RTÉ last night broadcast the first of Olivia O’Leary’s two documentaries on Daniel O’Connell. When the programme-makers first considered the project, they could not have
imagined, nor could anyone else, how relevant this celebration of O’Connell’s rejection of violence would be more than 170 years after his death. It’s a badly-needed reminder.
O’Connell’s reputation as the greatest of all Irish politicians is built on his unwavering and successful commitment to democratic politics to deliver real change. His commitment to non-violence meant he was dishonestly excoriated by physical-force nationalists now regarded as nation-builders.
“To praise him would have made it impossible for us to justify armed insurrection,” admitted Eamon de Valera. Just as The Liberator’s spiritual heir, John Hume, challenged those at the heart of the recent Troubles, O’Connell saw active democracy as the most reliable path to a stable and just society.
That path was rejected by those who carried Provo Alex Murphy’s coffin in Belfast on Monday. Murphy, along with Hugh Maguire, was given a life sentence for the murders of Royal Signals corporals Derek Wood (24) and David Howes (23) in March 1988.
The paramilitary atmosphere at his funeral — the uniforms, the balaclavas, the shots fired over his coffin — suggests a good number of his peers cling to the fantasy that violence might remake this island.
It gets worse. As Murphy was buried, dissident republicans tried to make that fantasy reality by planting bombs at Fermanagh’s Wattle Bridge to kill PSNI officers.
As the vast majority of people on this island recoiled, hoping, praying that there won’t be a new cycle of violence, two politicians showed, despite years of comparative peace, how deeply tribal divisions still run — divisions used by terrorists to justify their bloody hands.
DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew, both Fermanagh MPs, stood together for an interview to condemn the failed attack, but they could not, even for a few minutes, contain their animosity. Is it any wonder that the third anniversary of Stormont’s contrived, dangerous mothballing hoves into view?
Is it any wonder that the vacuum is being filled by men firing shots over coffins and others trying to murder police officers? But, despite all this drum-beating, the hate-fest bonfires, and the approaching prosecution of Soldier F over Bloody Sunday murders, there are grounds for hope.
There have been four elections in Northern Ireland since Stormont went AWOL. Each saw moderate voices advance in the face of extremism. Support for Sinn Féin and the DUP fell, while the centrist Alliance doubled its vote in both of this year’s elections. Provocative marches and bonfires are being tackled.
It is possible that a hard Brexit, and a hard border, might scupper that hard-won progress. This was alluded to yesterday, when Garda Commissioner Drew Harris warned that six decades of co-operation in law enforcement would “fall away” after Brexit.
Despite that, it is possible to hope that having enjoyed at least an apéritif of normalisation, the great majority of people in the North, and across this island, have come around to O’Connell’s liberating credo. Not before time.