Pat Leahy: DUP can see the future, but cannot face it

Developing crisis within unionism cannot leave southern politics untouched

‘MacDonagh and MacBride/And Connolly and Pearse/Now and in time to be, Wherever green is worn,/Are changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.”

Yeats’s words are set to the haunting tones of a Gaelic lament. Images of the ruins of Dublin in 1916 alternate with images of republican funerals during the Northern conflict, of marches bearing images of the hunger strikers, of shots fired over coffins by men in balaclavas and black berets.

The voiceover begins: “Seamus McElwain . . . was born in an area steeped in resistance to British rule in Ireland . . . ”

The video tribute to the IRA volunteer, who was killed by British soldiers in 1986, is a slick and professional production. It is also thoroughly authentic in its presentation of the republican view of the Northern conflict, and of its centrality to the identity of Sinn Féin in the North. Anyone wondering if Mary Lou McDonald was really trying to apologise to the British royal family for the murder of Lord Louis Mountbatten should watch it. Anyone wondering why senior Sinn Féin politicians flouted Covid-19 restrictions by holding a funeral rally for IRA enforcer Bobby Storey should watch it.


“Seamus took the war to the British . . . At one time, soldiers operating along the Border were so afraid of him that they carried a picture of Seamus on the butt of their rifles . . . He was the most feared volunteer of the last 30 years in the south Fermanagh region.”

The Sinn Féin narrative of a noble and justified struggle for human rights quietly advances in the South

Describing McElwain as an “intelligent, humorous, engaging young man” widely held in “huge esteem”, the local Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy presented the final section of last week’s video tribute. “The delivery of the Republic is within our grasp,” he proclaimed.

The contrast with McDonald’s conciliatory noises after the death of Prince Philip is a stark one. But Sinn Féin’s constant recalibrating of language, its conflation of the struggle for independence across 100 years with the Provisional IRA’s “armed struggle” in the North, its efforts to frame questions about the IRA campaign as part of an establishment obsession with the past – these are part of a conscious and careful political strategy in the South. It is different to the message in the North, because the party knows it is speaking to two different audiences; and it carefully chooses its messages for its audiences. It does so skilfully, and effectively.

But there are more than two audiences on the island. There is another audience in the North: the audience against whom McElwain’s operations were directed.

McElwain, we can assume, is not held in “great esteem” by it. It includes Arlene Foster who believes he was part of the IRA unit that tried to kill her father, a part-time RUC reservist. He was shot in the head, but survived. It includes the protestants and unionists of the Fermanagh Border areas, many of whom believe that the IRA engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing in their area.

The Sinn Féin narrative of a noble and justified struggle for human rights quietly advances in the South. To many of the young voters who comprise a chunk of Sinn Féin’s base, it is all ancient history anyway. Efforts to remind voters of the “armed struggle” by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil tend to fall flat, but as McDonald’s deeply uncomfortable interview on RTÉ last week showed, it is still nervy territory for the party’s new generation.

In the North, the Sinn Féin narrative is both blunter and long in the ascendant. Its success, home and abroad, is driving the DUP to public distraction.

The current nervous breakdown in the DUP, and the wider crisis of unionism, is rooted in many things. But chief among them is a fear of a future in which it is outfought by Sinn Féin, outmanoeuvred by Dublin and – worst of all – abandoned by London.

Recently, British political commentator Rachel Sylvester recalled her first meeting with Boris Johnson at Westminster. Johnson “plonked himself down at the desk next to mine and declared that he was writing about Northern Ireland. ‘Remind me,’ he said, ‘which ones are the orange johnnies?’ ”

Irish politics will have to accept Sinn Féin's ancestor worship; it is integral to the party's identity

The DUP struggles to know where to turn. The party might not like co-operating with Sinn Féin in the government of Northern Ireland, but even the most blinkered DUP trenchermen must realise by now that Boris Johnson’s administration isn’t very interested in governing the place. Yet though the party can see the future, it cannot face it.

The crisis of unionism cannot leave southern politics untouched. The prospect of Sinn Féin leading the Northern Executive next year as largest party will bring an obvious focus on to the possibility of the party simultaneously leading government in Dublin. Would the Seamus McElwain commemorations become State events, or at least events honoured by the presence of ministers of the government? That – and what it represents – is the smouldering fear of unionists, beyond Brexit, beyond Border checks, beyond the Irish language and all the rest of it. I think it is far fetched to be honest. But the fear is real.

A month ago, before the loyalist riots, Peter Robinson wrote that “unionists are more alienated than I have seen at any time in my 50 years in politics”.

Many people might read Robinson’s thoughts and think: not our problem. But for those who want to see a united Ireland, they certainly are your problem.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the hunger strikes, a period of supreme political and emotional importance for republicans. It will be interesting to see how Sinn Féin proposes to commemorate them.

Irish politics will have to accept Sinn Féin’s ancestor worship; it is integral to the party’s identity. But the party will have to realise how the outside world sees it – including their “orange johnny” neighbours in the North.