Editorial from Irish Political Review, August 2004

Northern Ireland: Catching Up With History?

Why Did Irish History Take So Long? was the title of Garret FitzGerald's 'John Hume Lecture' at the McGill Summer School in Glenties, Co. Donegal in mid-July. Though meaningless, it was probably appropriate for a John Hume Lecture. We cannot say whether it was also appropriate for a McGill event. (We assume that McGill is Patrick McGill, the tramp-navvy man of letters who fought for the British Empire in the Great War.)

When History is completed, where does the human race go? What else is there in this world for it to live in? Human history is historical. If there is an eternal mode of existence, it exists elsewhere, and access to it is problematical.

Escape from history been the theme of John Hume's reflections over many years. What he did often made sense, but what he said rarely made sense. Because he was a man of action attempting to act purposefully in order to establish normality in a situation which was deliberately structured to be abnormal, it would be unkind to submit the famous "Humespeak" to thoughtful analysis.

But FitzGerald did not utter his nonsense while attempting to act within the impossible Northern situation. He is in any case not a man of action, but a 'Southern Ireland' intellectual, and the ideologue of the Free State side of the Treaty split. And, though an intellectual, he has always been unusually badly informed about the reality of life in the North. He has no commonsense instinct for it, and he has never attempted to come to terms with it intellectually.

When the Free State was formally declared a Republic by his own party in 1948, he declared himself to be still a Commonwealth Man. And some of his recent musings suggest that he feels that even the setting up of the Free State was a mistake. In that context one can make sense of his strange question: Why did Irish history take so long? It means: Why did the aberration of a separate Irish State take so long to be resumed back into the British fold?

Here is the gist of his address, as given in the Irish Times (July 19):

"For 50 years, we had hugged our Southern grievance about the loss of 'our' fourth green field, while showing remarkably little practical concern for the faith of those of our fellow nationalists who dwelt in that abandoned field. Only the descent of the North into near-anarchy in the early 1970s forced us in the South… belatedly to face reality.

"In the North there were slow learners also. The unionist politicians and people sought to secure themselves against change by discrimination and repressive policies that would eventually undermine completely their own moral position as a local, artificially contrived majority.

"And, if I may say so, the nationalist minority were also slow learners. Badly led for almost 50 years, they failed to assert their rights, choosing all too often the sterile path of abstention from parliamentary politics.

"Finally, late in the day under a new and vibrant leadership, they finally abandoned their futile hopes of practical aid from what had long become a self-absorbed and uninterested South, one that for decades past had become content to salve its conscience by occasional outbursts of puerile propaganda…

"Instead, these new nationalist leaders started to wield with growing success the weapon of peaceful protest to which, over many decades of liberalism and social democracy, British public opinion had become intensely vulnerable…

"Northern nationalists in the early 1970s included enough people… still gripped by memories and myths of a violent past, who were prepared to throw away the gains being made by their new constitutional leaders by futile armed action designed to secure by force what was already in the process of being achieved through a combination of skilful nationalist politics and futile unionist reaction…

"But what can one say of latter day Sinn Fein and their IRA? It took a quarter of a century and 3,500 unnecessary, brutal deaths for them to learn what was already self-evident in 1970—that in the modern world of democratic states and codes of human rights, peaceful protest and political action are far more potent weapons than the Armalite or Semtex.

"When in the aftermath of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement… the penny eventually dropped with them, the political path ahead had to be cleared for these slow learners by those democratic politicians whom Sinn Fein had long derided—John Hume, and successive governments of the 'Free State'."

Let's review some of these phases.

It made no practical difference whether Nationalist representatives sat in Stormont or abstained. For the most part they sat. The Stormont Parliament was not the source of government of a state. The major institutions of the state remained under Whitehall control, and some of the more substantial powers which Westminster sought to devolve to Stormont were reintegrated by Stormont back into the Whitehall system. This was the great success achieved by the Ulster Unionist Party in the 1920s and 1930s. It meant that the matters on which a form of class-based politics might have developed were not dealt with by Stormont. The Stormont Parliament simply copied Westminster legislation, whether Tory or Socialist.

The decision-making assembly for most matters affecting the state in Northern Ireland was Westminster. But Northern Ireland representation at Westminster was not allowed within the parties which wielded power at Westminster, and was therefore futile.

The power controlled by Stormont was the power of police. And the electoral function of Stormont was to show at every election that the "local, artificially contrived majority" for this strange of Union of Northern Ireland with Britain still held.

British "liberalism and social democracy" were not "intensely vulnerable" to protest by the Northern Ireland minority, but were intensely indifferent to it. Protest at Stormont was certain to be voted down, and protest at Westminster was not allowed, the "convention" being that Stormont was the appropriate place for it.

British opinion was sublimely indifferent to protest about Northern Ireland in the mid-1960s (as we know from personal experience). It was only when protest led to trouble on the streets in the Winter of 1968-9 that it began to take heed. But, if it noticed, it did nothing until conflict on the streets led to gunfire and arson in Belfast in August 1969. And it was not "Sinn Fein and their IRA" that started the shooting, but the forces of law and order. And all that Whitehall did then was to put its own Army on the streets to curb Unionist action, leaving intact the political arrangements which had generated the trouble.

The "new and vibrant leadership", of the minority, the SDLP, based itself on a self-contradictory platform—or two mutually exclusive platforms—reform as part of the UK ("British Rights for British Citizens"), and the removal of the 6 Counties from the UK to the Irish Republic. When in the Summer of 1971 the new Unionist Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, proposed a political reform, the SDLP responded enthusiastically on the spur of the moment on the basis of its reform programme, but on further consideration decided on the basis of its anti-Partition programme to boycott Stormont. And that was when the Republican war effort really cut loose—leading to the abolition of Stormont by Whitehall early in 1972.

In the Autumn of 1973 the incomparable remnant of aristocracy, William Whitelaw, seduced the SDLP back to the negotiating table. The Sunningdale Agreement was negotiated between the Unionists, the SDLP and the Dublin Government in which Dr. FitzGerald was Foreign Minister and C.C. O'Brien spokesman on the North. A power-sharing arrangement began to operate in January 1974. It fell five months later when the duplicity of the Dublin Government in the negotiations came to light. It might have been saved if the Council of Ireland had been deferred, or if a referendum had been called to amend the sovereignty claim asserted in Articles 2 & 3 of the Constitution. Dr. FitzGerald and his colleagues would agree to do neither. They called upon Whitehall to crush the "Constitutional stoppage" of the Unionist community against Sunningdale by force. The entire Protestant community went on strike against the duplicity which had been practised on it, and those of us who lived in the midst of the strike were in no doubt that there was a determination to see it through, regardless of consequences. But Dr. FitzGerald and his colleagues seemed to be still convinced of the old Nationalist maxim that the Unionist will would collapse in the face of a strong British show of force.

Eleven years later FitzGerald (now Taoiseach) negotiated the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Mrs. Thatcher, which led to a qualitative increase in the segregation of the Protestant and Catholic communities. As we tried to shift Protestant outrage into a demand for incorporation into the political system of the state, John Hume expressed outrage at our activities. He described the purpose of the Agreement as being "to lance the Unionist boil".

The SDLP was still caught in the self-contradiction on which it was based.

The development which began a few years later was not a matter of Gerry Adams coming around to the viewpoint of John Hume and Garret FitzGerald. Adams had publicly outlined the scheme of development which became known as "the peace process" before there were any Hume/Adams meetings. And Hume had to retreat from the strategy of "lancing the Unionist boil" in order to become a pathfinder in the peace process.

Dr. FitzGerald continued:

"In fairness, one must add that once the IRA leaders had belatedly adopted the previously despised path of peace, they demonstrated political skills that matched, and indeed at times seem to surpass, those of their long established democratic rivals. But the slow history syndrome is till today hard at work within Sinn Fein/IRA itself. Ten years one from 1993 feet are still being dragged."

And we expect that ten years on there will still be foot dragging. What "the path of peace" means within the Northern Ireland constitutional structure is communal attrition. Nothing else is possible but the conflict of the two communities, who are constitutionally structured into solid blocs.

This elementary fact was never grasped by Dr. FitzGerald. When he had the power to intervene, his interventions always aggravated communal tension, even though he seemed to be genuinely convinced that he was doing the opposite.

The possibility of a development out of this grinding of the two communities against each other now lies entirely with Sinn Fein, which has become more than a Northern Ireland party. And, within the arena of communal conflict, the main social development there has been is connected with the displacement of the SDLP (which never succeeded in being more than the old Nationalism with a new name) by Sinn Fein. The Catholic community in the North is now something utterly different from what it was before it fought a war.

(Is that a 'justification'? Perish the thought! It is an observation of a fact which only a Dr. FitzGerald could fail to see.)


Catching Up With History

Two Anniversaries

The Greatest "Irish" Rugby Player And The Major
John Martin

Europe, The Sick Man? (Turkey's application to join).
Jack Lane

The Clonbanin Column

On The Swallowing And Poisoning Of Nations
Manus O'Riordan

War, Appeasement And Bomber Bull (Part Three)
Pat Walsh

An Cor Tuathail: The Contest Of Oisín And Patrick (1).
(Compiled by Pat Muldowney)

British PM Initiated 'White Nigger' Meeting
John Martin

Salary Of McDowell
John Martin

Conflict Of Interest?

Gageby Obituaries
John Martin

Pat Rabbittes On About History.
Joe Keenan

Democracy On Trial. (Pt 1 of Nicholas Mansergh & Ireland)
Brendan Clifford

'Slab' Murphy In The Spotlight.
Seán McGouran

Labour Comment, edited by Pat Maloney:
Off The Rails.

New National Wage Agreement.

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