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Sunday 23 April 2006

SF's love-bombing of unionists rings hollow

SCEPTICISM about leopards and spots notwithstanding, mostly I try to keep an open mind. Honestly.

In that spirit I've been looking at Sinn Fein's public love-bombing of unionists. Reassuring them that "we are not in the business of coercing them into a united Ireland" is where republicans are at, according to Gerry Adams in a speech last weekend.

"I believe there is a huge opportunity to fulfil the historic destiny of our people by uniting orange and green in unity and justice and on the basis of equality."

Now Adams knows perfectly well that unionists ignore such rhetoric: they judge their deeds, not their words.

Day-to-day political contact between republicans and unionists happens at council level, and the hope is that trust will ripen as they agree on methods of refuse disposal. So how does Sinn Fein go about building on this trust? Here's an example.

On Strabane (Co Tyrone) District Council, Sinn Fein have eight seats, the DUP three, the UUP and SDLP two each and there is one independent. In February, after dealing with such items as the hospital campaign, the Strabane bypass and environmental improvements, Councillor Jarlath McNulty of Sinn Fein moved a motion which welcomed "the fact that Irish unity is now the stated objective of all nationalist parties on the island", called on Bertie Ahern to a) commission a Green Paper on Irish unity which - with the help of a "holistic" consultation process north and south - would spell out what "proactive strategy" his Government would take to bring it about and, b) legislate immediately for "northern" representation in the Dail and "the right of people in the Six Counties" to vote in constitutional referendums and presidential elections.

In the ensuing discussion, the SDLP and the UUP tried to head off conflict.

SDLP Councillor Eugene McMenamin - who stays in politics despite death threats and arson attacks from republicans - regretted the motion, which "had the potential to divide the council, which had worked in harmony on bread-and-butter issues for the residents of the district". He got nowhere with an emollient amendment.

In response to a question from the UUP's Derek Hussey about whether it was legal for the council to discuss such an issue, the Sinn Fein chairman asked the attending Strabane chief executive, who said that in the past "it had been common practice not to bring politics into the chamber". This was ignored and the motion was carried by the eight Sinn Fein councillors and the one independent.

Similar motions have passed in Omagh and North Antrim's Moyle Council and have been raised in councils throughout Northern Ireland, guaranteeing that Sinn Fein goes home sniggering, everyone else goes home furious and, in some cases, the SDLP split.

In Moyle last week, Sinn Fein went one better in mischief-making by demanding that on bilingual road signs, Irish should be first, "as it was the language that was traditionally spoken in Ireland before English".

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has been introducing new contentious parades. Last week in Fermanagh, for instance, they commemorated the 20th anniversary of the death of Seamus McElwaine, killed by the SAS while engaged in an ambush. I've been shown around the area where McElwaine assassinated a dozen or so local Protestants and caused, in the words of the DUP's Arlene Foster, "untold grief" to a small, isolated unionist community.

Our own Mary Lou McDonald has not been backward. Her recent article in Daily Ireland calls on us all to finish the revolution started in 1916 "by the likes of Connolly, Pearse and Markievicz and continued by the likes of Bobby Sands, Ray McCreesh [assassin and hunger-striker] and Mairead Farrell [shot in Gibraltar when on a bombing mission]."

Confidence-building measures all.

The relentless aggression and provocation brings to mind a quote from Anthony Trollope. (Just substitute "peace" for "God".)

"I judge a man by his actions with men, much more than by his declarations Godwards - when I find him to be envious, carping, spiteful, hating the successes of others, and complaining that the world has never done enough for him, I am apt to doubt whether his humility before God will atone for his want of manliness."

I hope I'm wrong, but I still believe Sinn Fein strategy is to talk peace, yet destabilise Northern Ireland by winding up the Prods and then blaming them when power-sharing doesn't happen.

Still, the DUP is learning something. In Strabane, for instance, its spokesman countered the United Ireland motion by citing the views of several members of the Dail, including Bertie Ahern, Liz McManus and Liz O'Donnell.

And tomorrow, they will break a 16-year boycott and attend a meeting in Kerry of the British-Irish Parliamentary Body. Slowly, slowly, they are beginning to realise that there is some common cause to be made against Sinn Fein with people of goodwill down south.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards