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3 March 2005 Edition

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Wilful Oblivion

BY LAURA FRIEL

Michael McDowell

Michael McDowell

Wilful oblivion, forgetting, erasing memory, these are the processes that lie at the heart of the current ideological onslaught against republicans and our project of building a better future. To be fully immersed in the prevailing anti-republican discourse, we must first forget Sinn Féin is the largest pro-Agreement party in the north and re-assert the old failed mantra of republicans being the only barrier to peace.

We must erase all memory of the brutal imposition of partition and the consequences for northern nationalists, abandoned within a fascist style one party police state — a state where systematic sectarian political and economic exclusion by unionism was underpinned by ritualised violence and humiliation by organisations like the Orange Order.

We must forget the illegality of British occupation, from internment without trial to the torture of detainees and mass imprisonment through the imposition of non-jury trials. We must forget the British state was ever involved with loyalist death squads in commissioning the murder of citizens within its own jurisdiction.

And forget the victims of Bloody Sunday, plastic bullets and shoot to kill. Because it's only when we all enter into this state of collective amnesia that we are able to criminalise the people who fought back.

McDowell's role

Of course, Dublin's current Minister of Justice, Michael McDowell, is the epitome of wilful oblivion. And at the moment he is certainly basking in the eternal sunshine of his own anti-republican prejudices. In the words of Pat Leahy of the Sunday Business Post, McDowell "appears to many observers as if he's having the time of his life".

The desire to criminalise, marginalise, exclude republicans is nothing new to McDowell. When Leahy says, "McDowell has the look of a man who has waited all his political life for this role", the observation is not coincidental. McDowell has a long and ignoble history of opposing inclusivity and political progress.

McDowell was bitterly opposed to the Adams/Hume initiative and the inter-party talks which led to the cessations and the beginnings of the current Peace Process. He denounced the initiative claiming it had set back the pursuit of peace and predicted it was doomed to fail.

McDowell supported political censorship and opposed the lifting of Section 31, which banned Sinn Féin from the airwaves. He opposed the decision by the US Government to grant Gerry Adams a visa and was critical of the then Irish Government's role in the peace process.

McDowell sees himself as a 'true' republican and the 26-County state as the 'true' Republic. And as for northern nationalists, well they should put up and shut up because anything else might overturn the very rosy apple cart McDowell enjoys in the South.

As Leahy puts it, "McDowell's distaste for the Republican Movement comes also from his sense that the party's electoral advance in the South represents a threat to the integrity of the state".

Well, of course an All-Ireland party pursuing the political goal of re-unification could be viewed by established political elites as a threat to the integrity of their power base. But partition was imposed as much on the south as the north.

And while re-unification would necessarily engender change, republicans look towards a future where political and social relationships would no longer be shackled by sectarian division, repression and occupation, the true enemies of democracy and peace.

An end to partition, unity not only between southern and northern nationalists but also reconciliation between Orange and Green, will not destroy the Republic but complete it. This is the unfinished business of 1916.

Leahy suggests that McDowell's journey from a member of a minority party to the cabinet of the Fianna Fáil coalition government was expediently accompanied with "a green awakening" and for a period he "appeared to embrace the Peace Process".

But having secured his position within Ahern's cabinet, McDowell returned to the old rhetoric "reminiscent of his Sunday Independent phase", says Leahy. Ironically, lurid tales accusing Sinn Féin of subversion have obscured the fact that McDowell is currently acting as a subversive force at the heart of government, threatening to overthrow the Peace Process and with it the mechanism for progressive change.

Turnaround

But if the media has been happily ignoring this, there is some indication that McDowell is beginning to be seen as off message within Fianna Fáil. Hints that Bertie Ahern views McDowell's outbursts as unhelpful appeared in the media after journalists were briefed by government sources.

Other Fianna Fáil ministers let it be known that while they refused to distance themselves from McDowell's analysis, they thought he should "shut up". They suggested that McDowell has little understanding of how things are viewed in the north.

Similarly, the more thoughtful press is slowly beginning to question where McDowell's position is leading. Notions of throwing the baby out with the bathwater are being expressed, as well as a realisation that the Peace Process should not be reduced to a vehicle for personal political hostility.

"The process has delivered enormous benefits to Ireland, both North and South," Leahy reports government sources saying. "It's not a stage on which McDowell should play out his internal dramas."

Election campaigns

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin is getting down to the real business of running an election campaign. In the 26 Counties, the party's campaign around the Meath by election is well underway. Sinn Féin's candidate, Joe Reilly, narrowly missed gaining a seat in the Dail in 2002, with a tenfold increase in the vote.

While Sinn Féin remains confident of its core vote, backed up by recent opinion polls, election workers know it would be foolish to take the electorate for granted, particularly within the current hostile political climate. On the doorstep, the indication is that for the vast majority of people are mostly concerned with local issues.

In the North, Sinn Féin Director of Elections Seán Begley is also confident that elections are fought on the ground rather than within the media. "Sinn Féin is a party of activists and election workers are already on the streets and knocking doors," he says.

Sinn Féin activists have already been working hard to make sure those entit

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