We Say
Another hurdle to clear

Few would have imagined that ten years after the first IRA ceasefire, the future of the peace process would depend on Sinn Féin accepting the PD view of history.

But that's exactly what Tanáiste Mary Harney demanded yesterday when she insisted there would be no place in politics for Sinn Féin unless they "stated clearly" that the murder of Jean McConville was a crime.

Thus the price of participation for Sinn Féin in Government north and south isn't decommissioning, the Mitchell Principles, the retirement of the IRA or even agreeing to share power with Paisleyites. Now they have another hurdle to clear: brand your own campaign as criminal.

That's a Rubicon republicans aren't going to cross.

But they aren't alone in clinging firmly to their own interpretation of history; even as they engage in the difficult work of making peace with old enemies.
The Labour Party has no plans to expel its members with roots in the armed revolutionaries of the Official IRA over the execution of Ranger Best.

The British aren't close to admitting that the shooting of schoolgirls Julie Livingstone and Carol Ann Kelly was a crime.

The loyalists are more likely to 'celebrate' Greysteel and Loughinisland in gory wall murals than declare their campaign criminal.

And the unionists queueing up at the doors of power in Stormont are never, never, never going to acknowledge that the creation of Northern Ireland and the subjugation of its nationalist minority was a criminal conspiracy from the word go.

How come then that those sworn enemies could not only replace war, war with jaw, jaw but were set for an historic compromise before Christmas? Because they all concur on one thing: the past, unlike the future, is a subject on which the parties to the conflict will always disagree.

The killing of Jean McConville was an abomination. The laws of the land decreed it a crime. But whether those who carried out that grim deed viewed themselves as criminals is another issue altogether. In fact, it’s a core republican belief — eventually accepted by British and Irish authorities after lengthy prison protests — that they were in fact soldiers at war. Even wars, of course, have codes of conduct and it would be a foolish person indeed who would say those rules were never broken by the IRA — or the other participants.

Was every IRA member who picked up a gun in a society where peaceful change had been stymied a criminal? And was everyone who provided a safe house for republicans on the run commiting a crime? The law says they were.

The PDs believe that to be the case. The majority of nationalists, however, especially those in the frontline in areas such as Ardoyne and Crossmaglen, beg to differ.

Until now, the peace process was constructed on allowing the former parties to the conflict to make their own reconciliation with the past. All that is now changed with the insistence of the PDs that there can only be one take on history: theirs.

In political terms, that's a great strategy for the PDs and the recent opinion polls do suggest that Sinn Féin is going to take a PR battering if it continues to stand over every act the IRA carried out in the midst of a brutal and horrific conflict.

However, that's Sinn Féin's prerogative. The voters can give their own verdict on that stance in due course. What can't be tolerated is that the past be elevated above the future in the next critical phase of the peace process. To do so will lead only to stalemate and deadlock — which may play well with the PD constituency — but which will only lead to despair and heartbreak in constituencies which bore the brunt of 30 years of conflict.

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