Editorial from Irish Political Review, June 2005

A Constitutional Spare Wheel?

The significant thing that happened last month is the thing that did not happen. The "Sinn Fein Meltdown" proclaimed, and agitated for, by Dublin papers did not happen. The other thing that did not happen is that the SDLP did not lose the Derry seat at Westminster. The Sinn Fein vote increased and the SDLP vote fell. So events just followed their normal course in that regard. But there was a drastic fall in the SDLP vote in Derry over the last Westminster Election, despite the fact that it received about 2,000 Unionist votes.

The SDLP went very United Irelandish for this election in order to minimise the difference between itself and Sinn Fein. And it gained 2,000 Unionist votes in Derry. This demonstrates the meaninglessness of elections held in a vacuum outside the functional democracy of a state. The SDLP brightened up its Nationalist image and 2,000 Derry Unionists voted for it for Unionist purposes.

The BBC is part of the apparatus of government in Northern Ireland. It operates on different terms than in Britain, where it is subject to the system of Government and Loyal Opposition, and is therefore closely attuned to movements in society. In the North, outside the party-system of the state, it can only be a propaganda instrument of the Government. And the Government requires it to report elections in the North as if they were conducted within the democracy of the state. The BBC website recorded a 'swing' of 2% from the DUP to SF in Mid-Ulster. Everybody knows there was no such swing; that there are always two elections in the North; and that the only 'swings' are within each of the electoral communities. Swings between the two electoral communities are unknown. The Unionist vote for the SDLP in Derry did not indicate a swing from Unionism to Nationalism. The swing was from the SDLP to SF. Unionists voted for the SDLP because it is a spent force, and a vote for it might slow up its displacement by SF. If the SDLP recovered and again became the major Nationalist party, it would lose these Unionist votes.

In Britain the BBC is strictly a medium in which the political conflict is fought out. In the North it is a political instrument of the Government. Its propaganda is restrained only by the knowledge that exceptionally well-informed electorates on both sides see through it.

It was fully committed against Sinn Fein for this year's election. Two interviews stand out as blatant electioneering, both of them with Martin McGuinness. One was conducted by Noel Thompson on Hearts & Minds and the other by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight—though neither of them reached the depths of ignorance plumbed by Keelin Shanley on Prime Time! And, on the day before the General Election, the BBC announced that a man had been charged with murder in connection with the Omagh bombing. That was of course not a Provo operation, but it was done by what the SDLP has called one of the Provo "offsets"—meaning a Republican group opposed to the Provos—and that was thought close enough to damage SF. But in fact the charging was not done till a couple of weeks after the election—and seems to have been done with no new evidence to hand. So life goes on as usual in that part of Britain—a kind of life that Britain would not tolerate.

Nevertheless SF won its election. But it won't be taking its seats.

Vincent Browne ran a Northern Election Show in April, with representatives of all parties on it. The UUP man explained what great policies his party had. Browne ridiculed the idea that the policies of parties contesting a Westminster election in Northern Ireland counted for anything in the real world of British politics. He then promptly forgot what he had just said, and put it to the Sinn Fein representative that a vote for his party would be wasted as it would not take its seats in Westminster. The Sinn Feiner had only to remind him of the truth he had just put to the Unionist. This is the only instance we know of in which the uniqueness of UK elections in Northern Ireland ever found expression on RTE. (There is no other corner of the world in which voting in a General Election has nothing to do with electing a Government for the state).

Nicholas Mansergh (whose status was close to that of official British historian) published a book on Northern Ireland, with a chapter on its parties, in which he succeeded in not mentioning the fact that the region was excluded from the party-politics of the state. His son, Martin (a Fianna Fail ideologist who lost his way when he lost his masters, Haughey and Reynolds, and who has been floundering under Bertie) has now criticised SF for its policy of abstention from Westminster, extending the criticism back to 1919. The downside of abstention in 1919, he writes (Irish Times 16.4.05):

"was the virtual absence of nationalist MPs… to challenge the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, when it was being enacted. A key issue for Northern Nationalists in this election is the price of being unrepresented in the Westminster parliament, while it continues to govern Northern Ireland".

The 1918 Election in Britain gave a landslide majority to the War Coalition in which the British Unionist Party was the main force. Sinn Fein could only have taken its seats by submitting itself to Crown sovereignty, and reneging on the programme on which it was elected. It could then, of course, have voted against the Government of Ireland Act. But it could not have defeated it. And, after two years of futile debate with a Government whose populous backbenches were occupied by the "hard faced men who looked as if they had done well out of the War" (Keynes), it would have been fit for nothing else.

Mansergh continues:

"Griffith had little enthusiasm for physical force. The passive resistance involved in setting up Dail Eireann and the Dail Courts, the ostracisation of crown forces and non-payment of taxes made an important impact alongside actual guerilla warfare.

"Paradoxically, the civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland, out of which grew the SDLP…, had more in common with the original SF. The Provisional SF of the 1970s in contrast was an ideological spare wheel on a ruthlessly militaristic IRA machine responsible for horrific civilian casualties."

He then refers to a comment in An Phoblacht that a TV dramatisation of the Balcombe Street Gang "ignored the context of a war going on", and says:

"That, of course, begs the question: who had the right to declare and wage war between Britain and Ireland? The answer, since independence, is only the State, which does not allow any private army to usurp its function."

This is just glib. Provo Republicanism arose in a region of Ireland in which the Irish State has never functioned, and of which it washed its hands at a crucial juncture in 1970, after having poured oil on the flames in 1969. It continued to claim a jurisdiction which it did nothing to exercise, leaving it to others to try to make good the claim, and then it dealt with the contradictoriness of its position by imposing a rigorous broadcasting ban on those others, and interfering with publications in so far as it had the ability to do so. We remember this very well, because we tried to persuade it to withdraw the claim of jurisdiction (which it was doing nothing to implement) so as to clear the ground for other developments. Contributors to this journal chained themselves to the railings at the Department of Foreign Affairs in order to focus attention on that issue, and were taken off to Mountjoy. But the sovereignty claim stayed in place for a further quarter of a century, under Governments of all parties, doing nothing but harm. Either it should have been withdrawn, or the state which asserted it should have engaged in political action within the Six Counties with a view to making it good, or at least minimising its harm.

We often described Northern Ireland as a No-man's-land between two states, claimed by one and administered by another, but excluded from the political life of both. We tried to include it within the political life of the state which administered it, and the state which claimed it deployed all its influence against us—as did the "Constitutional nationalist" SDLP: we could never figure out what the 'Constitution' was in that description, and concluded that what the word as used meant was Pacifist.

Sinn Fein has now succeeded in connecting Northern Ireland to some extent with the political life of the other state—the state which claimed it until 1998 but then disowned it. And that is some achievement for an "ideological spare wheel".

Mansergh implies with this phrase that Gerry Adams was running the IRA. Maybe he knows. We don't. We have had no contact with Adams for 35 years. But it struck us at least twenty years ago that he had considerable political aptitude, and the development of SF since then indicates that something more than ruthless militarism was at work.

And, although we opposed the ruthless militarism from the start (and from an address in West Belfast, which sensible people saw as madness), we will not pretend that the present state of well-being experienced by the Catholic community in the North is not the work of that quarter century of militarism. There are intangibles in these affairs, and they are often more substantial than the abstractions with which 'political scientists' deal. And we can say with certainty that what the Catholic community in the Six Counties is today is not the achievement of 'Constitutional nationalism'.

We supported 'Constitutional nationalism' for a number of years (until 1974) even though we saw it as a self-contradictory movement. We tried to get it to take the 'Constitutional' part of the contradiction in earnest. But it wouldn't.

Questions & Answers was broadcast from Derry on May 9th. A Unionist in the audience put it to Mark Durkan that the SDLP had indicated that it would strike an independent deal with the Unionists if the Unionists showed willing "but it didn't have the guts to take it through". Durkan took this to refer only to Mallon's offer towards the end of 1998, when Trimble was preventing the establishment of the devolved Government under the Agreement, that, if Trimble co-operated at that juncture, the SDLP would hold the Republicans to the two-year decommissioning schedule, and if they failed to deliver, it would do a separate deal with the Unionists. Trimble ignored the offer and prevented the formation of the Government for a further twelve months, thus using up a year and a half of the two-year period, and then participating only under a short ultimatum.

We kept this fact to the fore in all our comment on the implementation of the Agreement. The SDLP did not. Durkan went along with Trimble's completely unreasonable reading of the two-year provision associated with the Agreement, instead of insisting that the clock was only running while devolved government was operational. And, by playing along with Trimble, it helped him to undermine the Agreement, using up his own party in the process.

We do not quite recall whether, during the seven years which have passed since the signing of the Agreement, the bits and pieces of devolved government add up to two years, even counting the months of restricted operation due to Trimble's veto on North/South meetings.

It was the business of the SDLP and the Dublin Government to operate the Agreement strictly according to the letter in order to maximise the possibility of the IRA being phased out. And that would have meant stopping the clock on the two years whenever the devolved system was not in full operation. Instead of doing that, Durkan and Ahern went along with Trimble's pretence that the two-year period for decommissioning was unconditional. Trimble knew what he was doing—and possibly considers that the doing of it was worth the wrecking of his party. But Durkan and Ahern gave every appearance of not having a clue. And now Durkan remembers, when it is too late.

But this is not the first time the SDLP has failed to see something through. The first time was in the Summer of 1971, when, taken by surprise with Faulkner's proposal for power-sharing Committees, it welcomed them—but then, on second thoughts, realising that participating would have involved striking out on an independent course, against the burgeoning Republicanism of the community, it not only rejected those proposals, but pulled out of Stormont altogether, set up its Alternative Assembly at Dungannon, and helped to drive forward the great offensive of the Winter of 1971-2.

And, when it was brought back into Constitutional politics in 1973, it did it again in 1974, refusing to do what was both reasonable and necessary to preserve the power-sharing system agreed at Sunningdale. Faulkner was the only Unionist leader who was entirely in earnest about making a deal between the communities for the operation of a devolved system. The SDLP reneged on its first agreement with him because, as that Derry Unionist said, it "didn't have the guts to take it through". And the SDLP and Dublin (the relevant Ministers being Garret FitzGerald and C.C. O'Brien) hung him out to dry after making a dupe of him over the second agreement.

Those two agreements were Constitutional, in the sense that they were designed to operate within the Constitution of the state. It is hard to find any definite meaning for the word Constitutional as applied to the SDLP thereafter, since its aims lay outside the state. It, rather than SF, was the "ideological spare wheel". It sold itself as the alternative to the IRA, but everybody knew that it wasn't.

The SDLP was disabled from the start by having two incompatible aims. This ambiguity was its inheritance from the civil rights campaign. Surely Mansergh realises that "British rights for British citizens" were achievable only within the political framework of the British state? Rights are not detached objects floating about in the global atmosphere, capable of being plucked out here or there, without prejudice to other things. And the British state has never gone along with the view that they are. Rights in Britain are, effectively, the rights of subjects who participate in the political life of the state. Citizens of the world who disdain the local state and live in the ideology of the French Declaration of Rights of 1789 or the UN Declaration of Rights are out of place there. And the great object in dealing with new waves of immigrants—new waves of imported people—is to break them in to the politics of the state. But Northern Ireland was excluded from the political life of the state. So we rounded out the Civil Rights slogan into its necessary political dimension—and we found that very few of the Civil Righters of the 1968-9 agitation would go along with that. The SDLP was hostile from the start. We know because we put it to them at the start. Their slogan should have been "British rights without British citizenship".

Whitehall, Leinster House and Glengall St. were equally hostile. Whitehall had a different purpose in mind for 'Ulster' than to have it settle down within the British state. It was its point of leverage against the part of Ireland that had escaped from it, and trouble in the North increased its purchase on the South. Whitehall easily manipulated the self-contradictoriness in the positions of the others.

So, who then has the right to declare war on Britain over its perverse mode of government in the North? Senator Mansergh raises an interesting question. The answer he appears to give is that only the Dublin Government has. But surely that right passes on to another party when Dublin washes its hands of responsibility for the North, as it did in the Spring of 1970. And who else could it pass to but the direct victims of that perverse mode of government?

We are grateful to the Senator for raising the issue—though we doubt that he knew what he was saying.

As we go to print it is announced that arrests have been made in connection with the McCartney killing. The affair has been dragged out for four months by the police for political purposes. Much less was gained than was hoped for, and it has now been judged that dragging it out has become counter-productive.

Willie O'Dea, the Dublin Minister for War, made a statement on Questions & Answers (May 9th) which he must have known not to be true, unless he deliberately kept himself in ignorance of the basic facts. He said there were seventy witnesses. There were 70 people in the pub, where the killing was not done. And the pub is so constructed that only a fraction of the people in it could have witnessed anything that happened in another part. The killing occurred amongst a small group of people who left the pub and went into a dark, narrow side-street around the corner. The names of those people were known to the police all along. The chief witness was a friend of Robert McCartney's who had introduced the knife into an argument. The police did not question him. Sinn Fein representatives who were being harassed by the BBC asked the BBC why it did not quiz the police about their failure to investigate, and got no answer. The job of the BBC was to harass SF on the issue, insisting that it needed to do something to compel people to give evidence, and not just urge them to do so. And then, if they did do something drastic, they would be 'terrorists'.

Noel Thompson gave Martin McGuinness a grilling on what was murder and what was not, giving hypothetical cases. McGuinness was eventually provoked into demanding clarification of what the BBC considered murder. Was the killing of fourteen people on the street in Derry murder? Thompson refused to answer. It was a reasonable question in the light of the mode of questioning. But Thompson got flustered in the course of refusing to answer.

He said it was not his job to have an opinion about such things, because he was a journalist. He could not give the true answer—that he is an apparatchik of the BBC and must follow the line. The BBC is a caricature of itself in Northern Ireland, where it is operating outside its element. But, even in Britain, BBC functionaries are not journalists, at least not on matters which touch on politics. That was laid down in its Charter 80 years ago. Thompson is not a journalist. He is the hack of a Corporation controlled by the state.

Twenty years ago the BBC forgot what it was and it made a programme about Gregory Campbell and Martin McGuinness when Sinn Fein was outlawed. It was whipped back into line. The late Vincent Hanna (J. Paxman's predecessor) declared that the BBC was a kind of independent guild of broadcasters and he called a strike. The strike was broken, the Director General was sacked, and a new Chairman of the Board was appointed to exercise strong discipline

The BBC ventured into journalism again last year. Its journalist was Andrew Gilligan. And once again it was whipped back into line, as in 1985.


Professor Liam Kennedy stood against Gerry Adams in West Belfast in the General Election on an explicitly anti-Sinn Fein policy. We reported last month that "Adams increased his vote by a large multiple of what Professor Kennedy got in total". This should have been stated in percentages. Kennedy got 0.4% of the vote while Adams vote increased by 4.4.% to 70.5%. His increase was eleven times Kennedy's total.



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