The hysteria gripping the political duopoly that has held onto the levers of power in Ireland for most of the last century as it struggles with its biggest challenge at the ballot box is extraordinarily telling of how things have been run in this country since the democratic détente reached in the late 1920s and ‘30s between the two largest factions to emerge from the bloodshed of the Civil War. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael seem almost affronted by the knowledge that a quarter of the electorate chose to support Sinn Féin at the general election, placing the smallest faction to survive the counter-revolutionary era at the head of a centre-left charge against the old centre-right order. Especially the sort of Hibernian neoliberalist order that has been so ruinously in vogue with FF and FG over the last twenty years and more.
While discussions about the former or current association of SF with the largely defunct (Provisional) Irish Republican Army are entirely legitimate, as are questions about the actions of the Republican Movement as a whole during the era of the so-called Troubles, they cannot exist in isolation from the broader history of the conflict and its origins. The “Provos” did not create the war in the north of Ireland. The war in the north of Ireland created the “Provos”. That is simply a statement of historical fact. The part played by the Provisionals in perpetuating and worsening the communal and insurrectionist violence is another question. But the ground zero of the latest Troubles was in the month of May 1966 and the murder of seventy-seven year old Matilda Gould in an arson attack on a “Catholic” pub in Belfast by several former British servicemen turned gunmen whipped up into a killing rage by Unionist leaders. That was followed by the deaths of John Scullion and eighteen year old Peter Ward in more attacks by the same gang of fanatics with the Ulster Volunteer Force. The “Provos”, the well-known faces and names that dominated the newspapers and television screens for the next thirty or forty years, were not to appear until December 1969 and in most cases not until well into the 1970s, and after the United Kingdom deployed its quickly partisan troops to its legacy colony on the island of Ireland.
However, one does not need to travel as far back as the mid-1960s to challenge the one-sided and wilfully ignorant narrative being promulgated by Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar, and their reactionary allies in our nominally “free” press. It is not so long ago that elected members of Official Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Official IRA, were sitting in Dáil Éireann under the rebranded title of the Workers’ Party following a period of internal change and reform. Despite a few years of enforced political purgatory by the Establishment, and one that was far, far shorter than that now expected of the Provisionals’ Sinn Féin, the WP was eventually accepted into the electoral mainstream.
Indeed, activists and sympathisers for the Workers’ Party purposefully infiltrated the media in the 1970s following the bitter and occasionally bloody split with the rival “Provos”, eventually taking unquestioned positions of influence and recruitment within RTÉ and national newspapers like The Sunday Independent and The Irish Times. Positions maintained in some cases to the present day and partially explaining the almost deranged levels of animosity and vitriol directed by sections of the press towards Mary Lou McDonald’s resurgent party. In due course many of these men and women coalesced around an ersatz faction of the WP that broke away to form the short-lived Democratic Left before the proven tactics of entryism took them into the leadership of the Labour Party, some former Official Sinn Féin members ultimately finding seats in government under the flags of convenience provided by the DL and LP, bringing a few of their more shadowy associates with them.
Yet despite the above events we have somehow arrived at a situation where a series of public meetings planned by Sinn Féin for several locations around the country have been transformed by a handful of right-wing politicians and allied journalists, some with their own suspect motives and histories, into “rallies” that draw comparison with Donald Trump or torchlit gatherings at Nuremberg in the 1930s. Meanwhile the Green Party’s announcement of a similar series of rallies is treated as politics-as-normal and elided from most media reports, the planned demonstrations avoiding any form of opprobrium by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who require the GP as a potential partner in coalition government.
As already stated, questions about the legacy of the Troubles, including the continued existence of an Army Council and the ghost structure of an Irish Republican Army, and the relationship of both with contemporary Sinn Féin are perfectly justified. But the near-mania among a majority of the press, the presence of politically-motivated actors and those with dubious loyalties, the lack of a diversity of opinions, and the dominance of those opinions echoing and bolstering the talking points of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are just as much a legacy of the Troubles at the start and the end of the 20th century as any controversies about the “Up the RA” and “Tiocfaidh ár Lá”. It is equally legitimate for the citizenry to question and challenge a generation of journalists whose own selfish needs and self-interests wed them to networks that have monopolised power for decades and who wilfully disdain and discount those democratic outcomes, those votes, they disagree with.
A press that speaks with one voice, the voice of “Official Ireland” and the “Continuity State”, is just as corrosive to the Republic we all cherish as any political heirlooms of the Long War, real or imagined.