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History is made by those who say no.
- Andre Malraux



Republicans Acknowledging A Democratic Basis To Partition


Anthony McIntyre

The notion of republicans accepting the necessity of winning unionist consent for a united Ireland, despite stirring considerable media interest throughout the week, is not a new element devoid of all previous trace and suddenly inserted into Sinn Fein discourse. Although one historian of the IRA, J Bowyer Bell, claimed some time ago that all republicans would regard as heresy any endorsement of the unionist claim to a right to veto the unity of Ireland, Sinn Fein on their journey to becoming what some critics term ‘Provisional Fianna Fail’ were as eager to slaughter that sacred cow as they have been to do likewise with many others.

Republican leaders have for some time been involved in making it clearer that unity by consent was the position they sought to reach. This in spite of having told their membership for years that any such thing was a partitionist 'fudge'. Brendan O'Brien of RTE was one of the few commentators who noticed the trend when he wrote his book on the IRA and Sinn Fein in 1993. An Phoblacht/Republican News sensitive to his insight tampered with a review of O'Brien's book and added the sentence 'this is way off the mark' to refute O'Brien's thesis that Sinn Fein was a whisker away from accepting the realities of unionism, veto included.

All these transformations begin in a certain way. ‘Consent’ of the unionists at first was mumbled almost inaudibly from behind five fingers. Only the most keenly attuned would pick it up. And then it was only ‘desirable’ to achieve it but was not a necessity. As years went by a finger would go down and ‘consent’ would sound less garbled, more decipherable. Eventually a point is reached, as in New York at the World Economic Forum, where the hand is removed and ‘consent’ rings out loud and clear so that every mover and shaker in the world of global capitalism is left in no doubt that another element in a once revolutionary ensemble has been laid to rest.

When Mitchel McLaughlin wrote what was viewed as a ground breaking article for Fingerpost back in the summer of 1992 it was clear that the nettle of consent was being grasped albeit tentatively and in a gloved hand so that the leadership could deny to the rank and file that their fingerprints were actually on the ‘unionist veto’. McLaughlin did, however, sully his new found commitment by adding in a 1994 article for the same publication that he knew of no one in the Republican Movement who wished to coerce the unionists into a United Ireland. It begged the question of how many in the Movement he actually did know. After the signing of the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, based as it were on the principle of consent, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP was uncompromising in his assertion that virtually nothing separated it from the Hume-Adams document. Perhaps for that reason republicans were asked to march through West Belfast in support of Hume-Adams but were not told what it meant.

In 1994 the Bobby Sands Discussion Group (later closed down by the IRA and Sinn Fein for asking difficult questions) hosted a debate in the West Belfast’s Felons Club prompted in part by Mallon’s comments. The late Pat McGeown argued passionately against others that Sinn Fein were about to accept the consent principle. 13 months later in Dublin he privately endorsed the comments he had heard made by some speakers at the RDS who claimed that accepting consent was the direction in which republicanism was going. By 1995 Pat Doherty was trying to divide the indivisible by separating the unionist veto from unionist consent. In an act of Orwellian slippage, republican opposition to the ‘veto’ now meant only that the unionists should have no power to block all political progress. Unionist power to block a united Ireland was now increasingly to be referred to as ‘consent’.
When the Mitchell principles were signed up to by the Sinn Fein leadership in 1997 it was another marker on the road. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was built on the immovable rock of the consent principle. So there should really be no surprise that the once hated unity by consent formula should be unambiguously articulated by the Sinn Fein president in New York. Everybody else was being told for years. The last people to be find out, as usual, were the republican grassroots. And even then some of them still think it is only a tactic.

But has the significance of the republican abandonment of its opposition to unity by consent been fully grasped? When the Provisional IRA leaped out of the ashes of 1969 and began its war against the British state the organisation tapped into a reservoir of disaffection. Insurrection proved popular to people seeking civil and human rights. The only body for long enough doing anything against those seen to be denying such rights was the Provisional IRA. But the stated objectives of the IRA went well beyond the attainment of such rights. For its dynamic the IRA looked to the then present but for its proposed solution the organisation looked to the past and its own tradition. The goal of a united Ireland regardless of the unionists was the aim. They were a non-element in the equation as far as republicans were concerned. Something to be dealt with generously once the British had departed.

But the ill fit between proposed republican solutions and the actual causes of the conflict were soon to be become apparent when the results of the 1973 Assembly election confirmed an outstanding victory for constitutional nationalism and the SDLP who were unequivocally committed to unity only by consent. Sinn Fein’s boycott campaign against the elections was effectively the only thing to be boycotted. The mass insurrectionary movement centred primarily in Belfast and Derry had dissipated and along with it fervour for republican objectives. The IRA campaign went on the wane after that with much fewer operations in the cities and a significant displacement of the republican military machine to the rural areas where support for republicanism was more traditional. The trend was only effectively reversed when the present leadership of the Republican Movement took control and pursued a ‘Long War’ strategy (significantly aided by support generated by the H-Block hunger strikes) that rejected totally any notion of unionist consent or what was termed ‘a sop to loyalism’.

The position of the British state was always clear - it never opposed the unity of Ireland. Rather it laid down the terms on which the country would be united. A majority of people in the North would have to consent. Republicans for their part stated diametrically opposing terms. The British would leave through the coercive power of the IRA without any reference to the desires or thoughts of the unionists. The acceptance by Mr Adams in New York of the consent principle is an acknowledgement not only that the war is over but that the British won it.

Moreover, the acceptance calls into question the usefulness or purpose of the IRA campaign post-1974. Morally, how justified was armed opposition to a partition which republicans now accept has a democratic validity? Strategically, despite the swing of the demographic pendulum towards Catholics in the last thirty years it seems remarkable that nationalism secured in the Good Friday agreement a less substantive deal than it did through Sunningdale. Ultimately, after a sustained IRA campaign the British were in a position to offer less than they did in 1974.

A revolutionary body that settles for and then seeks to legitimise the very terms it fought against simultaneously delegitimises and arguably criminalizes its own existence. Consequently, historians of the conflict, now armed with the present Sinn Fein logic will in all probability come to view the IRA campaign much more negatively than may previously have been the case. A sad denouement to an unnecessary war in which so many suffered needlessly.



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