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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Issue 127: March 2005

Also in this editorial

Sinn Féin: Flying on two wings

It was been a bad couple of months for Sinn Féin. Things began to go downhill with the failure to reach agreement on restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland, then the Northern Bank robbery was firmly linked to the IRA by the British and Irish governments, who also stated that Sinn Féin leadership knew about it beforehand. The killing of Robert McCartney, allegedly by IRA men, raised questions of whether the IRA could act with impunity but also questioned support in key Catholic areas of the North, and this story has continued to develop. The unfolding money laundering saga in the Republic raised further questions about the involvement of the IRA and Sinn Féin in such illegalities. From a nonviolent point of view it may need pointed out that the Northern Bank robbery was carried out with extreme duress - the threat of hostage-taken family members being killed; so this was not a victimless crime.

Have the 'republican movement' been caught trying to have their violent cake and eat it? Undoubtedly. But if illegality was the cause of banishment then half of the Fianna Fail (and some other) councillors in Dublin would have been out on their ear, and Tony Blair and the British government would have been indicted for war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two wrongs do definitely not make one right but it is important to have a sense of perspective; Sinn Féin are not the only ones who have been up to no good. Loyalists too continue their mixed bag of activities, the difference here being that with little electoral support the loyalist paramilitaries and their respective political groupings are not knocking on the doors of Stormont power.

It has also been a case of old habits dying hard. If you believe you are the very embodiment of Ireland, factually or figuratively believing that you alone have the true political analysis and/or apostolic succession from the First Dáil, then you may believe that the ends not only justify the means but that the ends make any means totally justifiable without question. Right and wrong, violence and non-violence, cease to exist in what is really a statist ideology; we may not be the visible state but we are the legitimate state and therefore we are entitled to wield what power we want.

Many people were prepared to give Sinn Féin the benefit of the doubt during a period of transition. While the North is undoubtedly still in transition to internal, democratic self government, it can be said that increasingly people feel the period of the transition from the violent Troubles is over, or certainly should be over. It is, after all, nearly eleven years since the ceasefires and seven years since the Good Friday Agreement. The patience of the public, and the Irish government, has worn mighty thin. The outworking of the Robert McCartney killing indicates once more the power of organised popular opinion, even to force the IRA to take action in expelling some of its members.

You can say that Sinn Féin has been used to flying on two wings. Ever since the days of the hunger strikes at the beginning of the 1980s, the ballot box and the armalite have been those two wings (in other words, Sinn Féin the political party, and the Irish Republican Army as the military muscle). If this bird never flew on one wing then it undoubtedly wanted to continue its competitive advantage through continuing some aspect of those two wings. And some people on one wing did not want to admit their time was up. But the time for having those two wings is now up, says Joe and Josephine Public.

But Sinn Féin does have another possible wing it could add to its body, and we have said this before though in different contexts. When 'the armed struggle' was still the method, Sinn Féin and republican activists did engage in political campaigning on issues of concern. It was quite adept at such political campaigning and organising, the hunger strike issue being the first in modern times where it came to the fore. As the party sought to be considered legit, and its voting strength increased, this campaigning was consigned to the rubbish bin.

But if Sinn Féin rediscovered its radical, community-based campaigning self, seeing any form of nonviolent action as being a legitimate way of acting in a democracy (or proto-democracy in the North), it could add an important dimension to its overall work. While trust would not initially be forthcoming from many other people, if its work on poverty, inclusivity, asylum, anti-racism and so on, was genuine and well-performed, it could earn that trust and add an important dimension for change, not just to the party in its parliamentary role, but also to the whole of society. Party politics can be quite a narrow game; we are suggesting something broader. But for this to work, Sinn Féin would have to be seen to have renounced violence, illegal 'fundraising' and so on.

There is no easy way forward for Sinn Féin in the current crisis it faces. But it will come out of it some way or other. If it chooses to pursue a nonviolent course in its fullness, utilising to its fullest capacity the possibilities of nonviolent organising and campaigning, its faces a bright future and will make a real contribution to building the Ireland of tomorrow. Taking its supporters with it is problematic, but falling between stools as it has been doing recently is not going to help anyone.

Beating ploughshares into arms shares
We wish all the very best to the Pitstop Ploughshares activists reaching the end of their trail to trial on 7th March (see lead item in news section), and our congratulations to them and to all those everywhere who have continued to resist the militarisation of Ireland as it has sought to take its place among the nations of the world involved in the military-industrial complex. There are so many ironies in so many situations in modern Ireland that it is difficult to know where to begin. A former rural country (Ireland), with many ploughshares, at the end of decades of violence in Northern Ireland, progressively turns its ploughshares into swords and rather more modern, and brutal, weapons of war, as indigenous and multinational firms increasingly buy into war equipment profits. And the government of a supposedly neutral country, the Republic, has a totally abject attitude to the world superpower, the USA, over the one facility in Ireland which that superpower wanted - Shannon airport. Nearly 400,000 US troops have passed through Shannon since 2002.

The original ethos of the Southern state on its foundation showed resistance to the ideology of the then dominant British superpower. It now displays a cringing subservience to the superpower of today, the USA, and its economic dominance, with no self awareness of the irony. Maybe when Fianna Fail declares itself 'The Republican Party' it is closer than it thinks to another Republican Party, that led by George W Bush.

with Larry Speight


Travel in Ireland can bring one into contact with worldviews very different from that of modernity as defined by ever more roads, cars, shopping malls, suburbia and belief in the miraculous power of capitalism to solve problems of poverty and pollution. One such worldview is contained in the symbolism of Sheela-na-gigs. On a recent journey through the less travelled bye-ways of Ireland I was delighted to come across a Sheela-na-gig over the moss covered arch of a ruined church in Killnaboy in County Clare. Sheela na-gigs are carvings depicting female sexuality. They can be traced back to the twelfth century but are thought to have a lineage going back to pre-Christian times, and that prior to them been carved in stone they were carved in wood. They are mainly found in the walls of churches and castles, perhaps because these were places of some permanence, authority and formality. Their meaning has become lost in the passage of time, and the scarce reference that is made to them in folklore is associated with the power and wisdom of old women.

The main speculations about their purpose are that they were to ward off misfortune, to warn against lust, or were fertility figures. Some are thought to have powers of healing. It is likely that they served a multitude of purposes connected with the idea of Earth Mother - the wellspring of life. As such they would have served to remind people that through the cycles of living humankind is an integral part of nonhuman nature, rather than separate from nonhuman nature as the present dominant paradigm holds. Shela-na-gigs were certainly revered and considered powerful images. When the Church lost its Celtic identity they became an embarrassment, considered ugly and obscene and many were destroyed. We will thus never know how widespread they were. There are presently just over 100 in Ireland and about 45 in Britain. In contemporary terms their destruction might be akin to President Bush's denigration of science, and ever creeping censorship, in an attempt to deny forms of reality espoused by the large corporations and their cohorts in government.

(An informative book on the subject, including a catalogue of sites, is: The Sheela-Na-Gigs Of Ireland & Britain, Joanne McMahon & Jack Roberts, (2001) Mercier Press, Dublin

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