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Sinn Féin embraces future while Paisley looks back

(Susan McKay, Irish News)

"The challenge facing us is to be avowedly anti-sectarian, to face up to making peace with the unionist section of our people and that means we should not be afraid to make correct strategic compromises."

This was the message Gerry Adams delivered to his people at the big republican set piece event of the summer in Belfast on Sunday.

"Compromise, accommodation and the least surrender are the road to final and irreversible disaster – there can be no weakness, toleration or capitulation. There is only one way we can walk and it is the safe path of no surrender to the enemy... weak, pushover unionism is a half way house to republicanism. There is no discharge in this war."

This was the message Ian Paisley delivered to his people at the big loyalist set piece event of the summer, the Twelfth of July.

One leader is looking forward, the other back. Both were accompanied by excruciatingly bad bands.

One of the big drums that was thumped through west Belfast on Sunday had a crude painting on it of a masked gunman with the words, 'tiochaidh ar la'. The drummer wore paramilitary uniform and dark glasses. Middle-aged men and women wore blankets like the ones they wore in prison during their fight for political status.

The rally was to commemorate the men who died on the Hunger Strike at the end of that fight. The bands looked like the past because that is what they represented. The IRA uniform for the rally was black trousers and white shirts. "We are here to re-dedicate ourselves to our political cause," one of the Sinn Féin speakers said. This was about insisting that the transition has been made, so that when Adams ended his speech with "Tiochaidh ar la" that old war cry had been translated for purely political use.

Paisley's reference to the prospect that "if her friends forsake her and faith be false and fled, then the Bloody Hand of Ulster may be dyed a deeper red" seems menacing by contrast, though the doggerel of his Voice of Ulster song was only slightly worse than some of the poetry by Bobby Sands quoted by Adams.

Adams acknowledges his movement's violent past, Paisley does not.

One UVF man said to me of the loyalist ceasefire, "We've sheathed the sabre, they can't rattle it any more". Appalling revelations about loyalist collusion with the security forces are gathering momentum – the DUP ignores them.

Unionism denies its past and forces its people to huddle behind fear of an enemy which has stopped fighting. The DUP's bullishness fails to disguises its lack of vision for the future.

The Casement Park event was for the republican faithful, for those who believe the hungerstrikers were "heroes in a proud tradition", part of the long lineage of Ireland's "patriot dead". It was for those who believe the struggle for Irish freedom is now led by Adams – and 20,000 of them turned up.

Adams spoke about how, when he and his colleagues sit across the table facing Tony Blair in Downing Street, he feels his side of the table is crowded. "There is Bobby behind us and Francis Hughes, Mairead Farrell and Maire Drumm," he said.

The event on Sunday was haunted by others, too. Like Denis Donaldson, whose smiling face used to be shown beside Sands in the iconic photo from the H blocks but who was murdered after he was denounced as a 'tout'.

Tony O'Hara, son of INLA hunger striker Patsy O'Hara, accused Sinn Féin of "airbrushing history".

The IRA had threatened to kill his father not long before he was jailed, he said.

Jean McConville is also there, murdered by the IRA and her sad ghost still accused of treachery.

When the white doves flew from their boxes and the afternoon sun lit their wings as they swooped over Casement Park, it was a moving moment. They were released to represent the spirits of the hungerstrikers but it was possible to feel in that moment the presence of other spirits, too.

When there is talk, as there was on Sunday, of the 'spirit of freedom' all who died in the Troubles deserve to be remembered.

The doves flew away, each of them alone, out across the blue sky above Belfast, disappearing fast. It was a letting go. It is time to move on and Sinn Féin is encouraging its people to have the courage to do that.

The DUP is not and that is the trouble.

August 16, 2006

This article appeared first in the August 15, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News