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Revising the Uprising?


Paul Maguire •, April 2007

Over the past three decades the British establishment expended considerable time and treasure depicting the war in the north of Ireland as a sectarian conflict between catholic and protestant, rather than a national liberation struggle between the British state and the IRA. There was a time when many republicans would have scoffed at such a suggestion and dismissed it as classic black propaganda, which sought to absolve the British state of any role in the conflict. However, the gradual implementation of the Belfast Agreement, the latest manifestation of which was the March 26th encounter between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, has compelled many republicans to reconsider what actually motivated and sustained the PIRA armed struggle.

For the past thirty years, the creation of a power-sharing administration was John Hume's political blueprint for the north. If the Belfast Agreement represented political vindication for any party it was the SDLP. Yet, the paradox of the peace process is that despite this political vindication and ideological triumph, the SDLP has been electorally obliterated by Sinn Fein. An objective and honest assessment of the reasons behind this political development provides little succour for radical republicans.

The conventional peace process narrative depicts the Adams-McGuinness leadership coaxing its community - with considerable deft and skill - away from the path of armed struggle and the demand for total independence and down the road of reform within the six-county state. But is this narrative an accurate representation of recent political developments? Is it accurate to depict the northern catholic community as pro-republican? And how much persuasion and coaxing was actually required to garner support for a return to Stormont?

The PIRA armed struggle was sustained not by nationalist resentment at the British state presence but rather by widespread resentment at British-administered structural inequality within the northern state. Once a process to address exisitng structural discrimination was underway, support for armed struggle evaporated. Yes, the Belfast Agreement unquestionably consolidated British sovereignty over the north. But this reality has not been accompanied by a clammer for a resumption of armed struggle to remove British political interference. Evidently, the removal of structural discrimination within the six-county state represented the apex of northern nationalist aspirations.

Should we be surprised by this? A close examination of history indicates that we should not. Eamon McCann has correctly pointed to the fact that before and since partition the northern catholic community has shown little appetite for radical republicanism. In support of this thesis McCann cites the 1918 victory of Joe Devlin over DeValera in West Belfast and the fact that West Belfast did not elect a republican MP until 1983 [1].

Is the recent Sinn Fein upsurge evidence of a genuine republican advance? No, a cursory reading of the Belfast Agreement illustrates that there is no correlation between the enlarged Sinn Fein vote and the realisation of republican ideals. During the past decade Sinn Fein slayed its sacred republican cows, terminated the armed struggle, decommissioned its military wing and appropriated and remarketed the SDLP's political agenda with renewed vigour. Nor does the enlarged Sinn Fein vote represent an electoral endorsement of republicanism. If anything it is an endorsement of the reformist middle-ground previously occupied by the SDLP but now colonised by Sinn Fein.

The Adams-McGuinness leadership's realignment of the provisional movement with the reformist political demands of its northern nationalist hinterland undoubtedly triggered recent electoral gains. This is indisputable. But was this realignement provoked by the reality of a ongoing military stalemate? Or was the Adams-McGuinness leadership, since the early 1980s, laying the groundwork for the provisional movement's eventual acceptance of an internal settlement?

The overall strategic orientation of the Adams-McGuinness leadership between 1981 and 1998 was characterised by an incremental accomodation with the British state in Ireland. By the late 1970s Adams and McGuinness had yet to secure sufficient control over the provisional movement. Any suggestion of a dilution of traditional PIRA demands or tactics at that time would have provoked internal instability and threatened their leadership. However, in November 1981 Sinn Fein decided to contest northern local elections on an abstentionist ticket. In April 1982 Sinn Fein fielded candidates in the election to Jim Prior's Stormont Assembly and won five seats on an abstentionist ticket. Three years later Sinn Fein accepted its seats in local council throughout the north. In 1986 Sinn Fein recognised the legitimacy of Leinster House. All of these political signposts foretold the 1998 return to Stormont and, to quote Francie Molloy, the decision "to administer British rule in Ireland for the foreseeable future" [2]. When viewed within this context, the strategic drift towards an internal settlement was incremental and to some extent all too predictable. However, the timing of delivery ultimately depended upon Adams and McGuinness securing the sufficient appointment of loyal and trusted personnel throughout the organisation and the avoidance of a devastating split.

The PIRA armed campaign eventually culminated with the constitutional entrenchment of British sovereignty, the creation of a power-sharing executive with minimalist cross-border bodies, and a commitment to remove structural inequalities within the northern state. As John Hume reminded us last week, all of this was available more than twenty years ago. This raises profound moral and political questions, particularly if the Adams-McGuinness leadership was, by the mid-to late 1980s, prepared to settle for such an arrangement but lacked the organisational dominance to secure internal support; and in its absence chose to continue a low-intensity campaign until the internal dynamic within the organisation had altered favourably, the delivery of which British intelligence played no small part.

As Ed Moloney pointed out:

"The Irish peace process was not a spontaeneous phenomenon, tossed around by forces outside its control, nor was it forced upon its architects by the fortunes of war. The process was a little like a precooked dinner whose basic menu had largely been decided long before most of the diners knew the meal was planned…The peace process was, in other words, an exercise in management towards an already decided outcome, as much as anything else" [3].

Perhaps, in the final analysis, Adams and McGuinness should be more aptly described as an armed civil rights activists rather than genuine leaders of a national liberation struggle. Ultimately, history will judge the PIRA thirty-year campaign as an inappropriate method of achieving a reformist political arrangement that could have been attained by democratic and peaceful means.

So were the Whitehall mandarins correct afterall? Did the resolution of conflict always revolve around how both sectarian blocs might co-exist within the British six-county state? No. The core cause of conflict, which has yet to be resolved, remains British state interference in Irish political affairs. But you will get no inkling of this from listening to provisional spokespersons. On BBC's Lets Talk Mitchell McLaughlin positively gloated about the fact that the constitutional question was not raised once by any voter during his recent pre-election canvassing, whereas "getting the institutions up and running and bread and butter issues were the primary concerns" [4].

Inside the Members' Dining Room on March 26th Gerry Adams did little to dispel the manufactured perception of a sectarian conflict. Adams spoke of the need to "build a new relationship between orange and green" [5]. Not once did he place the past thirty years of war in any historical context. There was no reference to the British as the architects of partition. Not once did he assert the democratic demand for a British withdrawal from Ireland and a restoration of the Irish people's inalienable right to self-determination. Not once did he protest against ongoing British interference in Irish political affairs. Not once did he demand the release of republican prisoners from British and Irish jails. Instead the Sinn Fein president committed himself and his party to entering a power-sharing executive and adminstering British rule from May 8th, the 20th anniversary of the SAS massacre of eight IRA volunteers at Loughall.

Eoghan Harris did not miss the opportunity to drive home the symbolic implications of the March 26th imagery:

"Tuesday's newspaper pictures of Paisley and Adams sitting together, marked a final stage in a long trek by the Irish people towards the truth needed to make peace. The truth, long hidden behind the veils of violent nationalist rhetoric, is that the Northern problem is not between us and the Brits, nor between the south and the north, but is primarily a problem between the two traditions in Northern Ireland" [6].

Many IRA volunteers fought and died, and spent years in British and Irish jails, in pursuit of total independence and a British governmental withdrawal from Ireland. Unfortunately their commitment was not matched by their opportunist leaders or the broad community from whence they came.

Once again republicans return to the drawing board having endured yet another political and military defeat. Republicans opposed to the current internal arrangement negotiated by Sinn Fein face an uncertain future. The Adams-McGuinness leadership clearly does not possess a viable military or political strategy to achieve Irish independence, but neither does its republican opponents. This has been Sinn Fein's saving grace throughout the peace process. The question is, even if so-called dissident republicans did articulate an alternative strategy, would nationalist Ireland be interested?


[1] The Sunday Business Post, 01-04-07, p11.
[2] The Irish Times, 07-09-99, p8.
[3] Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 2002, pxvi.
[4] Let's Talk, 29-03-07.
[5] The Irish Times, 27-03-07, p8.
[6] The Sunday Independent, 01-04-07, p12.




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