Editorial from Irish Political Review, August 2009

Fantasy North

The Good Friday Agreement has led to the drastic decline of the two Northern Ireland parties which were central to its negotiation, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party. The essential futility of the structures put in place by the GFA led to their displacement by the 'extremist' parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. These parties are now experiencing the futility of it. But there are no other parties in the offing to displace them—except perhaps Jim Allister's movement of Unionist dissent, which may well appear as a party at the British Election next year and put the wind up the DUP and UUP.

There is a big difference between the DUP and Sinn Fein as 'extremists' relative to the GFA. The DUP rejected the Agreement, condemned the UUP for supporting it, campaigned against it in referendums and elections, swore it would never sit in Government with Sinn Fein under it, and then, when it had displaced the UUP as the major unionist party, took its place alongside Sinn Fein in Government.

In fact, it did what the UUP had not been required to do. It undertook the office of First Minister to Sinn Fein's Deputy First Minister. Sinn Fein had not been the senior party of the Catholic community while the UUP was the senior party of the Protestant community so the Deputy First Minister was SDLP.

'Extremist' Sinn Fein, by contrast, was enthusiastically pro-Agreement from the start. It had been advocating something like the Agreement long before 1998. For perhaps ten years the war had been kept going, after the prospect of military victory had receded, in order to compel the Government to make an arrangement of this kind.

The SDLP, though it was the major electoral party of the Catholic community for a third of a century, always had the air of second-best about it. It shot its bolt back in 1971, or 1974 at the latest. It held its majority status, not in antagonism with Sinn Fein, but because it was respectable and acceptable to British and Dublin administrations and it was known on its home ground that its rivalry with Sinn Fein was shadow boxing which posed no threat of communal rupture.

The Ceasefire which prepared the way for the Agreement was experienced in the Catholic community as a Republican victory. Media commentators, who never troubled to understand what Northern Ireland is, and the position in which it placed the Catholic community, say that that experience was a symptom of delusion. They say that in reality the Provos were defeated. But experience is experience, and the 'reality' that is posited against it is mere transcendentalism, even when expressed by dissident Republicans nurtured by Professor the Lord Bew.

There is complete absence from the national press of any publication sympathetic to the predicament of the Northern Catholic community. Such sympathy is seen by the superficial mind of the social stratum that produces the media as sympathy with Sinn Fein. The fact that Sinn Fein was produced out of the situation in which the Northern Catholic community was placed, not by Partition as such, but by the political arrangements made by Britain as the means of enacting Partition and maintaining it, is denied. The implications of admitting it are too awful to contemplate. Dispassionate description of British political conduct, whether in Northern Ireland or in the world, is put down as Anglophobia by Fianna Fail Minister Martin Mansergh, as well as by Ruth Dudley Edwards on the wilder shores of political hysteria. A phobia is a groundless, irrational fear or hatred of something. But, in official Ireland, a strictly accurate factual account of how Britain has managed the Six Counties for three generations is decreed to be Anglophobic.

That it is Anglophobia is an Article of Faith. Articles of Faith issued by Rome about the affairs of another world, which if they are not provable are not disprovable either, are not held in high esteem in Ireland these days. But the secular Article of Faith that Britain is not responsible for the political condition of the Northern Ireland region of its state is held piously, in defiance of fact and reason.

If the condition of Northern Ireland is not the consequence of the very strange way Britain chose to govern it, what is it the consequence of?

The acceptable belief is that it was caused by an intrusive evil called Sinn Fein. But where did Sinn Fein come from? In the viable form in which it revived forty years ago, it came from the depths of Northern Ireland.

In 1970 there were two Sinn Feins. One, which was in the direct line of Apostolic succession from the Treaty split, was called Official Sinn Fein. It was what remained after the Cumann na nGaedheal (later Fine Gael) secession, the Fianna Fail secession, the Republican Congress secession, and the Clann na Poblachta secession. In 1969 it was in the process of rejecting nationalism, disarming the IRA, and trying to find a way of waging class war under Marxist ideology.

In mid-August 1969, when the North was in turmoil for reasons that had nothing to do with Sinn Fein and little to do with nationalism, the leader of that Marxist Republicanism, Cathal Goulding, issued a statement to the press that he had given marching orders to his Belfast Brigade. The Loyalist populace in the North had no grounds for knowing that he had no Belfast Brigade.

At the same time the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, made a television broadcast in which he said he would not stand (idly) by while events in the North ran their course. Lynch had an Army of sorts and he moved it to the Border. His hagiographer, Professor Keogh of Cork University, tells us that Lynch had the firm intention of not using his Army, but of standing by and recognising the North as British. But the Loyalist populace had no means of knowing that either. What the Taoiseach actually said, combined with what the Chief of Staff of the IRA actually said, helped to confirm the Loyalist populace in the view that the 'civil rights' conflict within the North—which arose from the internal structure of Northern Ireland—was the Fifth Column of a United Ireland offensive.

Historical events occur in real time on the basis of what is present at the time. The chief external influence present in the Northern situation in mid-August 1969 were the inflammatory speech by the Taoiseach and the inflammatory press release (to the same general effect) by the Chief of Staff of the IRA.

Lynch's speech was experienced as inflammatory by the Loyalist populace. Therefore it was inflammatory.

Protestant activists in the Civil Rights movement, who were far removed from Loyalism, were brought up short by it as they saw it on television.

In recent years British Government spokesmen have devised a phraseology for denying what seems to be an obvious connection between British military activity in the Middle East and certain activities undertaken by Middle Eastern people in Britain. At first Prime Minister Blair said there was no actual connection. This was too absurd to be credible. It was modified into a statement that there was no legitimate connection, but that certain ill-disposed people used British action in the Middle East as an excuse for their own actions in Britain.

This is a back-handed admission of causative connection. Causation in social affairs is not of a kind with physical causation. In the physical world responses are not mediated by motives or excuses, which are the medium of response in the social world.

But, given the internal circumstances of Northern Ireland in mid-August 1969, it would be far-fetched to describe Lynch's speech as anything but directly inflammatory. It did not cause the flames, but it was fuel thrown on the flames. If Lynch did not know that would be its effect he was a fool. But it is now considered necessary to construct the fool into a wise statesman.

John Paul McCarthy, who lectures on Irish history at an Oxford College and writes for the Sunday Independent, is the latest of the learned hurlers on the ditch who denounce Sinn Fein for the way it has played the Northern Ireland game, without finding it necessary to understand what kind of game the very peculiar structure of Northern Ireland makes necessary and what kind it makes impossible.

In his article on July 19th condemning an Adams article in the Guardian (Adams Still Repeating The Same Old Boring Inanities) he trundles on Lynch as the hero—or, in accordance with the modern spirit, the Joycean anti-hero)—when in fact he was neither. He was neither the resourceful Odysseus devising means of action inspired by Athena, nor the unambitious practitioner of the routine of rather grubby lower middle class life—the terms on which the American judge declared Ulysses harmless. He neither kept his head down during the critical period after mid-August 1969, nor did he direct Republican Ireland, of which he was the Executive head, into some kind of constructive line of action. He did a bit of this, and then he did a bit of that, and then he did a bit of the other. He flailed about and he bungled.

McCarthy tells us that "modern Sinn Fein still has no answer to the question posed by Taoiseach Jack Lynch in the white heat of 1970".

But the white heat was 1969. That was when Northern Ireland was thrown into flux—when it threw itself into flux in its response to a popular demand which now seems so modest that it hardly seems believable as the subject of a major agitation. And what Lynch said in the white heat of mid-August was that he would not stand (idly) by which was generally, and reasonably, understood to mean that he would not let his Army stand idly by.

The white heat lasted during the Autumn and Winter of 1969-1970. Positions taken up then largely determined the working out of subsequent events.

We published the two-nations view of the situation in September, saying that Partition did not break up an existing nation (except as regards the minority in the North), but was made durable by the conflict of nationalities that preceded it. In October Lynch repudiated that view, declaring that Ireland was a single nation, that Partition was the cause of the trouble in the North, and that peace depended on unification.

One did not need any insider knowledge at that time to see that Lynch's Government was doing things with guns which accorded with his speech about not standing idly by. But in May 1970 he prosecuted a group of people for 'conspiracy' who had been implementing his own policy. For thirty years it was possible to deny that it was his own policy that he prosecuted people for implementing. With the release of secret documents after 2002 that denial could no longer be made in good faith. And now those documents no longer lie in bundles in the National Archive, accessible only to people with months of leisure and a strong appetite for research. They have all been published, along with newspaper reports of the Arms Trials (the official Court Transcript having been lost) in Angela Clifford's The Arms Conspiracy Trial.

It is no longer deniable that Lynch instructed his Army to make itself ready for incursions into the North, and in the Summer of 1970 it was his own policy that he prosecuted as subversive conspiracy.

What was "the white heat of 1970" that caused Lynch to abort his own policy and prosecute it as conspiracy? A quiet word from the British Ambassador perhaps.

At the time we saw Lynch's Northern policy as absurdity conducted in fantasy, and were not greatly concerned that the events of 1970 gave a comic-opera appearance to the Republic. What concerned us was the impact in the North of Lynch's inflammatory speech-making combined with his invented Arms Crisis. Certain developments had been set in motion in the North between August and May were then disrupted.

There was perhaps a realistic possibility of an effective 'Constitutional nationalism' in the North, acting in conjunction with a Dublin Government with an active Northern policy taking effective leadership of the Catholic community and exerting pressure on Britain to enact a structural reform that would make things tolerable for a while. That is not what we advocated. But it was something that might have been done. When Lynch forced the Arms Crisis, that line of development was off. And that was when Provisional Republicanism came into its own. The arrest of John Kelly was a slap in the face of what are usually called 'moderates' in the North, and it cleared the way for those who were willing to act independently of Dublin, and to see what might be done.

Now, almost fifty years later, McCarthy says that Lynch rounded on "the fundamentalists and the sectarians" and asked them if they wanted to "adopt the role of conqueror over one million or so six-county citizens who at present support partition?" No doubt that statement can be found in his speeches, which were a welter of self-contradiction. His basic theme was the old one that Partition was an atrocity against the Irish nation, and that no adequate solution to the trouble in the North could be found short of ending it.

Our view was that the atrocity at the source of the trouble was not Partition per se but the regime that was set up under it, which deprived the Northern minority of a political outlet in the democratic political system of the British state. That view was rejected by Lynch and by the Dublin Opposition parties, and was not even allowed to be expressed in the columns of the Irish Times or any other Dublin paper.

Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French philosopher, said that if everybody stayed quietly at home there would be much less trouble in the world. It would have accorded with Lynch's contradictory views on the North if he had given that advice to the Northern Catholics. But he did not give it—at least not in so many words. Somehow it doesn't seem democratic.

McCarthy complains of the use of "buzzwords" by Gerry Adams. But 'democracy' is an obligatory buzzword in these times, even though democracy in the proper sense, government by the people, has very little scope in the world we call democratic. Great care is taken that the people are bound into a small number of tightly organised political structures which govern: they are never left to govern themselves. Our democracy is an affair of organised elites. The role of the people is to choose, ever four years, one or two of the three or four available elites to govern them. That is what is called democracy. Take that away—and it was taken away in the 6 Counties when they were set up as Northern Ireland—and where is democracy? England, Scotland and Wales choose the party to govern the UK state. Northern Ireland has never had any part in the process of voting for a Government, or in the many procedures which are part of that process. It is all decided on the 'mainland'.


"Adams remains wedded to hardcore republican theology and the same tattered parade of arguments. Ulster Protestants still remain chattels in this analysis, pawns on a chess board, to be moved and manipulated according to the whim of more powerful actors. The article [published by Adams in the Guardian] once again emphasises “British policy” as the “key unlocking the potential for this change to occur”, and his references to Britain's “colonial past” are simply a coded way of denying the democratic basis of the unionist desire to go their own way in 1920, however imprecise the constitutional line-drawing was at that point."

But the Unionists did not "desire to go their own way" in 1920. It was once a standard item in the tattered parade of arguments that nobody from Ireland voted for the setting up of Northern Ireland. The statement was accurate. Unionist Ulster, having rejected the Parliamentary Home Rule Bill for Ireland by force, did not desire separate Home Rule for itself. Separate Home Rule for itself was thrust upon it by Britain as the only way it might avoid Irish Home Rule. What the Ulster Protestants wanted was to settle down as a normal part of the British state. British policy did not allow it. Carson said the Ulster Unionists had never aspired to govern Catholics, but British policy said they must either govern Catholics, or else come under what they saw as Catholic rule. Faced with that choice they agreed to govern Catholics, on a communal basis, in a separate devolved government, outside the ambit of the democratic political system of the State.

Northern Ireland is a product of British policy, not of Unionist desire. The Unionists were not able to govern what they had never desired to have. The Catholic minority—much bigger than a Protestant minority in all-Ireland Home Rule would have been—had to find things to do in this sectarian parody of democracy. McCarthy does not say what they should have done. He does not acknowledge the predicament in which they were placed by British policy and Ulster Unionist compliance with it. If he did acknowledge the predicament, the only advice he could give consistent with his denunciation of Sinn Fein is that they should have stayed quietly at home—as in fact large numbers of them did, under clerical exhortation, for two generations. But staying quietly at home, while subject to the provocations of a democratic state but excluded from its outlets for political energy, could not continue indefinitely. And when it proved to be no longer tolerable, the outcome was a remarkable war-effort, sustained for a quarter of a century.


"having waded through the conciliatory references to dialogues with 'ethnic minorities' and Professor Brendan O'Leary's ecstatic theories of future Irish federalism, we are left as ever with arguments that would have cheered Slab Murphy and Brian Keenan: Get the Brits to force the Prods into line; talk for a bit with them, then start pushing. His [Adams'] name checking of O'Leary here makes a lot of sense, since he is a worthy companion in the Emerald Piper. He wrote a bizarre essay in 2005 called Mission Accomplished? Looking back at the IRA, where he cleaned up every one of PIRA's historical arguments for modern consumption and tinkered with PIRA's kill-rate statistics… leading many of us to wonder if this had been written by the ghost of Liam Lynch in high dudgeon.

"Here O'Leary said PIRA punishment beatings were simply “by-products of the absence of legitimate state institutions” (i.e. the Brits made them do it). He also wrote that the “IRA demonstrates the power of the weak”, an argument that is never squared with the fact that they killed more innocent Catholics than all the security forces combined. And his claims that “the IRA famously does not do drugs” must have come as a severe shock to its new friends in FARC.

"For all the constitutional pyrotechnics here about future confederations and pooling of sovereignty, there are the usual malevolent mutterings about “demographic transformations” which must strike self-respecting unionists as a Tim Pat Coogan-style threat. If the “political process” doesn't get you, then the sexed-up Catholic minority will, so you better start making a deal" etc.

"Getting the Brits to force the Prods into line" has never been a particularly Provo position. It was the position of Jack Lynch and of every party in the Dail in 1969, of Conor Cruise O'Brien and Garret FitzGerald in the crisis of 1974, of FitzGerald again in 1985. "The Brits" means in Northern Ireland the constitutional authorities of the State. It was "the Brits" who in 1921 compelled "the Prods" to undertake the communal government of Catholics and forego their wish to settle down as part of the British political system. And, insofar as the 'constitutional' SDLP ever had a coherent strategy, "the Brits" making "the Prods" toe the line was the means of realising it.

"The Prods" have never shown any autonomous capacity for dealing with crises within the semblance of a state which "the Brits" thrust upon them. In 1969 Jack Lynch demanded that "the Brits" make "the Prods" toe the line on the trifling Civil Rights demand for Local Government reform and on mid-Summer parading. "The Brits" refused and the North blew up. In 1972 the 'Northern Ireland state' was demolished by "the Brits" at the stroke of a pen. In 1985 Garret FitzGerald made an Agreement with "the Brits" that could only have been designed to rile "the Prods" and John Hume said its purpose was to "lance the Unionist boil".

"Demographics" was the form of politics proper to the Northern Ireland system set up by "the Brits". It was never the case that there was a system of politics based on social issues there which the Provos, or even Tim Pat Coogan, debased into sectarian demographics. The size of Northern Ireland was determined with demographics in mind, and Electoral Registration Societies enrolled Protestants and Catholics in the electors' list and got them out on Polling Day. Protestants were chastised by their political leaders for not breeding fast enough. And Capt. O'Neill's justification to the Protestant community for the reforms, which (under pressure from "the Brits") he tentatively suggested, was that they would probably reduce the Catholic breeding rate.

Professor O'Leary looked at Northern Ireland about 20 years ago. He saw what we saw, probably under our influence. He was then a lecturer at the London School of Economics, close to the centre of power, with a career to make. He saw that Whitehall power was determined to continue operating British policy in Ireland with the instrument of the undemocratic polity of Northern Ireland. A successful career would not have been made in fundamental opposition to that policy. Whitehall patronage was very, very extensive and effective in all that related to Northern Ireland. O'Leary therefore got himself off the hook of his inconvenient understanding by arguing that there were in Northern Ireland "facsimiles" of the institutions that made the British state functional. By this ingenious verbal device he gave up on the project of democratising the North as part of the UK and gave academic assistance to the project of making the North part of the other actual state. McCarthy jeers at this, but only on the basis of refusing to address the reality of what Northern Ireland is.

The implication of his jeers is that the strictly institutionalised sectarianism of devolved government in the North, subordinate to Whitehall and excluded from the political system that sustains Whitehall, is democratic.

Brian Cowen lent his authority to a similar absurdity during the month:

"In his first address to the Seanad as Taoiseach, Mr. Cowen said the “democratic institutions [in the North] and the peace that we all worked so hard to achieve are being challenged by a tiny and unrepresentative group of people with no mandate and no support for their actions”. But the “continued existence of sectarianism, of peace walls and of deep communal divisions in parts of the North is an affront to democracy and to a civilised society. It defies the belief that this is continuing in the year 2009…” Mr. Cowen stressed that “the next vital step is to complete the devolution of policing and justice to Northern Ireland so that locally elected leaders can deal with some of the most serious and central issues faced by any society.”

"He said: “The great genius of the Good Friday Agreement is that it has overturned the old historical analysis where people from different traditions sought an end destination which is mutually exclusive from the other. The great genius of the Good Friday Agreement is that it commits us to a common journey regardless of destination, a common journey that is about signifying our mutual interest in working together" (IT report 15 July).

We suppose that Cowen is a very busy man, trying to deal with the serious problems of his own State under the scrutiny of a well-informed public, and that any old high-falutin guff will do on the subject of that far-off piece of a country about which his electorate wish to know nothing. But really!—a common journey to nowhere with everybody just happy to be on the train along with everybody else, not caring where they're going, or if they're going anywhere. Round and round the rugged ranks the ragged rascals run!

The old historical analysis is overturned. All but a tiny minority are happy to be engaged in the democratic adventure without purpose, structure, destination, or functional parts, which was launched by the GFA.

So why the "continued existence of sectarianism, of peace walls and of deep communal divisions". Because what the GFA provided for was peace in a carefully structured medium of sectarianism and communal division. Until the GFA there was communal division de facto in the North, behind a pretence of something else. The GFA established communal division de jure.

Cowen's speech deserves notice as the ultimate gesture of contemptuous washing of hands on the North.

What the GFA requires in order to be a final settlement is that everyone should stay quietly at home. If they must make journeys, they should do so separately, in the privacy of their homes. They should content themselves with fantasy journeys to nowhere, because anything else will activate the communal division which the GFA sanctifies.

Might we suggest that Cowen should order, for mass distribution in the North, as the only piece of literature likely to support his contemptuous ideal for the North, Xavier de Maestre's Voyage Autour De Ma Chambre—A Journey By Myself Around My Own Wee Room.


Fantasy North.

Politics And An Bord Snip.

Some EU Heroes Of The Moment.
Jack Lane

Political Reform And The Irish State.
Tim O'Sullivan (Reader's Letter)

Editorial Digest (Orangefest? Dolly's Brae; UDA; Sinn Féin).

Bord Snip Report—A Globalizer's Wet Dream.
Philip O'Connor

Cúpla Snip Eile.

Joe Dalton

Shorts from the Long Fellow (NAMA; Bail Outs; Wealth Tax; 250m v. 1bn; Lemass Documentary; Questions & Answers; Role Of Media; Media Prestige).

And Is There Jaffa Cakes Still For Tea? (Poem)
Wilson John Haire

Did Elizabeth Bowen Slander James Dillon As A Fascist?
Manus O'Riordan

Es Ahora (Lisbon II; Shell; UK Arms Sales; Ryan Report)
Julianne Herlihy

Granville's Gripes.
Seán McGouran

Closure Of Foinse?
Ted O'Sullivan (Report)

Massacre And Other Matters.
Desmond Fennell

Political Stories.
Joe Keenan

From Judaism To Islam.
Eamon Dyas

Judicial Swipes, Part Three (Biteback).
Tom Sheridan

Does It Stack Up? (Law Reform; RTE; Ryan Report)
Michael Stack

IFA Should Invite Palestinians.


Labour Comment
Edited by Pat Maloney

People's Verdict

Real Minimum Wage Already Cut By 4%
Manus O'Riordan

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