For many people of my generation, the name Sinn Fein means one thing and one thing only: the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. On an almost daily basis, news would emerge of yet more murders, usually of civilians and British soldiers trying to keep the peace. The IRA heroes of Guildford, Birmingham, Manchester, Brighton, London and, once, in Bristol when I missed the detonation of an IRA bomb on Park Street by barely ten minutes. The smiling peacetime faces of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness cannot extinguish in my mind at least what went before. Whilst I welcome the peace and those politicians who brought it about, I’ll never forget and few of my generation will. It is very different for the young.
As we saw in the Ireland, Sinn Fein polled 22.45% of the vote, including, it seems likely, a large chunk of younger voters who were attracted by the party’s left wing policies and who were less aware of it shadowy past. It is hardly a ringing endorsement of Sinn Fein, or indeed left wing politics, but it does show how people can forget and even forgive.
I can see parallels between what happened in Ireland with what happened in Britain when Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader. There is no question that Corbyn was somehow seen as representing something new and different from regular politicians. The novelty value of a hard left leader lasted from his election in 2015 to the electoral defeat of 2017 but finally the penny has dropped, in Britain at least, that all is not what it seemed.
Far from being a breath of fresh air, Corbyn represented a voice from the past. The so called new language of socialism was in reality a reheated version of that which saw the Labour Party annihilated in the 1980s. The only change was that its main protagonists had died or just got old, witness the influential roles played by veterans John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Jon Lansman and Corbyn himself. In Britain, at least the comrades have been rumbled. Far from being a brave new world, Corbyn merely offered old medicine in old bottles. And voters roundly rejected him.
In Ireland who knows where this leads? At least Labour was not a political wing of a terrorist organisation, although its main players at the moment supported the IRA and for all I know still do. Even yesterday, deputy leadership candidate Richard Burgon praised Sinn Fein, comparing it with Labour and using its electoral success – 22.45% of the vote, may I remind you – to advance his cause to continue with hard line far left policies.
Many young people, it appears, sought something different from the two main centrist parties of Ireland. Perhaps they saw in Sinn Fein not former IRA terrorists and instead a bright new day, a change from the old guard. And just maybe they don’t know and don’t care what went before?
When I hear the name Sinn Fein, I feel the same as I did 40 years ago. I still see the images of murder and carnage, particularly when it involved genuinely innocent people. And I still don’t know how you could support, never mind vote for, people who were there at the time, even directing operations.
It probably explains why I am not a politician, given that I usually see the world in black and white with few shades of grey. I’m trying to forgive but I can’t forget. That’s the hard bit for people from my generation.