Editorial from Irish Political Review, January 2007


As far as democracy is concerned, Northern Ireland is a No-man's-land between two states. The two states threw it into chaos in 1969, and Provisional Republicanism emerged from the chaos. The two states have ever since had the object of tidying away the North, sealing it up, and forgetting about it until the next time.

It may be that they are about to succeed. The signs are that Sinn Fein is about to sign up for a pig-in-a-poke in the matter of policing; and that the DUP is about to accept as democracy an arrangement which it understands very well not to be democracy.

A subordinate layer of local government, conducted under the supervision of the state authority, with its power of decision crippled by peculiar arrangements designed to shackle the majority, is not something which would be recognised as democracy by the political strata of the British or Irish states if applied to their own affairs. But both have agreed to call it democracy if it can be cobbled together in the Six Counties.

The North might be democratically governed as part of the British state or of the Irish state, but it cannot be democratically governed on its own, because of all that is implied by the fact that it is not a state, never has been, and is incapable of being.

We advocated that it should be democratised into the British state. For twenty years we campaigned actively for that object. But the democracy of the British state was unalterably opposed to the project. And the Unionists, while repeating parrot-like that they were British, were unalterably opposed to it too, on the ground of a suspicion of the British state which might be described either as neurotic or apolitical.

The only alternative is democratisation within the politics of the Republic. And the only difficulty there is getting the 6 Counties within the Republic. Once in, they would not be excluded from the democracy of the Republic, as for 85 years they have been from the democracy of the British state.

The Republic would have no reason to exclude the North from its democratic life, as Britain has done.

The reason Britain excluded it was that its purpose in creating Northern Ireland was to retain some purchase on the part of Ireland that was escaping from it. If the Six Counties had not been structurally excluded from British politics at the time of Partition, by the establishment of the strange Constitutional entity called Northern Ireland, the strong possibility is that they would have settled down within the party-politics of Britain.

Vincent Browne said in a recent issue of The Village that the trouble in the North lay in the fact that the Catholic community refused to accept the state. The actual trouble was that the state did not present itself in a political form to the Catholic community, and it was not there for them to accept or reject.

The Catholics did not carry on voting Nationalist, generation after generation, in preference to voting Labour or Tory. The Labour and Tory Parties did not solicit their votes. The Catholics voted for their own community, because the alternative was to vote for the Protestant community. The entities called political parties were mere expressions of community. And so it remains.

Jeffrey Donaldson is a refugee from Trimbleism to Paisleyism. During the years of his opposition to Trimble in the Unionist Party he was generally depicted in the media as being on an ego trip. We never agreed with that. We thought there was an element of role-playing in their conflict and that they had the common purpose of ending the Good Friday Agreement, one from within and the other from without, and we stand by that assessment. But an element of genuine antagonism appears to have set in. (Trimble was undoubtedly a very bad party leader.)

Donaldson took some trouble to look at the other side. Not a lot, but some. And he is at ease on Dublin television, which Trimble never was. And he even flirted with the project of democratisation within British politics, though he drew back from it. And, having drawn back from it, all he can be is a communal Protestant politician, though with an unusually wide range of debating skills.

BBC Radio 4 ran a little series around Christmas on he theme of: If you could repeal any existing law, which one would it be. One candidate was the 1688 Act Of Settlement, which makes it unlawful for the monarch to be a Catholic or to marry one. There was a brief debate on the question on 29th December. Somebody called Dalrymple spoke for the proposition that it should be repealed. Donaldson spoke against. He said the liberty of the Protestant state, won in 1688, would crumble if the Roman Catholics weren't kept out. Dalrymple jeered that the BBC had to go to Ulster to find somebody to support the Act.

But the reason such a person could be found, even in Ulster, was that Ulster has been excluded from the processes of British democracy (which consist of much more than voting) for four generations.

What is called 'progress' is not spun out of the head as pure reason. It is something that happens to people who are immersed in the dense atmosphere generated by the actual processes of democratic government. And it has much more to do with the fashions and cliches and shibboleths of that process, than with reason.

And it is something that cannot happen in the arid routines of communal politics in Northern Ireland, which have never generated a general atmosphere encompassing both communities.

Reg Empey's leadership of the Unionist Party has been largely unnoticed. Perhaps that Party was wrecked beyond repair by Trimble and isn't worth noticing. But Empey has been acknowledging realities in a way we have not noticed before in any leading Unionist, except Brian Faulkner thirty years ago. He acknowledges, for example, that Unionist politicians have had an ongoing relationship with 'men of violence'. It was not an open relationship, like that between Sinn Fein and the IRA, and its existence could be denied, but it was not less real for that.

If Empey had been in Trimble's place eight years ago, and had adopted that approach, how different things might have been.

We have always said that Provisional Republicanism was a specific product of the undemocratic system of Government called Northern Ireland. If it makes a deal on policing now, the case will be proved conclusively,.

A United Ireland has not been achieved, but the whole atmosphere of life in the Catholic community has been improved out of all recognition since the early seventies. And the change has not come about through 'constitutional nationalism', but through war.

We opposed the war, though not in the sense of supporting the 'security forces'. We tried to direct all he energy unleashed by the 1969 pogrom into the project of democratisation within the existing state. But we did not go along with the 'constitutional nationalist' view that the only right of the Catholic community in this No-man's-land was a duty of obedience. A natural right to make war was inherent in the circumstances.

The 'Northern Ireland State' was never anything but the Ulster Volunteer Force authorised by Westminster into a police force. We offer the following letter from The Village (mid-December) as a reflection on that fact.

Vincent Browne writes (29 Nov): "The problem of Northern Ireland since 1922 has been that a sizeable minority have not accepted the police force, had not accepted the state".

What was the "Northern Ireland state" (a widely-used term)? It was a police force, and little else. In every other respect the state was the British state.

The Northern Catholics were the only people in a state that was called a democracy for whom the state was reduced to a police force.

The way people 'accept a state' is by participating in its political institutions. There were no political institutions, of either the British state proper, or its reduced Northern Ireland form, in which Northern Catholics might participate. The state was a hostile police force and nothing else, except a kind of make-believe politics that would not be accepted for an instant by the electorates of either Britain of the Republic. And that is why a basic re-ordering of police affairs remains a precondition of Catholic participation in the new scheme. What is real is the police, not the make-believe of politics.

Jack Lane




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