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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

If You Can’t Beat Them,
Join Them

le Breandán Ó Muirthile

While the final outcome of the current negotiations between the various parties to the Northern Ireland conflict, described by the Sinn Féin leadership as ‘the most important since partition’, has yet to emerge, the broad outlines of the deal are already clear.

In return for the restoration of the northern Executive and further demilitarisation by the British, the Provisional IRA will effectively cease to exist as a functioning military organisation. Whether the IRA’s active service units are formally ‘stood down’ or not matters little. It has been made abundantly clear that the IRA is to be ‘removed entirely from the equation’ and given the fact that the SF leadership has as its declared objective ‘the ending of physical force republicanism in Ireland’ there is clearly no fundamental disagreement of principle between the various players that the IRA’s days are numbered and all that remains to be settled is the modalities of this process, whereby the Army will become nothing more than a disarmed and toothless ‘old comrades association’, while SF returns to Stormont and assumes its role in the management of the RUC/PSNI.

How have we arrived at a point whereby what has been generally acknowledged as one of the most effective guerrilla organisations in the world has been reduced to this? At the culmination of thirty years of struggle, it seems appropriate to seek to evaluate the outcome.

Ever since the ceasefire of 1994 and its 1997 restoration, the mantra has constantly been repeated that the struggle remains ‘undefeated’ and that the goals of the Movement remain the same, but that the methods of that struggle have simply been translated onto a new and more ‘strategic’ plane. Over that period a seemingly endless series of defeats for republicanism have been presented as ‘strategic advances’, one sacred cow after another being casually slaughtered, as SF’s acceptance of the Mitchell Principles was followed by the de facto acceptance, indeed administration, of British rule; of partition; of the Unionist veto; and of the ‘decommissioning’ of IRA weaponry. The imminent winding-up order on the IRA and SF’s endorsement of the RUC/PSNI are merely the latest steps in a process whose direction has for several years been painfully obvious to all apart from the wilfully blind. Clearly the main advantage of drawing lines in the sand is the ease with which the traces can be kicked over.

Several questions remain to be answered by the incorrigibly faithful, those who insist on seeing the endless march away from the Republic and into the arms of Stormont and British rule as strategic advances towards unchanged goals.

The first is the one which I make no apology for asking yet again. Where is this alleged strategy? I, for one, remain willing to be convinced by anybody who is able to do what no-one has so far even attempted i.e. to explain how an end to partition and to British rule in this country are to be brought about by a so-called strategy which has at its core the affording of a constitutional veto, enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, to a national minority which remains as steadfastly unionist as ever.

The closest I have ever come to discerning anything remotely resembling a strategy lies in the deliberately vague cliché of ‘making politics work’, which in practice seems to mean doing whatever it takes to secure the growth of SF as a political party. This, it seems, is to be accomplished by shedding any ideological baggage along the way, thereby facilitating the growing electoral strength of a party which has become so estranged from its identity as to be at a loss as to what to do with this increased support, thus explaining the apparent paradox that SF has continued to grow in electoral support at precisely the same time that republicanism has suffered one defeat after another.

Secondly, if the current and developing political situation does not constitute defeat for a movement which spent a quarter of a century waging a struggle with the declared objectives of ending British rule in Ireland and bringing about a united Ireland, what would defeat actually look like? Assuming that the theoretical possibility of a defeat of the struggle, as opposed to a cleverly disguised strategic advance, is conceded, what would be the outline of such a defeat? If you bumped into defeat in a dark alley, how would its face differ from what we have now?

Thirdly, imagine that around about 1990 a British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had asked one of his/her civil servants to prepare a briefing paper summarising the elements of an ideal ‘best case’ settlement to the troubles from the point of view of the British Government. How would such an ideal settlement on British terms be fundamentally different from the outcome of a process which has enshrined British sovereignty over the north, with the explicit acceptance of both the Irish Government (removal of articles 2 & 3) and of the State’s former military adversaries, who have unilaterally abandoned the armed struggle, are committed to participation in the government of the north as a part of the United Kingdom and are soon to endorse the paramilitary police force of the British State?

It has been argued that the outcome of the struggle is not to be seen in terms of victory or defeat, but rather that it represents an honourable compromise flowing from a political and military stalemate. If this idea of an ‘honourable negotiated compromise’ is to stand up, this would involve all sides making meaningful concessions in order to strike a deal with their adversaries.

The painful concessions (sorry, ‘strategic advances’) made by Republicans, as listed above, are immediately apparent and clearly these remain very much work in progress. But what have the British Government conceded in return?

We can swiftly dismiss the argument that the British have conceded anything fundamental on the constitutional issue, since the frankly pathetic cross-border bodies established under the GFA are considerably weaker and less ‘green’ than those set up under Sunningdale thirty years ago. Furthermore, the argument that cross-border co-operation between two sovereign states represents a weakening of the British position here demonstrates a failure to understand the increasingly interdependent nature of modern international politics, coupled with an ignorance of the changing strategic interests of the British State in Ireland.

It is perfectly clear that going back as far as 1973 Britain decided that its interests would no longer be served by an uncritical underwriting of the unionist position and that Britain’s most prized allies here have since been the comprador/gombeen ruling class of the 26 counties, a class which shares with Britain the goal of ‘stabilizing’ the six counties, thereby removing any threat which the northern troubles might pose to their own position. For this class, putting the lid back on the north was all that mattered and the political character of any settlement which could achieve this objective was of little importance, irrespective of ‘constitutional imperatives’.

The other elements of the GFA package which have been presented as advances for Republicans i.e. the release of prisoners, the ‘equality agenda’ and such limited demilitarisation as has occurred (don’t mention South Armagh!) may be welcome in themselves, but again these do not represent concessions of key interests by the British. Why would Britain want to spend huge sums of money in maintaining a sophisticated ‘security’ infrastructure and keeping prisoners in jail, when the organisation to which the prisoners belong is no longer a threat to British interests?

Similarly, the decreasing importance of Unionism to Britain has for a long time meant that the British simply do not have a problem with the de-sectarianisation of the northern state. Quite the contrary in fact, since improving the social and economic position of the nationalist community and being seen to address the worst excesses of unionist discrimination undercuts the social base of opposition to British rule, while enabling Britain to project internationally an image of the north as a thoroughly modern and essentially ‘normal’ society.

Furthermore, the ‘equality agenda’ and the reaction of elements of Unionism to it have the additional advantage of strengthening the position of a SF leadership at no cost to the British, since it enables that leadership to mollify grass roots rumblings by adopting the frankly sectarian practice of implying to its own supporters ‘If the GFA antagonizes the Unionists this much then it has got to be good for us’.

In summary, was the struggle lost?

There are two possible interpretations of the outcome of the last thirty years, since we can leave to the wilfully blind any belief in victory and can allow the incorrigibly faithful to continue ‘trusting the leadership’ that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the final working out of this alleged strategy will lead to a united Ireland at some indeterminate point in a mystical future.

The first interpretation is the straightforward answer that the struggle was indeed lost and that, faced with this reality, the leadership had a choice between two alternatives. One was to turn around to the Republican base, hold up their hands and say honestly ‘We have tried our best, but the odds against us were too great. We cannot win this, irrespective of how long we continue, therefore there is no point in continuing under current circumstances and we believe that this phase of the struggle should be ended in order to save lives and wait for a better day with our principles intact.’ This is a position which Republicans have adopted in previous generations e.g. at the end of the civil war and also in 1962 at the end of the border campaign.

Instead the decision to seek a settlement from a hopelessly weak negotiating position, based upon an alliance as subordinate partners with forces castigated throughout our republican history as being anti-republican, counter-revolutionary and class enemies has brought us to the current sorry position in which, as one senior member of SF (Francie Molloy) has openly stated ‘The principle of partition is accepted. We are prepared to administer British rule indefinitely.’ In plain language, if you can’t beat them, join them.

The second interpretation is that the question of victory or defeat, implying, as it does, a contest between adversaries, no longer has any relevance, since the GFA and its subsequent outworking represent the straightforward and entirely logical outcome of the political reality that the ideological jettisoning of everything other than an entirely rhetorical commitment to the attainment of republican objectives means that for several years there has simply ceased to be any fundamental conflict between the interests of the British State in Ireland and those of SF as a political party.






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
- Thomas J. Watson

Index: Current Articles

6 February 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them
Breandán Ó Muirthile


The Spire
Anthony McIntyre


Brian Mór


The Holidays and Joyce
Sean OTorain


Life Story of the Olives
Annie Higgins


The Letters page has been updated.


3 February 2003


A Carefully Crafted Message - Little Revealed, A Lot Concealed
John Meehan


What if They Give an Election and No One Comes?
Eamon Lynch


The Conscience of a King
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Lost Honour, Lost Cause
Proinsias O'Loinsaigh


Bogota Diary
Jimmy Sands


The Tongue
Anthony McIntyre


Glossary of Occupation

Paul de Rooij




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