Editorial from Irish Political Review, June 2009

Northern Ireland:—Is This All There Is?

The Good Friday Agreement improved the position of the Northern Catholic (or Nationalist) community in its conflict with the Protestant (or Unionist) community in the conflict of communities, which is what politics in Northern Ireland is all about.  It has never been anything else, and the GFA did not establish the conditions in which something else could emerge from it.

Nationalist Ireland, in all its varieties, is, as it always has been, profoundly reluctant to see Northern Ireland for what it is, and to see the Protestant, or Unionist, community for what it is.

The Unionist community knew very well that it had been out-manoeuvred on Good Friday 1998.  David Trimble signed the GFA under duress—or did not actually sign it, but did not strongly contradict the assumption that he did.  He immediately set about preventing the Agreement from becoming operative, but had to make a minimalist capitulation to it after about two years, and thereafter was chiefly interested in finding ways of making Whitehall suspend it.  But that long conflict over the implementation of the GFA provided a useful distraction from the truth about its content.  The Unionist community was compelled to give ground inch by inch, sometimes managing to take a step backwards but always being obliged to retrace it, and that gave satisfaction to the Nationalist community.

Through this procedure Trimble lost ground to Paisley.  When he was eventually displaced by Paisley, Paisley was left without the hinterland (at once threatening and protective) that he had provided for Trimble, and the realpolitik of the situation left him with no choice but to work the Agreement with Sinn Fein.  His lieutenants felt he was working it with too good a spirit and they ousted him, thinking they could stall it.  They found it impractical to do so.

The GFA has been functional only since Paisley agreed to work it, or even since he was ousted by Peter Robinson who found he had no realistic choice but to work it.  That was only a couple of years ago, but already a feeling of ennui has set in amongst the Nationalist community.  It is far better placed in the conflict of communal attrition with the Unionist community than it ever was before, and there is little prospect of being put back under the rule of the Unionist community, but there is also little prospect of its being able to do anything in politics but stalemate the Unionist community, and it is beginning to find that unsatisfactory.

We are describing the objective situation, not condemning Sinn Fein for functioning within it.  Upholding your own side in the inevitable conflict with the other community always seemed to us to be the only effective thing that could be done within the parameters of 'Northern Ireland'.  The SDLP, the architect of the GFA under John Hume, did that very badly under Seamus Mallon and Mark Durkan.  Sinn Fein has done it rather well since it took over.  But, when the DUP took over from the UUP and agreed to operate the GFA, our comment was that Northern Ireland had been put back in the box.  And that is how it is now being experienced.

Ten years ago, in our analysis of the GFA, we said we could not see in it the possibility of any dynamic of internal development.  And that is proving to be the case.  What exists is an arrangement of stalemate.  The 'parties' (actually communities) negative each other in a strange constitutional entity, which is certainly not a state—though many books emanating form Cork University under the influence of Professor Dermot Keogh describe it as "the Northern Irish state"—but neither is it a local government body of the State in the proper sense, nor a devolved legislative/administrative arrangement of the state, free to deal with a limited range of issues as it sees fit.

Denis Bradley, a former priest who played an active part as an intermediary in bringing about the present arrangement, commented on it in his Irish News column on May 1st.  (Bradley and Brian Feeney, also an Irish News columnist, write political comment that is a couple of leagues above anything that appears in the Dublin and Cork papers.)  He wrote:

"Unionists may be fractured but, at least, they have political representation in the halls of power.  Their representatives get on planes on a Tuesday and fly off to Westminster to argue their case and feel some sense of political purpose.  The SDLP are on the same planes but must be feeling an increasing political disorientation.  They are flying to the wrong parliament.

"Nationalists have no representation in the Dail.  Eoghan Harris is in the Senate as the spokesman on Northern Ireland.  Eoghan has not been well for the last year but at the height of his health he has been a conduit for the unionist position.

"I think nationalists are feeling, once again, lonely and unwanted.  And that is not a healthy position.  It hasn't reached a critical condition but it could do with some tending to.  There are many interpretations of how the 'Troubles' came to an end but the critical one was the realisation that nationalism could not defeat unionism and unionism could not defeat nationalism.  It took years to get that into the heads of republicans and even more years to get it into the heads of the DUP.  Now it seems that they need reminding of it from time to time.  All our political institutions are posited on the reality that each community has a veto.  That is not a natural form of government.  But it is the price we paid for peace.  That, in turn, is posited on the reality that each community looks to a different government for its identity and its authority.  Always looking to a higher authority weakens and demeans the status of our assembly and executive but it is the only thing that provides an alternative to the dangerous undertow of British/Irish history.  It means that both governments need to attend to the needs and the fears of the respective community for some period yet.

"It seems that the SDLP is incapable of merging with Fianna Fail or with any of the Irish parties.  Fianna Fail will pick its own time to organise in the north and that time will be to Fianna Fail's best interest and not that of the nationalist community.  The best solution would be a merger of Sinn Fein and the            SDLP—anathema to both parties at the moment but not outside the bounds of possibility in the future.

"In the meantime and in this period of uncertainty and nervousness, the onus is on the Irish government to devise and provide a comfort blanket to northern nationalism.  If that means more representation in the Dail and Senate then better it happen soon."

All of this is fine as far as it goes—leaving aside some misleading terminology.  But it does not address why the Dublin Government has been actively distancing itself from the North recently, leaving the GFA in the doldrums.

In 1998 there was a difference of opinion within a kind of Unionist think tank (which affected not to be Unionist) called the Cadogan Group over the nature of the GFA.  The issue was whether or not it was a "settlement".  It seems that Dennis Kennedy (a former EU functionary who wrote occasionally for the Irish Times) saw that it did not provide for a settlement and was unhappy about it, while Professor Bew, the future Lord, saw it as a settlement and supported it.  It hardly seems conceivable that Bew actually did see it as a settlement.  It seems more likely that he played the part of a missionary to the Ulster Unionists on behalf of Whitehall.  The GFA was patently a transitional arrangement.

Professor Dermot Keogh, the hagiographer of Jack Lynch, took up the Lord Professor's view from 30 years ago that Northern Ireland was a state, and he has been fostering an academic literature about "the Northern Irish state".  In his history of 20th Century Ireland he wrote that the "Northern Irish state" was set up on the basis of "institutional sectarianism" in 1921.  It wasn't.  It was given the form of democracy, though entirely lacking the substance.  The institutional sectarianism came with the GFA.  The reality underlying the spurious democracy of 1921-72 was brought to the fore by the arrangement which discounted the superficial 'parties', gave the two communities places in the Government as a right, and gave them a mutual veto on each other in the Assembly.  The formal establishment of institutional sectarianism under strict, legally enforceable, rules was the means by which the war that began in 1970 was brought to an end, for the time being.  But that arrangement precluded the development of party politics as generally understood.  The communities were taken to be the components of the system.

There were parties of a kind within each community, but these parties were treated as subordinate parts of the communities.  UUP and DUP were alternative representatives of the Protestant community, and similarly with the SDLP and Sinn Fein in the Catholic community.  This was the de facto position before 1998.  It was made Constitutional in 1998.

It was implicit in the arrangement that London would in the last analysis be the patron of the Unionist community and Dublin of the Nationalist community.  Of course there was no parity between the two because Whitehall was the actual Government of the North, while Dublin had little more than observer status.

As the actual Government, Whitehall had to present itself as acting even-handedly towards all subjects of the Queen in the North, and in order to keep the devolved arrangements functional it had to make good this pretension occasionally.  Whichever party was in power, the Government represented no constituency in the Northern Ireland region of its state. 

In 1921 it had disowned responsibility for this region of its state while maintaining undisputed sovereignty over it.  Its purpose in doing this was never explained, but it requires little insight to see that its effect was to retain leverage on the affairs of the South at the expense of bad government in the North—government which any worthwhile British politician would see, after a moment's thought, as systematically bad.  When the scale of the trouble caused by the bad government which it had set up for the North became so great in 1972 that the only thing to do was to abolish it, Whitehall immediately set about trying to restore it in modified form.  This took 27 years, and then a few years longer as Trimble's Unionist Party tried to prevent the functioning of the system to which it had been obliged, under duress, to agree in principle.

Two quite distinct things might be meant by the word 'Unionism'.  Denis Bradley does not distinguish between them.  In the actual life of the North Unionism means the Protestant community, sometimes referred to as the Unionist Family, which ran the devolved system for 50 years.

Unionism might also refer to the fact that the North is part of the British State—or has a "connection" with the British State.  This is a rather abstract usage, as the political system by which the British state is governed was withheld from the Six Counties from the moment they were set up as Northern Ireland.

Professor Fitzpatrick of Trinity, one of the godfathers of revisionism, published a history of Ireland as two states set up in 1921, and asserted that both of them were strongly resistant to social welfare reform.  The degree of ignorance in Southern academia about Northern affairs is really impressive.  The British social welfare system exists in the North as as part of the British state.  One might call that Unionism, but it is not what is usually meant by Unionism.

The North was excluded from the political process of the state through which that social welfare reform was brought about.  The North was communally governed by the Unionist Family while the issue of social welfare reform was fought out in the party politics of the state.  The outcome of British party conflict was then applied in the North.

The trouble that erupted in the North in 1969 was not provoked by Unionism, meaning the common institutions of the British state which exist in the North.  It was provoked by Unionism in the sense of a form of politics deliberately separated by the British Establishment from the political life of the state—the politics of the Unionist Family ruling a large Catholic community in semi-detachment from Britain.

The Catholic minority after 1921 did not refuse to take part in British politics.  It was excluded from British politics.

The Unionist—ie, Unionist Family—MPs fly off to Westminster every week, and that makes them happy, even though they are little more than spectators there.  There are long historical reasons why the Ulster Protestant community is profoundly unpolitical, and is content to be part of the ceremonials of the British state while having no part in its political substance.

It is likely that the Catholic community would have participated vigorously in the political substance of the British state if that had been open to it after 1921, but the Jingo ceremonials do not attract it at all.

The Catholic community is very political by disposition.  Excluded from British politics and placed under communal Protestant rule, it kept on looking to Dublin.
Dublin used to see the condition of the Northern Catholics as its particular concern—though it never did much about it, and certainly did not cause the insurrection of 1969.  But since 1998 the Irish Government has developed pretensions.

Forty years ago St. T.K. Whitaker urged Jack Lynch in all his public statements to be careful not to speak as if the Catholic community was his particular concern.  He should be careful in his phrasing to appear to be speaking for all the people of the North.  Lynch never succeeded in doing that.  It could not be done.  If seriously attempted nothing but hollow debating points would emerge.  All Lynch did was abandon the Northern Catholic community in the Summer of 1970, and revoke the working arrangements he had made with the Catholic Defence Committees since the preceding August, thus facilitating—or provoking—the transition from the defensive insurrection of August 1969 into the offensive insurrection which took off in 1970 and lasted for a quarter of a century.

In recent years Dublin Governments have been busily merging celebrations of the 1916 Insurrection, which led to the formation of the Irish State, with celebrations of the Great War fought by the Army that suppressed that Insurrection.  They have deliberately set about making nonsense of the history of the state which they govern.  They seem to imagine that, if they make nonsense of themselves, they will get the Ulster Unionists.  The Protestants are unimpressed.  The effect is in some degree to generate Catholic discontent with the GFA.

Bertie Ahern, while merging the celebration of profoundly antagonistic events, at least set in motion measures to accord Northern representatives some right to sit in the Oireachtas.  He was stymied by Fine Gael and Labour.  He then set about giving Northerners representation via the party system, by proposing to organise Fianna Fail in Northern Ireland.  If he had proceeded, the other Irish parties would have been obliged to follow.  Brian Cowen has revoked Ahern's measures.  We cannot see what opportunist advantage he thought it would give him.

Denis Bradley's stricture was deserved.


Is This All There Is.

Some Benefits Of The Lisbon Campaign.
Jack Lane

Figuring Out The Famine (Reader's Letters).
Ivor Kenna, Jack Lane

Palestine: Two Into One? (Reader's Letter).
Eamon Dyas

WWI Hypocrisy (Reader's Letter).
Jack Coldrick

Guess Who's Not Coming To Dinner (Poem).
Wilson John Haire

Elizabeth's Reports.
Jack Lane

Shorts from the Long Fellow (The World Trade Imbalance; The Automobile Industry; Never Write Off The Germans!…; Or The Irish!; The Media Is The Problem; NAMA; State Industrial Policy; The Late Late Show).

When Did Western Civilisation End?
Desmond Fennell

Arms Conspiracy Trial.
Speech by Suzanne Kelly

The Rising.
John Morgan (Oration at Arbour Hill).

Pat Murphy In Mind.
P. H. Pearse's The Fool

Rebel Cork's Fighting Story (…ongoing…)
Jack Lane

The Myers Obsession With The Recently Dead.
Manus O'Riordan

Prize Nonsense.
Seán McGouran

Public Meeting On The Irish Times.
John Martin

Queen Elizabeth & Pockets Of Resistance.
Niall Meehan

Coolacrease Again.
Brendan Clifford

Propaganda With Your Laxatives.
Jack Lane

Biteback: Judicial Swipes.
Tom Sheridan


Labour Comment
Edited by Pat Maloney

The Ballot Is The Thing?

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