Out of the West
More sympathy, but no China crisis

Bertie Ahern is in China to see if he can rustle up a few quid for Irish business. Nothing wrong with that – the Chinese do very well out of this island, thank you very much, while the economic benefits to Dublin of Sino-Hibernian commerce are altogether more modest.

Back home, all this week Bertie’s colleagues have been very exercised by Mitchel McLaughlin’s remarks on Questions & Answers about Jean McConville. The Sinn Féin chairman was asked whether he believed that the shooting of Mrs McConville was a crime and he replied: “No, I do not.” He added a short time later that he held that belief because “it happened in the context of conflict.”

The brouhaha stirred up by the exchange is another cynically manufactured attempt to stem the electoral advance of Sinn Féin, and has little or nothing to do with pity, sorrow or sympathy. There’s not a single politician on this island who didn’t already know that republicans – the IRA, Sinn Féin, whatever – will never accept that the conflict that we’re emerging from was a campaign of mass law-breaking. And so those who are concerned at the rise and rise of Sinn Féin decided some time ago that while republicans were rock solid on the general principle that they were engaged in a war and not a criminal conspiracy, they were vulnerable in terms of some of the specific acts that were committed during that war. And so it was that the case of Jean McConville became a matter for revulsion and righteous indignation, not in the days and weeks after she was abducted, not even during the dark years when her ten orphaned children children were passed from one institution to another, but only after the 1994 cessation.

A single act, or indeed a series of acts, may have been ill-advised, wrong, brutal or vicious (take your pick), but those acts do not render a war unjust or criminal in the minds of those who were prosecuting it, or to those who were championing it. Mitchel McLaughlin would have been well advised not to answer the question in the way that he was invited to, but he was not betraying callousness, merely articulating a core republican principle, if on somebody else’s terms.

A senior British military figure, Brigadier Gordon Kerr, stood up in court in 1990 to give evidence on behalf of Brian Nelson, whose job it was to set up Catholics for assassination. Not only did he not brand Nelson a criminal, Kerr sang his praises and described him as a brave man. Those currently so exercised about Mitchel McLaughlin remained, and continue to remain, quiet about this. Official Ireland doesn’t lose much sleep over Jean McConville or her family. If it did it would never have sat down with Sinn Féin while her body was lying cold and lonely in an unmarked grave and while the IRA refused to give her up. I’ll go further and say that this righteous indignation must repel not only me, but even members of the RUC and UDR who were killed by the IRA during the conflict. Some of the deaths they suffered were every bit as horrific – if not more so – than that of Jean McConville: blown up in cars with toddlers beside them; abducted and hung upside down in cattle sheds in Co Louth before being stripped and shot. But even though the establishment parties in the south are agreed that the IRA campaign was wrong, you won’t see any of them, not one, speaking passionately on behalf of a Fermanagh UDR man or a Tyrone peeler because of the widespread and growing perception in the south that the IRA’s actions were, if not laudable, then at least understandable. But the murder of a mother-of-ten from the Falls Road serves a political purpose whereas the slaughter up a boreen of an elderly milkman who liked to play soldiers at the weekend does not. In the Irish Republic, the UDR and RUC are the dead whose names may not be spoken and whose stories can never be heard. The inescapable logic of holding up the shooting of a single mother as the prime example of why the IRA’s campaign was bad, is that it might not just have been so bad had the boys confined themselves to ambushing RUC reservists. But this screaming hypocrisy is ignored because the political pay-off is considered to be worth it.

The signs that politicians in the south are jockeying for position ahead of the next Dáil election are all there: coalition permutations are mooted; candidates are ratified or shafted; Bertie reinvents himself; TV and radio talk shows get animated and interesting; and Jean McConville’s memory is once more evoked. It happened before the last general election, it happened before the Europeans and the locals. How many of these people who are standing up now for Jean McConville spoke up for her or her children down through those dark years, only the McConville family can say.

Meanwhile, a third of the Irish cabinet are in China in search of money. That’s the same China which murdered 1,000 students in Tianenmen Square in 1989. That’s the same China which pretends that its terrifying AIDS pandemic does not exist and jails those who try to do something about. The same China which executes more people – many of them in public – than the rest of the world put together. The same China which executes children. The same China which punishes theft and arson with a bullet in the back of the head. The same China which puts human rights campaigners in concentration camps alongside those who have sent off-message emails.

I’m not saying that the Irish cabinet shouldn’t be there, I’m simply pointing out a global truth of which the Jean McConville case is a telling microcosm: that governments will forgive a lot, but only if it suits them.

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