The manner in which Sinn Féin leaders flouted social distancing during the funeral of IRA leader Bobby Storey has attracted widespread criticism, but the more sinister feature of the event was the paramilitary trappings that put the true nature of the republican movement on open display.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has been widely criticised in recent months by commentators and even some of his own TDs for expressing moral revulsion at the notion of Fianna Fáil doing a coalition deal with Sinn Féin. He has been accused of being obsessed by the past and being out of touch with public opinion in the Republic but the Storey funeral provided ample justification for his position.
It was no accident that Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Adams walked behind the coffin of the IRA leader widely credited with masterminding one of the biggest bank robberies in UK history, never mind a string of violent IRA operations.
Sinn Féin has never sought to hide its relationship with the IRA but it has attracted little media comment
The account of his career by Irish Times Northern Editor Gerry Moriarty is essential reading for anybody who wants to understand the inextricable links between Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA.
These links are not simply an overhang from the past, as Sinn Féin apologists try to pretend, but they go to the heart of the movement and what it is all about. Sinn Féin was the mouthpiece for the IRA during the long years of violence and it continues to fulfil that role.
Over the past decade or more, Bobby Storey and other IRA leaders from Belfast became a fixture around Leinster House. Most of the TDs and journalists who work in the complex had no idea who they were, assuming they were just more of the many Sinn Féin foot soldiers who began to frequent the complex.
Some years ago one of the few mainstream politicians with serious knowledge of the republican movement and the personnel who occupy its leadership positions remarked, only half in jest, that the IRA army council must be meeting in Leinster House on a regular basis so frequent were the visits of Bobby Storey and his associates to the building.
‘Up the ’Ra’
Sinn Féin has never sought to hide its relationship with the IRA but it has attracted little media comment, apart from occasions when it became so obvious it could not be ignored. The raucous scenes at the Dublin count centre when convicted IRA bomb maker Dessie Ellis was elected last February provided one reminder as did the jubilant “Up the ’Ra” proclamation from David Cullinane celebrating his election as a TD in Waterford.
The Bobby Storey funeral is another reminder not simply that the IRA has not gone away but that its army council is the ruling body of Sinn Féin. Clearly some voters have no problem with that but the episode should alert the wider electorate to what a vote for Sinn Féin actually means.
As for social distancing, the behaviour of mourners at the Storey funeral was simply another demonstration by republicans of their belief that they are above the law. It was in marked contrast to the muted dignity at the recent State funeral for the murdered Garda Det Colm Horkan.
President Higgins and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar were among the many mourners unable to attend because of social distancing guidelines. Instead the President paid remote tribute to the killed garda by sounding the peace bell at Áras an Uachtaráin as the funeral started, while Varadkar went to Garda headquarters to show his solidarity by observing a minute’s silence in company with members of the force.
Of course the fallout from the Storey funeral will probably be forgotten quickly in the Irish political world but the episode should strengthen the resolve of the coalition parties to stand up to Sinn Féin and refuse to be intimidated by the inevitable assault they will face over every possible issue in the years ahead.
Dominating the narrative
One of the failures of the Fine Gael-led governments since 2011 was the way they allowed Sinn Féin to dominate the media narrative in one controversy after another. Whether it was on serious issues such as housing, or relatively minor ones such as Maria Bailey’s silly compensation claim, the government found itself on the defensive, day in and day out.
Partly this was due to the fact all of the other parties in the last Dáil were ranged against it, but it meant that simplistic and unworkable solutions propounded by the Opposition on all sorts of issues from housing to health were accepted as gospel and the government got no credit for its actual achievements.
The government’s performance during the Covid-19 emergency changed that perception quite dramatically, as its record approval rating in the recent Irish Times poll showed. The challenge facing Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar in their historic new departure is to build on that renewed level of trust.
Many difficult decisions will have to be made in the coming months and the Government will have to find a way of explaining them to the public in an honest and coherent fashion. If it can’t do that the country may well find itself being ruled by the IRA army council after the next election.