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Rivers Change Their Course Sometimes But Always Reach The Sea

Anthony McIntyre • April 18, 2003

The boredom factor referred to by Briedge Gadd on UTV last Sunday probably means that most people neither know nor care what our political class is up to in the latest stage of our interminable peace process. For an ennui saturated public fearful that it may succumb to terminal tedium it hardly really matters anyway. The political class has not been allowed to run its little fiefdom since last October and can anybody really claim to have noticed? The only difference has been in its whining which now has a slightly altered focus.

So many times has the political class, steeped in its own self importance, summoned Blair and Ahern here that one observer suggested both premiers must have season tickets by now. Yet the two leaders continue to come and inflate its bloated ego each time it threatens to belch and spoil the party. When the president of the United States arrived last week the political class may have felt he came to see them rather than him having summoned them to see him.

The present squabbling within our centre-right political class has resulted in Sinn Fein having been sent to the dock of public opinion where rather than appear as the accused it behaves as the judge assigning culpability to everyone other than itself. At times it seems there is a reluctance on the part of the republican leadership to let go of the peace process and reach what one commentator termed a peace settlement. Like everything else preceding it, an anticipated act of completion never comes in its completed form, always being split into this that and the other. In a sense the peace process defines Sinn Fein. It is the myth of republican struggle by other means rather than the reality of defeat by constitutionalist means. But even myths have their shelf life.

There has been much speculation about the thinking underlying the republican leadership’s machinations of the week gone by. Amongst these was the view that the leadership felt Blair, as a result of the war on Iraq, might not be as focussed as he was last October when he showed a red card to the IRA and could therefore be bounced that more easily. Another view was that the leadership was hesitant about opposition gathering within its own grassroots particularly on the issue of Sinn Fein embracing the structure of a renamed RUC. Whatever the truth in any of this, those who look for some great but as of yet indiscernible strategic wisdom in the Provisional republican leadership’s reluctance to meet the requirements of both governments might perhaps consider looking the other way and see a debacle.

The past week has left the party facing a publicity backlash as a result of the IRA failing to meet the general expectation that the demanded acts of completion would be delivered. With a little foresight combined with a planned damage limitation exercise, some of the thrust of this backlash could have been disarmed. Had the Sinn Fein leadership refused to have turned up at the Bush-Blair war summit venue last week the party would have been left with some cover for the present stance. By attempting to clothe itself in the garb of anti-war sentiment and declining to go to the venue on the ethical grounds of conscientious objection the party could have offset much of the criticism certain to come its way merely by not having inflated the balloon of hyped expectation that was generated as a consequence of the Hillsborough gathering. Coupled with this was the party standing to gain considerably from the fall out it knew would result as a consequence of today’s release of the Stevens Report. Ultimately, the thrust of public opinion against it would have been attenuated somewhat. What after all is damage limitation about if not limiting certain damage?

But by attending the Hillsborough summit in order to avoid alienating American public opinion by appearing to snub the country’s president, Sinn Fein has merely postponed the snub by failing to go the final mile that their attendance at Hillsborough caused most people to anticipate that it would go. There is a certain price to be paid for allowing the president of the USA to hail the success of the Irish peace process, and then be seen to drag it back down into the quagmire of endless posturing and positioning. Now the Republican Movement faces massive institutional opprobrium in an open space where there is little camouflage behind which to conceal blushes.

As matters now stand Sinn Fein is perched on precarious political ground. It can capitulate to the governments' demands in the coming days, jettison what remains of its republicanism, and salvage its constitutionalist project; or it can procrastinate and wander aimlessly for some time to come deprived of the anchor of institutional power. The party needs the executive more than the unionists. The latter can live happily enough with direct rule feeling it is better than being in government with people they regard as the IRA. With direct rule the republicans will have received little return for their war other than an end to their war.

It is now expected that elections to the Northern assembly will take place before the end of May. If they do Sinn Fein is hardly likely to trail the SDLP when the votes are counted. This is small comfort for a party leadership intent on the acquisition of institutional power. But by failing to deliver on the acts of completion such institutional power is likely to remain beyond them. The type of unionism required to share power with a republicanism still characterised everywhere outside of Sinn Fein discourse as a politico-military nexus will be considerably weaker in the wake of the election. The UUP, while likely to emerge as the leading unionist party with David Trimble at the helm, will have even less room to manoeuvre than it does at present. That means even greater constraints on its ability to deliver the type of deal Sinn Fein so badly needs.

Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin a few nights ago expressed the view that the UUP would remain the dominant party within unionism after any election but that the DUP would still deal if this proved not to be so. He also referred to the old argument that Trimble fails to sell the agreement. The problem with this perspective is that it is insufficiently anchored in realpolitik and is in many respects a polemic. If republicans think they can fashion the snowballs for Trimble to throw at his own party they can hardly feign surprise if the snowballs then melt in the fiery environment that is unionism at this particular juncture. And republicans must take some responsibility for the fires that blaze therein, having thrown enough petrol on them over the past number of years. As for the DUP, if it does emerge as the leading unionist party it will ultimately do business, but only after republicans deliver on what is demanded of them now - and perhaps even more.

It is therefore puzzling why Sinn Fein remain so insistent on elections when the outcome, while delivering a victory over the SDLP, will also mould a political environment in which the restoration of the political institutions becomes much less likely and which leave any new voting strength considerably devalued in the short term. This raises the possibility, however slight, that privately the party leadership hopes that elections are in fact postponed on the grounds that a unionism which is more susceptible to deal is not in fact weakened and marginalized. Postponement would also allow Sinn Fein to take the moral high ground of defending a democracy denied if the British decided not to proceed with elections.

Another seeming conundrum is to be found in Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's insistence on elections taking place in May. It may well be that if he were to give the nod to the British that such elections should indeed be postponed until October he would be pushing an open door. Sinn Fein’s votes or supremacy over the SDLP, he must know, are nothing more than a pyhrric victory for republicans outside of the institutions. He may therefore have second guessed the party and by refusing to make the call on its behalf he may be using leverage on the republican party by nudging it into a situation where it will be denied the institutional power it so desperately craves.

These are imponderables and without access to the minds of those at the heart of matters will remain as such. But in terms of political arithmetic the current Sinn Fein stance does not add up and cannot be sustained for long. The party’s strategy of seeking to incrementalise the process has come up against a wall every bit as obdurate as Sinn Fein is evasive. There is now less strategic space for the republican leadership to insert a wedge between Trimble, Blair and Ahern. The old trick of devising a package that would please London, Dublin and indeed Washington but not the unionists is becoming more difficult to conjure. A unionism further destabilised simply will not deal.

Subsequently, getting by Easter Sunday will figure in the considerations of the Sinn Fein leadership. It is at that point that the gap between Easter Sunday republicanism and Good Friday republicanism seems so vast and irreconcilable. In the days up to the Easter commemorations no small number of messages will be transmitted by republicans with the aim of encouraging or cajoling Trimble’s deadline of today to be pushed back. The coming week creates a new backdrop and the chances of a deal are not yet dead in the water.

For the Provisional Republican Movement the long slow one-way journey away from the core tenets of republicanism which sustained it throughout its struggle will at some point be completed. Twists and turns delay the inevitable but like rivers that change their course the only destination that awaits them is the establishment sea of constitutionalism. It is time for those who claim that the war is not yet over to face the fact that it is not going to start again.


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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.
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Index: Current Articles

19 April 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Rivers Change Their Course Sometimes but Always Reach the Sea

Anthony McIntyre


The Raytheon File: The Campaign against Raytheon in Derry
Liz Curtis


Republicans' Big Risk Redux: Walker Stumbles Too

Paul Fitzsimmons


A Tribute to Andy Barr
Joe Bowers


Rejecting Stereotypes
Liam O Ruairc


The Daily Uprising
Seaghan O Murchu


14 April 2003


Maghaberry Update


"We Won The Peace, Now Let's Win The War"

PRO, POWs, Maghaberry


"In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash"

Paul Fitzsimmons


Killer Peaceniks
Henry McDonald


Hillsborough and the Anglo-American Agreement to Wage War
Anthony McIntyre


An English View of the 'Ra
Eamonn McCann


In the Swim with Two Boys
Seaghan O Murchu


A Better World Without Him

Anthony McIntyre


Arrogant Propaganda
Paul de Rooij




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