‘Up the Ra’: David Cullinane never stood amid the gore of a bombing
My Troubles experiences have left me with a distaste for battle cries from a safe distance
The young are waiting. So are the rest of us, but it is the impatience for change of a new generation of voters that has convulsed Irish politics. It is they, more than any other group, who propelled Sinn Féin to the doorstep of government.
A generation born after the Belfast Agreement voted for a party that was once the most toxic political brand in the state. Remember the 1980s and the reflexive turning away when bearded men came selling An Phoblacht in pubs, when the radio rolled out the names, places and circumstances of the latest atrocity in Northern Ireland and the “Heavy Gang” of the Special Branch bashed suspected “subversives” (a word that has vanished from our national lexicon) with enthusiasm while a grateful population prayed the madness would not spread south? It was another country. And even for those of us who lived there it can be difficult to remember its strange customs.
Cullinane's victory speech was like a flashback to a Wolfe Tones concert in the 1970s
For the young there is no past to be remembered. There is only the now of homelessness and anger over the snout-in-the-trough politics that broke the country.
Sinn Féin represents a new coalition of the angry and the hopeful. The people who made it the largest party in the Dáil did not vote for the memory of republican martyrs or for the territorial redemption of the north. This was bread-and-butter politics with the merest drizzle of nationalism.
Mary Lou McDonald’s political instincts were honed in Dublin, not in west Belfast or south Armagh. In the Republic, the violent past is to be determinedly erased or else mythologised. Several of the party’s new TDs have spoken of the IRA past as “history”. Openly tribal displays are discouraged.
Consider the shock when Waterford TD, David Cullinane, shouted “Up the Ra” in his victory speech. It was like a flashback to a Wolfe Tones concert in the 1970s and was dismissed by McDonald as “a distraction”.
But what was more significant was what Cullinane said just before his rebel yell, when he displayed a poor grasp of recent republican history.
To the bitter-enders of the dissident movement, the sight of David Cullinane shouting 'Up the Ra' will have been obnoxious
Recalling the hunger strikes of 1981 and the memory of Bobby Sands, he spoke of Sinn Féin’s electoral triumph as a “fantastic moment” for Sands’s family if they were watching. Not quite. The Sands family’s most prominent voice is Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, who has publicly denounced Sinn Féin’s pursuit of electoral politics.
At Bobby Sands’s mother’s funeral in 2018 Sands-McKevitt turned on the Sinn Féin/IRA leadership, accusing them of breaching the family’s trust. To the bitter-enders of the dissident movement, the sight of David Cullinane shouting “Up the Ra” will have been obnoxious, for very different reasons than those felt by the victims of the IRA.
I don’t know if Cullinane ever heard a shot fired in anger, or stood amid the gore of a bombing, or if he has seen the mess a high-velocity round makes of the human head. These are things that happened when he was growing up in peace in Waterford. They happened to Catholics and Protestants, civilians and combatants, nationalists, loyalists, paramilitaries and security force members. They happened in my time and in his. I saw much of what I have described above – in the North and in many subsequent wars – and it left me with an abiding distaste of slogans shouted far from the battleground.
And on each anniversary of the Belfast Agreement I give thanks to those – including leaders of Cullinane’s party – who had the courage to bring the conflict to an end.
This may not be the moment that Sinn Féin enters government. It is possible that the parties of the Civil War may reach an accommodation that shuts out those promising a radical alternative. But McDonald’s time will come. If not now, then surely in the near future.
But the IRA past is not history, at least not in the sense of something that has vanished into an unmarked grave never to be heard from again, or something that gets a yearly run-out at various respectably attended parades on both sides of the Border.
The cause for which the IRA fought, and for which dissident republicans would still kill, has not been achieved, as Bernadette Sands-McKevitt would be quick to remind us.
However much Sinn Féin enjoys being welcomed as the left-wing alternative, the party will not wish to surrender its republican credentials to the dissidents.
Havoc and heartbreak
As a general rule humility does not come easily to politicians, but especially to those confronted with the havoc and heartbreak caused by 30 years of violence in which their predecessors were deeply enmeshed.
Defensiveness, mythologising or simply refusing to engage are the reflexive responses. Whether or not she becomes taoiseach in the next few weeks – and it looks increasingly unlikely – Mary Lou McDonald has the opportunity to change that. Her performance since the election has been surefooted, and she is surely in a strong position to set in motion a critical examination of the past.
If she can lead republicanism into an honest accommodation with history, McDonald will be thanked for generations to come
Which is why “Up the Ra” really matters. She could become the first republican leader in Irish history to say that we must speak all the truths of war and not just those that damn our enemies. This period of centenaries reminds us well of the absence of honesty in the wake of the War of Independence and the Civil War. Our new state groaned under the weight of suppressed trauma and buried lies.
This present generation will laud the Sinn Féin leader if she can create a more just economic dispensation. But if she can lead republicanism into an honest accommodation with history, McDonald will be thanked for generations to come.
Fergal Keane is the author of Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love published by Harper Collins and is a senior foreign correspondent with the BBC