Lessons in doublespeak from a looking-glass land
Straight-talking is still in short supply from the Republican leadership
Moral Giant: Seamus Mallon - compared to him the Sinn Fein leadership are moral pygmies
At a British-Irish conference I used to attend, there was often a comedy moment when a senior Sinn Fein representative denied knowing anything at all about the IRA. Sometimes, even though the audience was stuffed with nice, polite liberals, an incredulous titter would break out. A complaint would follow.
Please don't complain, Padraig Mac Lochlainn, but I tittered when I read that in the Dail you asked the Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald if the Garda had the necessary resources "to tackle the criminal gangs involved in diesel laundering, cigarette smuggling and petrol stretching throughout the island."
Mac Lochlainn - who is less given to weasel language than most of his colleagues - then addressed what everyone was thinking: "the people involved in these activities, despite comments from some journalists, just one or two, are not the IRA that supported the peace process and that have gone away… Anyone with information should assist the PSNI and an Garda Síochána in tackling them."
He didn't mention the legendary double-jobber Thomas "Slab" Murphy, whose farm still straddles the Armagh-Louth border, who in a libel action in Dublin in 1998 was ruled by a jury to be an IRA commander and smuggler, who in 2004 was named by the BBC's Underworld Rich List as the UK's richest smuggler, but who has the undying loyalty of his old comrade, Gerry Adams, who assured us in 2006: "Tom Murphy is not a criminal. He's a good republican… I believe what he says and also and very importantly he is a key supporter of Sinn Fein's peace strategy".
Slab is 65 and may well be fed up with the hassle from those members of the Garda and the PSNI who don't have Adams's sunny view of him. Indeed, it's probably true that border criminals from the IRA are now freelance, for the smuggling community is diverse enough these days to gladden the heart of the most evangelical member of the Equality Authority. Lithuanians, Albanians, Nigerians and dissident republicans are among those who have successfully moved in on what used to be virtually a Provo monopoly.
Yet, interestingly, Sinn Fein is still implacably opposed to having the UK National Crime Agency (NCA), which deals with serious crime that crosses borders, extend its operations to Northern Ireland. To its fury, the SDLP, having won some assurances about its accountability, has given the NCA the support that will enable it to go ahead. That the SDLP's Alex Attwood, once the Stormont Environment Minister, explained its decision to the press earlier this month by speaking of the environmental damage caused by fuel launderers worried Sinn Fein. Mac Lochlainn did his "nothing-to-do-with-us" routine the better to deal with future scandals about republicans poisoning Irish waters.
The SDLP was asserting itself last week in Armagh by coming out in force to a dinner for 700 at the Armagh City Hotel in honour of Seamus Mallon. Now 78, Mallon was John Hume's deputy for years, the first Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in 1999, and MP for Newry and Armagh from 1986 until 2005.
"By any measure Seamus Mallon is a great Irishman," said Micheal Martin, one of the speakers at the dinner. "He showed disdain for tribal and sectarian politics - for politics which saw everything through the lens of getting one over on the other side. He built an unmatched progressive legacy on foundations of absolute integrity and public support."
I couldn't agree more. Difficult and prickly though he could be, Mallon was straight, honourable and - a product of the largely Protestant village of Markethill, where he was a teacher - hated sectarianism and the "Balkanisation" of Northern Ireland by "two parties rooted in sectarian power. Parties who have worked politics based on half truths, the threat of violence and a Stalinist approach."
In an interview with Marian Finucane in 2013 he said Sinn Fein and the IRA had debased Irish republicanism, which would never have integrity unless it looked into "the unionist heart as well as the unionist mind. It has got to, even despite what unionism does, we have got to make unionism part of Irish life. And unfortunately they are not. But we should be trying to listen to what they are trying to tell us, and not humiliate them."
He was replaced as MP by Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, whose four-year tenure as Minister for Regional Development at Stormont was described by a tribunal in 2012 as showing a "material bias against the appointment of candidates from a Protestant background".
Sinn Fein dominates Newry and Mourne District Council, which has just voted to keep on a children's playground the name of Raymond McCreesh, who shot a Protestant neighbour to whom he delivered milk and in addition to his other sectarian crimes may have been involved in the Kingsmill massacre.
On Newry, Mourne and Down district shadow council (it's complicated), they've just voted to give the Irish language precedence on council logos, literature and vehicles.
Micheal Martin was right. Compared to Seamus Mallon, the Sinn Fein leadership are moral pygmies.