The Transformation of Ourselves Alone and What It Means for US
Posted on August 15, 2014
Sinn Fein is gaining popularity in the Republic of Ireland, and it has nothing to do with the original purpose of the political arm of the IRA.
And that is an important lesson for us here in the United States.
I was talking to a young lady who had an internship in America but was politically active back home.
I asked her what political party she was supporting.
She had given up on the major political parties that had dominated the landscape in the Republic of Ireland since the Irish Civil War of the 1920’s, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
That wasn’t surprising, given her obvious liberal proclivities.
What was also interesting was that she had also given up on the Labor Party and on the Green Party, which traditionally had attracted more liberal voters.
She was supporting Sinn Fein, not because of their role in representing the Irish Catholic interests (and more Republican) in Northern Ireland. She was supporting them because they had become much more politically progressive in their orientation, supporting things like gay marriage and abortion.
Why do I find this interesting?
Because Sinn Fein had most closely associated with terrorism and the Irish Republican Army. But over the last several years, Sinn Fein has transformed itself into something different.
And it has done that because it now has a role in the Northern Ireland government and with that role, a responsibility to govern.
I was thinking about Sinn Fein and the IRA in regards to what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri.
Now, we are lucky in America that we haven’t had to confront an organized terrorist threat from African-Americans, but the resentment that many black Americans feel towards our government is not dissimilar to what Irish Catholics felt in Northern Ireland towards the British government .
In fact, the protest movement that helped to spawn the Troubles in the 1970’s was inspired by the civil rights movement in America in the 1960’s.
A key part of the peace process in Northern Ireland was transforming the Royal Ulster Constabulary into a police force that truly represented all of the people of Ulster.
The RUC was seen primarily as a occupying force, a ruthless agent of the Orange Order and the British Crown.
Transforming the RUC into a different police force that could represent all of the people was and is a monumental challenge.
That’s not unlike how African-Americans feel about police forces throughout the United States.
They see them not as partners in fighting crime but rather as occupying agents who don’t care about them and frequently are a source of abuse. I am not saying that it is fair. But it is reality.
The hardest part of transforming the RUC was getting the Catholics to join it. Before the Easter Sunday accords, getting Catholics to join the police force was darn near impossible. And there were serious threats to your family if you did join it.
So, what the Peace Process recommended was to have the force change its name to the Police Service Northern Ireland, or the PSNI. Another part of this transformation was to have jointly shared government between the Catholic and Protestant communities.
It hasn’t been a smooth path to peace in Northern Ireland and they aren’t out of the woods yet.
But the Irish (and the British) have taken dramatic steps to ease the deep tensions. Power sharing and policing reform are necessary steps in the process.
Other steps, of course, include greater economic growth in both communities and better educational opportunities.
For over 500 years, the British crown and the Protestant ascendancy abused, discriminated and otherwise harassed the Catholics of Ireland, and after the partition of 1921, Northern Ireland.
Only now, at this point in history, is an organization like Sinn Fein, which was founded as the political branch of a terrorist organization, now making political gains based not on keeping old resentments alive, but by forging different political priorities for the future.
I may disagree with those priorities, but I am struck by this new Sinn Fein and what their example can teach us here in America about how we can ease racial tensions and make this country a better place to live for all of our citizens.