MONSTERS, Dinosaurs and Ghosts, the play by Jimmy McAleavey staged last June on the Peacock stage at the Abbey Theatre, is a dark comedy. Deeply funny, it is a scarifying insight into the disconnectedness, guilt and betrayal felt by two former IRA men. Nig and Wee Joe used to be comrades. Held together by pills and drink, they are rattled by the ghosts in the plays title. But if they are guilty of monstrous crimes, they are not monsters.
“They are not monsters, not psychopaths,” McAleavy said in an interview podcast by the Abbey Theatre. The playwright is “not so sure if they are dinosaurs or extinct” either.
Amidst all the political comment this week after the murder of Kevin McGuigan, which followed, and may be connected to the murder in May of Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison, McAleavey’s play comes closest to the truth, or part of it. If there is ever going to be a happy-ever-after ending to the peace process, it hasn’t arrived yet. Perhaps it never will.
Its 20 years, nearly a generation, since Gerry Adams remarked of the IRA “they haven’t gone away you know”. It is 10 years since the IRA supposedly left the stage. But regardless of whether the IRA in its former iteration has gone away or not, it is a simple truth that the “they” who were in the IRA are still here. What do they do? How do they occupy themselves? Are they all accountants or community workers? Hardly.
McAleavey explains the deep funniness, the harsh banter of his characters, because he says it is “inauthentic to represent these men without a sense of humour”. What they did was both appalling and the “most intense wonderful craic”. For him their humour is a “psychological self-defence”. They are “reliving lost glory” as men left rudderless now without a cause, whatever that cause once was.
The monstrousness of what “they” did is typified by the reaction of the sisters of the late Robert McCartney to the death of Davison, who was implicated in their brother’s murder.
“The way I would sort of say it,” said Catherine McCartney, Robert’s sister, “was as if, very strangely, as if a weight was lifted. Now, justice probably would imply there was an element of right about it, but murder is murder at the end of the day and we would condemn that.”
The guns may be silent most days now, but monsters, dinosaurs, and ghosts are everywhere. However, it has mutated, whoever it is populated by, be it the IRA or its ghost remains.
Dissident republicans are usually assumed to be a small number of irredentist, militant terrorists. In fact, there is a far wider dissident republican community. The hegemony of Sinn Féin is not all it seems. Its efficiency, its resources, its seeking to become within nationalist Ireland the monopoly provider of legitimacy associated with the peace process belie a vulnerability. Not only Nig and Wee Joe but a significant swath of republican opinion in the North, are ever less enthused with Sinn Féin. There is a palpable sense of having been first connived with, and then betrayed, by a political leadership that is ultimately far more opportunist than principled. Many are disillusioned, because, they did not as they see it, fight for Sunningdale with an Irish dimension.
The banality and petty corruption of politics compared to war has left a sour taste. Their view of Sinn Féin veers between disillusionment and disgust. The murders Davison and McGuigan are signs of grave weakness, not power. Communities managed, oppressed for decades by self-appointed armed militias are still in the grip of the same dinosaurs.
Ostensibly “community” structures have replaced military ones. But they serve the same essential function, which is to control. Once in the form of the security forces, the threat was outside the community. This allowed the language of the tout to flourish as real or imagined justification for rough justice and kangaroo courts.
Now mutated into new “community” organisations, many of the same people exercise essentially the same function. It is control of resources, including the proceeds of crime. It is control of politics and expression. The Sinn Féin political model in the North is based less on competition at the ballot box than in eradicating it long before any viable alternative emerges.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin called Sinn Féin out for how it operates in Northern nationalist communities. Always obsessed first and foremost with “unity” within the movement, the primary problem posed by the murders of Davison and McGuigan for Sinn Féin is not political, it is internal. More than being crimes, these murders are a breakdown in discipline, and a publically humiliating loss of control. The dinosaurs are aging. They haven’t delivered on their promises and their power is no longer unchallenged.
In terms of what republican communities suffered, both internally and at the hands of the security forces, whether the current political arrangement in Northern Ireland is Sunningdale with an Irish dimension or simply an old fashioned case of “taking soup” is small detail. It is not that the vast majority of Northern nationalists want to go back; they do not. But they are asking, was this, all that, was for? The “all” might soon be less. Peace came with a gravy train at Stormont. There is a state-funded industry in occupying former military activists. Now the train is on the verge of being derailed. Either Sinn Féin signs up for UK welfare reforms which undermine its credibility in its own heartland, and its political argument in the south in advance of a general election, or it risks being held responsible for bringing down the power sharing executive.
When you can’t fix a problem, avoiding responsibility for it is imperative. The outbreak of emollience from senior Fine Gael ministers towards Sinn Féin is part of the same game of musical chairs. Everyone knows the music may stop at any moment, but nobody wants to be left standing. The Government, no more than Sinn Féin, does not want to go into a 2016 election dragging a tattered peace process behind it. They only too keenly remember the reputational damage to Fine Gael caused by the collapse of the cease fire in the rubble of the Canary Wharf bomb in 1996. There is a palpable sense they do not want to re-enact John Bruton’s emotional disconnection with the peace process, again.
If the Government here pushes too hard now, Peter Robinson, who is under pressure in his own party and community, will have insufficient cover left to stay in government. Sinn Féin under pressure in its own community, and paranoid about ghosts, is hoping it can connive a circle of mutual dependence on the power-sharing administration to keep it afloat, and them out of the dock. In fiction you can be any character you choose.