Editorial from Irish Political Review, October 2007
When the DUP was manoeuvred by Whitehall into agreeing to share the offices of a devolved government with Sinn Fein, it was said by the Whitehall Ministers who brought about that situation that normal politics has broken out in Northern Ireland. Normal politics was defined as "bread and butter politics" by Secretary of State Hain. He did not explain how 'bread and butter politics' could arise out of the Northern arrangement, where the local government does not raise the money it spends. The bread and butter is supplied by the Government of the state. All parties in the North want as much of it as they can get. There is unanimity about that.
If Unionists wanted less and Nationalists wanted more, there would be grounds for at least a semblance of normal politics. But the two major parties are working class parties (with burgeoning bourgeois elements, as behoves working class parties in a capitalist meritocracy) and they both want to be given more bread and butter to distribute. And the two middle class parties, which have been marginalised, would not dare to say that they wanted less.
The only instance of bread and butter politics we have seen happening is the manipulation of the DUP by the Secretary of State six months ago. He announced that Whitehall would impose a substantial increase in Rates and would introduce Water Rates unless the DUP agreed to share local government office with Sinn Fein by a certain date. The bills for the new rates were drawn up, printed, and delivered to every home in Northern Ireland, with a notice that they would Not come into effect if the devolved administration was formed. What this amounted to was a massive bribe to the electorate which Paisley did not feel he could reject. He therefore decided to allow Sinn Fein to return to Office, and to implicate it as far as possible in the 'Northern Ireland state'.
Our basic objection to the 'Northern Ireland state', which we set out over thirty years ago, is not that it was Partitionist but that it did not exist. The state in Northern Ireland has never been anything but the British state. Most public services were provided and administered by the state—i.e. Whitehall—after 1921 no less than before.
What the 'Northern Ireland state' consisted of was an exclusion from the politics of the state. Its own political life consisted only of the communal antagonism of Protestants and Catholics. That is all it could be. Therefore we never condemned it for being what it had to be.
Allowing that Northern Ireland must exist—the necessity of it being that the British state insisted that this segment of itself should take this form—the obnoxious feature of it was that the power of policing was devolved to the Protestant community, and also that there was a marginal element of gerrymandering. This meant that the communal antagonism was conducted on grossly unequal terms. The effect of the recent change is to provide a level battleground.
But what is the battle about?
It was never really about Partition. By the same token it was never really about the Union. It was about the political vacuum called Northern Ireland which made each community adopt shibboleths with little practical political meaning.
For Unionists the Union was reduced to the mere ceremonial symbols of the state—the Crown, the Queen, the Union Jack, etc. In Wales and Scotland the Union was maintained incidentally through mass participation in the party conflict of Labour against Tory by people who frequently expressed contempt for the symbols. The Ulster Unionists were deprived of everything but the symbols.
The Catholic community remained Nationalist because there was nothing else for it to be. The structure of Northern Ireland was an affront to its sense of self-respect. We know from experience that a substantial segment of it would willingly have taken part in the politics of the state. That willingness is usually presented as support for the Union. But the tangible form in which 'the Union' presented itself was the political vacuum of Northern Ireland filled by the Orange Order and the RUC. Being excluded from the political life of the British state, the Catholic community therefore lined itself up ideologically as anti-Partitionist, even though the political parties of the Free State also shunned it.
This political predicament of the Catholic community gave rise to the Provisional IRA when the situation was thrown into flux by the wild Unionist assault of August 1969. We saw it being forged as a profoundly ambiguous movement during the Winter of 1969-70 and we did our best to head off the war. It was a product of 'the Northern Ireland state', not of the Treaty. Anti-Treaty Republicanism gained a lease of life through association with it, but was sloughed off twenty years ago. The Provo leadership, dealing strictly with the situation that gave rise to it, has demonstrated immense political skill in making its way from war to political office in alliance with Paisley in the 'Northern Ireland state'. It is true to its origins. Where this has led it is to making a go of the Northern Ireland state which is not a state—to success in politics without politics—to bread and butter politics in which the bread and butter is laid on by a third party which supervises and manipulates the whole thing.
If there actually was 'a Northern Ireland state' this development could not have happened. Something different would have happened during those fifty years, if Northern Ireland was a state. A state produces a form of politics appropriate to its functioning. The form of politics that existed in Northern Ireland was irrelevant to the functioning of the state.
Professor David Fitzpatrick, the Australian who has been running a revisionist factory in Trinity College for twenty years, published a book called The Two Irelands (Oxford University Press 1998), in which he explained that there were "two revolutionary movements" in Ireland ninety years ago. In each of them there was "subordination of individual choice to communal solidarity". Both went on to establish states. And—
"Each new government was immediately threatened by civil war, leading to ruthless suppression… Furthermore the political alignments cemented in the two civil wars continued to dominate political debate, restricting the opportunity for social and economic reform" (Preface).
Could it have escaped his notice that the Welfare State, established after 1945 by Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee, came to Northern Ireland as a matter of course? The North was excluded from the political process which led to that development, but it got the end product because it was part of the state.
Leaving politics aside, life in Northern Ireland was lived within the institutions of the British state. The source of trouble did not lie in Unionist prevention of social reform, but in the exclusion of the Northern Ireland populace by Britain from the political life which led to that great social reform.
Paddy Devlin, when he was a leader of the SDLP, published an academic treatise in which he asserted that the British social welfare system was put on a confessional (sectarian) basis when being set up in Northern Ireland. It was a groundless assertion, but it was swallowed by the Dublin intelligentsia as one of the grievances fuelling the war. The truth is nearer the opposite—that the war was facilitated by the dispassionate administration by the British state of its welfare system in its Northern Ireland region.
Professor Fitzpatrick wrote what he did out of honest ignorance. Honest ignorance is no less profound among the meticulous 'revisionists' than amongst others. There is however a pre-emptive quality to it: a sense that it better not to know too much.
Sinn Fein, through being successful, is beginning to discover facts of life about the North which we tried to draw attention to almost forty years ago. We tried to inform the SDLP in its early days, but it didn't want to know. Perhaps it was never successful enough to feel the need to know. At any event, it had no wisdom in this matter that Sinn Fein might have learned from. Nor have governing circles in Dublin ever troubled to inform themselves about the North—so Sinn Fein will get nothing useful from them either. It must fend for itself.
Its first effort to establish a rapport with the Protestant community was by way of the Somme. A worse approach could hardly be imagined—unless Sinn Fein is trying to realise Arthur Griffiths' ambition of becoming a partner in Empire.
Their great-grandfathers were actually at the Somme in 1916 alongside the Ulster Volunteers but, when they came back to Belfast, they found that the shared experience of killing Germans had established nothing at all in the way of fellow feeling between them as Irish. There was no good reason why it should.
Back in 1969, when we said that Protestant Ulster had the quality of a national body, that the culture of Irish nationalism exerted no gravitational pull on it, and that the application of force would fail to dissolve it as a political bloc, we thought it was only sensible to reconsider the usual way of depicting the Home Rule conflict, and to set out the Unionist case of that time as at least having the validity of success. We did that in pamphlets published in 1969 and the early seventies.
Thirty years later Articles 2 & 3 of the Southern Constitution were amended. The 'one-nation' conception was abandoned by practical implication. But there was no follow-through, either by revisionists or their antagonists, with regard to the ideology of the Home Rule conflict. But Martin Mansergh—said to have had a part in the 1998 Agreement—delivers on Radio Eireann an unreconstructed rant about Carson (Radio Eireann 30.10.06).
Northern Ireland is now accorded a sacred right of self-determination—which Mansergh inclines to place with the Protestant community, rather than the general population—but at the same time Carson is given the old-fashioned treatment. And what sense does that make?
Mansergh also condemns absolutely the act of war to which Partition in the form of Northern Ireland led. That strikes us as equally unreasonable. We tried to prevent the war, but that is a different thing.
The war did not result from Partition. The establishment of Northern Ireland was wantonly made the means by which Partition was enacted. That was not Carson's doing. It was done by the British Government after Carson ceased to be part of it, and he spoke against it in Parliament.
Mansergh's concern seems to be to burnish his own nationalist credentials within Fianna Fail, where there appears to be a degree of scepticism about them, rather than to find ways of dealing with the Home Rule conflict which would allow some possibility of rapprochement. But he is after all the chief Fianna Fail propagandist on the issue. And he insists that we must all start from the accomplished facts of Partition and Northern Ireland—two distinct facts which he treats as one. Stirring up the old resentments is hardly the way to do that.
Bertiegate, Media-Inspired 'Death by a Thousand
Social Customs (Iran, Part 3).
On 'What Is To Be Done'.
The Burning Of Cork.
Reply To Dick Kenny.
What Is To Be Done, Part Two, The Responses.
Unpublished Letters On President McAleese.
Shorts From The Long Fellow.
Jumping The Black Pig's Dyke.
Roy Johnston's Memoirs.
Dev's Refugee Policy (Part 2 of "Ireland's
Bowen, Lane And Mansergh.
The Heart Of The Celtic Tiger?
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