From Paramilitaries to Power Sharing: Ex-Militants in Politics

For many years now Sinn Fein has been intrinsically linked with the IRA.  Indeed it is widely recognised that Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein MLA Martin McGuinness is a former IRA leader.  Therefore the political involvement of those who once actively supported terrorist organisations is nothing new within the Northern Ireland Assembly.  However, while many men and women who were once contributing to the republican armed struggle against British occupation are now fighting their cause through the medium of politics, a recent appointment within Sinn Fein has received almost unanimous condemnation.

Judge Tom Travers

Judge Tom Travers and his daughter Mary Travers

In the most recent elections, Sinn Fein representative Caral Ni Chuilin was elected as a MLA for North Belfast, before being appointed as Minister of Culture Arts and Leisure.  Ms Ni Chuilin’s election and appointment as Minister was largely uncontroversial, however the same cannot be said for the appointment of Mary McArdle as Ni Chuilin’s special adviser.  After being convicted of a number of charges including murder and attempted murder for her role in one of the most shocking killings witnessed during the Troubles, Mary McArdle served 14 years of a life sentence; her prison term was cut short after she was released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The murder in question is that of 23 year-old Mary Travers. The crime of the young primary school teacher; she was the daughter of a local Magistrate who was deemed a “legitimate” IRA target due to his role in the British judicial system.  Upon leaving mass on Sunday 8th April 1984, the Travers family were the target of an IRA ambush, organised to carry out the murder of Tom Travers.  Despite receiving 6 gunshot wounds in total, Tom Travers survived the attack, his daughter Mary however, did not.  She was killed by a single bullet that entered at the bottom of her spine and passed out through her neck.  A short time after the attack took place, the then 19 year-old Mary McArdle was arrested as she walked along the street, the police found two guns concealed in her stockings, they were the weapons used in the fatal shooting.  Although Sinn Fein and McArdle herself have since claimed that Miss Travers’ murder was a “tragic mistake”, the vicious actions carried out that day were never forgotten by the Northern Irish public, and more specifically by the Travers family itself.

Reflecting on the cold-blooded and inhumane nature of the crime it comes as no surprise that Mary McArdle’s recent appointment as a special adviser within Sinn Fein, a role for which she receives over £1,000 per week in the form of a civil service salary, has been widely condemned, being described by First Minister Peter Robinson as “insensitive and a mistake”.  While this particular case of former combatants now fulfilling roles within government has received unprecedented scrutiny and reaction, it also serves to spark debate regarding the importance and value of the roles ex militants can play in a post-conflict political system.

While Martin McGuinness’ recent comparison of Mary McArdle’s appointment and that of Nelson Mandela’s rise to South African presidency may be somewhat disproportionate, it would appear that there is indeed a case to argue that many of those who were once involved in so called terrorist organisations and movements do have a place in the political process of achieving and maintaining peace.  It could be said that without a willingness to move away from using weapons, and continue the struggle within the political arena, we would not have advanced to the largely peaceful stage currently enjoyed in Northern Ireland.  On that basis it could be said that the inclusion of former paramilitary members in politics is vital in the name of progression, and where possible there must be encouragement for organisations and individuals to fight a political war rather than a violent and bloody one.

Although it would appear that ex-militants contribute significant positive offerings in the Northern Ireland government of today, the issue of the isolation and division that is caused as a result of the appointment of such individuals is undeniable.  Within an already divided society, the political involvement of individuals who contributed to the regions troubled past is always going to be divisive.  With every crime there is a victim, and for many victims in Northern Ireland, the deep wounds caused by crimes and attacks carried out during the troubles are yet to heal. As a result, it could be argued that the appointment of people who had direct involvement in such crimes may only serve to not only re-open old wounds but also to further widen existing divides.

Mary McArdle

Convicted murderer and recently appointed Sinn Fein special adviser Mary McArdle

Many will argue that anyone who undertakes a movement away from violence and into peaceful and constructive methods to achieve their goal must be commended; however an issue that is not open to debate is that the appointment of such individuals must be carried out with sensitivity and compassion.  Although, judging by the backgrounds of a number of our current elected representatives, many members of the public feel that there is a place in government for ex-militants, there are also limits as to who or what is acceptable.  Mary McArdle’s appointment crosses this line.  Had Mary McArdle been democratically elected by the people of Northern Ireland, there would be much less basis for objection.  But she was not elected, she was internally appointed to an extremely powerful position within Sinn Fein.

In constructing political parties that will take Northern Ireland forward, it has become apparent that the inclusion of individuals who were directly involved in its troubled past is inevitable, perhaps even necessary.  However with regards to which individuals should be included, especially in positions that are not democratically elected, decisions and determinations must be made on a case-by-case basis.  The people of Northern Ireland have demonstrated that they believe that ex-combatants can make a positive contribution to sustained peace through the medium of politics, yet in the case of Mary McArdle, it has also become clear that the crimes and actions of certain individuals are simply unforgivable and therefore means that they have nothing to offer the progressive politics required to continue guiding us towards a peaceful, united society.


About danieljmclaugh

I am a graduate of Queens University Belfast, where I completed a BSc (Hons) Environmental Planning degree. Having been born and raised in Northern Ireland, I have inherited a burning passion for politics and the difference it can make to peoples’ lives. I am currently heavily involved in local level politics, however I maintain a keen interest in national level political matters also. Outside of politics my passions are sport and music, I genuinely feel that the emotions provoked by live music and sporting events are unparalleled. Fundamental politics should serve the good of the people, all people.

Posted on July 5, 2011, in Devolved Government, Northern Ireland and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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