THE BALLYMENA ACCENT
Dr John Coulter has been a journalist working in Ireland since 1978. He began his career as a trainee reporter writing a weekly column on the Boys’ Brigade for his local weekly newspaper, the Ballymena Guardian. He worked as a freelance journalist with BBC Northern Ireland before joining the staff of the News Letter in the early 1980s, later becoming the paper’s Education and Religious Affairs Correspondent. In the late 1980s, he moved into weekly newspaper management as a deputy editor in Larne and an editor in Carrickfergus. He then moved into PR as Director of Public Relations for the Sandown Group of private nursing homes, followed by a period as Director of Operations for Christian Communication Network Television. Since 1993, he has been involved in journalist training and has written a series of columns for national newspaper and online outlets. For 14 years, he penned the weekly Coulter’s Fearless Flying Column in the Irish Daily Star. He has co-written books on the media and politics. His sole publication, The Green Sash, is a non-violent ideology for modern republicanism and is available on Amazon Kindle. His doctorate from Ulster University is in journalism ethics. He is a conservative evangelical Christian and the son of a retired Presbyterian minister. His father, Robert, was an Ulster Unionist Assembly member for 13 years. You can follow Dr Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Many in the PUL (Protestant Unionist Loyalist) community are getting their political knickers in a massive twist over Provisional Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald’s recent extensive interview. Political commentator, Dr John Coulter, uses his latest Ballymena Accent column to tell the PULs to take a ‘chill pill’ and adopt a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy towards the republican movement.
Provisional Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald’s recent extensive interview with the Irish Sunday Independent had many in the pro-Union community up in arms over some of her comments.
Three points seemed to have got Unionists in a real tizzy – her justification of the IRA’s terror campaign; her suggestion that she would probably have joined the IRA during the Troubles had she been old enough, and her rejection of the claim there are shadowy figures pulling her strings (my words) to which she replied: “I am the party leader and I am very much in charge.”
Unionists felt insulted and angered by the remarks. But after 42 years in journalism in Ireland, I don’t see what the big issue is in her remarks.
The clue was in her comment about the shadowy figures – ‘I am the party leader’. Yes, she is the leader of Sinn Fein, but not the leader of the republican movement of which Sinn Fein is an integral part.
What Mary Lou was confirming was that she recognises Sinn Fein’s place in the broad republican movement, a movement where the IRA and especially its ruling Army Council call the shots.
Mary Lou justified the IRA’s campaign of murder, bombing and shooting – as leader of the apologist wing of the republican movement, she was hardly going to commit political suicide by condemning the IRA violence or refusing to attend memorials to dead IRA terrorists.
This was merely Mary Lou recognising that she knows her place within the republican movement, and knows her political ‘P’s and Q’s when it comes to talking about the so-called ‘armed struggle’.
Mary Lou is also recognising that while she may be the leader of a rising political movement in Southern Ireland, it is the Northern Command of the IRA that presently holds sway within the republican movement. Why would a Southern TD stick out her neck politically and antagonise the Northern bosses of republicanism? It does not make sound political sense for a Sinn Fein politician.
As for her claim that she would probably have joined the IRA had she been old enough during the Troubles, again, this is merely recognising how a person got ahead in Sinn Fein in those days – you had to serve your apprenticeship first in the Provos.
During the Troubles, the vast majority of key Sinn Fein politicians had had some links to the IRA, unless you emphasise that you were never in the IRA, yet can tell a public rally that the IRA ‘has never gone away’!
Being realistic, how else could Mary Lou have gained a significant place in Sinn Fein during the Troubles era without being an ‘active volunteer’, especially that during that specific period, the broad republican movement was a male-dominated movement in terms of who gave the orders.
However, the key question still remains – how should the pro-Union community react to these home truths about the republican movement? Its all very well expressing righteous anger and indignation, but the political reality is that Sinn Fein now has a significant number of TDs in the Dail and MLAs in Stormont.
Remember the strategy utterance of Danny Morrison, a one-time publicity director for Sinn Fein – the armalite in one hand and the ballot paper in the other? Put bluntly, where would the Sinn Fein part of the republican movement be today without the IRA’s campaign of terror?
Until the 1981 republican hunger strikes, Sinn Fein was nothing more than an apologist element for the IRA. IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands’ election as Fermanagh South Tyrone Westminster MP in 1981 changed all that strategy.
Sinn Fein’s role within the republican movement would change significantly and it would enter the political arena. Unionists need to see Sinn Fein like a political octopus – the party is just one tentacle of a much larger beast known as the republican movement.
Oh yes, it now has a considerable number of elected representatives who have never served their republican apprenticeships in the IRA in a strategy which resembles the ballot paper in one hand and the honours degree in the other hand.
But the IRA will never leave the broad republican movement. It controls that baby. No Sinn Fein ‘draft dodger’ with any titter of wit is going to risk their political career by condemning the IRA campaign of violence, or slamming republicans holding commemorations to dead IRA terrorists.
However, what Unionists can do is to ‘suck Sinn Fein deeper and deeper into the democratic process’. The more Sinn Fein ‘draft dodgers’ who have no links to the Provos come to resemble the now defunct Irish Independence Party, the sooner the day will come when eventually that politician will have to chose between being a democratic representative or being a cog in a broad republican movement.
Policy wise, Sinn Fein is nothing more than a revolutionary Marxist outfit. By being so, it helps bolster its anti-austerity image in Southern Ireland thereby attracting new younger voters.
The challenges of Covid 19 have forced Sinn Fein to stop scoring political points and behave like a responsible party. But the key challenge for Unionists will still come after the majority of coronavirus restrictions are lifted and the so-called ‘new normal’ comes into play.
Unionists and republicans have had to work even more closely together for the greater good of the entire community as the virus does not distinguish between pro-Union and pro-United Ireland voters. There is no such things as Orange Covid 19 and Green Covid 19 – there is just Covid 19.
In this respect, Unionists should simply recognise Mary Lou’s recent utterances for what they truly are – giving the IRA Army Council its proper place within the broad republican movement, and reassuring that IRA Army Council that the Sinn Fein part of that movement is certainly not going ‘ourselves alone’ from that broad republican movement.