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PEACE WILL COME . . . NOT
As 1993 draws to a close, considerable optimism is being expressed about the possibility of bringing peace to Northern Ireland. But no process or initiative grounded in Catholic Nationalism can bring about enduring peace, says Eamonn McCann.
Eamonn McCann, 15 Dec 1993
WE KNOW now that there won’t be peace by Xmas. In my own estimation, there won’t be peace by Xmas next year either. Maybe there won’t ever be peace, this side of outright revolution. That’s what it feels like anyway in this strange time we are living through. Those of us who are managing to live through it.
We are told on the one hand that the prospects for peace have never been brighter. And on the other hand we are warned that civil war is imminent. At first sight there’s a bewildering contradiction here. But maybe it’s just the weary old business of things looking different according to what side of the divide you are viewing them from.
The optimism about peace has been, largely, a Catholic-nationalist phenomenon. The Hume-Adams talks did not produce, but have rather been a product of this phenomenon.
The real phenomenon consists of a major change in the attitude of the Catholic nationalists of the North to partition. Although a united Ireland has been the defining aspiration of Catholic nationalism since the Northern State was set up (if pursued for only one brief period with real intensity) a consensus has now developed among Catholic nationalists here that a united Ireland isn’t on. Not now, or in the foreseeable future. This change, if sustained and established, is of profound historical significance.
Of course, there are those who say that they can see a united Ireland clearly up ahead. They calculate that Catholic nationalism will be the majority ideology within the State in thirty years, or fifty years, or whenever. But a lot of other people contest the figures involved in this calculation. It’s by no means certain that any such situation will ever come about. The suggestion that it will is an opinionated prediction, not a statement of fact, not something that’s foreseeable at any particular point in the future.
READY FOR WAR
One of the reasons – not the only one – that Catholic nationalists are coming round to this way of thinking lies in a growing acceptance that Protestants aren’t going to allow a united Ireland, now or in the foreseeable future. And what’s more, that it would be unreasonable in all the circumstances to expect them to take any other attitude.
Thus, the optimism about peace in Catholic nationalist areas is experienced as being of an entirely non-sectarian character. And it is this, in turn, which makes the reaction to it of mainstream unionist politicians seem at best mischievous, at worst motivated by blind sectarian bigotry.
We have been here before, sort of. The civil rights movement arose in the late sixties precisely because Catholic nationalists, particularly Catholic nationalists of the working class, had come to the conclusion that a united Ireland wasn’t on, and that it therefore made sense to seek instead for full citizenship within the North.
That notion was beaten out of people’s heads by the cops and their semi-official auxiliaries, in Duke Street in Derry in October ’68, at Burntollet and then Bombay Street in 1969, on the Falls in 1970, with internment in 1971, Bloody Sunday in 1972. The cumulative result was the rise of the Provos.
People who suffer murderous repression by the State when they ask for full citizenship are likely to conclude that full citizenship isn’t available within the confines of the State: some will proceed then to make war on the State. The unionist insistence that the civil rights movement contained within it the seeds of another IRA campaign was, in the event, self-validating.
Now we have come full circle. The elemental upsurge of Republican militancy which followed the suppression of the civil rights movement and which was expressed in the ’70s slogan “It’s a united Ireland or nothing” may well be seen by history as an atypical spasm which has now subsided.
The question being posed now, again, is whether arrangements can be made within the Northern State to acknowledge Catholic nationalists as first-class citizens. Unionist leaders issue the same, stern answer as before.
Every morning for a number of weeks now a flotilla of Unionist politicians has sailed into media view loudly proclaiming that Protestants shouldn’t listen to this palaver about peace, that the Protestant people are being duped. Some of them seem sometimes to be saying that it makes sense for Protestants to believe they’re being duped whether or not there’s reason to. Just to be on the safe side.
Some have been hinting, even saying openly, that it’s reasonable and prudent for Protestants to get ready for war. Of course it is not they, but Protestants of the working class, who will be expected to wage this war.
BREAK WITH Unionism
One major question which arises from all this is whether, and in what numbers, those Protestant proletarians to whom politicians have allocated the roles of killers and cannon fodder in the predicted civil war are going to accept the role (granted, there are low-level guttersnipes already playing the part with pleasure, but they don’t represent the mass of Protestant working-class people) or whether some movement is going to emerge with a sense of history, and of class interest, to seize the time and the possibility of a reasonable peace.
There are great problems in the way of such a movement emerging. The political uselessness of the bureaucrat drones at the top of the trade union movement, the only institution which can lay immediate claim to represent the specific class interests of either section of the North’s workers; the insulting secrecy surrounding Hume-Adams; Catholic nationalism itself. The greatest of these problems is the last.
The predicted civil war will come about unless the balance of opinion within the Protestant working class tilts towards rejection of the policies and perspectives of the unionist leaders. But Catholic nationalism cannot help in that process. On the contrary, Catholic nationalism of its nature seeks to bind Catholics of all classes together, excluding the Protestant working class.
It is for this reason that – despite the obvious democratic credentials of the demand of Catholic nationalists for full citizenship within the State – no process or initiative grounded in Catholic nationalism can bring an enduring peace. Just because something is democratic, in the ordinary bourgeois sense of the word, doesn’t mean that it will work. If it were otherwise, we’d have had democracy and peace here since the sixties.
For the Shankill to break with unionism the Falls must go beyond nationalism. This is why we won’t have peace by Xmas, this year or likely next year either, and why we might not ever have peace, this side of outright revolution.