O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,
Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,
Where half of us, as in a wooden horse,
Were cabin’d and confined like wily Greeks,
Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.
In the poem Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, Seamus Heaney immortalised the code of discretion, of the silences, winks and nods that defined the Troubles.
The family of Jean McConville, a Belfast mother of 10 who was abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1972, has spent almost five decades trying to crack the omertà. It is an ongoing struggle – and Sinn Féin’s triumph in Ireland’s general election last weekend suggests time is not on the family’s side.
McConville’s name did not feature in the campaign. And Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin figure most associated with the case, stood down as a TD (MP), distancing the party from awkward questions.
“Ignore the problem and it’ll go away, that’s the strategy,” said Seamus McKendry, who is married to McConville’s daughter Helen and is an outspoken campaigner on the case.
Adams resigning as party leader in 2018, and now exiting the Irish parliament, helped pave the electoral breakthrough, said McKendry. “The best thing the Sinners ever did,” he said, using a nickname for Sinn Féin. “With him out of the road it was easier to vote for Mary Lou McDonald and other candidates.”
Outside Ireland, Sinn Féin is best known for having been the IRA’s political wing during the Troubles, but at home it has reinvented itself as an Irish version of the Spanish party Podemos or the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic party.
On the promise of cheaper housing, better healthcare and more public spending, it won a quarter of the popular vote – almost double its tally in the 2016 general election – and 37 seats in Dáil Éireann, making it a contender for power for the first time. No party gained a majority in the Dáil, so talks are under way to form a coalition. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s two big centrist parties, have ruled out governing with Sinn Féin, raising the spectre of stalemate and another election.
When it comes to her party’s fraught legacy, McDonald, 50, a Dubliner who succeeded Adams as leader, has not been able to say nothing.
During the campaign the murder of Paul Quinn, a young man beaten to death by alleged IRA members in 2007, returned to haunt the party and tripped up McDonald in a televised debate.
David Cullinane, a newly elected TD, caused a row last week by shouting “Up the ’Ra”. McDonald responded by saying that she had urged party members not to make “throwaway comments”. She added: “I’m not their mammy. I don’t censor them either. We’re all adults and I do expect them to behave in an adult way.”
The Troubles, in other words, are still politically troublesome. Many Sinn Féin members believe the media stirs up old ghosts to discredit the party’s redistributive economic policies. Last week Enda Fanning, a senior party official, said an RTE radio show had “denigrated” Sinn Féin representatives. “It really needs to be addressed by a new government and a proper monitoring authority with powers introduced to prevent such political bias,” he tweeted.
In Northern Ireland, in contrast, Sinn Féin revisits the Troubles by backing legacy investigations into Bloody Sunday and other killings of Catholics and nationalists. Unionists accuse the party of “weaponising” the past for political gain.
Supporters south of the border, meanwhile, especially young supporters, focus on the party’s solutions to homelessness, soaring rents and hospital waiting lists. They shrug off the Troubles.
“When we went knocking on the doors it didn’t come up,” said Mark Ward, who was elected in the Dublin Mid-West constituency. “People have moved on. What concerned them was infrastructure, housing, health, having less money in your pocket at the end of the week.”
A new generation had come of age since the 1998 Good Friday agreement, said Deaglán de Bréadún, author of Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin. “The past is always present … but officially the IRA hasn’t been active since 1997. That’s 23 years – a lot of voters wouldn’t have been born then, or were too young at the time to remember it now.”
When recalling IRA activities, Sinn Féin tended to focus on hunger strikers rather than, for instance, the bombers who tried to blow up Margaret Thatcher, said De Bréadún. As leader, McDonald has to play down the paramilitary legacy without irking the republican base, he said.
“The problem is that, if she goes too far and puts too much distance between herself and the ‘struggle’, she might alienate veterans of that era. So a little bit of republican rhetoric is probably no harm at times.” He reckons she is unlikely to repeat the old IRA slogan tiocfaidh ár lá (“our day will come”), which she used to close a party conference in 2018.
The family of McConville, meanwhile, wonder if or when their day will come.
A former Belfast IRA commander, Brendan Hughes, claimed before his death that Adams gave the order that McConville be killed and “disappeared” over suspicion, since discredited, that she was an informer.
An IRA team dragged the widow from her screaming children, shot her and buried her at a beach in county Louth, south of the border. Not wanting blame for creating 10 orphans, republicans spread a rumour McConville had abandoned her children and moved to England with a British soldier.
Pressed by campaigners, the IRA admitted the murder in 1999. A dog walker stumbled across her remains in 2003. Adams has consistently denied any knowledge of the murder or being in the IRA. An attempt to link him to the murder based on the trial of Ivor Bell, an IRA commander, failed when the case collapsed last year.
McKendry, McConville’s son-in-law, said he glimpsed Sinn Féin’s ascent in 2011 when he lobbied voters in Louth – in vain – to reject Adams, who was standing in the constituency. They told him they didn’t care about Adams’s past. “I found it incredibly hurtful.”
McKendry shared voters’ sentiment to shake up Irish politics, but wished they had chosen another agent of change. “I can understand the younger ones, they didn’t live through the war, but people of my age coming out and voting for Sinn Féin, I despair.”
The irony of Sinn Féin’s rise as the party of the future is its vexed relationship to its own past, said Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Say Nothing, a 2018 investigative book about McConville’s murder.
“They’ve never been able to rebut, in a remotely credible way, testimony that the party’s long-time leader ordered one of the most notorious war crimes of the Troubles. But rather than confront that legacy head-on, I think the strategy has been to keep banging on about other issues in hopes that, with the passage of time, the McConville case will come to feel like ancient history to voters and they’ll forget. If these election results are any indication, the strategy seems to be working.”