The Sinn Fein case against republican armed dissidents, currently trying to revive the ‘armed struggle’ is basically this:
We fought a noble and brave struggle and took the war to the British for decades and retired from the field of battle undefeated. Our current objection to war is that it is counterproductive and that it is wrong to impose such suffering on people when an alternative exists. We are in a new phase of the struggle. We have found a means by which we can achieve a united Ireland through peaceful politics. Any republicans who are complicating this for us by political violence are traitors to the Irish people.
There are problems with this case:
The Provisional IRA campaign was not qualitatively different from that of the dissidents. It inflicted grotesque and unwarranted suffering on many innocent people and achieved nothing. It had no prospect of achieving a united Ireland. The Provisionals ended their campaign, not as an undefeated army but as an army going nowhere. The peace process enabled it to retire from the armed struggle with dignity, and most of us are glad they did. But the new political context, in which they now operate, offers no realistic prospect of a united Ireland either. If it did, the DUP would want no part in it.
So what should the Sinn Fein leaders be saying to young people who are tempted to join the dissidents?
They should say: It was all an ignoble waste of life and energy. We were wrong to pursue a war that could take us nowhere, but we were young and angry, and much of the time we were reacting to broader circumstances we had no control over. We achieved nothing other than the stalling of a political compromise like the one we finally accepted. We were right to accept it and wish we had been able to settle for it thirty years earlier.
The problem is that Sinn Fein is still bound by myths, must pay homage to its own fallen heroes and must try to persuade the base that it is still republican, though it is no more republican now than British Labour is socialist.
When Stalin died, Kruschev could drive a stake in his heart and own up to the crimes of the past.
When the current leaders of Sinn Fein go, their successors – the true inheritors of constitutional nationalism – will be free to say: we were wrong.
Until then they will perpetuate myths that can ennoble armed struggle and cheapen their own politics. It is an awful pity we can’t have the clarity now that we need and will inevitably get later on, from some future SF leader who will find it costs nothing to speak the truth. And that it is worth speaking plainly and honestly if there is a chance that it will discourage those who , soaked in the nonsensical myths of republican glory, might be tempted to claim a little of that glory for themselves.