By Jennifer O’Connell
One of my first jobs as a journalist was to cover the aftermath of the Omagh bombing. To say I was ill-equipped for the task is like saying a polar bear is ill-equipped to write a sonnet.
I was 23 years old, doing a Masters in Journalism, and working weekends at the now-defunct Independent Network News.
I was up early the morning of August 16, 1998, and in the Dublin newsroom by 6am. I would be working the morning shift alone.
There was a note on my desk left for me by one of my colleagues: “You’ll know by now that there was a bomb in Omagh. It’s big. Good luck.” After that, I was on my own.
By the time I went home, shattered and numb, it was clear that the number of those killed by the republican splinter group, the Real IRA, would exceed any other single act of the Troubles. Ultimately, 29 people died and more than 220 were injured.
I remember crying as I walked around the supermarket later that day, and the numbness began to lift.
The memorial garden at Omagh: image via geograph.ie
And that’s as close as I have come to being directly affected by the Troubles.
I never write about the north precisely because of this; because southern commentators writing or speaking about it will always be locked in what the great Nuala O’Faolain called “a dialogue of the deaf”.
They say that, without having lived through it, we don’t understand; we can’t understand.
We say that’s true – but maybe not having lived through it gives us a sharper perspective on the difference between right and wrong.
They try to put the killings in a social and historical context, and we nod politely and think yes, but that still doesn’t account for a single one of the 2,000 people killed by the IRA during the period of the Troubles.
The see us nodding politely and decide we’re more of those ‘West Brit southern media commentators’ that get so much up Martin McGuinness’s nose.
And so, in the interests of sharing the same, small island and preserving the peace process, we’ve mostly avoided having those kind of conversations.
Of course, all that’s changed now. Now McGuinness has invited us to vote for him as President. He has, in effect, asked us what we think.
And never before has the divide between how nationalists north and south think been thrown into such sharp relief.
In the north, many nationalists today believe McGuinness stands for, in the words of his republican colleague Danny Morrison last week, “ceasefire and peace and negotiation and dialogue”.
They know he was in the IRA, but – as McGuinness said in an interview with the London Independent a few days back– “I don't think the majority of people – to be quite honest – care” when, or if, he ever left it.
In the south, too, a large number of people no longer care, as evidenced by his showing in the polls and the Sinn Fein vote at election time.
But for many more of us, he continues to stand for a period we’d rather forget; a dark time of fear, violence and intimidation, a time when being Irish meant being ashamed.
Last weekend, as Martin McGuiness was being interviewed by Eamonn Dunphy on Newstalk radio, the government chief whip Paul Kehoe tweeted that he “wouldn’t trust Martin McGuinness to take my dog for a walk”, adding a moment later: “Why would you need your salary when you have the proceeds of the northern bank at your disposal?”
It was crude, inappropriate and intemperate – and it sure as hell won’t help Gay Mitchell’s electoral chances. And yet, it probably reflected what a great many of those listening felt.
McGuinness wants to be seen as a freedom fighter turned statesman, in the mould of a Mandela or a Castro. But his public image south of the border is still a long way from that.
He argues that people in the north have moved on, even unionists have moved on - and that it’s time the rest of the people on this island did too. But I think he’s got it the wrong way round.
It’s McGuinness who needs to catch up with us.
After all, it was only last Monday, in that interview with the London Independent, that he finally admitted that the accidental killings of innocent civilians by the IRA could legitimately be seen as “murder”.
It was also only in the last fortnight that he described the 1987 Enniskillen bombing, when the IRA killed 11 civilians, as "atrocious", and said he was “ashamed” of the republicans who carried it out.
It was only since the presidential campaign got underway that he felt inclined to sympathise with the relatives of all those who lost their lives, including the families of British and Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers and RUC police officers.
This shift in his language at this time is not a coincidence – say what you like about McGuinness, but he’s no fool.
Will it be enough to salve the doubts of nationalists south of the border, to offer them sufficient comfort that they might tick the box beside his name on October 27?
Yes, it will be enough for some. There are a lot of people who are disillusioned with the political establishment, who have lost their jobs or are struggling to pay their mortgage, who may feel ready to vote Sinn Fein again, or for the first time.
And even if they didn’t feel especially inclined before last weekend, the crude nature of the attacks being launched on him by that same establishment may well have helped them make up their mind.
But there are many more who do care when or whether McGuinness left the IRA; who want to know what exactly he did in its name; who would like to hear him say who he protected, and who he’s continuing to protect.
There are many for whom McGuinness’s newfound rhetoric of shame and compassion is too little, too late.
I admire what he achieved in the peace process. I wish him well. But I won’t be voting for him.
This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on October 9 2011