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Someone Shouted Stop
As Gerry Adams and friends bask in the glory of another public relations triumph, EAMONN McCANN analyses the historical context of the current ceasefire, and assesses the scepticism surrounding the IRA s motives in calling it.
Eamonn McCann, 23 Jul 1997
ON THE day in 1983 when he won the West Belfast seat for the first time, Gerry Adams told cheering supporters on the Falls Road: Even de Valera couldn t win the Falls. It was an apt reference, and possibly with implications for the Republican Movement today as it faces into negotiations which of their nature cannot deliver a united Ireland.
In the December 1918 general election the constitutional nationalist Joe Devlin defeated de Valera, standing for Sinn Fiin, in West Belfast. In the midst of that year s Sinn Fiin landslide which transformed the political terrain, this was the only seat in Ireland in which nationalism beat republicanism in a straight fight.
Four of the other five seats won by the nationalists Sinn Fiin took 73 were also in the North: these were among eight seats which might have gone Unionist had the Catholic vote been split. The Catholic cardinal allocated four each to the Nationalists and Sinn Fiin.
Thus, in the last all-Ireland poll, the election Republicans still look to for validation of their struggle, it was the North which bucked the trend towards Sinn Fiin and saved constitutional nationalism from wipeout. And it was the constituency now seen as the hardest line republican area of all which dealt republicanism its one clear-cut defeat.
This raises a question about the extent to which, historically, Northern Catholics have been wedded to republicanism as opposed to embracing a broad oppositional outlook which, from time to time and depending on circumstances, has been expressed through the Nationalist Party, Sinn Fiin, the SDLP and various independent, Labour and Republican-Labour groupings.
The question has relevance to the scepticism which has been expressed about the ability of Gerry Adams and those around him to keep both the renewed ceasefire and the movement intact. Predictably, the most strident sceptics have been far-Right Unionists like Cruise O Brien and Kevin Myers, who have been consistently wrong in their prouncements and predictions about the North for 20 years.
But a number of objective commentators, and some generally sympathetic to the republican movement, have also doubted whether the ceasefire can hold. Their thesis is that the process which Sinn Fiin has now been enabled to join is pre-programmed to deliver a partitionist settlement and that there s no way the republican movement could live with that, even if, which isn t certain, the current leadership were minded to.
Too much pain, too many deaths, too many years in prison cells for the movement to stop so far short of its objective. As John Hume put it a few years ago in an interview in a US magazine: what happens when a deal is announced and somebody stands up at the back and asks: What did Jimmy die for then?
The immediate experience of activists apart, the specific ideology of the Republican Movement puts difficulty in the way of compromise.
Republicans see themselves as a national liberation movement, sharing perspectives with the ANC, the PLO etc., and the claim is well enough founded. But they differ from the other movements in one respect which it is tempting to dismiss as arcane but which, it has been argued, will be of critical significance for the playing of the end-game. Republicans have traditionally seen the goal of a united Ireland not as an aspiration to be aimed at but as an already-existing reality which it is their duty to defend.
Thus, a settlement which might seem to outsiders to represent an honourable step forward might look to activists as shameful retreat.
The theological basis for this view has to do with the proclamation of the Republic on the steps of the GPO in 1916, and its democratic endorsement in the 1918 election. The elected Sinn Fiin MPs met in the First Dail. The War of Independence was fought by the IRA in defence of the Republic, and to assert the legitimacy of the Dail as its parliament.
It was logical, then, that the partition settlement which Michael Collins presented as a stepping stone to the Republic would be seen by others as a betrayal of the Republic. And the IRA s episodic struggle since can be seen not as a matter of idealism, of keeping the faith, but of continuing in a practical way to assert the legitimacy of the Republic.
This may seem fanciful in 1997, even ridiculous, but it has been this conception of its own role and historic significance which has sustained the Irish Republican Movement through lean years when it could find little sustenance in the day-to-day world around it. It has been a factor in the survival of the movement when others who adopted a seemingly more realistic approach have long ago faded to nothingness. Where s Clann na Poblachta now?
As important, it is this view of the Republic which has provided political and moral sanction for the armed struggle of the last 25 years. To abandon it would be retrospectively to withdraw sanction from those who carried the struggle on in the face of fierce denunciation and overwhelming odds.
And in this view, obviously, any settlement arising from the Talks, based on the principle of consent , would certainly represent retreat and betrayal.
But is this the relevant perspective? To what extent has the republican struggle now paused in ceasefire been informed and guided by traditional republican ideology, anyway?
What pitched the Catholic working-class communities in which the movement is rooted outside constitutional nationalist politics and into militant republicanism was not mass conversion to a set of ideas or a conception of history but more immediate and material considerations the refusal of the State to concede equal citizenship, RUC and British Army brutality and murder, a corrupt legal system and so on.
The republican movement provided a natural and congenial channel for the deep anger of huge numbers of people who suffered these outrages. Many who joined the IRA or became active in republican politics did so not out of a sacred duty to free Ireland or a historic mission to vindicate the Republic, but because they wanted the bigots boot off their necks and the British Army off their backs.
Viewed from the Falls or the Bogside, the question at the heart of the Talks is whether these deep-felt grievances can be removed short of the achievement of the Republic. If they can, then whatever purists might say about historical duty, and whatever sceptics predict, there will be a democratic basis for a settlement in the communities which have borne the brunt of the struggle.
It s been clear from as far back as 1918, after all, that there is nothing automatic or atavistic about the politics of places like the Falls.
If, on the other hand, it turns out that the Talks cannot deliver a settlement along these lines, that the Northern State is inherently democratically dysfunctional, then all who would rather the armed struggle were not resumed should be discussing now how otherwise social justice and equality might be achieved around here. n