The Freedom 2016 Club

Speech at launch of Ed Moloney's latest book, Paisley.

Scanning across the internet flyer advertising tonight’s discussion I felt a sense of déjà vu. In it was a question I could have asked many years ago. Where I didn’t ask the question it was because I felt I knew the answer. And in seeking to broaden upon that answer in the early days I persuaded few but did manage to lengthen the already dour faces of the lemon sucking population.

Why did Irish republicans, having prosecuted a decades-long campaign against partition and the existence of Northern Ireland, ultimately accept a place in a Northern Irish power-sharing government as de facto Ministers of the British Crown? In fact it is a question that states as much as it asks. Leading Sinn Fein members are truly ministers of the British crown and their attempts at denying it are as weighty in their powers of persuasiveness as similar denials of IRA membership.

Some years ago any such allusion to Sinn Fein serving as micro ministers for the British state would have nominated the ill-fated audacious enough to suggest it as unfit for serious intellectual companionship. The social gulag, a fitting terminus for any miscreant in the grip of such heretical notions where in the company of other inhabitants of the cerebral archipelago we could amuse ourselves by writing articles about Sinn Fein wall murals of the future dedicated to none other than Padraig Paisley. As a slogan ‘Connolly, Pearse and Paisley’ might flow pretty well - just like non-alcoholic beer. But there remains something not quite right about either.

Today, the truism that Sinn Fein leaders are ministers of the British crown is the commonsense discourse of the conversing classes. The true believer, securely but hardly safely corralled into the self-referential and intellectually challenged world of the peace process, alone dissenting from the obvious.

Sinn Fein, the sole members of the Freedom 2016 lonely club, now profess to believe that a united Ireland is only eight years away. Fewer in number, head so burrowed up their own fundament that they can’t smell the other crap they are duly fed, their adherents still harbour the intoxicated opinion that the war was, in the words of Joe Cahill, really won. But then let us be careful not to blaspheme. St Joe after all is, according to one documentary, the patron saint of the peace process. Who are we mere mortals to question the divine? Still, strange, that one of the secularly sinful, the ungodly Newton Emerson, on Joe’s passing, should note that the late IRA chief of staff was survived by his wife and … one million Protestants. Emerson’s quip was as sharp as it was barbed. The consent principle, the bane of republicans who challenged it with the coercion principle , for long the sole fulcrum on which the British presence in Ireland hinged, as manifested in the wishes of those million Protestants, has triumphed over the existence and purpose of the IRA. Apart from the one Protestant the nationalist writer Jude Collins knows who favours a united Ireland, the million continue to support the union with Britain. The IRA now embraces the consent principle, the only thing seriously sustaining that union and which legitimises in the absolute the British presence in Ireland.

Still, an orb takes a long time settling in to the land of the flat earthers, the evolutionary adaptability of the eye to its surroundings being a slow and often torturous process. It is not a peculiarly republican malaise as is evidenced by the strange belief elsewhere that our entire world is a mere 6000 years old and was created 1000 years after glue was invented by the Sumerians.

In that type of inverted Newtonian universe where apples shoot upwards the moment they fall from trees, IRA decommissioning did not in fact happen, and Hugh Orde and Ian Paisley stood poised to lead the nationalist multitudes over the orange hill and into the bright green fields of a united Ireland that would also be socialist. On one issue alone have they been wrong – Peter Robinson will now lead them to Irish unity. He is younger, has more energy and will therefore get them there even quicker. Michael Ignatieff seemingly got it all wrong when he said of cynics like myself: they have a healthy awareness of the gulf between what people practice and what they preach.

The origins of the Provisional IRA explain much about their leaders’ acceptance of their lot as British micro ministers in a Paisley led government. Although much has been made of the republicanism of the Provisional IRA it was in fact more Provisional than republican. The Provisionals were much less the unbroken thread of republican tradition stretching back to 1798 than they were a conjunctural response to post 1969 British state strategies. Whatever their ideological moments, many of which were intense such as 1981 when the H-Block hunger strikers died with such courage that the then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher felt moved to comment on it, the Provisionals were in essence the cutting edge of an insurrection against not the British presence per se but against the manner in which that presence conducted itself. The Provisionals did not mushroom into a mass movement because the British were in Ireland. They did so in response to British behaviour while in Ireland.

The strategic logic of this was simple if anyone astute enough existed within the British establishment to take cognisance of it. Britain did not have to withdraw from Ireland in order to take the wind out of the Provisionals sails. They merely had to change the terms on which they stayed.

For long British state strategy was predicated on securing the defeat of Provisional republicanism through the application of strategies of exclusion and marginalisation. Republicans and republicanism were regarded as an indivisible ensemble that had to be excluded in its entirety from both the discourse and projects that were functioning to shape an eventual solution to the range of problems that plagued the North. At a certain point in the latter half of the 1980s some element of British strategic intelligence questioned the indivisibility of republicans and republicanism and began to prise an opening. From that point on British strategy moved from the old realist model of behaving like a billiard ball that endlessly knocked the Provisional IRA from one end of the strategic table to the other while in turn being relentlessly cannoned itself. And in its place it opted for the more pluralist model of creating cobwebs. It reached into the Provisionals, simultaneously pulling threads to it and knotting others less pliable. By the early 1990s strategy was clear.

The defeat of Provisional republicanism would be secured by the twin strategic prongs of excluding republicanism but including republicans. The British establishment identified who it needed from within the ranks of Provisional republicanism to work with. Above all else the British moved to secure the continued hegemony of the Adams leadership. Trimble could fall but not Adams. Today republicans, if they may still be termed such, are on the inside but sans all republican tenets which now seem to belong exclusively to the outsiders - dissident republicans.

The British state has emerged as the conflict’s one clear winner. Over the course of its strategic success it certainly ceded a lot of credibility in terms of government ministers and civil servants. They seemed publicly at any rate to buy into the bollix that Sinn Fein stipulated as being indispensable to the party leadership’s strategy of deception employed against its own grassroots. And so Downing Street became the engine room for the endless processing which has characterised the northern Irish political landscape for more than a decade and needlessly prolonged instability.

Nevertheless, for all the meandering of rivers they invariably reach the sea. The British got there. In assisting the Sinn Fein leadership bring about the demise of the Provisional IRA as a serious anti-British entity the British government ceded not one key tenet. The border is still here, as is partition, and the Unionist veto, whereby those who favour the union with Britain can ensure its continuity so long as they command the numbers to do so. Northern Ireland’s British police force is supported by the party who previously gave unambiguous support to the killing and bombing of its members. There is an Irish dimension but this was allowed for by the Tories as far back as October 1972 when it struck some of them that an Irish dimension would be a valuable asset in prosecuting the war against the Provisional IRA. Intellectually, the British state perspective that the dispute was primarily one that could be analysed through the prism of an internal conflict model has prevailed and is manifest in the outcome we have today. Who now remembers the Provisional assertions that British imperialism was keeping the country divided for its own malign reasons? As surely as the Provisional movement has been locked into the structures of the British state of Northern Ireland the very act of locking them in has unlocked the British state from the accusation that its role in the ring was something other than referee.

The North of Ireland today is a site of political parsimony rather than generosity. Consequently we have a power splitting rather than a power sharing executive. The two dominant parties are led by a theocrat and an autocrat respectively. Their mutual interest in pursuing their own separate totalitarianisms within a state system that protects them both from political opposition begs the question of how great now the democratic deficit within Northern Irish society.

Ian Paisley has now pledged to resign. His long history of broken pledges will not alter the outcome of this particular promise. Catholics rejoice - Sinn Fein will not now nominate him as pope.

London, 17 March 2008


  1. Mr. McIntyre - given that you studied and published your dissertation at the Queens University Belfast, not UCD, UCG or UCC, although I know that with Karen McElrath, the republican infiltration has begun, you really must be careful not to be hypocritical.

    I have never found Robin Livingstone (his name and background fascinate me so) to be anything less than pro-nationalist, with little but contempt for Unionists.

    Also, who is "the one Protestant" who is pro-Irish unity? Ivor Bell, Donovan McClelland, Jennifer Johnston and Billy Leonard (not a Catholic yet, but probably some day, given wife and kids a la James Pearse or Lillie Connolly or Mabel McConville Fitzgerald) are all alive and that adds up four. (Is Suzanne Bunting a Proddy?; if so that makes five.)

  2. Did someone put you up to posting this on April the 1st?