Blind spots and Northern Ireland


Sir, – I have a high regard for Alex Kane as a commentator on politics in the North and in particular for his insights on unionism. I was therefore surprised by his take on the current obstacles to progress in Northern Ireland (“Blind spots block Northern Ireland progress”, Opinion & Analysis, January 15th).

It is Mr Kane’s view that a liberal unionist who says that he will never be able to separate Sinn Féin from the IRA has a blind spot equivalent to the Sinn Féin staffer who told him that he or she saw unionists as “illegal occupiers of my country”.

Of course there are many members of Sinn Féin in the past and the present who had and have no connection to the IRA. However, the difficulty of separating Sinn Féin from the IRA is not a blind spot which afflicts only unionists. It afflicts many Catholics, Protestants and non-believers, unionist, Alliance and SDLP supporters, particularly those who lived through the Troubles and witnessed the political wing of the republican movement support and justify the armed struggle. Despite the undoubted strategic shift by republicans in the 1990s, politically and ideologically Sinn Féin continues to depict the armed struggle as inevitable and largely justifiable. It is this more than unionist myopia which is responsible for the coupling in many minds of Sinn Féin and the IRA.

Mr Kane is correct to note that in Northern Ireland as in many other situations of national or ethnic conflict the dominant narratives deny or minimise the role that their side had in instigating and prosecuting violence. Unionists made significant contributions to the conditions that gave rise to the Troubles and unionist politicians, particularly the DUP under the leadership of Dr Paisley, did much to keep the pot boiling. However, we would not have had devolution if unionists had all displayed “a reluctance to accept that the other side have a valid point of view”.

If the price supporters of the Belfast Agreement have to pay for the return of devolution is, among other things, to shut up about the republican movement’s past at the same time as Sinn Féin is demanding full disclosure on the crimes of other agents in the conflict, then the prospect is even bleaker than the one painted by Alex Kane. – Yours, etc,


Emeritus Professor

of Irish Politics,

University of Ulster,


Co Antrim.