Ditching republicanism

Has criticism of the Good Friday agreement been "one-sided"? Liam O Ruairc responds to Sean MacGabhain of Sinn Féin

Sean MacGabhain contends that I have "not demonstrated that Sinn Féin accepts a unionist veto on Irish unity" (Weekly Worker June 2). The fact that Danny Morrison stated that the Provisionals have recognised the principle of unionist consent on the constitutional question ('Stretching republicans too far' The Guardian July 13 1999); that Mitchell McLaughlin admitted in his Parliamentary Brief article (May-June 1998) that the Good Friday agreement legitimised British rule; and that senior Sinn Féin member Francie Molloy conceded that the party was "really prepared to administer British rule in Ireland for the foreseeable future. The very principle of partition is accepted" (quoted by Liam Clarke and Michael Jones, 'Trimble shows more flexibility over IRA arms' The Sunday Times March 28 1999) surely testifies to that. That is why a nationalist author on the IRA, Tim Pat Coogan, can marvel: "I did not believe that the day would come when I would see the Provisionals accept the border and recognise the British presence, while they maintained a ceasefire and worked to secure their objectives by exclusively political means. Yet, demonstrably, this is what has been happening for several years. The reality is that, just as we in the republic did over articles 2 and 3, so did the IRA make historic compromise: it agreed to partition, the British presence and the continuation, in effect, of the unionist veto. As a historian of the physical force movement, I never thought I would live to see the like." It thus comes as little surprise to find British diplomat David Goodall claiming that everything was going "almost exactly to plan" (Parliamentary Brief May-June 1998) and former MI6 director Michael Oatley expressing public admiration for the Provisional leadership ('Forget the weapons and learn to trust Sinn Féin' The Sunday Times October 31 1999). In disputing the contention that there is no republican framework within the agreement, MacGabhain misquotes James Molyneux, the Ulster Unionist Party leader at the time of the first IRA ceasefire. Molyneux merely claimed that the ceasefire (and not the agreement, signed four years later) had destabilised unionism: "Writers fond of citing this in favour of the 'GFA is a stepping stone to a united Ireland' position invariably fail to tell us that Molyneux explained why the ceasefire was destabilising; insisting that it was beyond his ken why republicans sold a horse and bought a saddle. Or, as Stephen King puts it, unionism was confounded as to why republicans had fought so hard just to settle for so little. Eleven years after the 1994 ceasefire and the Molyneux observations, we can find Eric Waugh mocking republicans: 'The old ideal of unity is more remote than ever. Unionists are not interested.' Even one as hostile to the agreement as Jeffrey Donaldson can still claim republicanism was 'defeated by a partitionist settlement based on the concession of self-determination of Northern Ireland'" (Anthony McIntyre, 'Jude the obscure', lark.phoblacht.net/am29040-58g.html). The idea that "the agreement is a gain for the anti-imperialist struggle" may have been considered worthy of some merit were it not for the fact that those republicans now lauding it were to be previously found telling us that any such notion was the property of fools. The agreement can only be considered progressive within a strictly constitutional nationalist framework, and even from that point of view, one can argue like Austin Currie (a minister in the 1974 power-sharing executive) that the Sunningdale agreement - at the time totally rejected by the Provisionals - was a better deal for nationalists than the Belfast agreement (A Currie All hell will break loose Dublin 2004). For MacGabhain, "The British state agrees that the Irish people as a whole (which includes the population of the Six Counties) have a right of self-determination and concede a right of one part of the UK, the Six Counties of Northern Ireland, to secede - but only on the basis that Northern Ireland forms part of a united Ireland." This echoes Gerry Adams, who stated that there was no longer a raft of legislation to maintain Northern Ireland as part of the UK after the British government's repeal of section 75 of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. However, the replacement of this act was legally "of no significance": rather it reconstructed British sovereignty (see B Hadfield, 'The Belfast agreement, sovereignty and the state of the union' Public Law Vol 15, winter 1998, p615). The British state retained sovereignty in the north and the consent principle was embedded, whereas articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution were deleted. MacGabhain also states: "The imposition of governmental structures that include republicans undermines unionist hegemony and, together with the use of cross-border structures, can cause a break-up in the unionist all-class alliance and its monolithic political structures." Regarding the inclusion of a former republican prisoner plus a colleague in government, it is all too easily forgotten that former republican prisoners in government was an objective secured by the Social Democratic and Labour Party, when, in the person of the late Paddy Devlin, a one-time IRA member served in the Stormont government of 1974. Republicans termed him a member of the British war machine for having done so - yet he managed to remain far to the left of anyone in the (now suspended) Stormont regime. Governmental structures which include supporters of the Provisional movement threaten unionist hegemony no more than those that once included Paddy Devlin and his colleagues - they include republicans, but exclude republicanism. The Belfast agreement cannot even meet minimum criteria allowing it to be described as transitional. The main structure for any transition in Sinn Féin's view - cross-border bodies - cannot and will not lead to reunification and an end to British rule. In his address on September 30 2000, Martin Mansergh, northern advisor to three successive heads of the southern Irish institutions, stated that "there is no evidence, let alone inevitability, from international experience, that limited cross-border cooperation necessarily leads to political unification". Such bodies have existed for decades and have not brought a united Ireland any closer ('Mansergh doubts the GFA will lead to unity' Sunday Tribune October 1 2000). That the agreement is non-transitional and that republican strategy is no longer designed toward destabilising the northern state which would possess the potential to create transitional structures can both be ascertained from the following exchange in 2000 between Frank Millar of The Irish Times and Gerry Adams on Peter Mandelson's suspension of the Stormont assembly. Millar: "For wasn't the act and fact of suspension rooted in the legislation establishing a devolved assembly at all times subject to the authority of the British crown?" Adams: "Oh yes, and, in terms of the Realpolitik we have accepted entirely, it's obvious partition is still here, the British jurisdiction is still here." Millar: "Is this a peace process about reconciliation with the unionists, accepting the existing constitutional parameters until such time as there is consent to change them? Or is Sinn Féin's real game - struggle continuing by other means - to destabilise Northern Ireland and show it to be irreformable?" Adams: "No, that isn't the case, the second scenario isn't the case" ('Is there enough time to revive the agreement?' The Irish Times April 15 2000). Clearly, by its own admission, it is no longer Sinn Féin's intention to destabilise the northern state. Rather it seeks to administer it. Consequently all the central tenets of both traditional republicanism and Provisional republicanism have been jettisoned. In the case of the latter the peculiar elements which constituted it - "the 'three Ds' of defence, defiance and dissent" - have all been decommissioned and now stand for 'defeat, decom-missioning and dissolution'" (An-thony McIntyre, 'Time has run out for an armed IRA' The Blanket spring 2003). Prominent SDLP leader Seamus Mallon sums up the Provisionals' trajectory: "Sinn Féin have come on board essentially to the thesis that the SDLP has been promoting for over 30 years. The Good Friday agreement was based, by and large, on the SDLP analysis on the principle of consent, on non-violence, and on the concept of partnership and it is Sinn Féin who have made a substantial move from support for violent republicanism to the polices and strategies of the SDLP" ('Mallon comes in at last as key trust-builder' The Irish Times July 4 1998). That is why he called the agreement "Sunningdale for slow learners" (the author, Marian Price, less charitably, called it "Sunningdale for retards"). It is true that criticisms of the Provisional movement have often been "one-sided". Are there any reasons why the Provisional movement should be singled out for harsher treatment than, say, for example, the Labour Party, other varieties of social democracy, the Liberals or Fianna Fáil? Can it be proved that one variety of reformism and opportunism is somehow worse than another? But, on the other hand, are there any particular reasons why the left should care more about "defending the rights of Sinn Féin" or care if it is "successfully marginalised and isolated" any more than they should care about the Workers Party or Labour Party being marginalised and isolated? Should republicans today care more about imprisoned members of the Provisional militia than they did about members of the Workers Party/Official IRA jailed in the 1980s and 1990s? Sean MacGabhain is wrong to work on the assumption that this writer is somehow "disappointed" with the Provisional movement. There is an essential discontinuity between the politics of the Provisional movement and that of the republican tradition. Traditionally, the catholic population of the north has been nationalist rather than republican. In 1983, Gerry Adams was the first ever Sinn Féin MP to be elected in Belfast - even De Valera could not achieve this. Anthony McIntyre has argued that the Provisional movement was more the product of certain "structural factors rather than tradition-spawned ideological factors", and was born out of "conjunctural protest" rather than the "re-igniting of some long-dormant flame". Provisional republicanism is for the most part a post-1969 phenomenon: it "truly arose from the ashes of Belfast's Bombay Street in 1969 and not the rubble of Dublin's O'Connell Street in 1916" (see A McIntyre A structural analysis of modern Irish republicanism 1969-1973: PhD thesis, Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences, Queens University Belfast, 1999). What does that mean? It means that people joined or supported the Provisional movement because they suffered from discrimination and repression; and not because of a strong sense of traditional republican ideology and history. This is why the pejorative label 'sixty-niners' is applied to the vast number of militants who joined the IRA in reaction to the loyalist pogroms of 1969. They joined to defend their homes and streets, not the 1916 republic. They were more 'armed nationalists' and 'catholic defencists' than republicans. Nationalist consciousness is to republican consciousness what backward trade union consciousness is to socialist consciousness. Trade union consciousness is essentially defensive (ie, against cuts or longer hours) and seeks to give workers a more comfortable position within capitalism rather than abolish it. Similarly, nationalism is against discrimination, etc and about giving catholics a better position within the northern state, not abolishing it. Advanced workers like the Price sisters, for example, who operated on a qualitatively higher level of political consciousness (republican, as opposed to nationalist), were the exception rather than the rule. Given that northern catholics were more nationalist than republican, it is thus not surprising (rather than disappointing) that Provisional supporters back a strategy which renders republicanism obsolete - while holding on to the vocabulary, as it ditches the policies. The conjunctural origins of the Provisionals were such that "tradition-spawned ideological factors", while instrumental for the republican movement's own ends, were never going to prevail over more structural and conjunctural factors as primary determinants in the long-term development and direction of that movement: "Ultimately, thrown up at a particular juncture - primarily by conditions within the northern state, rather than because of the mere existence per se of that state - and because the republican tradition was more of an 'enabling surface' factor than a dynamic or primary structural determinant, Provisional republicanism would always be vulnerable to outcomes that did not specifically address the question of the British presence nor the indefinite continuation of partition. In other words, there always existed the structural potential for an outcome that would constitute the outworking of structural processes of grievances regardless of how the latter might be ideologically defined. "Subsequently, Provisional republicanism would eventually come to rest within the framework of a solution that would not abolish the movement's discursive ideological raison d'être - it would 'retreat from the high ground of the republic to the practical acceptance of partition', and in the course of doing so accept that there was a democratic basis to partition. This in spite of a central Provisional tenet that partition was 'a non-democratic entity'" (A McIntyre op cit). There are a number of crucial issues that emerge from Sean MacGabhain's response. Are the Provisionals "pushing the struggle forward"? To what extent can Sinn Féin be considered progressive today? Is it really more progressive than (what used to be) the Workers Party/Democratic Left? Is the Provisional movement an ally? Should tactical alliances be made with Sinn Féin? He takes an affirmative reply to those questions for granted. But all this requires further discussion. The merit of his intervention has been to highlight those issues. It is up to republicans, socialists (in Ireland and elsewhere) and republican socialists to discuss those matters further. MacGabhain's strongest argument is: "Criticism can only go so far. In the end it becomes addictive and corrosive, when not combined with the test of political action "¦ Political action is what is missing." Indeed. Criticisms, discussions and debates are no substitutes for building a political and military alternative to the Provisional movement and constitutional nationalism. And it is on that task that we should concentrate.