Anthony McIntyre
Parliamentary Brief May/June 1998

The Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (general conference) has passed and republicans ostensibly have still not made a decision on whether to recommend a ‘yes’ vote to accept the Stomont Agreement, preferring instead to wait until the 10th of May for a reconvened Ard Fheis. But the ‘well done David’ comment of party president Gerry Adams is revealing. Adams, commenting on David Trimble’s victory at the Unionist general council, was not just attempting to inject some life into what Paul Bew terms ‘stupid unionism’ in a bid to have rain fall on Trimble’s parade. He was also signalling to the republican base that what Trimble had ‘done well’ was something worthwhile emulating.

But just what had Trimble done to earn himself such a dubious accolade? At a debate in West Belfast a few days after the Ard Fheis, the Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle member Jim Gibney told his audience that from a rigid republican perspective the Stormont Agreement should be torn up. However, Gibney laboured valiantly, and with no small measure of oratorical acumen, to explain to a doubting audience precisely how the document marked progress from a general nationalist position.

But the problem for republicanism is that for the duration of its history a central tenet of its philosophy was that both nationalism in general and unionism had much in common on the issue of consent within the North being the sole determining factor in deciding the future of the island as a whole in terms of whether it would be united or not. And it is within this general nationalist project that republicanism was now being asked to become subsumed.

In essence what Trimble had ‘done well’ was to secure through the Stormont agreement even deeper acquiescence by nationalism to the principle of consent. In his writings a number of years ago the Sinn Fein president described this principle as ‘a partitionist fudge’. And in seeming to tell Trimble he had ‘done well’ to both institutionalise and embed this partitionist fudge, even in the Southern constitution, Adams underlined the strategic distance republicanism had travelled from the days of its formation in 1969, but described it in positive terms as a ‘new phase of struggle’.

But for some the republican leadership has developed the habit of describing its strategic failures in terms of new phases of struggle. A letter in this weeks An Phoblacht/Republican News showed clearly just how short of Sinn Fein’s bottom line the Stormont agreement actually was. So why would Adams congratulate Trimble for institutionalising and embedding the ‘partitionist fudge’? For the republican leader there was an element of sleight-of-hand in all of this -Trimble was being offered the chalice and his grassroots the poison with which to fill it. The difficulty for the Adams leadership lies in realising that to argue for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum may reduce the appeal of Sinn Fein in electoral terms amongst a populace yearning for peace. In a sense the party is implying that it has become hostage to the fickle mood of a developing support base. If true it is the victim of its own design.

A further difficulty lies in what the party should do in the upcoming elections to a new Northern assembly. For republicans to take their seats would require internal party constitutional change necessitating support from two thirds of the Sinn Fein membership. Traditionally, republicans have displayed an anathema towards participation in any such assembly, feeling rightly or otherwise that such a move would inevitably lead to the dilution of outright republican objection to the continuation of British involvement in Irish affairs. The leadership, while aware of previous such ventures by their predecessors, must nevertheless be sensitive to the view that if they continue with a republican abstentionist policy then they will vacate the field leaving it to the SDLP and the unionists and in the process marginalise the republican argument. There is a school of thought within republicanism that this is merely handing the unionists victory on a plate and strengthening the union as a consequence.

Subsequently, a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum is the asking price for an assembly. If republicans could afford the luxury of voting ‘no’ in the knowledge that the ‘yes’ vote would carry at the end of the day and the establishment of the assembly would not be affected anyway, they would most likely pursue that option, thus avoiding raising the suspicions of a republican base, a large portion of which sees virtually nothing in the Stormont agreement.

The alternative view is that by attending the assembly republicans are included minus republicanism. The republican argument becomes marginalised anyway. Consequently, the British state will have rendered ineffectual the most potent challenge its rule has faced in Ireland since partition.

The safe money would be on the Sinn Fein leadership urging its grassroots to abandon the party’s abstentionist policy. Historically, when the leadership announces that a debate is taking place, despite declining to declare its own position, it is a sign of where that leadership thinks the new direction lies. The peace strategy has developed in such a manner that it became virtually impossible for its authors to think of political dynamic being contained in anything other than an assembly. In a strange paradox the reviled Stormont may now become the life support machine of the republican leadership’s peace strategy.

Jim Gibney is of course right to point out the distance between the republican perspective and the Stormont agreement. What the leadership of which he is a member must address itself to is whether that distance can be safely travelled without too many of the passengers jumping ship. People falling overboard and being lost at sea will not concern the leadership. But if they take to the structure of lifeboats and survive the course then the probability of an organised opposition looms ominously on the horizon.

With three armed republican groups already excluded from the peace process, any significant haemorrhaging from the mainstream republican body would bring the balance precariously close to critical mass. And then the argument of going into Stormont - but wearing balaclavas and not ties - begins to move centre stage once again.



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