A republican Versailles, not an honourable compromise

Liam O Ruairc, a comrade from the Irish republican socialist tradition, looks at what the Good Friday agreement has meant in terms of Sinn Féin's embrace of constitutional nationalism

The culmination of the peace process was the signing of the 1998 Good Friday agreement. It took a mere six months after the 1997 ceasefire to conclude the negotiations which produced the Belfast deal on April 10 1998, marking the end of the whole 1968-1998 period of struggles. The logic, dynamic and parameters of the peace process combined to mould a partitionist framework which served to predetermine a type of outcome republicanism had for long stood rock-solid against. The 1998 Belfast agreement amounts to the following: * the British state has repeated its 1973 Sunningdale declaration of intent to remain in the north until a majority in it asks it to do otherwise; * the British state has made it clear that the unionist veto shall remain in place and has strengthened the partitionist ethos underlying that veto by having it enshrined in the revised southern constitution; * the British state has ruled out any transition to a united Ireland by refusing to state that by a certain date - no matter how far in the distant future - it will no longer have a presence in Ireland. The fact remains that the unionists will determine when the north will join a united Ireland. IRA volunteers: from guerrilla fighters to constitutional nationalists This represents the best deal unionists could possibly have won. In the words of Anthony Blair, the British prime minister: "This offers unionists every key demand they have made since partition 80 years ago ... The principle of consent - no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of the people - is enshrined. The Irish constitution has been changed ... A devolved assembly and government for Northern Ireland is now there for the taking. When I first came to Northern Ireland as a prime minister, these demands were pressed on me as what unionists really needed. I have delivered them all" (The Sunday Times July 4 1999). With no end to partition, no British declaration of intent to withdraw, no united Ireland, the outcome of the peace process had no identifiable republican content. It was a 'partitionist fudge': "In trade union terms, the republican leadership had secured a six-day week and lower wages" (Anthony McIntyre, 'We, the IRA, have failed' The Guardian May 22 1998). Danny Morrison, former Sinn Féin publicity director, claims that the British could not defeat the IRA, nor could the IRA defeat the British, so the IRA did not win but had not lost either ('The war is over "¦ Now we must look for the future' The Guardian May 11 1998). That is demonstrably wrong. In the words of Anthony McIntyre, "The political objective of the Provisional IRA was to secure a British declaration of intent to withdraw. It failed. The objective of the British state was to force the Provisional IRA to accept - and subsequently respond with a new strategic logic - that it would not leave Ireland until a majority in the north consented to such a move. It succeeded" ('We, the IRA, have failed' The Guardian May 22 1998). Nevertheless, the Provisional leadership still maintains the myth of an 'undefeated army'. Another argument advanced by the Provisionals is that the Belfast agreement is not a defeat, but a necessary compromise. Gerry Adams stated that it was "a historic compromise between nationalism and unionism" ('A moment in history' An Phoblacht/Republican News November 25 1999). The problem is less that it is a compromise than the fact that it is a bad compromise. First, it was nationalism that did all the compromising. It accepted: 1. The principle of unionist consent on the national question; 2. The maintenance of British sovereignty; 3. The deletion of articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution claiming the north; 4. The retention and not the abolition of the Northern Ireland police force; 5. The resurrection of Stormont. All in exchange for six cross-border bodies and British government-appointed commissions on the equality and human rights agendas. To get a measure of how little has been ceded by unionists - and by implication how much by republicans - we need only view it through the following prism: "If, for example, through the Good Friday agreement, the unionists had signed up to a British declaration of intent to withdraw from the north and a Dublin declaration of intent to annex the Six Counties, no amount of wordplay and casuistry would have permitted this outcome to be regarded as anything other than a resounding defeat. Small consolation it would have been to them to have won outright on 'strand one' matters, such as keeping the RUC intact or the prisoners locked up. Unionism would have lost on the great philosophical question of consent" (Anthony McIntyre Britain - the sovereign power rwg.phoblacht.net/mackersarch-ieve13.html). It looks more like a republican Versailles than an honourable compromise. Second, there had been a better deal on offer in 1973-1974. For example, Austin Currie, a minister in the 1974 power-sharing executive, actually feels that Sunningdale was a better deal for nationalists than the Belfast agreement (see A Currie All hell will break loose Dublin 2004). The Provisional movement had rejected Sunningdale, denounced it as a sell-out, and finally settled for less than the Social Democratic Labour Party got in 1973. One month later, on May 10, a special Sinn Féin conference ratified the acceptance of the Belfast agreement by 331 votes to 19, thus clearing the way for Sinn Féin members to take their seats in the once despised Stormont parliament. A few days prior to the conference, a Provisional IRA convention took place and assembled delegates lifted the ban on members taking their seats in Stormont. By that time, all the internal opponents had gone away. But how could the leadership sell to the movement what had been republicanism's worst defeat since 1798? The Provisional leadership argues that the peace process and the Belfast agreement maybe do not fulfil traditional republican objectives, but nevertheless represent a 'stepping stone' to a united Ireland, and that the 'peace process' embodies the 'transition' to it. For Gerry Adams, the Provisional movement was entering a "new phase of the struggle": while the agreement "is not a settlement, it is a basis for advancement" and "could become a transitional stage towards reunification" (presidential address APRN April 23 1998). Thus, the motion officially ratified by the party read: "The Good Friday document is not a political settlement. When set in the context of our strategy, tactics and goals, the Good Friday document is a basis for further progress and advancement of our struggle. It is another staging post on the road to a peace settlement ... The Good Friday document does not go as far as we would have liked at this time, but it is clearly transitional ... It can be a basis for pushing forward national and democratic objectives. In short, it allows us to move our struggle into a new and potentially more productive phase" (resolution No1, Sinn Féin ard fheis 1998; see special supplement to APRN May 7 1998). Lack of space prevents discussion here of the validity or otherwise of that argument. Suffice it to say that if it is "transitional", that transition will always be subjected to the unionist veto. The Provisional IRA's war against the British state is well and truly over (see Danny Morrison, 'No longer need for Armalite' The Andersonstown News October 27 2001). It was not just defeated, but engaged in a process of surrender by instalment. Decommissioning illustrates the extent of this. In 1995, the IRA stated that the demand for decommissioning was "ludicrous" ('IRA says British acting in bad faith' APRN October 5 1995). In 1996, it stated: "Whenever and however the ludicrous British demand for an IRA surrender is raised we can and will have only one answer. There will be no decommissioning either through the front or the back doors. This is an unrealistic and unrealisable demand which simply won't be met" ('IRA says British good faith required for new peace process' APRN March 7 1996). The slogan, 'Not an ounce, not one bullet', appeared in nationalist areas of the Six Counties. However, in May 2000, the Provisional leadership was forced to "initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA weapons beyond use": "the contents of a number of arms dumps will be inspected by third parties ... to ensure weapons have remained secure" (IRA statement APRN May 11 2000). In October 2001, it began the destruction of its stock of weaponry. The Provisional leadership "has developed the habit of describing its strategic failures in terms of 'new phases of struggle'" (Anthony McIntyre, 'Is Sinn Féin a victim of its own design?', parliamentary brief, May-June 1998), and what would previously have been denounced as treachery was now praised as "historic", "courageous", "imaginative" and "liberating" initiatives ('Gerry Adams commends IRA's "liberating step"' APRN October 25 2001). Yet the political significance of decommissioning is crucial. It showed that the Provisional IRA war was truly over - an army does not destroy its weapons if it is to fight a war. It was an act of surrender. There has never been a situation in the world where an 'undefeated army' has willingly and unilaterally handed over its weapons to its enemy. The only situation where that applies is when an army has been defeated and is forced to hand over arms as an act of surrender. Especially as there have been no loyalist acts of decommissioning to this day and presently there are more British soldiers in the north than in Iraq. The "nay-sayers, the armchair generals, the begrudgers and the enemies of the peace process", as Gerry Adams calls them, also pointed out that the acceptance of the principle of decommissioning has served to delegitimise and criminalise the previous republican resistance to British rule ('Looking for the future' APRN October 25 2001). It also elevates to a higher moral plateau British state weaponry. "Basically republicans are being told that the weapons used by Francis Hughes, the deceased hunger striker, to kill a member of the British SAS death squad are contaminated in a manner which the weapons used to slaughter the innocent of Bloody Sunday and the victims of shoot-to-kill are not" (Anthony McIntyre, 'Another victory for unionism' Sunday Tribune July 4 1999). By signing the Belfast agreement, the Provisional movement turned republicanism on its head and now totally became constitutional nationalism - the political project of which being the reunification of Ireland subject to unionist consent. The Provisional strategy is presently no longer designed to destabilise the northern state (or southern, for that matter), but make it work. The IRA slogan, 'No return to Stormont' (eg, APRN April 4 1996), is now replaced by 'Reinstate the institutions', when the British government suspended Stormont (APRN February 17 2000). 'Brits out' is now being replaced by the demand that the British government "implement the agreement" (APRN February 24 2000). 'Disband the RUC' (APRN February 16 1995) is replaced by 'Implement Patten' ('Ard chomhairle says Patten must be implemented in full' APRN May 11 2000). The movement has now become integrated with institutions it once was pledged to destroy. Its strategy is gradualist and reformist in nature: it is a quantitative accumulation of reforms that will end partition. It is also electoralist - one of its central objectives was to become the largest nationalist party in the north and a significant electoral force in the south. The recent personal and electoral success of Provisional leaders has been secured specifically at the price of abandoning republican goals (see Suzanne Breen, 'On the one road' Fortnight September 2000). Arguing that an increased Sinn Féin vote is a victory for republicanism is like saying socialism is growing in Britain because there are more votes for New Labour. Reassurances that "Sinn Féin is not a purely parliamentary party and republicans have no intentions of being cornered in the cul de sac of parliamentarism" ('No illusions about new institutions' APRN September 17 1998) sound like Fianna Fáil once calling itself "a slighly constitutional movement". 'New Sinn Féin' is just a younger and more dynamic version of the SDLP: "Despite all Sinn Féin's republican rhetoric, it has no great strategy to achieve a united Ireland. In practical terms, it lives with partition just as easily as does its rival. Nor is there any substantial difference between the pair on social and economic issues. The SDLP, rather unfairly, has a more conservative image. But in government at Stormont, Sinn Féin proved to be no rip-roaring radicals. And when they eventually get back for a more prolonged period, they'll be as capable as any other mainstream party of shutting schools and hospitals. "In terms of international policies, it's also much of a muchness. Sinn Féin shouted its anti-Iraq war slogans louder, but its leaders would have been first in the queue to shake George W's hand had they been invited to the White House on St Paddy's Day "¦ "Sinn Féin's continuing success is based on its hard constituency graft, endless wealth and growing cult of personality. Never has any modern-day northern nationalist figure been so elevated and worshipped as the Sinn Féin president "¦ Sinn Féin, just like New Labour, is a triumph of style over substance"(Suzanne Breen, 'Moral high ground is not an advantage for the SDLP' Sunday Tribune April 24 2005). However, Sinn Féin differs from other constitutional parties in two respects. First, its attitude to the northern police force. Paradoxically, the party had ministers signing laws, but did not recognise the police force, whose task was to ensure that those laws were being implemented! However, it is a matter of time before the Provisionals join the policing boards. Secondly, Provisional Sinn Féin differs from other constitutional nationalist parties by having its own private army, the Provisional IRA. But there is no chance that it will go back to war ('IRA no threat to peace process' APRN February 3 2000). It is being maintained in existence to give the impression that the organisation has not been defeated, and to be used for financing as well as a means of internal and external social control. The organisation is going to be gradually run down and sooner or later will be disbanded - there is no possibility of Sinn Féin being part of a governmental coalition in the south unless the IRA is disbanded. Republicanism has effectively been decommissioned: resistance politics have been replaced by administration politics. Republicanism has been transformed from a radical anti-systemic political bloc into a body incorporated into the dominant political consensus (see rwg.phoblacht.net/repubdisfigure.html). Nowhere is this more evident more evident than in the Provisionals' willingness to implement neoliberal measures. While in government, Sinn Féin ministers closed a number of hospital facilities (the closure of the South Tyrone hospital on July 10 2000 affected local people very badly) and introduced private finance initiatives. More recently it has been reluctant to back Communities Against the Water Tax and their proposed campaign of non-payment (see 'Is Sinn Féin too "respectable" to back non-payment?' Irish News Letters, January 4 2005). To conclude, The Irish Times last year reported what Gerry Adams had declared to business leaders in Dublin: "Displaying the more complex colours emerging in Sinn Féin's attitude to business, Adams's background message was that his party understands the need for pragmatism. Asked about public-private partnerships, he acknowledged that Martin McGuinness had reluctantly accepted the need for private investment while in power in Northern Ireland. "'Well, we are against them,' he said. 'Having said that, Martin McGuinness, as education minister, faced with the reality that he would either have no schools or an involvement in a qualified way with private finance, went for it. So I suppose you could argue that that is the emergence of pragmatic politics.' "Equally, Sinn Féin's acceptance of service charges in Sligo was justified by Adams, despite all of the party's railings nationally against such bills: 'Sinn Féin councillors in Sligo, rather than seeing the service go entirely over to privatisation, and seeing the aged, or people on low incomes, suffering, then went for a more pragmatic approach. The same thing has happened in Monaghan. Our position is against it. But in terms of the actual practicalities of working out these matters, as part of local government, the party made compromises on it,' he told the gathering. "On taxation, Adams offered soothing words that meant little: 'I am reluctant to say that we would do A or we would do B. We are not in principle against tax increases, but we have no plans to introduce them. We just think that there should be a far, far better way of doing business'" (The Irish Times April 24 2004).