MAKING SENSE OF WHAT THE REPUBLICANS ARE SAYING
Parliamentary Brief, January 1998
All Party talks are on but not going if the latest outburst in response to Dublin minister David Andrews’ suggestions is the dipstick used to measure the depth of commitment by some of the participants. The main obstacle to movement at the table is the UUP, whatever the validity of their case. In unionist nightmares a myriad of Trojan horses with thick Dublin accents abound. But unlike sheep, these horses multiply rather than fade into the night when the unionists count them. But enough of, what Leon Brittan once termed zoological metaphors.
The basic issue to be addressed is one of whether the only outcome of all-party talks - ‘partition plus’ - is to be reached sooner rather than later. The unionists seem to want partition in its quintessential pre-1969 form with absolutely no plus. The nationalists are prepared to acquiesce to partition with a small ‘p’ if the ‘P’ in plus dwarfs it. On that score at least the nationalists are in front by dint of their apparent flexibility.
But given that partition plus is an up market version of the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973/74, something which republicans fought on for up to twenty years after rejecting in the hope of attaining something much better, what is the strategic logic in the republican position?
Mitchell McLaughlin, the Sinn Fein chairperson, has assured republicans - wrongly in fact - that the outcome of all party talks is not predetermined in advance and that consequently a united Ireland shall be on the table for discussion. But this means nothing other than PUP leader David Ervine says it to mean: republicans should be allowed to go and ask for a united Ireland, be told politely but firmly that the majority in the North do not want it, and then on to other business.
McLaughlin’s perspective is fascinating for no other reason than it demonstrates an intellectual internalization of the British state’s position on partition, in the process completely ignoring the republican experience. The British state has managed to hide behind a veil of neutrality precisely because there are those who are willing to say that partition in and of itself does not predetermine the outcome.
The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, has talked about a renegotiating of the union, while his colleague Martin McGuinness has argued that cross-border institutions are the end of the union as the unionists know it. And therein would appear to lie the strategic logic. Adams has produced the substance and McGuinness the selling technique.
In this context it makes sense to see republican thinking roughly along the following lines: an outcome similar to that proposed in the Framework Document of February 1995 approximates closely to the general nationalist position. Both governments will strive to focus attention on that proposal. The unionists will say no. Both governments will then go for a referendum along the lines of the framework proposal over the heads of the unionist party. If the SDLP, Sinn Fein and Alliance support bases accept then it only requires a minority - and not an unobtainable one - of the unionist support base to give the proposal the seal of approval. The resulting outcome will not have been imposed but democratically endorsed by a majority in the North, leaving the Unionists room for maneuver considerably circumscribed. Republicans could then claim that the unionist veto had been broken, an internal solution had been rejected and that there no longer exists any structural obstacles to a united Ireland.
What the logic fails to explain is that Alliance and whatever unionists who might vote for such an outcome would do so as a means to preserve partition, not dilute it. Subsequently, the goal of a united Ireland remains as far away as ever. In essence it is an outcome for republicans and a solution for constitutional nationalists.
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