Editorial from Irish Political Review, February 2003

Political Nonsense

Politicians with time to think are likely to think nonsense—particularly Constitutional ones—and particularly with regard to a situation which at best can only be described as pseudo-Constitutional one. Liz O’Donnell of the Progressive Democrats was junior Foreign Affairs Minister in the last Dublin Government, and under pressure of the job she was not a bad Minister. The job did her thinking for her. She was dropped from the present Government. (Presumably she refused to stay on as a junior when Michael McDowell, who had lost his seat at the previous election and had virtually severed his connection with the Progressive Democrats, was brought back as a Cabinet Minister when he regained his Dail seat and her good work for four years went unrewarded.) So she has time to think without the pressures of office. And she told the Forum For Peace And Reconciliation in mid-January that she thought that Sinn Fein should be expelled from the devolved system because the IRA had not met its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement with regard to disarmament.

Gerry Adams said that O’Donnell should have made her views known at the time of the signing of the Agreement, and that, if the Government had taken a stand on the basis of those views, “I’m sure there would be no agreement”.

That’s a certainty. But O’Donnell, of course, had no view in 1998, because she was a busy Minister. Out of office, with time to think, and the need to be noticed, she reverts to the PD ideology (which had to be laid aside in order to gain a position in government) and talks nonsense.

The Republican undertaking was that there would be a process of disarmament accompanying a process of government. The process of government was stalled for six months at the outset, and thereafter was only ever in being under a short-term ultimatum from the Ulster Unionist Party. The time scales of the agreement assumed that there would be a continuous process of government during the time period. Time itself is empty. It is given content by events. Taking the events envisaged by the Agreement as constituting the relevant time of the agreement, the clock has hardly begun ticking. And the IRA has exceeded its undertakings with regard to the Agreement.

The generation of bad feeling was vital to the Trimble/Donaldson handling of the Agreement, as a hook which they were trying to get off. The generation of good feeling was necessary to the success of the Republican approach. The UUP signed an Agreement with which it disagreed, and that is the meaning of the history of the past four years.

The Rev. Storey, Anglican clergyman in Glenavy, addressed the Forum and complained that, under the Agreement a process of corruption through verbal semantics had set in. But politics is semantics—or semantics is the condition of politics in the present British mode. Around 1975 the Secretary of State (Merlyn Rees) set about luring Sinn Fein into electoral politics. Sinn Fein was willing and a few years later it mastered the art of this kind of politics in the kind of political language developed in Britain—which consists in great part of making semantic distinctions and taking them to be real. Indeed, civilisation functions by taking as real verbal distinctions which reductionist fundamentalists dismiss as fictions. That is our inheritance from ancient Rome. Unionism is greatly irritated by it because it remains tied, on security grounds, to the language of reductionist fundamentalism.

The Rev. Storey also said that the Unionist community needed to know that the war was over. Since he used the word, “community”, it has to be said that in recent years the war has been Unionist. This or that organisation may disclaim responsibility for what has been done, but since it has been done that only transfers responsibility to the community.

Another politician who is making a fool of himself because he has time to think is Edward Heath. He was actually a very good Prime Minister. He tried to consolidate the semi-socialist post-1945 social structure of Britain and to wind up the British Empire by making Britain a European State within the political structure of the Common Market. The Labour movement engaged in a successful, but ultimately self-destructive, campaign against him. Thatcher reversed his positions and his policies, and the Labour movement which destroyed Heath collapsed at her first touch.

In Northern Ireland he uprooted the Stormont regime, and, by threatening “integration”, compelled the SDLP to abandon its Dungannon Parliament and negotiate the Sunningdale power-sharing arrangement. He was overthrown two months into the Sunningdale system, which fell three months after he lost office, due to the sheer political incompetence on the part of the new Labour Government, hubris on the part of the SDLP, and nationalist intransigence on the part of Conor Cruise O’Brien (who was then the Dublin Minister responsible for Northern policy). The Labour Government then engaged in wild fluctuations this way and that. The SDLP, by its handling of the 1974 crisis, undermined its pretensions to be a functional ‘Constitutional’ alternative to Republicanism. And the opportunity began to open up for the Republican movement to establish its own ‘Constitutional’ alternative to itself.

In British policy, Heath tested the water for a ‘free market’ departure (known as Selsdon Man) before deciding that a kind of workers’ control (determination of incomes’ differentials by a Board on which Capital and Labour were equally represented) was preferable. And he tried shocking the Catholic community into acquiescence to a modified Unionist regime before deciding there had to be power-sharing. The shock was delivered on Bloody Sunday. When it failed in its object, Stormont was uprooted a couple of months later.

Heath, who aspired to set Britain on a new, post-Imperial course, was himself the last statesman of the Empire. He was formed by a political culture in which it was often not necessary to say the most important things, and what it was not necessary to say was not said. Bloody Sunday was an administrative massacre, which was a well-established category of action in the Empire. Its purpose was to discover political realities in confused situations.

Heath is a former statesman living so far out of his time that he has become unintelligible. Twelve years ago he was appalled by Thatcher’s regression towards Empire. He knew that Kuwait was not a real nation-state because he was its creator. And he saw that the war on Iraq was likely to prove disastrous in the long run for the peace of the world. But he could not explain himself because his language was no longer spoken. It was Kipling’s “argot of the Upper Fourth remove”, somewhat petty-bourgeoisified, but still in contact with its source. (He was the first Tory leader not selected by the “magic circle”, but he had lived politically in the world of the magic circle.)

At the Derry Savile Tribunal he appears a pompous fool because of the chasm between that world and this. And, because of that chasm, he can answer every question truthfully and yet not tell the truth, because the truth lies in what was not said, in the argot, in the songs without words.


Political Nonsense.

Iraq: Cowen—An Irish Pontius Pilate?

"We Must Stop The Madness Of War Against Helpless Iraq"
Michael Robinson (Irish News letter)

Who's Afraid . . .
Sean McGouran

Remembrance Row
Pat Muldowney

Real Party Politics In Northern Ireland
Mark Langhammer (letter)

The Arms Trial: Capt. Kelly Fights On!
(Press Statement)

On Cor Tuathail: O Head Of Diarmaid O'Carbery
Compiled P. Muldowney

Ulsterish Politics (part 2 of Casement's Black Diaries review)
Brendan Clifford

Spinning Major Tom.

The Irish Problem With Thought.
Desmond Fennell

Barney Hughes.
Sean McGouran (review)

Northern Ireland: January News

Labour Comment, edited by Pat Maloney:
The First Half:
Is It The End?

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