‘HE who controls the past controls the future.” There is a great deal of truth in this observation made by the novelist George Orwell.

Gerry and his 2 best girls smile through it all – nothing got to do with us!!!

Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald and its leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill during the party’s pre-Dáil return away day meeting in September in the City North Hotel, Dublin.

There is a great deal of truth in this observation made by the novelist George Orwell.

Was taking human life on this island during the Troubles morally justifiable? That question about the past is enormously pertinent to the present and the future of this island and this Republic. That is so because it is a central tenant of Sinn Féin’s strategy of electoral advancement to legitimise the killing campaign it supported over decades.

Before considering the validity of Sinn Féin’s claim that the Provisional campaign of taking human life was justified, it is important to recall, not least for younger readers, what happened in elections during the Troubles and how those who faced discrimination voted.

The leadership of the Provisional movement in the early 1980s had nothing to do with electoral politics in the early years of its killing campaign but the ascent of the Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness faction led to change. Instead of an exclusive focus on violence to achieve its strategic ends, it opened a second front. Candidates were put up for election. For those who may be less familiar with those grim times, the twin track approach was described by a leading figure in the movement as advancing with “the armalite (rifle) in one hand and the ballot box in the other”.

Consider that in context. In Europe today there is no little concern about the rise of political forces who have little time for the basic values of liberal democracy, but none comes close to Sinn Féin at the time. Imagine if Marine Le Pen adopted a strategy of the ballot box in one hand and Kalashnikov in the other as a means of winning power in France. If she did so, her party would be immediately outlawed.

That Sinn Féin was not banned from contesting elections during the Troubles, while it supported and justified murder, torture, intimidation and racketeering, gives some sense to those around at the time just how much bending of the basic rules of democracy was allowed then (authorities south and North thought prohibition would lessen the chances of an eventual move away from violence).

The Provisional movement has always claimed that it had the right to use violence because there was no other way of ending the discrimination and unfairness that the nationalist community in the North faced. But it is vital to recall that the nationalist community, in every election in the years before the 1990s ceasefires, never came close to giving Sinn Féin a majority. The very people in whose name the Provisionals took life rejected them steadfastly at the ballot box.

The party advocating non-violent methods of change, the SDLP, always outpolled Sinn Féin, and by a margin of up to three to one. Add in the nationalists who voted for non-nationalist parties and it is easy to see why the biggest share of the vote Sinn Féin ever won in any election in the North before the IRA’s ceasefire was 13pc.

Returning to the moral justification of taking human life at the time, which remains so relevant to the present and future. There are a number of basic tests for when violence can be morally justified. A good starting point is the test of last resort.

While nobody would deny that the Northern Irish state egregiously failed its citizens from the nationalist tradition before and after the civil rights campaign, and lost much of its legitimacy as a result, the SDLP proved by its very existence and electoral success that there was always a non-violent route to change.

Another moral test for the use of violence is whether it is proportionate. Few people would disagree that if you are attacked you have the right to defend yourself. And there is certainly a case to be made that there were incidences in the early stages of the Troubles when self defence was legitimately invoked. But the launching of a sustained and coordinated campaign to take human life was not only utterly disproportionate, it was counterproductive, delaying the advance of a broader civil and human rights agenda.

Sinn Féin still has profound problems understanding proportionality. Mary Lou McDonald is expected shortly to become leader of Sinn Féin. On Tuesday, she said that a three-month suspension on full pay was proportionate for one of her party’s MPs, Barry McElduff, who made a ‘joke’ of the IRA’s sectarian mass murder at Kingsmill 42 years ago.

As the SDLP’s Alban Maginness pointed out in these pages yesterday, Peadar Tóibín TD was given a suspension of twice that length for failing to back the party’s stance on abortion, something that for him is a matter of conscience.

Ms McDonald’s stance and Mr McElduff’s disrespect are just two examples of how a movement that was primarily a militaristic entity for most of its existence has yet to evolve into a fully democratic party. Another more systemic symptom is the multiple and on-going revelations of bullying within the party. Perhaps even more telling is the incapacity of such a secretive and suspicious cult-like organisation to openly address the problem.

None of this should surprise. Armies value secrecy over transparency; top-down dictate over open discussion; and obedience over questioning.

Sinn Féin’s military-style culture is deeply engrained. Organisations change culture slowly. The past is not left behind so easily.

Those too young to remember the killing should keep that in mind when they consider who they want to govern this jurisdiction in the future.