is at a fork in the road. There are two possible ways
into the future. As a determinist, I must, strictly
speaking, hold that the question "which road?"
has already been answered; but strict determinism
is no practical philosophy for living by, so I continue,
pace Schopenhauer, to live my life as though I were
free, and to write about history as though there were
choices. Here, then, are two possible visions of Ireland's
future, "thesis" and "antithesis"
if you will.
piece began as "Comments on A Nation Sundered:
Ireland's Counter-Revolution", an article
by Des Dalton which I saw on the Republican Sinn Féin
website some weeks ago.
ever, the Republican Sinn Féin analysis of
past and present is clear and cogent. There's only
one problem with it. It remains totally in the realm
of ideas; there is no link between it and day-to-day
activity. Des has told us where we've come from, and
what's wrong with where we are; but how does he propose
to get us any nearer to where we want to go? How exactly
is the 32-county Republic at last to be achieved?
On that, RSF is... well, not silent, but it's fair
to say devoid of practical ideas. Perhaps the current
IRA strategy is flawed. But what I fail to hear from
any of its critics is any coherent description of
the alternative. Back to war? The Reals and the Continuity
Army have tried that; it hasn't worked too well. We
should face facts. The Brits didn't defeat the IRA;
but neither did the IRA drive the British out of Ireland.
They fought their way to the negotiating table, though.
That's not ideal, but it's better than nothing. "Half
a loaf is better than no bread" may not be the
most inspiring of slogans, but at least we're sitting
down to dine.
what has the negotiating table given us? Is the "peace
process" just a re-run of the infamous Treaty?
Des Dalton thinks so.
signing of the "Stormont Agreement" in
April 1998 was but the latest in a series of attempts
by Britain to consolidate the political structures
which it imposed on Ireland by means of the Westminster
"Government of Ireland Act" in 1920 and
the "Anglo-Irish Treaty" of 1921."
is formally correct. From the British point of view,
the Good Friday Agreement is an attempt "to consolidate
the political structures" imposed earlier. But
the key point is, that whether this attempt is successful
or not depends on what Republicans do to effectively
prevent the consolidation of said political structures.
The "peace process" is just that, a process.
It is more than the Good Friday Agreement or the institutions
at Stormont. Those are the beginning of the process.
The end which is aimed at is a united Ireland; more,
a free Ireland, a true Irish Republic at last. By
taking part in a real political development, Republicans
can attempt to change reality, to move the future
in the direction they want to see it go. The alternative?
If republicans don't effectively intervene, they may
be assured that history will go on quite happily without
there any grounds for believing that political activity
this time round will deliver?
believe there are. Firstly, there is the changing
demography of the six counties. Sooner rather than
later, the people there are going to vote themselves
into a united Ireland. This would have been considered
out of the question in the dark days of the 30s and
40s, even in the 70s. Then, it looked as though the
Unionist veto was here to stay; and so it was the
bomb and the bullet, or nothing. Now, that is all
changing. Now, head counting begins to work in Ireland's
favour. Oh, of course a vote for reunification is
not necessarily a vote for Republicanism. But it is
a vote for one very important strand of that belief.
there is Britain's desire to disengage. I am conscious,
having written that phrase, that maybe I am as naïve
as those who thought that Commonwealth status and
partition was somehow a "stepping stone"
to the Republic. Well, perhaps history does sometimes
repeat itself, "the first time as tragedy, the
second time as farce"; but I don't think this
is one of those times. With the cold war over, Britain's
role in the world much reduced, and another European
war inconceivable, Britain certainly has no objective
interest in covering the Atlantic flank any more --
the first time for centuries. The Irish economy, though
British firms are still over-represented, is certainly
not so dominated by British capital that British economic
interests would be seriously threatened by a free
and united Ireland. Is there still any great subjective
attachment to the presence in Ireland? Not that I
can discern. There may be hold-outs in some sections
of the establishment, and the editor of the Spectator
may rant and rave for some time to come, But I think
mainstream opinion in the British establishment is
firmly in favour of "disengagement without disgrace".
In any case, even if they weren't, they have signed
an international treaty which compels them to respect
the wishes of the majority in the six counties, and
we've just seen what that will entail in the not so
distant future. If Irish America stays on board, a
firm tap on the shoulder from big brother across the
water will ensure that the British do not renege on
course, the hard-line Republican will insist that
the Southern régime remains illegitimate. I
agree, in principle. Principles, however, "butter
no parsnips". While there may have been some
hope among the adherents of the physical force tradition
that the Brits could be driven out of the North, and
while that might still be desirable "if only",
who still believes that Republicanism could or should
dissolve the Leinster House government by force? History
has moved on. But that doesn't mean
that we simply want "Anschluß", the
annexation of the North by the South. Re-unification
is important for many reasons, but one important one
is that it cannot but disrupt the established order
of things in the South. That gives opportunity for
political action to dislodge the present band of bribe-takers
and chancers who exploit the place, and build a Republic
truly "of the people, by the people, for the
is true that there have been past attempts to advance
the Republican agenda by purely political means. In
the Free State elections of 1948, Clann na Poblachta
gained ten seats and two ministerial positions in
the ensuing coalition government, including the important
post of Minister for External Affairs, filled by the
redoubtable Seán Mac Bride. But it was a false
dawn. The next election, in 1951, saw the party's
seats reduced to two. After that, the history of the
party is short in the telling. In subsequent elections,
it won one seat in 1961, and one seat in 1965
and thereafter vanished. But here, surely,
there are key points of difference. Clann na Poblachta
did not organise in the North; nor did it have the
guaranteed position SF does in the Stormont parliament,
and the extra power and influence that goes with this;
nor that party's formidable fund-raising machine.
SF is the first relevant cross-border party since
partition. This is a real breakthrough; and glib historical
analogies won't wash in this new situation.
may be that the traditional goal of Republicans, an
Irish Ireland, united, Gaelic and free, has receded
over the horizon of possibility. The time of the European
nation-state may be over. Who knows? Second-guessing
the future is a futile game. We can but do our best.
If it does turn out that the IRA is defeated and must
disband, I can't see that there will be that much
to write about about Irish politics any more. What
would there be to write about? Politics is about power.
The political forces of Irish nationalism have usually
been weak, but that weakness has normally been counterbalanced
by an armed wing latterly the Irish Republican
Army in its Provisional incarnation. With the army
gone, the last party to show even verbal attachment
to nationalism, Sinn Féin, is fundamentally
powerless. Being powerless, it must follow in the
wake of more powerful currents. The party's future
is therefore predictable: it will be a fly in the
ointment, an occasional irritant to the major players,
but not really in the big game. It will follow the
main course, if not the details, of the path followed
in the past by similar political off-shoots from the
Republican movement: De Valera's Fianna Fáil,
Clann na Poblachta, Official Sinn Féin. It
may win a few more seats in the South, and probably
displace the SDLP as the biggest "nationalist"
party in the North; but eventually, and sooner rather
than later, their performance will peak and then decline,
for without the spiritual commitment to the absolute
right of the Irish nation to self-determination, and
therefore the right to take up arms, it offers nothing
except a variant on the "hand-out" mentality
that makes the Irish in general so fond of foreign
rule, whether direct as in the North or indirect as
in the South.
the North: a jumped-up county council at Stormont,
a slightly-reformed RUC overseen by a toothless policing
board, a few token bodies for cross-border co-operation,
some hand-outs for "community activists",
and Sesame Street characters teaching the "wogs
from the bog" how to behave like decent white
folks... in a word, "normalisation". In
the South: business as usual. An economy dominated
by foreign capital; natural resources, from fish to
gas, exploited primarily for foreign profit; the continuing
erosion of national identity; the ceding of whatever
sovereignty the Free State ever had to a new master;
and all the while, four identical parties playing
musical chairs while the brown paper parcels full
of fresh new banknotes pass from hand to hand.
is rather ironic that both parts of the island are
now to enjoy a limited form of home rule under foreign
dominance: it is as though it took us 100 years to
get more or less right back to where we started. The
long history of the national struggle has drawn to
a close. Ireland will be further integrated in the
EU, which, despite the rhetoric, is itself little
more than a grand region of the Imperium Americanum.
In the Guardian last year, in an article on nations
and nationality, Hilary Mantel opined,
greatest hope of minorities, I think, is that they
can find a refuge in an imagined Europe of the regions:
not in a superstate, a Europe created on the model
of past nation states, but within a Europe of diversity
in which plural identities can flourish: in which
a man is free to define himself as a member of such
a group or nation, but also to define himself as
indeed, such is our future. We are free to "define
ourselves". Just as a citizen of the Roman Empire
was "free" to "define himself"
as a Celt or a Greek or a Purple People Eater, for
all the good it did him he remained a Roman
subject in reality. National identify will be reduced
to an individual lifestyle choice, to the "I'm
one-third Celt, one-third German, one-third Cherokee"
syndrome so prevelant, and so meaningless, in the
will "Irish" mean a hundred years from now?
Students poring over a Yeats text will read "Did
that play of mine send out/Certain men the English
shot?", and need, not only a footnote explaining
the historical facts to which Yeats refers, but a
footnote to the footnote, explaining the ideas without
which the historical facts remain incomprehensible,
ideas about nationhood, about identity, about freedom.
I am reminded of an essay by George Steiner in which,
bemoaning the decline in Classical studies, he points
out that large parts of English literature lose whole
layers of meaning without the familiarity with Latin
and Greek literature, even if only in translation,
that they assume. Irishness too will suffer this fate,
will be reduced to meaningless words in dead books.
A wilderness of empty symbols: "Irish Pubs"(),
"Celtic" sworls in tattoo shops, "Irish"
Irish people have proved that they will not stand
and fight for control over their own land. The island
of Ireland, and the people inhabiting it, will remain
despite that, but it and they will be Irish only in
a Disneyland sense, their country a place for the
strangers to come and indulge in a bit of "caint
agus craic" before returning to the real world,
where decisions are made about the level of investment
in the island, or where on the ould sod to site the
military bases that will be needed for the never-ending
"war against terror". The natives will take
what they're given: TV shows, pop songs, American
English the modern equivalent of coloured beads
and blankets and lengths of cotton and be damned
grateful for them too.
the body of the dying acrobat, Nietzsche's Zarathustra
is no Devil and no Hell. Your soul will be dead
even before your body: therefore fear nothing any
indeed, while the body, the island and its people,
is still here, the soul is already dead.
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