By Damien Kiberd (for Daily Ireland)
Some time ago ex-Taoiseach Albert Reynolds told me of going to the funeral of one of his Longford constituents in the early 1990s. The deceased was from a strong Fine Gael family in the area so Fianna Fail man Reynolds did not push himself to the top of the church, but sat quietly about half way up. He was quite startled just before the funeral began when a middle-aged man politely asked him to leave. He was the wrong political colour.
Here was a quite bizarre situation. The Civil War had ended nearly seventy years previously yet it was still causing passions to run high in North Longford.
I am telling this story because there was clearly a great sense apparent at the weekend Sinn Féin Ard Fheis that the party was being “spun along” for years and years by various forces in the peace process. The Presidential Address contained an unbelievably Byzantine account of recent dealings between the two governments and the parties. That passage described only a small part of what has happened since the ceasefire of 1994 - an eleven year period.
Mitchel McLaughlin’s speech was perhaps most pointed and reflected a belief that the whole process had been “hollowed out”. As he put it rather pointedly, the only substantial pillar of the peace process that remained in place seven years after 1998 was the IRA ceasefire itself.
One could understand it if his abrasive comments reflect a severe amount of frustration. UUP spokespersons have been saying in recent weeks that they don’t foresee entering a power-sharing arrangement that involves Sinn Féin for the foreseeable future. The wages and conditions of elected Sinn Féin representatives at Stormont have been progressively whittled down. The prospect of power sharing has evaporated certainly until late in 2005, possibly well into the following year.
With the party drowned in a sea of condemnations from political and media sources the bottom-line to emerge from Gerry Adams’ address on Saturday was that the party press on with trying to reassemble the peace process, as well - of course - as seeking more votes in upcoming sets of elections. Adams scarcely referred at all to Britain during his hour-long speech: this is itself a bizarre commentary on the way the goalposts have been adjusted in recent times. The primary focus of attack was the Dublin Justice Minister who has been strutting his stuff rather a lot in recent weeks.
Adams was forced to go out of his way to reject claims that republicans consider the Army Council of the IRA to be the legitimate government of Ireland. This followed weeks in which the media have been fed stories in which they are told that the goal of the Republican movement is the overthrow of the state. Weeks in which McDowell and others referred to the same movement as being characterised by totalitarianism, a type of Marxist Leninist military-political complex. McDowell had even claimed a day prior to the Ard Fheis that the IRA was being converted into a “Gendarmerie”- whatever that means. Presumably these claims are all designed to scare off voters and “cap” the SF vote.
Given the hurricane of abuse being directed at Sinn Féin in the media, party members are in tetchy mood. The problem is that many of the attacks are coming from people whose agenda is to aggravate problems, rather than to solve them. Radio journalists of modest stripe now routinely refuse to allow elected republicans to complete sentences. Dublin politicians sit in studios vying with each other to pile on the odium.
The bitterness of the attack and the scale of it must startle many young SF members new to politics. A whole army of commentators now appears dedicated to attacking the party president, Gerry Adams in particular. They include writers who assemble lengthy tomes which are ostensibly histories but whose underlying agenda is to dissect him and his record. They include commentators who bizarrely attacked him through the 1994-2000 period from a sort of ultra-left perspective but who now apply conventional right-wing arguments to attack him and with venom. They include whole sets of newspapers where desk executives and commentators have made a living by attacking the Provos for decades.
Gerry Adams said on Saturday that the acerbity of the attack was because other people feared that Sinn Féin would take their votes. That’s true but there are other reasons too: old hatreds, festering personal resentments, people who are bugged by the access Sinn Féin got in Washington, London and elsewhere in recent years, maybe even a few old-fashioned spooks out there somewhere who are meddling around, hoping for Sinn Féin to disintegrate and would happily live with the potential consequences. There are people who hate the Sinn Féin leadership... and there are also people who would like to see the party’s wings clipped in its 100th year.
The storm of abuse is not going to go away. It will arguably get worse. And the problem for Sinn Féin is that with much of the centre of the peace process now hollowed out the party’s capacity to ignore the abuse and get on with the work of building new political structures is diminished.
But there is no alternative but to press ahead with building a process affirmed by a huge majority of voters in 1998 by way of referendum. There is no other way. I have a strange feeling that the anti-republican hysteria of recent weeks could backfire. Nobody believes that 340,000 republicans are criminals: every one knows who is solving problems, not creating them. People tend to make wise judgements in the end.