“Whatever you say, say nothing” – that’s the watchword of a lot of people here. Don’t turn over any stones if you don’t want to confront something yucky-squiggly, and don’t open your gob if you’d rather not provoke attack. The man who’s replacing Gerry Adams in West Belfast, former hunger-striker Pat Sheehan, has chosen to ignore such caution. He’s recently declared that the conflict here wasn’t as bad as mass killings elsewhere and that if the IRA had set out to kill Protestants, it could have left a 1,000 lb bomb on the Shankill Road.
Instant uproar in unionist circles, notably by DUP MLA Jonathan Bell. He says he finds Sheehan’s comments ‘deeply offensive’ . “Mr Sheehan’s remarks belie a twisted interpretation of what is and what is not civilized behaviour”.
Bell’s comment shows he doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘belie’ and he doesn’t listen to what’s said. Sheehan said two things: (i) mass killings elsewhere in the world were worse than non-mass killings here; and (ii) the IRA could have set a 1,000 bomb to kill a maximum number of Protestants. Grim statements both but undeniably true. Killing a great number of people is worse than killing a smaller number of people. And the IRA could have deliberately exploded a 1,000 no-warning car bomb in a Protestant area but chose not to. Again, that’s impossible to argue with because it’s a matter of fact.
So why the unionist outcry at Sheehan’s statement? There are two reasons. The first is the election due in May. If Sheehan’s reputation can be damaged in the eyes of voters, he’ll still hold Gerry Adams’s seat but maybe with a smaller majority. In his opponents' eyes, that would be a Good Thing. The second is the tireless desire of Bell and other unionist politicians to paint the Troubles as exclusively the IRA’s fault. They started it, they continued it, and while they’ve now stopped it, they should be donning sackcloth and ashes rather than suggesting the Troubles weren’t the most ghastly conflict ever or that the IRA ever acted in any but the most heinous manner.
It’s an old trick: he who controls the picture of the past has a stronger chance of shaping the future. The struggle goes on.