well in the North’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Mary Lou McDonald claimed at the Sinn Féin ardfheis today that the party’s detractors are trying to push the line at in the absence of violence ‘all was well in the North’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Sat, Feb 8, 2014, 16:46

Two moments have stood out the Sinn Féin ardfheis in Wexford today, both on the same theme. Its most bellicose speeches defending the conflict were delivered by leading Southern noncombants, people associated with the modernisation and mainstreaming of the party in the South.

Not Gerry Adams. Not Martin McGuinness. Not Gerry Kelly. But Mary Lou McDonald and Paraic MacLochlainn. To employ classification of the Tory party (and you can be sure it’s not used very often by Sinn Féin), both McDonald and MacLochlainn would be considered as “wets”.

McDonald drew Cúchulainn to her side in harking back to her grandmother’s experience of the civil war in the Tipperary of the 1920s and (less convincingly) to her own experience of the Troubles in Dublin in the 1980s.

The core of her argument was that a line is being pushed by the party’s detractors now that in the absence of violence “all was well in the North”.

She accused those of laying the “blame for the conflict at the feet of those communities and individuals who fought back against a rotten sectarian State”.

In a classic McDonald move she then shifted the focus of the argument to say the reason they are doing it is to deflect attention away from something else. The deflection here, however, is all hers, using the magician’s trick of misdirection to divert attention elsewhere.

Here are the key lines from the speech:

“Their cynical abuse of the suffering of some victims, to avoid answer questions about corruption in this state is shameful. Their exploitation of some victims’ suffering to suit their party political ends and to bolster their election campaigns is utterly dishonourable.

“Instead of resorting to the cheap soundbites in the Dail it would match Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin better to do what they have been elected to do and stand up for the interests of the people of this country.”

It’s likely that what is referred to here is the searching BBC documentary on the victims who were “disappeared’” by the IRA during the Troubles, a controversy that has drawn in Gerry Adams. The party and the wider movement will have to respond to it, and the victims’ families. As a point of fact, it requires the same self-scrutiny that Sinn Fein demands of others for terrible events such as the murder of Pat Finucane, or Loughinisland.

But the net message was clear. The party, all of the party, is solidly behind Adams.

Similarly, Mac Lochlainn’s speech was heavy on belligerent rhetoric you would not normally associate with the genial Donegal TD.

It was a response to those who continue to call Sinn Féin out - and is it unusual for Taoiseach Enda Kenny not to preface his responses in the Dáil to Adams without a snide remark about the IRA. MacLochlainn asserted that Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil would have it that nothing less than chivalrous happened in the Civil War or war of independence. His argument was that no distinction could be made:

Leinster House is a shrine to violent conflict yet those who ruled from there, demanded that the nationalist people of the Six Counties, living in an Apartheid state, should take it lying down.”

Like everything else about Sinn Féin there as nothing accidental about these two speeches or that two of its most prominent southern representatives made them. It was designed to demonstrate that the party will defend its support of violence, that there is a line in the sand which is core to all its members and that the strategy pursued over 30 years by Adams and McGuinness will be backed to the hilt.

In contrast, the main contribution from a senior Northern representative was a thoughtful speech by John O’Dowd, the main point of which was a call to unionist parties to show leadership and a willingness to change.

It is an election year, with the European and local elections a little more than three months away. There was a parade of candidates all morning, taking a potshot at a cartload of Government policies and at alleged cronyism. The stand-outs have been Matt Carthy, its candidate in the constituency spanning the north of the State. The content was pedestrian but the delivery and reaction were very strong. The party’s youngest candidate, 19-year old Jonathan Graham from Dublin, a bow-tied sapeur, had a great payoff line.

“The Celtic cubs are growing into tigers and we will roar at the next election.”

That Sinn Fein may well do. Its strategists today were tentatively talking about winning 120 seats or more in the local elections this summer and at least one European Parliament seat, putting it ahead of Labour but a little distance behind Fianna Fáil (which, electorally, it will need to continue attacking as much as the Government parties).

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