Writing in the Irish News, Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill argued that the stand taken by her party in relation to the ongoing political crisis is about “the principles of mutual respect and parity of esteem.” Six days later, West Tyrone MP Barry McElduff undermined this assertion by posting a video to Twitter featuring him ‘messing about’ with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre. At best, this was grossly insensitive and, at worst, an example of disgusting, sectarian triumphalism. The ensuing outrage forced McElduff’s resignation and has triggered a by-election in the constituency.
In January 1976, the Provisional IRA – using the cover name of the South Armagh Republican Action Force – stopped a minibus of workers on a country road near Kingsmill, County Armagh. They demanded to know which of the workers were Catholic. Fearing the gunmen were loyalists, the workers tried to stop the only Catholic from identifying himself. However, when he stepped forward, he was ordered to leave and the remaining Protestant workers were riddled with bullets, killing 10 and leaving the other for dead. This brutal, sectarian atrocity was a ‘response’ to the murder of six Catholics by the Glenanne gang, a ruthless group of RUC, UDR and UVF members operating in the area.
Many people are rightly cynical about McElduff’s assertion that there was no connection in his mind between the video and the anniversary. Kenneth Worton – brother of one of the victims – has said he firmly believes that it is common in republican circles to make jokes about this massacre behind closed doors. The families of the victims have also been subjected to years of sickening, sectarian abuse. For example, an 89-year-old mother of a murdered Kingsmill worker has been subjected to prank phone calls in which the caller asks for “10 slices of Kingsmill bread for toasting.”
While today’s Sinn Féin leaders are quick to condemn the atrocity, former IRA member Martin McAllister recently said that “there is a proclivity out there to try and divert away attention from the fact that republicans did this by saying ‘well, it was in a certain context at that time.'” It is not hard to imagine that McElduff was making what he thought would be an in-joke. However, even if we believe his claim that he did not mean to reference the massacre, in and of itself this demonstrates a profound level of insensitivity and thoughtlessness on the part of an experienced politician.
Republicanism & Sectarianism
McElduff has said, “I’m an Irish republican and there isn’t a sectarian bone in my body.” Given that the Kingsmill massacre was carried out by republicans, this is a meaningless statement. Nor was Kingsmill a one-off. Four months beforehand, using the same cover name, the IRA opened fire on an Orange lodge in Tullyvallen, killing 5 Protestants in response to the killing of two Catholics a few days previously.
Similarly, in 1992, a roadside bomb in Teebane, County Tyrone, killed eight Protestants who were working on repairs at the British army base in Omagh. The IRA described this as the killing of “collaborators” but, at its heart, it was a sectarian atrocity, as were the Enniskillen and Shankill bombings, no matter how republicans seek to justify them. However, it was not just these outrages which were sectarian. Whatever the intentions of those involved, the IRA campaign as a whole was perceived by Protestants as an attempt to violently force them into a state where they, like Catholics in the Northern state, would be a vulnerable and discriminated-against minority. Its effect was to deepen sectarian division and strengthen, rather than weaken, Unionism and the state.
McElduff suggests that republicans aren’t and can’t be sectarian, implying that it’s only Unionists who are. Many republicans genuinely believe this and will indignantly point to the Protestant founders of the United Irishmen who fought for Irish independence. Two centuries later, however, Sinn Féin and republicanism as a whole is firmly based in one community and – like the SDLP and the Unionist parties – seeks to represent the national and cultural identity of solely that community at the expense of the other. Their sectarian basis is clearly on display at election time, when Sinn Féin shamelessly focus on mobilising the Catholic vote. For example, in the 2015 general election, Gerry Kelly openly appealed to Catholic voters in North Belfast to rally round him because the census figures indicated that they now outnumbered Protestants in the constituency and could unseat the DUP if united behind one candidate.
In his resignation statement, McElduff said that he did not wish to be a “barrier and blockage on the reconciliation process.” Many would be forgiven for wondering: what ‘reconciliation process’? The past remains a battleground. None of the contending forces in the Troubles – the sectarian parties, paramilitaries and the state – want a genuine accounting with the past which would expose their rotten role. Rather, they use and manipulate the past to support their positions today. A reflection of this battle over history can be seen in the ongoing controversy about the naming of a play park in Newry after IRA hunger-striker Raymond McCreesh. For many Catholics, including many who did not support the IRA campaign, McCreesh was a hero who sacrificed himself bravely for what he believed. Most Protestants, however, are offended by the name, particularly given the unproven allegations that McCreesh was involved in the Kingsmill massacre.
There have been countless examples of politicians using the past to whip up sectarianism. Recently for example Gregory Campbell has defended the flying of the Parachute Regiment’s flag in County Derry – a sectarian provocation given this regiment was responsible for the murder of 14 innocent protesters on Bloody Sunday. Previously, he had also commented that he’d been told by a man that Celtic were due to play in Gibraltar but claimed he “wasn’t sure what (the man) meant when he hoped that it wouldn’t be like the last time Irish Republican sympathisers went to Gibraltar and lost”, a reference to the killing of three unarmed IRA members by the SAS under the policy of ‘shoot to kill’. Similarly, there have been examples of loyalists responding to McElduff’s video with their own sectarian triumphalism. For example, one prominent loyalist tweeted a picture of himself holding a loaf of Ormo wheaten bread and displaying five fingers, a reference to the shooting of five Catholics at an Ormeau Road betting shop by the UDA.
None of the sectarian forces can deliver real truth or justice for victims and their families. How can the Kingsmill families place any trust in Sinn Féin, particularly after the McElduff incident? How can the DUP provide any truth or justice to the families of the Loughinisland victims, killed by the UVF as they watched a World Cup match in bar? DUP leaders were central figures in the founding of Ulster Resistance, an organisation which collaborated with the UVF and UDA to import guns from South Africa to Northern Ireland, one of which was used in the attack on the Heights Bar.
Nor can the British state claim any authority in attempting to deal with the issues of the past. Its actions resulted in several massacres, such as Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy. It was also complicit in countless cases of collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and is believed to have engaged in cover-ups to protect informers, including those involved in atrocities like Loughinisland and Kingsmill. Today, it also acts as ‘a blockage on reconciliation’ by refusing, on grounds of ‘national security’, to release documents that could provide answers to the victims of state violence and collusion. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, former Secretary of State Theresa Villiers maintained the line that allegations of collusion are a “pernicious counter-narrative”.
Workers take action against sectarianism
In the recent commentary on Kingsmill, little has been said about the role played by the workers’ movement in resisting these tit-for-tat killings. In response to the Glenanne gang killings and Kingsmill, Newry Trades Council immediately called a strike which closed most of the factories and workplaces in the town and brought thousands onto the streets. In the Craigavon area, shop stewards from the Goodyear factory took the initiative, coming together with other shop stewards to call a strike. Seven thousand workers marched in Lurgan.
This built on previous action in Derry by trade unionists in response to the killing of two businessmen by the IRA. Following the Newry and Craigavon protests, the pressure began to mount on the trade union leaders to follow the examples set by Derry, Newry and Lurgan. Had the leadership of the union movement reacted quickly and called a one-day strike, the response would have been overwhelming. It would have tapped the mood of anger at the killings and also given the working class a sense of their power. They did not issue such a call but, instead, they launched a campaign against sectarianism called Better Life for All. Late in January, a call for a two-minute silence in memory of all the victims of the Troubles was widely supported as workers across the North stopped work. Unfortunately, the heads of the union movement did little more.
The overwhelming mood for peace was harnessed instead by the Peace People in the summer and autumn of 1976. Unfortunately, the Peace People did not take up the issue of state violence or seek to explain the causes and underlying reasons for the Troubles. Nonetheless, it organised a series of successful rallies across the North – 20,000 turned out at Belfast’s Ormeau Park, 30,000 on the Shankill, 25,000 in Derry and many thousands more in Antrim, Coleraine, Strabane, Craigavon, Dungannon, Newtownards, Ballynahinch and elsewhere. These strikes, marches and protests played an important role in checking the spiral of tit-for-tat killings.
It is the workers’ movement which has the key role to play in providing a real accounting with the past, not in the interests of sectarian forces but in the interests of workers and young people. It still has the central role to play in relation to challenging sectarianism. The defiant statement from Unite in response to the recent appearance of sectarian graffiti at the Caterpillar/FG Wilson site in west Belfast is an example of the approach which should be taken. It said: “Workplaces are the one place in Northern Ireland where people come together across the sectarian divides. Over the decades there have been those on both sides who have attempted to sow division but the trade union movement and our union, Unite, in particular has taken a stand against those forces. Unite stands full square against sectarianism and intimidation and the disgusting graffiti at Springvale today. Anyone that threatens a hair on the head of any one of our members is an enemy of our union. Our solidarity is our strength.” Similarly, the recent protest of probation workers organised by NIPSA in response to threats from ‘dissident’ republicans show this is still possible and necessary.
However, to fundamentally tackle sectarianism, both Green and Orange, it necessary to go further and engage in a political challenge to the sectarian parties, seeking to unite the working-class and young people in opposition to their implementation of austerity and their backward social attitudes on issues like abortion, as well as their divisive role. A strong challenge by a cross-community candidate not attached to the discredited political establishment in the West Tyrone by-election could put down an important marker. But it is the workers’ movement which is best placed to build a political alternative in every community in Northern Ireland by campaigning on the issues that unite working-class people and also finding genuine solutions to the issues that divide us in the genuine spirit of mutual respect, compromise and solidarity.