Sinn Féin, under the leadership of Adams and McGuinness, pulled off a neat trick, earning praise for their role in ending Northern Irish violence while escaping blame for having caused it in the first place. It makes a lot sense for politicians to accept this little game now decades of appalling violence have ended. But what is politic can also be disingenuous.
To be sure, this picture is by no means black and white. Republicans, and Catholics in general, had faced grave abuse, at the hands of loyalists and of the British army. (In the Falls Curfew, for example, four civilians were shot for doing nothing more than being outside.) I can understand why alienated Catholics were attracted to the IRA, and admire their courage, ingenuity and selflessness. They were daring, dedicated, romantic and wrong. Their goal of a united Ireland was arrogant and absurd as a minority within a minority, and their methods, which included bombs in restaurants and pubs, and murders of young women and old men as well as British soldiers, were abonimable.
Adams and McGuinness earned themselves some credit by accepting negotiations, and dragging their comrades towards a peace settlement. Even if they thought the IRA was doomed militarily, at least Britain was spared the horrors of its death throes. Still, the credit one deserves for ending violence is limited if one has caused it. How much thanks should you give me if I stop punching you?
What disgusts me, even if I respect their political gifts, is the extent to which they have avoided blame. Adams, especially, behaves as if the IRA were always saints and never sinners. Sinn Féin still lament the shooting of IRA members in Gibraltar, which, in fairness, might have been unjustifiable. But no one denies that the IRA men and women were planning to bomb the weekly parade of a military band. Would that have been more legitimate than their killings? I propose that it would have been less.
In one article, in 2012, Adams referred to an event where “two armed British soldiers attacked mourners” but were “overpowered and killed by the IRA”. Corporals Howse and Wood had blundered into a funeral procession when IRA members, enraged by an attack on a funeral three days before, pulled them out of their car, stripped, punched, kicked, shot and stabbed them. A priest who intervened was told to stop or be murdered as well.
I understand why McGuinness is being praised, having died, after a longish life, of natural causes. But I hope we do not forget the people who died young, in violence, for no good reason.