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Justine McCarthy: Sinn Féin has a point. Nobody is entitled to veto anyone else’s story

Remembering nation’s past must be collective endeavour. It is more urgent than rearranging administrative infrastructure

John Finucane was eight years old when two masked loyalist gunmen burst into his home, blasted bullets into the kitchen where the family had gathered at the tea table, and murdered his father, Pat, before his eyes. The youngest of the family, John would have been old enough to remember that scene of visceral horror forever after, and too young to not be shaped by it, in some way. In the tension-taut Belfast of the 1980s, post-trauma therapy for children was rarer than a peaceful day.

Fast forward 34 years. John Finucane, now a Sinn Féin MP for North Belfast, is the keynote speaker at an annual commemoration of IRA members in the Co Armagh village of Mullaghbawn. Various DUP politicians and the Tánaiste, Micheál Martin, castigate him for showing insensitivity to the feelings of the IRA’s many victims and their kin. His appearance at the event, his critics say, amounts to an endorsement of terrorism and poses an obstacle to reconciliation. Finucane is unapologetic. Everybody has the right to remember their own, he insists.

This year is the final one in a decade of State commemorations of brutal and vicious events that led to its birth, from the 1913 Lockout to the end of the Civil War. The consensus is that, considering the underlying risk of re-stoking myriad old enmities, it has all gone rather well. This is primarily due to the careful planning of a programme designed to facilitate nuanced and inclusive retrospectives that did not flinch from the more discomfiting realities of Irish history. Mind you, it took 100 years to loosen our tongues.

If the decade of commemorations were to have a slogan, it would be that nobody is entitled to veto anyone else’s story. For everyone’s story contributes to the tapestry of a nation. Remembering is crucial if we are to face up to the past. It is how we remember that needs to be resolved.


The annual commemoration of the IRA’s South Armagh brigade has been part of Republicans’ calendar for 13 years. It is billed as a family day out, complete with entertainment and refreshments. For some people, the thought of culturally immersing children in violent history with the lure of face-painting and ice-cream might be as objectionable an aspect of the day, but, until John Finucane accepted the invitation to appear there, it had attracted little notice. It appears that it was the messenger rather than the message that most perturbed the critics.

In the 34 years since Pat Finucane, a ubiquitous defence solicitor for IRA members and husband of a Protestant woman, was murdered by the UDA in collusion with UK security force personnel, his family has sought the truth about what happened. In July 2001, as part of the Weston Park agreement, the British government undertook to set up an inquiry into the killing.

The quid pro quo was that the Irish government would establish an inquiry into the murders the same year of two RUC officers, Bob Buchanan and Harry Breen, by the IRA in South Armagh. The Smithwick Tribunal duly began its work and submitted its final report 10 years ago on the circumstances surrounding the officers’ deaths. No satisfactory inquiry has been conducted into Pat Finucane’s killing and there is, unofficially, acceptance in the Dublin Government that London will never countenance one because of the security force collusion.

The Finucanes know from experience how secrecy exacerbates and prolongs injustice. They are not alone. There are many victims of a post-Troubles omerta across Northern Ireland. In some cases, the gag is self-imposed, just as it was by veterans of the Civil War who never spoke afterwards about what they knew.

Staying schtum – whether it is by choice or enforced by others – is bad for the health of individuals and for communities, especially when so much had been unspeakable for so long. Not talking is a method of denial. The phenomenon is poignantly captured by Michael Maguire in his Belfast-set novel, Close to Home, about the trans-generational psychological legacy compounded by the older generation’s dictum “don’t mention the war”.

In its reporting of Finucane’s speech at the commemoration of the IRA’s South Armagh brigade last weekend, the Irish News said that DUP members have supported events honouring loyalist paramilitaries, including a parade last January in memory of Jim Guiney, a UDA member who was shot dead by the INLA in 1998. These shows of support have elicited nothing like the indignant disavowals in Belfast and Dublin of Finucane’s participation in Mullaghbawn by the DUP and Fianna Fáil, the two biggest parties either side of the border before Sinn Féin eclipsed them.

During the Easter Rising commemorations in 2016, President Higgins’s speeches provided a masterclass in how to live with the past so as to make a better future. Reconciliation, he said, was not simply about tolerating others; it was about engaging with them. This cannot happen as long as people feel unable to speak about their perspectives of what happened and why.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has indicated that, if she becomes the Taoiseach, she will not attend IRA commemorations, on the basis that she would be a Taoiseach for everyone. But if she were the Taoiseach of a united Ireland, as is her ultimate ambition, would she attend commemorations of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence? And, to balance the esteem, would she also attend 11th night bonfires celebrating King William’s triumph at the Battle of the Boyne?

And what of Fianna Fáil, the party led by the Tánaiste? Will it continue meeting every year to commemorate Wolfe Tone at Bodenstown, his burial place described by Patrick Pearse as Ireland’s holiest place? Will that party still gather in Arbour Hill for its annual commemoration of the executed leaders of 1916, a rebellion that mustered little support when it happened?

Just as the victors write history, they also get to choose who and what in history deserves to be commemorated in the future. Both matters are too fragile to be entrusted to one side; one faction. Remembering has to be a collective endeavour. If we are to design a new Ireland – which is all the political buzz these days – resolving how that can be done with mutual respect is more urgent than rearranging the administrative infrastructure.