FORMER UUP leader Jim Molyneaux famously observed during the heady days of the mid-1990s that the IRA ceasefire was the most destabilising thing to happen to unionism since partition. Not M60s or culvert bombs; not booby-traps or big city smokies; not Armalites or even ballot boxes – the absence of violence, or to be more specific, the absence of republican violence.
Approaching 30 years later, we look back and see how prescient his words were. So spooked and confused were unionists that every effort was made from the get-go to make it harder for republicans to do what unionists had been demanding of them for a quarter of a century. As well as putting aside their weapons, they were required to wear “sack cloth and ashes” and it was necessary for them to be “house-trained”. Despite such deliberately dehumanising and provocative language – carefully designed to make any guerilla with access to a gun reach for a gun – Sinn Féin and the IRA ploughed on, and here we are today with the IRA the only conflict protagonist to have departed the stage.
In the wake of the IRA hanging up its black beret, it became quickly clear that the most destabilising thing to have happened to the union was not the IRA going away, but the IRA staying away, which is why no opportunity has ever been lost for a game of atrocity bingo, with the unionist callers restricted to IRA numbers. Expressions of fury at past IRA actions continue, of course, but even the most assiduous loyal Ulster outrage archaeologist is beginning to realise that banging on about what the IRA did when The Osmonds were No.1 in the charts is not exactly striking a chord with those younger voters in whose hands the future of the union lies.
And so it has come to pass that suddenly words are just as explosive as Semtex and anyone who says something that doesn’t pass muster with the unionist language police is the contemporary equivalent of an IRA volunteer. A voluntary school counsellor from South Armagh is the latest to fall victim to the ‘Ooh, ah, up the Ra’ fixation. Squinter uses the word ‘victim’ deliberately because while the mobile phone stunt she pulled on Arlene Foster was crass and ill-advised, the subsequent political and media reaction has been so grotesquely inappropriate that a week of wall-to-wall coverage culminated in a Sunday newspaper printing pictures of her in a bikini that they had obtained by accessing her social media accounts. And whatever your opinion of what she did, there can surely be very few people who think that her tasteless stunt deserves to be punished by tabloid shaming of that kind.
No pictures of the Leinster rugby team in Speedos were culled from cyberspace by the same paper when the players took over the PA system of a Ryanair flight to sing ‘Ooh, ah, up the Ra’. Indeed, Dublin Live headlined the mobile phone footage ‘Watch delighted Leinster players singing Celtic Symphony on flight back to Dublin Airport’. Similarly, Michelle O’Neill’s recent comment in a TV interview that she believes there was “no alternative” to the IRA’s armed campaign is in certain quarters as heinous as those who prosecuted the campaign.
The two words have become almost – but not quite – as famous or infamous (delete as appropriate) as ‘Ooh, ah, up the Ra’ in the three months since she said them, even though she was articulating bog-standard republican orthodoxy. There’s not a single politician on the island of Ireland who doesn’t know what Michelle O’Neill thinks about the Troubles and it has never stopped them doing business with her. But her expressing an opinion has only become problematic because of the imperative to find something about the Ra to whine about decades after they blew up Dodge. Sorry, blew Dodge.
Lord Mayor Tina Black was interviewed recently by the PA news agency and was asked why she was attending the Armistice commemoration at the Cenotaph instead of the main event on Remembrance Sunday. She asked twice if she could consult her press officer to clear something up in her mind and broke off to do so. Happens all the time . But PA put a clip of the routine outtake up on Twitter – no idea why – and cue an avalanche of outrage of the “taking advice from the army council” variety. What Lord Mayor Black was doing, in fact, was trying to establish the facts at a sensitive time of year in order not to cause exactly the kind of outrage that the outtake provoked. Pilloried for saying words, pilloried for not saying words. Oh, what a lovely war!