In contemporary Europe, threats to democracy mostly emanate from the right. The likes of Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece resemble nightmares from the 1930s. The crisis in Europe precipitated by the gathering mass movements of people from the Middle East and North Africa is providing such entities with more oxygen and greater impetus, with the potential for ghastly consequences that don’t bear thinking about. Though of course we must, because regrettably it isn’t fanciful any more to speculate about the revival of fascist movements.
In Ireland, the opposite applies. The greatest subversive threats come from the notional left, in the form of Sinn Féin and the IRA. We should perhaps be thankful that Irish so-called republicanism doesn’t pander to anti-immigrant sentiment and isn’t organising pogroms against desperate people trying to come to Ireland, but the movement they represent offers plenty of other things for citizens of the island to be fearful of. A reminder of the fragility of Irish democracy came recently with the murder of Kevin McGuigan and the resultant political fallout, with the Ulster Unionist Party quitting the Northern Ireland executive and the Democratic Unionist Party calling on David Cameron to suspend the devolved NI Assembly in Belfast. At the time of writing, there have been 12 arrests in connection with this murder, which has brought up once again the troublesome political question about the true status of the IRA, a question that has never gone away since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Difficult political issues are frequently characterised by fudge, a preference for “kicking the can down the road” rather than attempting to really resolve a problem. This is understandable in certain contexts in the give and take of daily politics. But fudging is also resorted to in areas of conflict, and it is here where lack of decisive action usually becomes a form of political cowardice. Northern Ireland is an apposite case, in which the “peace process” has been elevated to holy status in some quarters, even though in reality it is a political fudge of a particularly grainy and inconsistent variety, clung to by the British and Irish governments in the belief it is the only alternative to a return to the Troubles, if not outright civil war. The claimed benefits of this peace process include the appearance of cooperation between the main parties in the contrived power-sharing NI executive, a management of the dissident terrorist threat, and a general reduction in violence, even though murders linked to paramilitary activity have regularly occurred since 1998. It is to be acknowledged that the British and Irish governments cooperate nowadays in ways that would have been difficult to imagine for those who remember the days when Margaret Thatcher and Charles Haughey led the two nations. Relations, no doubt helped by €1 billion of weekly trade across the Irish Sea, have never been better. But let us accept that the overarching political framework of the peace process has also played its part here.
However, let us not also be blind to the deleterious effects of this same peace process. One has been the infantilisation of politics in Northern Ireland, as witnessed in the tussles over flags and marches, which would surely be no more than trifling issues in a mature democracy. It is arguable that Britain’s inability to prevent sectarian disharmony within their own jurisdiction – in large measure the effect of emotional and intellectual disconnect on the part of Westminster – is one compelling argument for a united Ireland. On the other hand, the decades long Provo campaign, whose malignant legacy remains palpable to this day and which is strongly connected to the McGuigan murder, is one compelling argument for a lot of Northern Ireland’s inhabitants to continue to resist that happening. The failure of the IRA to disappear, and the distorted moral landscape that engenders, is another critical weakness of this peace process. For not only is the IRA extant, it presides over a criminal empire estimated to be worth up to €800m to €1bn in assets and cash, and evidently still exerts a murderous grip over the neighbourhoods it dominates.
Many compromises to the point of appeasement have been made over to keep Sinn Féin – and by extension, the IRA – on board, as though peace was contingent on electoral success for Sinn Féin. This has been accompanied by a shifty equivocation about links between Sinn Féin and the IRA, and complaints that pointing these links out is driven by party politics, needless to say harmful to the peace process. Many of those working in the media have participated in these egregious acts of political spin, Ireland’s national broadcaster being frequently complicit. It has not only led to the SDLP being long since displaced as the main home for nationalist votes in the North, but has abetted Sinn Féin in its project south of the border as well.
Some journalists liken Sinn Féin to Podemos, Syriza, and other parties countering Official Europe’s disastrous affinity with economic austerity. It is wrong to view Sinn Féin as part of this movement, as many leftist journalists around the world who should know better do. Sinn Féin have opportunistically, and wisely, from their point of view, taken a position against the measures imposed by the troika on Ireland. With Ireland’s Labour Party having for long prioritised its clients in the higher echelons of the Irish Republic’s almost uniquely privileged public sector over the communities it should be representing, and Fianna Fàil rightly discredited for its role in Ireland’s calamitous economic downturn, a historic opportunity has been gifted to Sinn Féin. Their ambition is vast, and has a very long time horizon. They aspire to wielding power on both sides of the border, and with the energetic courting of younger voters, the strategy is clearly to establish a permanent stranglehold on the green and left vote in Ireland.
If they play the democratic game successfully, isn’t that their rightful reward, one might argue? Typically, one would have to say yes, but not in this case. Most countries are bad at historical memory. They prefer to airbrush and sanitise their darker deeds, and put an exaggerated positive spin on the better ones. How malign or harmless this exercise is varies, and depends on the country. In Ireland it carries more acute danger because of the violent origins of the state and its litany of highly contestable founding myths. We are at the beginning of a succession of centenaries of events that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State, and the big one is next year’s 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. 2016 also being a general election year, with Sinn Féin expected to make another electoral breakthrough, the occasion already feels like it is fraught with danger. The attempts to impose skewed versions of history are predictable, because they are always ongoing, and so is the likely continued attempt to draw equivalence between the violence of that era and the Provo terror campaign of the late 20th century. But what will the effect of these efforts be as they are ramped up and introduced to an atmosphere of whipped up national fervour? After all, we are talking about a movement containing many elements that do not appear to genuinely accept the defence forces as the Irish Republic’s sole purveyor of legitimate violence.
What all this bodes for Ireland’s future is hard to foretell, but the possibility that it could be grave and long lasting cannot be discounted. It is a time for democrats and citizens to make common cause, whatever their ideological differences, and be proactive rather than reactive. For as long as this peace process is preserved in its current form, Sinn Féin will extract all the sanitisation value it provides. If they win power outright in either or both jurisdictions, and the IRA – whether as a paramilitary organisation and/or a criminal racket – remains intact, there is every possibility that Ireland could be tipped back into violence.