The Blanket Home

Latest News & Views

Since a politician never believes what he says, he is surprised when others believe him.
- Charles de Gaulle



The Price of Ever Becoming


Anthony McIntyre


After a gap of twenty years a Sinn Fein party has made considerable gains in the Republic's general election. Following in the tradition of its forerunners of the early 1980s - Sinn Fein the Workers Party - Sinn Fein 2002 has reaped electoral reward in moving further away from oppositional politics and towards acquiring some institutional power. When IRA volunteers and Sinn Fein activists walked away from the Republican Movement in late 1969/early 1970 to create Provisional republicanism few could have predicted the turn of events.

All of that was thirty two years ago. The formation of the Provisionals may have registered as little other than a historical footnote appearing in the chronicles of J Bowyer Bell or PhDs were it not for the strategies of the British state which failed in 1969 to introduce crisis averting reforms, incorporate an Irish dimension, abolish Stormont, or shift the constitutional guarantee to London. With a logic governed by raison d'etat rather than colonial or imperialist calculations the difference was lost on many as the British state blinkered by short term considerations created for itself a long-term problem - the Provisional IRA.

Energised by an explosion of insurrectionary politics primarily in Belfast and Derry, the IRA's stated objective of a united Ireland fitted the republican tradition better than it did the experiences of those engaged in insurrection. But such was the depth of alienation that republican immediate and direct action hegemonised the range of possible strategic responses for a period before the populace went back to a more constitutional base line similar to where it is today.

While there is today a certain revisionist republican tendency to conflate the IRA campaign with a struggle for equality, the latter, while an element in republican discourse, never dominated and was always contextually situated in a particular justification for the armed campaign - in order to achieve equality, Ireland had to be united. Impatient towards the concept of gradualism the campaign waged by the IRA was not merely about achieving a united Ireland, but to do so within a specific time frame which meant that the principle of consent was to be literally blasted out along with the British. In 1972 the leadership stipulated that the start of January 1975 should hail the commencement of a British withdrawal. But as that proved unreal the discourse shifted, allowing republicans to live with the idea that Britain should declare its intention to withdraw within the lifetime of one parliament - five years at most. As late as January 1994 Martin McGuinness was still holding to this position although allowing for the perspective of other republicans whom he claimed would settle for eight years. That was eight years ago. More recently, the symbolism of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising has been flagged up by the republican leadership as yet another year of victory. 2016 became the new target date. With only 14 years to go it is looking increasingly likely that the only plausible objective for 2016 may be as minimalist as securing more Dail seats. If anything is certain it is this - there will be no united Ireland by 2016. There will be plenty of talk about 'transition' and moving into the 'final phase of struggle' and so on, but just as the 19th century art critic said of Berlin, it is always in the process of becoming but never in the state of being.

When we reach 2016, the youngest of the volunteers to have joined the IRA in 1970, at seventeen, will be 63 years old. How many of us would ever have killed or died had we known then what 2016 is likely to bring? With each passing year bearing witness to unfulfilled predictions there comes an uncomfortable point when realisation and faith collide, leaving in their wake a sense that, as the gap between the onset of the campaign and the achievement of a United Ireland grows, so too does the sense of futility of ever having fought the war, or most of it at any rate. The length of time involved dilutes severely the quality of the achievement. This is all the more compounded by having to accept it on the very terms the British offered in the early 1970s - only through consent.

Perhaps one factor that kept the war going much longer than was necessary or functional was the advice that elections were pretty much useless. Even the party president, long associated with Sinn Fein's electoral ambitions, once argued that overtaking the SDLP may not be such a good idea as it would lead to a dilution in the radicalism of republicanism. I recall strongly agreeing with an observation made by Danny Morrison that:

even if Sinn Fein was in government in Dublin, and if Sinn Fein were to become the undisputed nationalist representatives in the North Britain would still have a veto over Irish unity. For this reason republicans cannot subscribe to constitutional politics as the sole panacea for Ireland's major ailment or as a substitute for the political effectiveness of force.

Later, I found myself having doubts about his further comments that the way to get the British out was to kill more soldiers which he claimed would surely happen. My problem was not with killing British troops, simply that the type of body count required to induce a change in British policy seemed beyond us. I don't blame Danny Morrison any more than I blame myself. At least in the prison he created space for people to think differently and to both tease out and come to hold ideas that would have been at odds with the 'more kills' orthodoxy. Nevertheless, Morrison's own logic was clear - and he was far from being isolated in holding it - elections alone were futile and more killing was the way ahead.

Thirty two years after it all started and with virtually nothing but constitutional nationalist objectives achieved, I have for some time pondered that if republicans were to have explored options other than those permitted by the leadership, and had different advice been forthcoming, would the war have carried on so needlessly? Could we not have been where we are now so much sooner, only with more people alive to either curse it or enjoy it?



Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives