From Irish Political Review: September 2007

What Is To Be Done!
(Also Who, Why, Where And When)

Readers are invited to comment on this discussion article

Had the Provo War come to a political conclusion with the Good Friday Agreement it could reasonably have been assessed as a Republican victory over British imperialism in Ireland. There was no prospect of an independent and united Ireland in April 1998. But there was every chance of significant movement towards a reestablishment of the national polity which was shattered by such acquiescence as there was in the Anglo-Irish Articles of Agreement of 1921 (the Irish called it a Treaty, the British called it Articles of Agreement; the British had the sense of the thing).

Three simple acts of completion could have been accomplished in the immediate aftermath of the 1998 Agreement, any of which would have reopened the republican road to unity that was closed off in 1921. Fianna Fáil could have organised as its own self in the North. Or it could have merged with the SDLP. Or Sinn Féin could have established itself in the South as an inevitable member of future coalition governments.

But none of those acts of completion was accomplished. Each and all of them was made to depend on the prior establishment of an Assembly at Stormont, and the British ensured that no stable Assembly was established there until the Hibernian wing of Sinn Féin had ground down the party's Republicanism and taken control.

The last substantial split in Sinn Féin, in 1986 on the issue of abstentionism in the South, saw Sinn Féin for the first time controlled by the Northern IRA, which was an alliance in arms between national Republicanism and provincial Hibernianism. Within that alliance the Hibernians, who were fighting the sectarian war Joe Devlin had bequeathed to them, were always numerically superior.

The Republicans, who were fighting an anti-imperialist war which they were always prepared to take to Britain, were fewer but more articulate and able to state clear political goals. They had no difficulty in declaring for an independent and united Ireland.

Joe Devlin organised Hibernianism to be the moral fibre and backbone of Redmondism. Its obstinate refusal to accept that the Ulster Protestants are a nation because they are so clearly Irish is strikingly counter-balanced by its lack of scruple in making war on them because they so clearly aren't Irish at all. A stout physical proof of the inconvenient fact that there are two nations in Ireland—that's Hibernianism!

The "Two Nations Theory", before being adulterated by Conor Cruise O'Brien and others, merely recognised a fact of life denied in theory by many. It was not an argument against Republicanism as such, but a reality that had to be faced by Republicans if a United Ireland was ever to come about. Furthermore it was a position developed by people who were manning the barricades in the face of RUC, B-Special and Loyalist attacks in Belfast in 1969. And there weren't too many of them about.

The Hibernians understood that their immediate goal of dominating Northern Protestants in whatever constitutional format they both ended up in was better expressed through the armalite than any ballot box; certainly it was not to be publicly announced.

My quarrel here is not with the clear fact that the war was fought in the first instance to overcome the oppressive sectarian character of the partition arrangements of 1920-21. That conflict had all the full range of material grievance to be called as justified as any sectarian war in history. It was justified. It was successful. It is now long past time to move on from it.

My quarrel is with its not having been moved on from. And it's a political quarrel, not a sectarian one. As far as sectarianism goes my sectarian instincts are with the Hibernians. It's just long past time to move on from such instincts.

Before the first ceasefire was called it was already plain that the sectarian war had been won. The Protestant middle class had withdrawn from politics. Its cannon fodder within the Protestant working class that had actually fought and borne the brunt of the casualties of that side of the war was at best demoralised and at worst declassed, disrupted, redeveloped and disintegrated. The Prods had been defeated and the victorious Taigs were socially economically and politically the dominant force in the six counties.

In the immediate aftermath of the ceasefires Taigery took a back seat to Fenianism. The core of the politics of Sinn Féin at that time was the Republican strategy of reintegrating the national polity by encouraging the national organisation of Irish parties and agitating for a restoration of Northern representation in Dáil Éireann. The driving force behind this strategy was the Sinn Féin party in the Dáil, led by Caoimhean O'Caolain. The Northern leadership made occasional noises in support of the Southern intellectuals but forebore from agitating for their core demands. They were prepared to agitate only for a return of Stormont and for redress of all the grievances arising from the war.

As the immediate aftermath of the ceasefires became the recent and then the distant past, Taigery came to the fore. Republican elements were silenced by the urgent clamour for a Catholic place in the sun, under the blue skies of Ulster. The grey skies of an Irish Republic seemed gloomier by the minute.

Since 1986 Sinn Féin has been led by charismatic figures from the Northern IRA who have been preoccupied with Northern issues, most particularly with their overwhelming need to score points against rivals in the SDLP by doing what the SDLP had failed to do and bringing back a local administration from within which they would establish centres of power for their people (within the six counties, within the Union).

The rumour that Trimble was browbeaten by Blair into accepting the Good Friday Agreement may well be true. Or he may have been robustly persuaded to a long term strategy for disabling Republicanism that could only end with his and his party's demise. In any event, having accepted the Agreement he worked it to drag Sinn Féin compromise by compromise, year by year, away from a broadly Republican view of the possibilities of the settlement to a narrower Hibernian perspective. In the nature of Sinn Féin opponents of the drift have been pressured to conform or forced out, sidelined or silenced.

What had been a Republican strategy to rebuild the national polity (which is the essential precondition of any moves to national unity) has become, under the guise of reaching out to reassure Protestants of the Provisional movement's good intentions, a return to the Devlinite dream of a Catholic Ireland at the heart of an English empire (with a good Taig on the throne by God, why not?)

I say Devlinite there rather than Redmondite because Joe Devlin's Hibernianism was a simpler thing than the winding, twisting, convoluted thing that was Redmondism.

By June 1916 Redmond himself had seen through his original strategy. In 1914 he had reluctantly agreed with the British that Ulster should be excluded from Home Rule for a total of three years. Three days after that agreement the British unilaterally increased the exclusion period to six years. Redmond swallowed that. After the 1916 Rising a Northern Nationalist Conference was held in St. Mary's Hall in Belfast and voted 475 to 265 in favour of a temporary exclusion of the Six Counties which were to continue to be ruled from, and with continuing representation in, Westminster. Both Redmond and Devlin had to threaten to resign to get that vote and what they got was a split between Antrim and Down which stood with Devlin, and Tyrone Fermanagh and Derry which were all the more ready to move to Sinn Féin.

A month after that Conference, on 22nd. July, Lloyd George finally informed Redmond that the six counties would be permanently excluded and would have their own parliament with the scale of Irish representation at Westminster being drastically reduced. Redmond vowed to oppose that newest revision of the Bill that was supposedly on the Statute Books, allegedly to be implemented at the war's end. His opposition took the form of participation in the Irish Convention which sought to return to the original Redmondite idea of a united Home Rule Ireland within the Empire. But really Redmond knew the game was up. It may even be that when he died Redmond himself was no longer a Redmondite.

In the same period and beyond Joe Devlin remained what he had always been, a Hibernian pledged to Ireland, not merely free but Catholic, not merely Catholic but free. And a partner in the glories of the British Empire.

Devlin's Hibernianism survived to thrive in the six counties because the pre-Treaty leadership of Sinn Féin was determined that it should do so. That leadership deliberately held back the growth of its own party organisation there in order not to find itself bound by a strong Northern section of Sinn Féin to oppose partition. On the heights of the party organisation, to his fellow mountaineers, de Valera made it clear that he (correctly) favoured an independent over a united Ireland. He was determined to carry Sinn Féin with a partitionist settlement that guaranteed independence for the greater part of the national territory, and entirely willing to sacrifice the nationalists of the Fourth Green Field to that end. The most he was prepared to do for them was prepare Joe Devlin's Hibernian movement as a fit repository of their poor lost souls.

So, following a meeting between de Valera and Joe Devlin in February 1921, Sinn Féin and the Hibernians fought the northern elections together, allied on the Sinn Féin programme of self-determination and abstentionism. De Valera did not make attendance at Dáil Éireann for successful candidates a condition of the Pact, and the Hibernians simply stayed at home waiting out their abstentionist pledges.

Though Sinn Féin secured twice the vote of the Devlinites, each party to the Pact won six seats (the Unionists won the remaining 40 of 52). Four of the Sinn Féiners (but none of the Hibernians) were elected on the first count. Those four were de Valera in Down, Collins in Armagh, Griffith in Fermanagh & Tyrone and MacNeill in Derry. The other Shinners elected were Seán Milroy and John O'Mahony in Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Devlin later (in a letter to James Dillon, 22nd April 1921) stated that, but for the pact with de Valera, his nationalists would not have won a single seat outside Belfast. Which is precisely the outcome de Valera was determined to avoid.

Then in 1925 as its President he split the all-Ireland Sinn Féin party in such as way as to leave him in undisputed control of the 26-county Fianna Fáil, Soldiers of a Free State Destiny.

The ruthless hypocrisy of de Valera's machinations is disgusting. But at the core of it all his thinking was correct. Ireland could be free of England or it could be united. It couldn't be both. And then to de Valera's mind it couldn't be said that it couldn't be both without giving scandal and outraging the faithful.

Even today, given the advance of revisionism in the South and the failure of all political parties to oppose it, it is still the case that Ireland cannot be both united and free of England. The defeat of British state-sponsored revisionism is a precondition, though not the only one, for any moves towards a form of unity that doesn't involve going once again under the tutelage of Old Mother England.

At all events, such remained de Valera's policy throughout his career. He stated it most clearly on 7th February 1939 when he intervened in a Senate Debate initiated by Senators MacDermot and Alton who were looking for compromises to assuage the Unionists in a hope of reconciling them to a really nice form of unification. Then de Valera said:

"Suppose we were to get unity in the country provided we were to give up the principles that are here in this first Article of the Constitution—the 'sovereign right of the nation to choose its own form of Government, to determine its relations with other nations, and to develop its life, political, economic, and cultural, in accordance with its own genius and traditions'—I would not sacrifice that right, because without that right you have not freedom at all. Although freedom for a part of this island is not the freedom we want—the freedom we would like to have, this freedom for a portion of it, freedom to develop and to keep the kernel of the Irish nation is something, and something that I would not sacrifice, if by sacrificing it we were to get a united Ireland and that united Ireland was not free to determine its own form of Government, to determine its relations with other countries, and, amongst other things, to determine, for example, whether it would or would not be involved in war. Our people have the same right as any other people to determine these vital matters for themselves and they ought not to surrender them in advance to anybody or for any consideration. Certainly, as far as this Government is concerned, we are not going to surrender that right—for any consideration, even the consideration of a united Ireland."

The undated minutes of an "interview between An Taoiseach and a northern Nationalist Deputation" record de Valera arguing that "the retention of the 26 county status was considered to be of such value that the loss of it could not be risked in any effort to reintegrate the country…" (quoted in Phoenix, Northern Nationalism, page 389). And such was de Valera's line even after he had indisputably won his Republic and a Fine Gael-led administration had at last proclaimed it.

To recap, even during the War of Independence the most influential sections of the leadership of Sinn Féin set about undermining their own party in the North. This was because they knew that political independence from England, just the barest possibility of establishing a republic in Ireland, was incompatible with a serious campaign for unity, and they feared that a strong Northern wing of Sinn Féin would make the necessary, but utterly unmentionable, partitionist settlement unachievable. At the end of the 'Treaty' negotiations and debate there was a war between former comrades over the issue of how republican the settlement was or could be made to be. The issue of a United Ireland was scarcely mentioned at all in those life and death struggles.

The losing side in that conflict went on to form its own party with every intention of achieving a thorough-going Republic in the twenty-six counties. It only organized in the twenty-six counties, leaving Northern Nationalism in the Hibernian hands of the Irish Imperialist, Joe Devlin. Former Sinn Féin President and leader of Fianna Fáil, Eamon de Valera, had saved Northern Hibernianism from virtual extinction in 1921 and relied on it ever after to keep Northern nationalists safely oppressed and discontented on the right side of the Black Pig's Dyke. Under the Unionist jackboot and out of his hair.

De Valera used the Northern issue as fuel in the fires he stoked up to achieve the alphabet republic. Further than that he had little or no interest. Serious Republican members of Fianna Fáil were treated as the best of them, Eamon Donnelly, was treated; driven to distraction and an early grave (he fell ill under the strain of trying to complain about the ill-treatment of Republican prisoners in English jails while in Ireland de Valera was using the English hangman on them). Northern Republicans, Fianna Fáil supporters to a man, were, like Cahir Healy, constantly rebuffed and driven to the worst forms of Hibernian defeatism. And so was the Republic built that Costello's Coalition Government belatedly declared in 1948.

There was never any possibility that a Republic established in such a manner could forever evade the consequences of its means.

De Valera was entirely correct that freedom from English politics and English wars was incompatible with the compromises the strong Unionist minority that unity would have saddled him with were sure to demand and win (short of a Stormont-style regime of police oppression, gerrymander and discrimination).

Partition was the essential precondition of a Republic in the greater part of Ireland. De Valera knew that. And de Valera said that, in only slightly coded form, in the smoke-filled rooms of high political life. He never said it publicly. Publicly he always denied it. And publicly he always appeared to be working to undo partition while privately he did his best to shore it up. Tomorrow was no doubt to be another day when all manner of wrongs would be put right. But tomorrow never came. Or rather when tomorrow finally came, in August 1969, de Valera's Republic was not worthy of it. More than 50 years of hypocrisy and dissimulation had taken their toll of the State, the Party and their President.

The Fianna Fáil Government's failure at that time to intervene decisively on behalf of its national minority when the security forces of the United Kingdom in uniform and under orders went berserk to engage in a frenzied attack on them, when the loyal citizens of the United Kingdom among whom they had been living joined in that frenzy of murder and arson; that failure showed up in the starkest of colours the bankruptcy of the Republic's vaunted independence. This freer than the Free State, independent, Republic, for which the ultimate national aspiration had been sacrificed, found itself having to apologise to the aggressor for the belated and inadequate steps it had begun to take to make provision for its people in the North and then, when rebuked by the aggressor, had rushed to abandon. It went so far as to prosecute the ministers it had ordered to manage the attempt to defend its people in the North. Anyone who wants to call that craven behaviour freedom will have great difficulty defining slavery.

The moral collapse of 1969 was an almost inevitable consequence of the immoral means by which the Republic had been built by de Valera's Party. It led to a 25-year war, in the face of which all the institutions of de Valera's Republic wilted. It is now an open question whether the Irish Nation at the end of all this is capable of sustaining an independent form of political life. Here and now the Irish State itself is up for grabs.

The Provo War did not come to a political conclusion with the Good Friday Agreement. It was not a victory over British imperialism in Ireland. It came to a political conclusion with the establishment of communally-allocated ministries at Stormont earlier this year. And that was an Hibernian victory which confirmed the New Labour Imperialists' renewed imperial fervour.

The Provos beat the Prods but only on sectarian Hibernian terms of which the British authorities entirely approve. Indeed the working out of the parallel Hibernian victory over the earlier Republicanism of the undefeated army has been cheered every step of the way by the revived and refreshed imperial Jingos of Whitehall.

The British Empire never went away you know. It withdrew as it had to from the world it never quite won, leaving conflicts behind and unresolved issues that would give it future cause to intervene.

Its great legacy to Europe was the multi-national Yugoslav state. It reaped quite a harvest from its activities around the destruction of all that.

England has been active in the Middle East since destroying the Ottoman Empire in the course of its First War on the World (in the last hundred years). There it laid the ground for the creation of the Jewish State and the oppression of the Palestinians (another loyal little Ulster Churchill called the one, dogs he called the others). Today it has embroiled the United States in its third or fourth Iraq War, and its fifth or sixth invasion of Afghanistan.

It never quite went away and now it's coming back.

Everywhere for which England has plans (which is to say just about everywhere) you will find the British Council. So of course the British Council is present and very very busy in Ireland, North and South. In March this year the Annual Lecture of the British Council was delivered by President Mary McAleese. It was entitled The Changing Faces Of Ireland – Migration and Multiculturalism.

Flattering the great and good of areas it has plans for is just part of the British Council's plan of campaign. In Ireland, for which it definitely has plans, the British Council is a major publisher. Two years ago it published the first volume of Britain & Ireland: Lives Entwined. This had joint prefaces by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair which clearly point the way to the Taoiseach's Westminster speech in which he attributed all that is politically healthy in Ireland to English influence and example.

It is becoming plain that England is on the prowl around the crumbling foundations of a national state that has lost touch with its people and whose political establishment has lost interest in it.

It is increasingly the case that the only things the Irish people, North and South, have in common with one another are English things. The English culture of binge drinking. The English obsession with celebrity. English football and English pop.

Soon the Hibernian question will be put. The Irish have so much in common within an English frame of cultural reference, why should the country not be at last united within an English frame of political reference, within the Commonwealth say, with impartial English bodies in place to see to it that no nasty sectarian divisions emerged to spoil the essential rightness of it all.

What political force exists in Ireland today that could give the proper answer to such a question tomorrow? At this time of writing it is clear that there is none of any substance. Only ourselves and other small groups of eccentrics.

What then actually is to be done?

At a minimum we must continue to combat revisionism each and every time at every place its rears its ugly head. We must seek to re-establish the national polity that de Valera disrupted and was finally fractured by the so-called Treaty of 1921, arguing for all Southern parties to form branches and fight local elections in the North. And oppose, openly and honestly, with none of the shiftiness and hypocrisy of de Valera, all talk of forms of Irish unity that would bring us back under English power.

The English are not looking for power in Ireland as an end in itself. England has plans for the world which are involving it in ever more wars. They want Ireland for its children. They want its children to fight those wars for it.

What is to be done is everything in our power to stop that from ever happening again.

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