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Fintan O’Toole: If murderous dissidents are wrong, so was Provisional IRA

Sinn Féin has to stop legitimising terror

Just four days before the general election, the PSNI found a viable bomb attached by magnets to a refrigerated trailer parked in the Silverwood industrial estate in Lurgan, Co Armagh. The bomb had been placed there some days earlier by the Continuity IRA in the expectation that the trailer would be loaded on to a ferry bound for Scotland. The PSNI believed the aim was to blow up the ferry on January 31st, Brexit day. The Continuity IRA denied this and said the bomb was intended to be smuggled to Britain: “It was timed for Britain’s exit from the EU and to bring attention to the sea border.” Either way, the device could have killed any number of entirely innocent people.

Shouting 'Up the 'Ra' is not a performance by historical re-enactors – it is a live device, primed to explode into contemporary reality

In the Republic, news of this incident was rather swamped by the imminence of the election and the polls showing the high probability of a surge towards Sinn Féin. But it is worth revisiting, precisely because of that surge. For many voters, especially those too young to remember the Troubles, the IRA’s 30-year campaign of violence is “the past”. To make an issue of it now is to introduce an irrelevance, for no reason other than to deny the legitimacy of Sinn Féin’s electoral success. But this is a past with a very active afterlife.

What Sinn Féin has to confront, sooner rather than later, is that it can’t continue to legitimise the “armed struggle” of the Provisional IRA without giving exactly the same legitimacy to every other gang that puts a different adjective before those three sacred letters: continuity, real, new. Shouting “Up the ‘Ra” is not a performance by historical re-enactors – it is a live device, primed to explode into contemporary reality.

When the ferry bomb was discovered, the Continuity IRA issued a statement to the Irish News. It claimed that the chances of the bomb falling off the trailer and exploding had been "slim" – precisely the same kind of psychopathically blithe calibration of the chances of mass murder the Provos used in relation to Claudy, Birmingham, La Mon, Enniskillen, and every other bombing. Sinn Féin denounced the ferry bomb as "reckless" – what does that make the bombing by the Provos of Frizell's fish-shop on the Shankill Road on a busy Saturday afternoon in 1993, killing 10 people, including two children, Michelle Baird and Leanne Murray?

Mass slaughter

The so-called dissident republicans have managed mass slaughter before: the Real IRA's Omagh bombing in 1998 killed 29 people, including six teenagers, six children and a woman pregnant with twins. It is a terrible reality that they will probably do so again: watch the CCTV footage of the bomb placed outside Bishop Street courthouse in Derry on a busy Saturday night just over a year ago and you see with sickening immediacy the Russian roulette of "slim" chances. Chances, of course, that are being taken with other people's lives: the bombers scarper and leave the honour of dying for Ireland to random civilians.

It is a strange notion of legitimacy: you need a democratic mandate to build houses or run a health system but you don't need one to plant bombs in pubs

And the point is that there is no difference in methods or ideology between now and then, no sub-clause in “Up the ‘Ra” where the small print says: “offer does not include Continuity ‘Ra, New ‘Ra, Real ‘Ra, Óghlaigh na hÉireann, Arm na Poblachta, Republican Action Against Drugs or any other ‘Ra not approved by Sinn Féin”. The utter contempt for ordinary people’s lives is precisely the same. So is the claim to legitimacy. The Provisional IRA, all throughout its “armed struggle”, insisted it did not need a democratic mandate because it was the apostolic successor to the republic declared in 1916 and endorsed in the 1918 Westminster election. The problem is that almost anyone can make exactly the same claim – the Sinn Féin of 1918 split over the decades into so many factions that the traces of its DNA can be found in dozens of political genomes. This licence to kill can be picked up on any street corner. Every headbanger can claim to be the true heir to 1916.

It is a very good thing that Sinn Féin has reversed itself and now rests its claim to political authority solely on the votes it has received in democratic elections in jurisdictions it previously refused to recognise. But it wants at the same time to maintain an entirely different, and radically undemocratic, notion of authority: that when the IRA and its allies were killing 2,055 people during the Troubles, it did not need an electoral mandate at all. It is a strange notion of legitimacy: you need a democratic mandate to build houses or run a health system but you don’t need one to plant bombs in pubs. The most awesome acts – the irreversible annihilation of human beings – require a much lower standard of authority than the mundane day-to-day business of governmental administration. The mandate for murder is much more cheaply purchased than the mandate for fixing potholes.

Even if there were no living heirs to this toxic tradition, this double act would not be sustainable for Sinn Féin. But those heirs are out there, doing the same old things for the same old reasons. So long as Sinn Féin upholds the legitimacy of the “armed struggle”, it has no answer to the dissidents’ claims of continuity.