Sinn Fein leader in SouthCoast with vow of non-violence

Sinn Fein leader in SouthCoast with vow of non-violence
Steve Urbon column
South Coast Today
March 16, 2013

Ireland’s Sinn Fein leading member Pat Doherty speaks to Normandin Middle School eighth-graders about the struggle for Northern Irland’s independence.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day weekend, with the usual green beer, drinking songs, clovers and corned beef and cabbage. This year, however, we’ve had an added wrinkle: a guest talk by a ranking member of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

Pat Doherty, a former Sinn Fein vice president and a current member of the British Parliament, stopped by the Normandin Middle School in New Bedford on Friday, invited by history teacher and Irish native Chris Donnelly.

Before him sat about 70 students, many of them equipped with note cards with questions for the man.

Doherty, who is in his late 60s with not a gray hair on his head, gave a soft-spoken presentation about the epic, tortured history of Ireland’s relationship with Great Britain.

“It’s hard to explain 800 years of history in 30 seconds,” he joked. Then he did his best, and the students did their best to follow him.

Suffice it to say that after decades of bloody struggle between Catholics and Protestants, between Ireland and England, the parties have settled down under a complex arrangement of government and relationships called the Good Friday Accords.

That’s because they were signed on Good Friday in 1998, after negotiations led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, sent there by President Bill Clinton.

Doherty, though, made it clear that although the parties, including the IRA, have renounced violence, Sinn Fein will continue to push for reunification of Ireland and the peaceful expulsion of the British from Northern Ireland.

He had been asked what one thing he would like to change and he said it was that. “I’d have a united Ireland tomorrow morning,” he said. “It’s what the people want.”

Again and again Doherty spoke of the importance of a peaceful transition. I have to wonder whether the students in that library assembly had any inkling of how ugly it was in Ireland for so many years.

In any case, at one point Doherty, in an answer to a question from yours truly, said “The huge advantage is now we have a democracy and it is peaceful. There is no argument, no need, no demand for there to be armed conflict anymore.”

My question, however, was about a problem with the past possibly re-emerging in the future, a problem of reopening old wounds and settling old scores.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland, which replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary, wants Boston College to release the interviews of some of the people interviewed for its oral history project on “The Troubles.”

IRA members and others involved or affected by the violence were interviewed under the promise that their testimony would be kept a total secret until they die.

Doherty said softly: “I think the people who took part in this historical project, I actually think they were foolish to believe a promise they couldn’t keep.”

The U.S. has taken Ireland’s side in the dispute, which is still in the courts. Anything could happen. “God knows where it will take us,” he said. That’s when he again renounced violence.

“We still have a way to go,” he said.

A final note: Pat Doherty will speak this evening at the annual Friendly Sons of St. Patrick dinner dance at White’s of Westport. Contact organizer Chris Donnelly at 508-320-8388 for ticket information.