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Fintan O’Toole: Gangsters who call themselves the New IRA are calcified cliché

Sinn Féin no longer accepts the legitimacy of crypto-fascist ‘republicanism’, but it won’t disavow it either

Dissident republicans are neither. The idea of dissidence is to oppose and contest received ideas, to challenge calcified cliches. The gangsters who call themselves the New IRA and their groupies in Saoradh are nothing but calcified cliché. They endlessly recycle dead platitudes and poses. They are military re-enactors with real bullets, museum dummies with live bombs. And republicanism is a philosophical tradition about which they have no clue, a way of thinking about a democracy in which, as Philip Pettit has put it, we can look one another in the eye without reason for fear or deference. Fear and deference are what these bullies seek to create, first in their own enclaves and then for the rest of us.

In fact, these people are not even, properly speaking, Irish nationalists. The core demand of Irish nationalism has always been self-determination for the Irish people as a whole. The Irish people as a whole, North and South, had that act of self-determination on May 22nd, 1998, when we voted simultaneously on whether (in effect) to accept the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. It was supported by 71 per cent north of the Border and 94 per cent in the South. On an island-wide basis, 86 per cent of voters supported the agreement. That is and remains the emphatic will of the people who share this island. The so-called dissidents are in revolt, not against “the forces of crown”, but against the self-determination of the Irish people.

This is not dissidence or republicanism or Irish nationalism. It’s fascism. The only question is why this is not as obvious as it should be. Why does it take the murder of Lyra McKee to sensitise us to the meaning of people in paramilitary uniforms and dark glasses strutting down our main streets and loudly proclaiming themselves as our masters, the enlightened vanguard who must shoot and bomb us because we are too dumb and too cowardly to accept the justice and inevitability of their rule? Had we already forgotten the atrocity in Omagh in 1998 when the products of this same political cesspool massacred 29 of us and maimed 220 more to inform us that our votes on the Belfast Agreement a few months earlier were objects of their rage and contempt?

Anti-democratic tradition

There is an answer and it is an awkward one. It lies largely with Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin has taken huge strides away from the mentality of this crypto-fascist “republicanism”. In practice, it has disentangled itself from the primary claim of this ideology, which is that Irish democracy has no meaning until there is a United Ireland and therefore anyone can set themselves up as the “real” representatives of the Irish people and carry out any atrocity in our name and the name of the dead generations. Sinn Féin no longer accepts the legitimacy of that anti-democratic tradition. But it won’t disavow it either.

It is in the nature of political transitions that people have to exist for a period in two different worlds. They have to straddle contradictions. We all know that this applies to Sinn Féin. My elected member of parliament used to be a terrorist bomber – there are not many democracies where that could be said with relative equanimity. Our democracy has been very generous in its recognition that in our historic circumstances it was necessary to allow for a certain degree of ambiguity, even of outright hypocrisy. But for how long and at what cost? Is 20 years long enough? Is the death of Lyra McKee awful enough?

Self-appointed militia

Sinn Féin has managed for a very long time now to hold two positions simultaneously. One is that the democratically expressed wishes of the Irish people meant nothing and that a secret self-appointed militia represented the “Irish nation” and could kill on our behalf anyone it chose to kill. The other is that this ceased to be okay the moment the Provisional IRA stopped doing it and that those who thought otherwise had no legitimacy and should leave the stage. This doubleness was inevitable at first and it probably seemed relatively harmless after the “dissident” threat seemed to wane in the wake of Omagh.

But if it ever was harmless, it’s not any more. Sinn Féin’s official position, as articulated so fluently by Mary Lou McDonald, is to be “heartily sorry” for “those who were hurt by the IRA”, but not to be one bit sorry for the “armed struggle” in which they were hurt – exactly the same mental gymnastics evident in the New IRA’s “apology” for the murder of Lyra McKee.

It is to say, as she did, “Shame on you. Shame on you and stop,” to the New IRA when it planted a bomb in Derry in January but to proudly celebrate all of the brave heroes who planted car bombs before 1996. The message to the killers of Lyra McKee is that murder is only a question of time. If you end up getting shot yourself, you will be celebrated eternally as martyrs. And if you don’t, you will live long enough to retire on a nice politician’s pension long after you have distanced yourself from the next bunch of killers.