Last year, Irish journalist Kevin Rafter published
an insightful book on Sinn Fein. (Kevin Rafter,
Sinn Fein 1905-2005: In the Shadow of Gunmen,
Dublin: Gill&Macmillan, 2005) Rafter's fundamental
thesis is that under the Adams leadership, the rule
book of Irish republicanism was fundamentally rewritten,
ideological purity was jettissoned in favour of
trade-off has been between a position of principle
combined with isolation or opting for pragmatism
married to political success. In the 'era of pragmatism',
the Adams leadership ensured which choice was made."
problem with Rafter's characterisation is that it
tends to confuse pragmatism and opportunism. Pragmatism
is about temporarily setting aside a minor ideal
to achieve some higher ideal. Opportunism is abandoning
some important political principles in the process
of trying to increase one's political power and
influence. With pragmatism, there is unity between
means and ends; whereas with opportunism, political
means have become ends in themselves and the orginal
relation between means and ends is lost.
before Adams succeeded him as President of Sinn
Fein, Ruairi O Bradaigh declared: "No splits
or splinters -long may it remain so provided we
stick by our basic principles." (APRN
17 Nov 83)
those 'basic principles' are they really principles
or are they just tactics? The question was not new.
At its 1975 Ard Fheis, Sinn Fein debated the recognition
of the courts: was it a tactic, or was it a principle?
(AP, 7 November 1975) The confusion of principles
and tactics opens the road to opportunism.
record of the Adams era shows that everything in
the republican code is now a tactic...He has displayed
a total disregard for traditional republican dogma
and has refused to be hamstrung by historical principles
like abstentionism and decommissioning..."
the example of abstentionism. According to O Bradaigh:
"Discussing going into Leinster House, Stormont
or Westminster is as foreign and as alien as that
the IRA would sit down and discuss surrender of
arms." (APRN 17 Nov 83)
the mid-1980s, O Bradaigh may not have guessed at
how accurate his crystal-ball gazing would be. But
just over a decade later, Sinn Fein would indeed
take seats in all but the Westminster parliament,
while the IRA would sanction two acts of decommissioning
before ordering an end to its armed campaign in
July 2005." (p.122)
abstentionism in the context of Leinster House was
sold as a tactic, however abstention from Stormont
or Westminster grass roots were told, was a matter
McGuiness then declared: 'I can give a commitment
on behalf of the leadership that we have absolutely
no intention of going to Westminster or Stormont.
(...) Our position is clear and it will never, never,
never change. The war against British rule must
continue until freedom is achieved. (...) We will
lead you to the Republic.' (The Politics
Of Revolution, The main speeches and debates
from the 1986 Sinn Fein Ard-Fheis including the
presidential address of Gerry Adams) Eight years
later, the 'war against British rule' was over,
and five years after that Martin McGuiness was a
British Minister of Education in the Stormont assembly.
This again was sold as a 'tactic'.
time ago, Adams stated: "There will never,
ever be Sinn Fein MPs sitting in the British Houses
of Parliament." (House of Commons, SN/PC1667,
interestingly enough, in 2000, Mitchel McLaughlin
claimed that his party was not in Westminster not
because abstention from that institution was a fundamental
Republican principle, but because 'there was
no strategic value in going to Westminster'
(Gerald Murray and Jonathan Tonge, Sinn Fein
and the SDLP: From Alientation to Participation,
Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p.228). Everything is
now reduced to a 'tactic'.
Hartley argued twenty years ago that "There
is a principle rising above all principles and that
is the principle of success." (APRN
7 Nov 85) The movement is everything, principles
nothing; or at least the movement and its growth
come first, principles second.
terms of international comparison, Rafter cannot
find any other example of political movements who
have gone so far in the dillution of their core
other political party in Europe has undergone such
a radical overhaul of its basic principles, not
even the former communist parties in Central and
Eastern Europe that transformed themselves into
social democratic entities in the aftermath of the
fall of the Soviet bloc." (p.15)
significantly, in an Irish context, there are no
historical precedents of a Republican organisation
going so far. Take for example the Provisional movement
abandoning abstentionism from Stormont:
was a departure no previous republican had endorsed.
Not even de Valera when he departed Sinn Fein in
1926 argued that republicans should end abstentionism
in the context of parliamentary representation in
Northern Ireland. The so-called compromisers in
1926, who re-emerged as Fianna Fail, and those in
in the post-1970 Official movement who evolved into
the Workers Party, broke ranks with republican dogma
purely in the context of taking seats in Dail Eireann.
The idea of republican representatives sitting in
an assembly of a partitioned Northern Ireland was
never an issue. In effect, with the 1998 decision,
Adams moved his Sinn Fein organisation even further
away from the party that called itself Sinn Fein
after the 1921 Treaty split." (p.138)
same goes for decommissioning. Even the hated 'Sticks'
never decommissioned a single bullet of their arsenal...
Morrison recently wrote some interesting reflections
on principles and tactics:
are many republicans who feel that the IRA leadership
went too far ... I myself think that whilst there
have been mistakes they got the balance just about
right. But it has been a difficult road given that
the armed struggle was waged - and could only have
been waged - with idealistic zeal and for fundamental
demands. Independence and a socialist Ireland are
what Volunteers signed up for and for which many
laid down their lives. We demanded a British withdrawal
within the lifetime of a government. We demanded
that Britain recognise the right of the Irish people
as a unit to national self-determination. We demanded
an amnesty for the political prisoners. And we fought
one hell of a long struggle and paid a heavy price
in pursuit of those demands. But there were many
lessons learnt along the way. The exigencies of
survival meant that republicans couldn't allow themselves
to be constrained by their principles. And so, the
IRA began 'recognising' courts, particularly in
the South where the unchallenged word of a garda
superintendent was enough to imprison a Volunteer.
Volunteers fought court cases, took the witness
stand and refuted allegations of membership and
IRA activity. In miscellaneous, political and quasi-political
court cases republicans paid fines and some individuals
- again quoting pragmatism, but against republican
policy - pleaded guilty in court to minimise their
sentences. After the Public Order (Northern Ireland)
Order was introduced in 1987, republican activists
'filed' for marches, albeit insulating themselves
from direct dealings with the RUC through using
solicitors. (...) Republicans have used the courts
and judicial reviews to sue the state or compel
unionists to obey equality laws. Purists will argue
that this dilutes one's republicanism - but purists
rarely have anything to show for struggle and sacrifice.
Life is complex, circumstances change, battles are
won and lost, opportunities arise, and, as in nature,
it is those who can adapt who survive and thrive.
In fact, to use and exploit the system in a considered
way, both in its contradictions or whatever advantages
it offers to achieve one's ultimate aims is often
to do the revolutionary thing. And this, to me,
is the story of the peace process, and the peace
process to me is a phase of struggle."
(Danny Morrison, "Paisley just a blip in the
ongoing peace process", Daily Ireland,
9 February 2006)
recognition of the courts is a matter of pragmatism.
Abandoning 'fundamental demands' is an example of
opportunism. Questions of principles become confused
with questions of tactics. Presenting this as part
of a 'new phase of the struggle' is simply a device
to hide the Provisional movement's strategic failure.
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