The Blanket

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I balanced all, brought all to mind,
the years to come seemed waste of breath,
a waste of breath the years behind,
in balance with this life, this death.

- William Butler Yeats



The Last Supper

Anthony McIntyre


Last weekend's commemorative event in Dublin organised by Tirghra has given rise to much commentary and heated public discussion. As always in these situations there are those in the media who see themselves as sign readers, eager to interpret the latest revelation as definitively meaning the war is over, forgetting all the other occasions on which they told us the same thing. Unable to resist the lure of sensationalism they endlessly search for that one event rather than look at the end of the war as a process akin to paint drying.

Sinn Fein like publicity but not public discussion; particularly if it comes at a difficult time for the party. Republican involvement or not, public discussion of the Castlereagh theft, the alleged existence of IRA intelligence files on Tory Party MPs, the murder of Barney McDonald and alleged Sinn Fein participation in vigilantism in the Republic all help to reinforce an uncomfortable political climate for the republican party as it prepares for the Southern general election after which, according to Pat Doherty, it expects to hold the balance of power.

And particularly since the Colombian debacle the seemingly polished performances by its spokespeople have given way to inept, bungling affairs - reminiscent of that London Times drunk 'marching the wrong way on an escalator'. Those who gulp are admonished for not swallowing the incredible: 'we sat up all night making up these fictions and you have the temerity not to believe them'. Despite Eoghan Harris in the Sunday Independent querying the ability of Miriam O'Callaghan, her interview with Gerry Adams for Prime Time brought out among other things a dark side the spin doctors have long since sought to exorcise. As one Sunday Tribune columnist put it, O'Callaghan's eyes grew wider as the nose of Adams grew longer.

The presence of so many families in Dublin's Citywest Hotel underlined the terrible price IRA volunteers and Sinn Fein members paid in the course of the Provisional IRA's war against the British. Many died unsuspectingly. Others saw death coming and faced it with tremendous courage. Enough died willingly but none easily. And it is sanctimonious attitudinising for Ruth Dudley Edwards to claim that those being honoured were 'poor idiots'. They were 'poor' but the 'idiot' side of the equation is hardly borne out by the above average educational achievements of their equally poor comrades at university level in the prisons and elsewhere.

The deaths of hundreds of IRA volunteers, for the most part on active service, illustrates the social insurrectionary nature of the conflict. The subsequent IRA funeral rituals referred to by Seamus Mettress in his short study of republican eschatology illustrated a community solidarity with the armed republican body. All of it ruptured the myths and propaganda of both unionism and the London/Dublin political axis who for long enough sought to explain armed resistance as some form of aggravated crime wave. Small wonder that the reaction from unionism to the Tirghra organised commemoration was predictable. Its self-righteous inability to bear any responsibility for a conflict that its own rigidity helped produce was so strikingly vivid in Jeffrey Donaldson's comment that republicans wanted to 'dine out on their stories of terrorist deeds' at a 'feast of IRA members celebrating their so-called comrades, who were involved in some of the most terrible atrocities that occurred in the last 30 years'.

The body of the unionist critique saw the commemoration as a deification of warlike activity. William Fraser, who according to media reports lost a father and four other family members to the IRA, said, understandably, that he was disgusted 'that so many terrorists are going to be celebrating what they call a war'. In a sense this mirrored and complemented some dissident republican thinking which saw the event as an exploitation of the dead for further electoral gain. But there is another way to view the occasion which would identify a need on the part of the Sinn Fein leadership not to take the republican dead forward with them but to lay them and all that they represented to rest.

Therefore, it was not as Susan McKay claimed in today's Sunday Tribune, a celebration of the link between Sinn Fein and the IRA, but a step in the process of dissolving it. The dead were being legitimised, true, but more importantly the dead were legitimising the establishment politicians of Sinn Fein in the eyes of their most loyal supporters as they march on into the establishment where the activities of the dead who unknowingly put them there, will become a thing of the past. Despite Joe Cahill's ludicrous claim that had Tom Williams been alive 'he would be very much in favour of the course we're taking now', has there been one trace found in the records of a single IRA volunteer who died on active service that he or she anticipated or endorsed anything remotely approaching what Sinn Fein have settled for today? Westcity was a melding of separate projects, necessary to maintain the pretence that one was the outgrowth of, rather than a break with, the other. A revisiting of the 'sacred' ground by a 'profane' leadership for one last time in order to complete a rite of passage to a completely new world.

While the families in attendance were treated with great courtesy and consideration, each being allocated their own personal 'chaperone', their motivation was hardly the same as that of the Sinn Fein leadership. Paul Kavanagh, whose brother Albert was one of the earliest volunteers to join the roll of honour said, 'from the families' standpoint it is important that they, the relatives, are seen as equal victims. This is a tribute to the fallen dead, but to the families as well'. Many of the bereaved were said to be both deeply moved by the occasion and honoured to receive the sculptured tribute designed by Robert Ballagh.

Gerry Adams offered a reason why the gathering took place: 'This event has been a number of years in the making and actually came about as the peace process developed and we saw this huge group of people, who do come together quite regularly in commemorations'. A critic would point to the fact that many of the bereaved families in Belfast were, up until recently at any rate, given the paltry sum of three pound a week by the Republican Movement. One bereaved relative is said to have commented that it would cost her more to pay the taxi to go and collect it. Adams spoke of being proud of the volunteers who 'were ordinary men and women, some little more than boys and girls, who saw injustice and who struck for freedom.' Perhaps, but not so proud as to permit them any input into decision making at crucial points in the leadership's peace strategy the origins of which now - if press reports of an interview given by Father Alex Reid to a Basque journalist are to be believed - may go back as far as 1981 and was never designed to achieve a united Ireland. How many went to their graves knowing that? Those who at times were little more than boys and girls could die for their country but were not allowed an army convention to consider the first ceasefire of 1994. Moreover, they suffered the indignity of being snubbed by the leadership on the question of decommissioning.

The Tirghra body, which Sean McManus - father of the dead volunteer Joe - explained was comprised of elements much wider than Sinn Fein, in one sense functioned like a modern day Gethsemane group organising the 'first and only' event of its kind where St Peter - always willing to praise the sacrifice of the volunteers so long as he can deny ever having been part of their ranks - took it upon himself to administer the Judas kiss to the IRA. There is a certain irony in hosting what one writer termed a 'US-style tribute dinner'. Few of the dead, unlike their leaders, ever saw the inside of a banquet hall. That the Westcity is used both by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to stage their ardfheisanna is hardly without symbolic significance. The subliminal message - the anti-establishment sacrifices of the republican dead have brought us here into the bosom of the establishment.

Despite the furore, there will be no price to pay for Sinn Fein. Wiser heads in the political establishment will think strategically, viewing Adams presiding over the ceremony as Albert Reynolds did when he lectured John Major after the Sinn Fein president had carried the coffin of IRA volunteer Thomas Begley. Reynolds said to the British prime minister 'if this man didn't carry that coffin, he couldn't deliver that movement. He's no good to you or me if he didn't carry that coffin'. And in terms of having delivered the movement, the Tirghra event indicates that the IRA expects no more of its volunteers to die officially on active service. If they do it shall be unofficial - they shall be disowned just like those now expected to criminalise themselves if caught for IRA activity. The cruel irony is that some of those being honoured in Westcity gave their lives to ensure that the IRA would not be criminalised. What a way for the worm to turn - about.



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