I was, quite unexpectedly and at the last minute, given the opportunity on Saturday to address the Sinn Fein National Youth Congress on the subject of “reconciliation”. I was received warmly and genuinely generously, but what I had to say was, I hope, challenging.
My own father had two attempts on his life by the IRA. One killed his photographer, aged just 19 but already a father of a baby just months old, in Derry in 1974. What I take from his recollections of it all, however, is not a thirst for any kind of revenge but rather a constant reminder of the grotesqueness of conflict – regardless of which side you are on. The Troubles were both inhuman and de-humanising – some of what took place was perhaps on occasions necessary but there was nothing, nothing “glorious” about them.
No young person in Ireland should be in any doubt about that. Young impressionable men were tossed into a conflict, largely not of their own making, and the result was utterly horrible and inglorious. The best anyone could expect was severe restrictions on their personal liberty and economic prospects for a generation; the worst was of course the painful visit heralding news of the sudden death or injury of a loved one. In the midst of it all there were small, often individual acts of astonishing kindness or heroism – but there was nothing glorious about that period in our history.
There are still impressionable young men who reckon they were willing to go to “war” for “the cause of Ireland” or to get a criminal record to “defend British Ulster”. No civic or political leader should delay their advice to such young men for one second – there is nothing glorious about that attitude. It will only result in pain – for self and others. Not only is no “cause” worth it, but no “cause” is served by it.