It says much for the extreme and unforgiving nature of mainstream unionism or British separatist politics on this island, that a relatively moderate speech by Arlene Foster, the leader of the hard-right Democratic Unionist Party, can be transformed by the press in Ireland and the United Kingdom into a Mandela-like gesture of peace and reconciliation. The weekend address by the DUP boss to the Killarney Economic Conference in Kerry has become the subject of eulogies among the proxy-unionists in the Irish media, more for what it didn’t say than what it did.
Gone was the militant, “no surrender” tone of recent years, replaced instead with a far more conciliatory air. Enough, at least, for the Fermanagh MLA to be recast overnight as the harbinger of yet another new dawn of pro-union outreach to the nationalist community, north and south of the UK-imposed border. But as Ken Maginnis might say, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and it remains to be seen if the former first minister will follow through on what her colleagues and PR people are representing as a brave gesture of goodwill (noting her arduous five hour journey from her home in one part of the country to a luxury hotel in another part of the country to make her “dignified” speech).
Of course, being Ireland, with the sun must come a little rain, and the ex-head of the rival Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, represented the distant rumble of thunder last week, issuing apocalyptic warnings of a “backlash” by the pro-union minority on the island if they don’t get their own way in any future Brexit deals between the United Kingdom and the European Union. According to the Irish Times, the former UUP MP claimed that he didn’t:
“…want to suggest that there’s a danger of violence from loyalist paramilitaries. But do bear in mind that movement in that direction is going to have a political consequence.”
Of course, by “loyalist paramilitaries” Trimble means British terrorists (except, in unionist eyes, it’s the Irish who have the “terrorists”). And by “movement”, he means any agreement between the democratically elected national governments in Dublin and London over the future of the UK-administered Six Counties which fails to gain the approval of the pro-union community in the disputed region. After all, unionists will not tolerate the wrong type of democracy.
Talking of disputes, I have no idea if the Sinn Féin MP, Barry McElduff, deliberately set out to taunt the unionist minority in the country with a rather inane tweet on the 5th of January, possibly referencing the infamous Kingsmill Massacre of that same month in 1976. The incident saw the murder of ten civilians near the eponymous village in County Armagh in a carefully planned ambush almost certainly carried out by volunteers of the South Armagh Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. The slaughter came in response to a litany of killings by the pro-British Ulster Volunteer Force, in particular the murder of six members of the Reavey and O’Dowd families, including a teenager and pensioner, the day before.
The latter killings were the work of the UVF’s long-lived Glenanne Gang, a terror faction composed of former and serving British policemen and soldiers operating in mid-Ulster. During its eight-year reign of terror, the death squad took the lives of over 120 men, women and children, assisted by the UK Forces, particularly the Royal Ulster Constabulary or RUC, the controversial local counterinsurgency police. The deaths at Kingsmill caused a prolonged halt to its activities in the counties of Armagh, Down and Tyrone, justifying the retaliatory deaths in some eyes. However, whatever the reasons for the 1976 ambush, or its outcome, it is difficult to see the dreadful event as anything other than a war crime. Which makes the Barry McElduff tweet, if purposefully framed to cause hurt and offence, all the more reprehensible.
After two weeks of dithering and excuse-making the Tyrone politician has now resigned in no small measure of disgrace from Sinn Féin, while the DUP chief, Arlene Foster, is posing as a sort of northern F W de Klerk, with the relatives of the slain men at Kingsmill justifiably having their voices heard after too many years of being left out in the post-Troubles’ cold. However, the Reavey and O’Dowd families, as in 1976, remain silenced, the victims of the wrong type of massacre. In Britain’s legacy colony on the island of Ireland, its not just the living who are segregated but also the dead.