Tuesday 10 March 2009

A Pause for Thought

Politician 1: First, I would like to express my condolences to the families of the soldiers killed in etc., etc., etc.

Politician 2: I would like to add my voice to the sentiments expressed by the Right Honourable gentleman... and so on.

Sinn Fein: Erm... well... hang on, let me think about this for a few hours.

The weekly roll call of deaths of soldiers, commiserated over at Prime Ministers questions unceasingly for the past few years is a cause of sadness for at least two reasons. By far the greater of these lies in the misery of those deaths itself, but a lesser consideration is the increasing valuelessness of the statements themselves, metamorphosing from genuine expressions of shock to automatic reactions which seem, however unjustly, that they could have been muttered involuntarily by the politician’s lips as he snoozed.

Death has always been surrounded by a certain amount of etiquette – termed mourning when applied at a more personal level – whose purpose is to save us from having to think too much at a difficult time. Doing what tradition dictates should be done, rather than deciding for ourselves what should be done, immunises us from committing gaffs at a time when we are unlikely to be thinking clearly and when any faux pas could be more hurtful than usual. We don’t have to consider which of our neckties will best express are true feelings at the funeral, since we know that the rule is to wear a black tie.

The rules today are far more scant than they were a hundred years ago, but there are still rules, and the fact that they change over time is not a problem as long as they do so slowly enough for everyone to keep abreast of them. The most famous counterexample was twelve years ago, after the death of Princess Diana, when Buckingham Palace followed established etiquette by not flying the Royal Standard when the Queen was not in residence. The fickle crowd, led by the People’s Prime Minister, decided to make up its own rules of mourning – which I suppose is fair enough – and then was enraged that Her Majesty hadn’t somehow managed to guess what the new rules were – which isn’t.

The increasing tendency for politicians commiserate and/or condemn at every death that comes about in war or through terrorism is something different. It’s a form of slow inflation which, whether we like it or loathe it, we are at least all well aware of. Although the sentiments can be taken for granted, it’s still a matter of form that they should be given voice.

Thus if any politician fails to join in the chorus at such a time, it jars.  And if with the politician in question those sentiments cannot be taken for granted, eyebrows are raised, and raised high.

So when Sinn Fein this weekend took fourteen hours to make any comment on the murders of two British soldiers at a barracks in Northern Ireland, it was a perfect opportunity for the press to beat the Republicans at their own game, by fighting yesterday’s battles.

I think we can all agree that most of Sinn Fein’s leadership are pretty unsavoury characters. Most were involved to some degree in terrorism, and even when dealing in politics, they have not been averse to, say, persuading their comrades to starve themselves to death to further their own political ends. Circumstances have changed, but the personalities have not. They were not ‘nice people’ then and, to many observers, their failure to step into line with other politicians and quickly condemn the murders demonstrates that they are not ‘nice people’ now. And thank heavens for that.

Only Nixon could go to China, and only Adams could go to Stormont. Well not quite – only Adams could go to Stormont and have the hope of bringing anyone with him. Any more extreme and he wouldn’t have wanted to try to be part of a power-sharing government; any more moderate and he would have been happy to lead a life of obscurity in the SDLP.

That’s not to say that the current Sinn Fein leadership has deliberately placed itself in this ‘balanced’ position, disguising its true beliefs (that may be the case, but if it is, we shouldn’t really care). Clearly there are others out there with more moderate and more extreme views, but for that very reason, they don’t emerge as leaders. The leaders of Sinn Fein, whether by accident or design, are at precisely the point in the political spectrum where they are able to represent Republicanism. That doesn’t mean we have to like them, but it does been they’re our best bet to deliver and maintain peace.

And that, of course, is what the Real IRA (along with the Continuity IRA) is trying to disprove. If Sinn Fein can’t keep violent Republicans in check, then what’s the point of them? The majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly may pretend to listen politely to Sinn Fein’s opinions on Education and Agriculture, but the real reason that they’re allowed in is the fear that if they weren’t a part of the Assembly they’d be trying to blow it up. Innocent soldiers and police officers may be the victims, but the target is the Sinn Fein leadership.

Thus Sinn Fein’s reaction to the murders on Saturday was fourteen hours of circumspection. They know just how dangerous and fickle Republican terrorists can be – they only need to look in a mirror. Whatever discussions and consultations took place during that time, and between whatever unsavoury characters, their goal was to produce a reaction that best allowed them to remain in power. And having them in power is what we should all want, however it may make our flesh creep. An instant condemnation might have made them appear a little more likeable, but they are not there to be liked – they’re there to bring the vast majority Republican extremists with them. If that takes fourteen hours of silence, then it’s a price worth paying. You think you could have done it quicker?

So it may be a bit a fun for journalists to get Sinn Fein representatives to tie themselves in linguistic knots trying to condemn – but not too much – terrorist murders, and I doubt whether it’s got any more chance of doing harm than of doing good. But the day that Gerry Adams or Martin McGuiness does speak out quickly and unequivocally against all political violence is the day he loses his constituency, and it will all be over - one way or another.

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