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EVERYTHING MUST GO?
As the dust settles in the wake of the Stormont Settlement, eamonn Mccann assesses the situation and wonders just how much of their ideology Republicans are in the process of jettisoning.
Eamonn McCann, 01 Apr 1998
Both Republicans and Unionists will have to leave a lot of historical baggage behind in order to go forward and make the Stormont Settlement work. And it is Republicans who will be required to abandon the more valuable items.
In the atmosphere following immediately on the Talks breakthrough, highly charged with hope and athrill with imprecations for all to look now to the future, there has been little patience with abstract argument about the fundamental ideas underpinning the Republican and Unionist positions, and about how these must now shift to provide the foundation for a new edifice of governance.
The arguments over the coming weeks in the media as in homes, workplaces and on the streets will not be conducted in abstract terms. But it is at the ideological level that movement must take place if a new deal is to take hold.
The fundamental realignments which have been implicit in the Peace Process are about to show on the surface, and are to be explored openly for the first time.
Acceptance of the Settlement, even on the basis of it being sufficient unto the day, will represent an admission by the Republican leadership that what they have consistently characterised as the Republican analysis has been wrong. The core of this analysis has lain in the contention that partition is the cause of the conflict, the end of partition the cure: in practical terms, that only the achievement of the Republic can justify calling off the struggle and accepting any new institutions of State on offer.
Pearse put it: No half-way house is possible as a permanent solution of the issue between Ireland and England. There were and are only two alternatives an enslaved Ireland and a free Ireland.
The most hallowed figure in the modern Republican pantheon went on to warn, in his aptly-named Ghosts: The man who in the name of Ireland accepts as a final settlement anything less by one fraction of an iota than separation from England is guilty of so immense an infidelity, so immense a crime against the Irish nation . . . that it were better for that man (as it were certainly better for his country) that he had not been born.
This is the hard line of the true Republican tradition. It may be out of kilter with the mood of the moment. To try to ramrod it through history at this point would be an open invitation to universal ridicule were it not that the argument has been traced in blood through recent times. Ten years ago John Hume told American reporter Jim Dee that the crunch for Republicans would come when a settlement was announced to a convention or ardfheis, and a voice from the back of the hall called out: So what did Jimmy die for, then?
Bernadette Sands did precisely this when she observed more recently: My brother didn t die for cross-border bodies.
There is more here than a grisly insistence that the demanding dead be put at ease. There is also an expectation, not unreasonable in human terms in the communities directly affected, of an adequate return on the investment in sacrifice and pain which has willingly been renewed, again, by another, still-living generation.
This absolutist view is explicit in the formulation of the aim of the Republican struggle as, not the attainment, but the assertion of the Republic: not the pursuit of an ideal but the defence of the Republic as an already-existing, transfiguring reality.
The Republic was proclaimed in 1916, endorsed by the people of Ireland in the election of 1918 and consecrated in the War of Independence. The oath of allegiance taken by IRA volunteers in the War of Independence, and since, has not been to the struggle for a Republic but to the defence of the Republic.
Thus, a settlement which might seem to outsiders an honourable advance towards the Republican objective can, in the perspective of Republican ideology, be experienced as a shameful retreat. Conceived thus, the armed struggle has not been a war of aggression to force the British to back off, but a defensive campaign on behalf of a legitimate authority under intolerable assault. Sglaigh na hEireann means, simply, the Irish Army, charged, like all armies of all nations, with responsibility to defend the nation State.
It is this fundamentalist political stance which has provided the moral and political basis of the IRA s armed struggle. It has not been love or even tolerance of violence but firm adherence to this ideology which has rooted the IRA campaign in Republican rationality.
And it is this ideological apparatus which has given the Republican Movement the context for survival through times when there was little in surrounding material circumstances to provide sustenance and which will now have to be dismantled, or abandoned to others, for the Movement to assent, however grudgingly, to the institutions envisioned in the Stormont Settlement.
The wrench which this represents, and the practical difficulties involved in carrying it through, seem little understood by commentators and well-wishers of the Republican leadership who characterise the ongoing polemical exchanges as analagous to disputation between New Labour and Old, forward-lookers and fundamentalists. Such a view greatly underestimates the historical weight of what is happening, and belittles the role of ideology in Irish nationalism generally.
The abandonment of core Republican beliefs was, from the outset, an unspoken addendum to involvement in the Peace Process. Although recommended to the Republican rank and file as a different road towards the same objective, the construction of the Pan Nationalist Alliance (the Republicans own phrase, much as many eschew it now) meant decamping from defensive positions around the idea of the Republic and adopting not just new methods but a new approach to the task, and new and more limited objectives. In the terms which come naturally to Rzairm S Bradaigh, Bernadette Sands and others, what s implied is desertion of the Republic identified in the claim to be the Republican Movement .
All this has been inherent, if unacknowledged, in the peace strategy associated with Gerry Adams leadership in the last decade and more: after all, the SDLP, the Dublin Government and corporate Irish-America were obviously never available to be recruited to support for the armed struggle and Brits Out Now. Joining these elements in a new alliance was always contingent on a willingness to leave armed struggle behind, and with it the associated all-or-nothing demand for British withdrawal.
The implications now emerging are profound for Republican perspectives, North and South, and are not at all of a theoretical nature. An immediate example: had things worked out differently at Stormont, Sinn Fiin in the South was geared up for a referendum campaign for the retention of Articles Two and Three, which would have been deliberately unsettling for Fianna Fail and would have involved close association with Harry Blaney, Mildred Fox, the Sunday Business Post crowd, sections of the pro-lifers etc., in a highly-charged appeal to pure-nationalist sentiment.
But if the constitutional question has effectively been disposed of for the time being, the basis for this alliance has been, at the least, weakened. The issue can no longer be presented as one of do-or-die for nationhood, transcending all other disagreements or consideration of the social content of the nation envisaged.
This is to say that the alignment of the Republican Movement in Southern politics generally is directly affected by its stance on the proposed Northern Settlement. The fact that the Movement has recruited in the South in the last decade on a basis which has had as much to do with class as with nationality may now become an increasingly relevant factor.
In the North, too, the implications of an ideological shift which at first sight may seem abstract and arcane will be expressed most importantly in day-to-day practical terms. How is the Sinn Fein leadership to respond to armed activity by the Continuity IRA, the INLA and, possibly, other emerging groups of Republican activists in the coming weeks? Hitherto, the view has been that such activity, while ill-advised and unwelcome in the context of the Peace Process, resulted inevitably from the unresolved constitutional question? If, again, the constitutional question has now been settled, if on a transitional basis, what s the line?
If assent is given to institutions of governance put in place by the Settlement, is not outright hostility the logical response to actions aimed at destroying these institutions? How is this to be finessed and to be related to Republican tradition on the ground in north Belfast, the Bogside, Fermanagh?
This raises a question which has lurked at the margins of nationalist politics throughout the Troubles. To what extent, in what sense, has the struggle in the North led by the Repubican Movement been fuelled by Republican ideas?
The Movement s intransigence, its unremitting hostility to the enclosure of the Six Counties within the British State, has matched the mood of communities whose experience of the State has been of belligerent contempt, brutality and murder. But there is a difference between a mood, however solid, understandable and well-justified in experience, and conscious commitment to a set of political ideas.
How Republican are the Northern Catholic communities in which Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA have become securely rooted, and to which they, more than any other political formation, have come to give expression? It may be that the dislocation between the pure ideology of Pearse and the practical needs of the moment reflects a contradiction on the ground only now to be examined.
If it is the case that Catholic working-class areas are minded to accept the Stormont settlement as, generally speaking, fair enough and reasonable in the circumstances, what does this dictate to Martin McGuinness, the personal repository of enormous trust and even affection from his local people, but mandated by history, too, to vindicate Republican ideals and guard them against the defilement of grubby practicality?
If the mood of the people is inimical to war without end in defence of the Republic, how is this feeling to be mobilised behind the Republican Movement, as it contends with SDLP to become the majority party of Northern nationalism?
These are among the practical questions which will now loom large. It is far from clear that they have been thought through in advance. It may be, as one long-time activist growled in Belfast while we watched the new dawn break over Good Friday morning, that Now comes the hard part .
Then again, the hard road is not a new experience for some of those involved.
Discussion sparked by a decision of the Republican Movement to go for the new Settlement could be broad, deep, unprecedented and unpredictable, and entirely healthy for the future of radical politics. The abandonment of the one road, the long road, the road to god knows where, is not necessarily the end of struggle, but the beginning of a search for a different way forward towards the objectives of justice, peace and equality still shimmering in the distance up ahead. n