Sinn Féin is biggest obstacle to Irish unity

Disavowal of past violence key to laying moral foundations for united Ireland

Construction of the Maze prison: Sinn Féin is the largest party within Irish nationalism. Its founding members were involved with the Provisional IRA. Some are graduates of the Maze and other prisons. Photograph: Ciaran Donnelly

The cry of the “inevitability” of Irish unity has become so strident in recent times that one might wonder if this is not an attempt to bully and herd public opinion down a one-way bóithrín into the fabled “four green fields”. Historians, and not only historians, are likely to recoil from such a teleological view of Irish history. The future is hardly preordained.

The President, Michael D Higgins, has popularised the concept of “ethical remembering” in the context of commemorating controversial aspects of the Irish past. We might also consider “ethical imagining” in relation to constitutional futures. If a united Ireland is the political end game then, quite apart from the many practical concerns, there are ethical considerations that need to be attended to.

These are fundamental because they embody the values that assure mutual trust and the legitimacy of the new institutions of State. Thus, planning for Irish unity, to invoke another term in vogue, includes laying down the moral foundations for the new constitutional order.

But here’s the problem. The tragedy of the quest for Irish unity is that it is wrapped up in the recent and bloody past of the Troubles. The most prolonged period of inter-communal violence in the North since 1700 is to be found in the final three decades of the last century. Ireland’s 30-years war belongs not to the 17th but the late 20th century. An honest and open dialogue needs to recognise not only that dire fact but acknowledge degrees of responsibility for the vast toll of human suffering left in its wake.


Troubles-related deaths

The principal driver of violence – not the only one of course – was the republican movement in the shape of the Provisional IRA. In round figures, 60 per cent of Troubles-related deaths were due to Irish republicans, 30 per cent to loyalist paramilitaries, and 10 per cent to the British security forces. The main killing agency was the Provisional IRA, which was responsible for half of all violent deaths. The IRA’s bombing campaign targeted town centres and businesses which tended to be Protestant-owned. The sectarian imprint runs deep.

Set against this tangled backdrop of terror and division, it is almost impossible to see how unionists might contentedly cohabit with nationalists in a united Ireland. We should recognise of course that the armed campaign of Protestant paramilitaries was also brutal, bigoted and lacking a democratic mandate. Interestingly, the remnants of orange paramilitary factions, often mired in criminality, have been sidelined by the unionist electorate. There is no appetite to valorise and elect to public office ex-combatants who have decommissioned their balaclavas.

Not so on the other side of the house. Sinn Féin is the largest party within Irish nationalism. More importantly, its founding members were intimately involved with the Provisional IRA. Some of its most influential members are graduates of the Maze and other prisons on this island. It is, therefore, uniquely placed to offer a public and collective apology for its vital role in reproducing the Troubles, year in and year out, decade after decade, since 1970.

A unity drive that is serious about reconciling conflicting ethno-national interests within Ireland needs to face up to the challenge of repudiating the “armed struggle” and ending the celebratory commemorations of bombers, hunger strikers, political prisoners and killers.

Loyalist murderers

A disavowal of past violence is an essential part of laying the moral foundations for a united Ireland. Otherwise, how could former Ulster unionists feel remotely secure? The public apology should not be confined to unionists, however. It should be directed also to moderate northern nationalists, and others, who suffered greatly from an insurrectionary campaign imposed upon them. The main killers of Catholics were of course loyalist murderers but the IRA was responsible for several hundred other Catholic deaths. In addition, as part of a campaign of internal terror, the IRA “kneecapped” or mutilated several thousand young Catholics.

How might a collective apology be given effect? Fortunately, there is a model to hand that has the sanction of the United Nations. A recent UN report, “Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-recurrence”, offers some ethical and practical guidelines. These include “a public statement of remorse or regret related to the wrongful act or acts, or omission, that is delivered with due respect, dignity and sensitivity to the victims”. Especially importantly, it insists on a guarantee of non-recurrence.

Public apologies inevitably relate to the ethical burdens of the past. But they are also forward-looking, as the UN report underlines. They can mark the beginning of a new era of openness and “a break from past cultures of violence”.

Much has been written about the economics and the practicalities of a united Ireland. But the immaterial, it is suggested here, is more material to Irish unity than the material. Unless the moral foundations of any new constitutional arrangement are attended to, then alienation, discontent and civil disturbance are likely to ensue. The values that animated the IRA insurgency threatened Irish democracy, North and South. If these values continue to be normalised within the new political dispensation, then it is hard to see how the apprehensions of sceptical nationalists and moderate unionists can be assuaged, never mind those of hardline loyalists.

But if that is too much to ask, and it may be, then an urgent priority facing those planning for Irish unity are policies and budgets that expand the army and police resources of the Republic of Ireland.

Liam Kennedy is professor of history at Queen's University Belfast. This article is based on a longer academic article for the ARINS Project. See full article at @ARINSProject