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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Conway Mill Debate


Anthony McIntyre • 29 November 2006

The hall at Conway Mill where the Des Wilson/Pádraigín Drinan sponsored debate on policing was being hosted rapidly filled up until there was standing room only. It was more than the organisers could have hoped for. Within the community dominated by Sinn Fein there are so many opinions on the policing question wanting to be heard that the party's attempt to control the debate and quell dissent has been faltering like never before.

Early yesterday morning some of the organisers of the 'Policing - A Bridge Too Far?' event were concerned that the turnout might not be great. Erroneous reports in two newspapers that it was a meeting organised by dissidents had led to some discomfort. Alarmed, the SDLP pulled out. Sinn Fein had been briefing others who planned on being there that the policing issue was being used as camouflage behind which a new armed organisation was being formed. If true, the camouflage worked so well it should be patented. Nobody but Sinn Fein seems to know anything about this new army. The party had also, according to those claiming to have received a 'visit', been busy intimidating and threatening some of its own disaffected members not to turn up or to align with anyone speaking out against party strategy.

It was all the more surprising then as the platform speakers and chair had taken their seats, that a group of Provisionals moved through the hall to occupy the front row facing the panel and indicated to the chair that one of their number would like to be a panellist. They came from diverse geographic locations and were presumably brought in for the occasion. A perfectly legitimate approach for Sinn Fein to take; but exclusively for themselves alone, it seems. The party's spokesperson on policing and justice was parsimonious by later complaining that many others not supportive of his party copied long established Sinn Fein tactics and were bussed in for the meeting. To his conspiratorial mind the busocrats have now joined the ever growing Crat Alliance which is hell bent on frustrating his efforts to be recognised by the British establishment as Sir Jack Kelly.

While most others had drifted into the hall the Provisionals seemed to file through the aisle. Maybe it was not intended but there was a touch of the menace to it. A member of the audience later likened it to the arrival on stage of one of the gangs in West Side Story. As they were leaving their Sevastopol Street HQ minutes earlier to make the short journey to 'the mill' someone who observed them felt they were on their way to intimidate. Alternatively, they may only have been going to show support for their man who would most certainly face a difficult audience. On the night, only one of them showed any aggression when he tried to bully a seated woman who had mildly heckled the Sinn Fein speaker. She quickly put manners on him. The rest of the Sinn Fein team behaved much like the audience in general.

Gerry Kelly had initially been invited to speak. But as he had apparently been busy undermining and maligning one of the organisers his appearance was not anticipated. In any event Sinn Fein did not keep its best wine to the last. For the occasion it served up a much more sophisticated and articulate panellist than Kelly to put the party's case, Declan Kearney. Given the composition of the audience it was a prudent choice. Whatever about Kearney's message his delivery is flawless and he maintains an unflappable demeanour in the face of taunts or criticisms.

Chaired by a very capable Brendan Mackin, the debate featured two other speakers, Willie Gallagher of the IRSP and Francie Mackey of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement. If the audience wasn't always in sync with their example, the speakers at least were courteous to each other.

The quality of the discussion was not as high as might have been hoped for. Because the audience generally wanted to challenge the Sinn Fein representative, the alternative views coming from the panel were not sufficiently probed. There was also a touch of déjà vu to the night's proceedings. Listening to rather than looking at the panel, Kearney, Mackey and Gallagher respectively sounded like Malachy McGurran of the Worker's Party, Seamus Loughran of Sinn Fein and Seamus Costello of the IRSP debating away back in 1976. The arguments are just about the same now as they were then.

What stood out about Declan Kearney's contribution was the extent to which it showed that Sinn Fein is on an expedition without any ideological compass. The party is committed to nothing but the pursuit of power. Policing is just one more strand of state power. That British state power will not be usurped in the slightest by Sinn Fein endorsing the PSNI seems not to matter. The strategy can be described rather than condemned as being reformist. Where it can be condemned is for falsely posturing as revolutionary.

As a reformist project within the six county state the Sinn Fein strategy is not without merit. The SDLP has consistently articulated a similar reformist position; which makes its hardly courageous withdrawal from the debate a huge disappointment. But it is hard to see where a reformist strategy fits into any republican conceptual framework with its inherent bias against reformism.

For this reason, it was impossible for Declan Kearney to win the debate with that particular audience as judge. He was articulating a reformist position to the body of a hall that was overwhelmingly hostile to reformist arguments.

Although Kearney's delivery came at a gallop, it was easy to keep up with. Anybody capable of reining in his liberal use of political concepts or sociological jargon was never in danger of being dismounted by the twists and turns of the predictable steed that raced out of Sinn Fein's reformist stable. While the speaker never paused for breath, there was nothing in what he said that would cause his audience to pause for reflection. It was high octane vacuity; an urbane and methodical presentation of nothingness precisely because its purpose was a holding operation designed to allow Sinn Fein to keep its cards close to its chest until it is ready to play.

Declan Kearney's fellow panellists, Willie Gallagher and Francie Mackey were consistent in their defence of republican principles. They were adamant that there were no circumstances in which they could envisage any endorsement of the PSNI. Only in a post-partitionist environment would any police force be considered legitimate. They gave a standard republican take on the policing question and their adherence to a revolutionary stance was consistent with their long standing political activism. Mackey and Gallagher while not as polished as their Sinn Fein opponent, made all the running from a republican perspective. Strong on principle, weak on policy, their major deficiency is that they managed to sound as rhetorical as Kearney did vacuous.

Here, however, Sinn Fein has the advantage. Outside of the audience in Conway Mill a vacuity that delivers something vis a vis a rhetoric that delays everything will have much more popular appeal amongst an electorate that might admire but can't live off the proceeds of a principled republican position.

Consequently, while the Sinn Fein position was assailed by the body of the hall, there can be little cause for cheer amongst Declan Kearney's republican critics. Kearney's position is premised on Sinn Fein knowing the nationalist vote is not wedded to republicanism. The party has been more than willing to abandon republicanism in order to catch that vote. Electorally, it has not allowed its party machine to exist within a post-republican vacuum. It replaced republicanism with alternative substance. Its reformism is grounded in concrete politics. The republicanism of its revolutionary critics does not gel with the pervasive Gramscian 'common sense' that holds sway in the minds of the nationalist electorate which Sinn Fein has astutely discerned and successfully channelled. A reformed RUC rather than a disbanded RUC sits easily with the vote Sinn Fein is chasing. While Sinn Fein does not want to depoliticise the police, opting to merely give the appearance of doing so, its opponents face an uphill struggle in their anti-PSNI campaigning unless they manage to engage with the community whose support is necessary for the purpose of advancing republicanism. Engagement means policies rather than platitudes; not merely moulding the community in the image of republicanism but being moulded by the community.

For all its shortcomings, characterised as it was more by heat than light, the debate was none the less welcome for that. The organisers deserve credit for pulling it off, the chair for his even-handedness and efficiency, the panellists for participating, and the audience for turning out in such numbers. But it needs to be exported to other communities throughout the North. Ultimately, Sinn Fein may win the debate. Its critics can hardly complain about that if foul play has no part in proceedings. But the party cannot be allowed to succeed through default. It should be harried into that debate on the same terms as everyone else so that the wider community can have a say on matters crucial to its future. If policing is to be demonstrated as a bridge too far, then the Conway Mill debate on its own was a bridge not far enough.





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3 December 2006

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The King's Threshold
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