Editorial from Irish Political Review, November 2002

Northern Manoeuvres

Tony Blair forced David Trimble to sign the Good Friday Agreement by means of a threat and a promise: a threat that an arrangement even more advantageous to the Nationalists (something approaching joint sovereignty with Dublin) would be imposed if he did not sign, and a promise that the signed Agreement would not be the Agreement that was implemented. Mistaking Northern Ireland for the Labour Party, Blair assumed that he could act at whim and then hustle everybody into line. In the event, he has been able to hustle nobody. And, when the moment arrived when he had to choose between the conflicting undertaking he had given, he chose the private undertaking to the Unionists in preference to his public undertaking in the Agreement.

We have said repeatedly that the basic requirement of Unionism is spiritual—that what it needs most of all is the public humiliation of the Republican movement. The only real question therefore has been whether the Republicans would submit to humiliation. (Trimble even used the word “surrender” this Autumn). This has nothing whatever to do with the terms of the Agreement. But it is in accordance with the personal undertaking given by Blair to the Unionist Party on the eve of the Referendum for the purpose of hustling the Unionist electors into a Yes vote.

We have repeatedly compared the British attitude in Northern Ireland to its attitude towards the Armistice with Germany in 1918-19, its purpose being to develop a negotiated Cease Fire into a surrender.

Britain is the most moral state in the world. Morality enters into everything it does. It never admits to acting out of particular interest, with morality suspended, as other states have done. It acts only in the medium of morality. But, since its morality is forensic, and has been for three hundred years, it can do whatever it pleases and present it as moral. Its morality of special pleading in a general culture of casuistry inhibits it from doing nothing that it sees as advantageous to itself, and it often has the advantage of conning the enemy. The Germans, for example, have never been able to figure it out.

We recall an interview with Fr. Faul about 12 years ago, when he was being absurdly depicted as a “Provo priest” because he would not stay quiet when atrocities were committed in the name of the law. He was strongly anti-Republican. But he confessed to being simply baffled by the Provos. He understood the British. Their national game was cricket. A cricket match might go on for days on end and then come to an inconclusive finish. the Irish game was hurling. It went on fast and furiously for an hour and that was it. But the Provos were behaving like cricketers. The game had been on already for twenty years at that time and there was no sign of Republican attention and endurance running out. It just wasn’t Irish. At least it had no precedent in Irish history.

Fr. Faul’s view is the view deeply ingrained in Unionist culture and in British culture. The Irish engage in spasms of hectic activity and then collapse. The Celtic temperament is both volatile and inflexible. It doesn't allow for sustained activity over long periods with appropriate tactical adjustments along the way. That’s the great Anglo-Saxon quality which led to the construction of a world Empire. And it remains a necessary belief of Unionism that these Celtic and Anglo-Saxon stereotypes are still functioning and that Nationalism is still liable to fall into disarray. It is not a belief that is supported by the events of the third of a century just past. But it is a necessary belief because the actual context of world Empire in which Ulster Unionist acted a century ago has fallen away and all that stands between it and dissolution is this stereotype of understanding.

The progress of communal antagonism so carefully provided for by the Agreement reached the point in early October where the Ulster Unionist Party committed itself to collapsing the structures established under the Agreement unless Whitehall did what it wanted by some other means. Whitehall came to its aid by ordering the police raid on the Sinn Fein offices at Stormont with the television cameras in attendance and launching the “espionage” propaganda against Sinn Fein and suspending the power-sharing institutions. And it raided the homes of a few Sinn Fein officials and claimed to have found large quantities of terrorist material. But then it transpired that it had known about this material for at least a year. And the way it was found, stuffed into a rucksack which was not hidden, suggests that Sinn Fein was not treating it as dangerous material.

This kind of thing had happened twice before in the course of the Peace Process. Republicans were arrested at critical points and allegations were put into circulation by the Chief Constable. Unionists were appeased by the exclusion of Sinn Fein. And then, a few months later when the incident had served its purpose, those who had been arrested were released without charge and without publicity.

Lord Whatsisname (who used to be John Taylor) appeared on British radio and television to say that the latest revelations of Republican perfidy (it being stated as a fact that the raid on the top-security barracks at Castlereagh for top-security documents, in which the raiders simply walked in, without disguise, and took the documents, was a Republican action) was leading to an anti-Republican landslide amongst Catholics all over the ‘province’. This was an expression of the necessary Unionist belief that the Irish will fall into disarray in the face of Anglo-Saxon stolidity.

But the general response to the ‘espionage’ revelations, even among the SDLP membership, was scepticism. They had seen it all before. Only Brid Rogers—who did not grow up under the Unionist system—tried to make capital out of it at the expense of Sinn Fein in the Assembly. But she made a mess of it, being called to order by Lord Alderdice, the Speaker, for referring to police allegations about Sinn Fein members as facts.

RTE had no such scruples. Miriam O’Callaghan, interviewing Gerry Kelly on Prime Time, treated the allegations as facts until he corrected her. And then she asked this remarkable question: “How can they [the Unionists] trust people whose head of administration is allegedly going around with secret sensitive documents?” It puts one in mind of the much ridiculed Law of Suspects in France in 1793-4, under which it was an offence to have an allegation made against you.

Unionist expectations would long since have been met, if the conduct of the “Irish” in the North was determined by the attitudes of the Dail and the media in the Republic.

The Irish state is a weak state by comparison with the British state. But Irish society is strong relative to the state, whereas in Britain society is scarcely distinguishable from the state. The Irish electorate last year did something that is unimaginable in Britain. It rejected a proposition put to it by the state in its broadest sense—by all the political parties which had ever participated in government, by the economic organisations which are accustomed to act in conjunction with government (including the Trade Unions), by the academic institutions, by the Church, and by the Fourth Estate (as Edmund Burke called the press).

The Irish state was shamed before its European colleagues by its failure to control its democracy. Being a weak state—a state without resources of moral strength—it could not take its stand on the decision of the democracy and make a virtue of it. So it called a second referendum on the same issue and frightened the relatively apolitical part of the electorate into coming out and voting Yes.

Left to its own devices, this state could only exert a weakening influence on the Nationalist community in the North. But, since the election of John Hume as leader of the SDLP, Nationalist conduct in the North has been beyond its influence almost as much as Republican conduct.
Mark Durkan had apparently acted as Trimble’s poodle until the police raid on the Sinn Fein offices. Then, put on the spot by the Unionists, he acted in conjunction with Sinn Fein. And, when Blair suspended power-sharing and gave an ultimatum to the IRA, and the IRA responded by withdrawing from the De Chastelaine Commission on decommissioning, Durkan revealed that Blair had suggested to him that the SDLP should form a Coalition with the UUP—which would amount to breaking the Agreement.

If the Unionists had operated the Agreement in September 1998, it is a virtual certainty that the IRA would be disbanded by now. But the Agreement has not been operative at all for much of the 41/2 years since it was signed, and it has been only partially operative when supposedly working. (Trimble vetoed North/South operations even though the Courts declared the action illegal.)

The Unionists sometimes hint that their object is a Coalition with the SDLP. But when it was offered a Coalition by Seamus Mallon in December 1998 it rejected the offer. Mallon was a devolutionist, rather than an anti-Partitionist. He favoured an internal settlement in the North. Six months after the Referendum, with the UUP still preventing the institutions from being set up, he said that, if Trimble allowed devolved government to start, he would agree to give an ultimatum to the IRA to disband within 6 months. He guaranteed to act with the Unionists to exclude Sinn Fein from government if the ultimatum was not met. Trimble’s rejection of the offer demonstrated that the Unionist objection to the Agreement goes far beyond the question of the IRA.
Matters such as this should form the staple of questioning of Unionists on RTE. But such matters are never raised: which is why Unionists just love being on RTE.

(Miriam O’Callaghan, questioning Gerry Kelly, showed she is no better informed on Irish history than on Unionist history. She said: “Today I spoke to somebody close to the Irish Government, who said it’s almost history repeating itself, that you are a semi-constitutional party, and that until you become totally constitutional these problems will arise”. The first semi-constitutional party was Fianna Fail, and it has been the backbone of the democratic system of the 26 Counties ever since 1932, and has hardly ever been out of government. The fully constitutional party seventy years ago was the Treaty Party, Fine Gael, which became Fascist in opposition to Fianna Fail democracy. (This matter is described on another page.)

We conclude with some extracts from the Vincent Browne Show on Radio Eireann. Gerry Adams was invited on the show to discuss the Nice Treaty but was questioned instead about the allegation made in a recent book by Ed Maloney that he was a member of the IRA. The questioning was such that the only response by Adams that would have satisfied Browne was that he should walk away from Republicanism, as Sean MacBride and Proinnseas De Rossa did, become self-righteous and leave the problem to fester—

Ah, Gerry On, Gerry On, Gerry On, Gerry On, Gerry On, Gerry On!——No, Stop!!!


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