Chuckle Ar La

Looking back at the first year of the Paisley government, a post-mortem of sorts on the Republican Movement, or a lament, maybe, written for Irish Review.

The Volunteers
Can kiss my ass
I’m big Paisley’s man
At last

Even writing about the Zzzzzz thing demands powers of endurance rarely called upon at the worst of times, including during the arduous H-Block blanket protest. The lack of interest generated by the Northern Irish political class can be gauged through the prism of journalistic redundancy. One of the most insightful commentators on the conflict, Liam Clarke of the Sunday Times, has recently found his formidable skills surplus to requirement. London yawning.

The long running bore saga may continue to strut its wears but will attract the same attention as a sixty something New York hooker, visited only by those who are puzzled as to why she is still on the streets. In their view, no longer a sexy item, the allure lies solely in her past.

With eminent journalists like Liam Clarke or Ed Moloney effectively off the scene, the peace process now gets the scribes it deserves. Jim Gibney will serve it just fine. His vocal insistence on avoiding clarity will find a suitable home in the misty landscape of peace process climes.

Curiosity about the shenanigans that pass for politics in the North will not become altogether extinct. What role journalism can play - being news driven it is focussed on the here and now - remains to be seen. Academia may assume the leading role. As a history subject the peace process shall retain value. A chair, perhaps, in some European or American university may yet be found, the incumbent duly known as Professor of Boreology.

When the Protestant fundamentalist Ian Paisley and his deputy, Derry Catholic Martin McGuinness, took office on May 8, my thoughts were not of them but of the eight IRA volunteers who on the same date twenty years earlier had given their lives in a British ambush at Loughall in opposition to the British rule that was now being blessed by this unholy alliance. There is a view in some circles that the SAS mounted their wipe out as a means to extirpate those likely to pose a challenge to the emergence of the peace process, plans for which were under way at the time of the state sanctioned killings. Fewer days in the republican calendar are more inappropriate for the ordaining of the Paisley-McGuinness aberration.

As for the two central characters my only interest was the human one - how they would behave towards each other. So much for the internal executive battle a day promised by Gerry Adams and Peter Robinson. More like a chuckle a day. It is their penchant for idiotically grinning at each other that has earned them the somewhat derisory label the ‘Chuckle brothers.’

In the months that have elapsed since the May 8 inauguration my view of proceedings has changed little. It is tempting to see it all as a theocratic freak show with the leading roles going to Frankenstein and Igor. As in the old Hammer production there is never any doubt about who is in charge. Why McGuinness should appear so thrilled to be cast in the role of Frankenstein’s servant is the unfathomable conundrum that many ponder in the diminishing amount of moments they devote to unravelling the mysteries of the peace process.

The first task in any unravelling exercise is unpicking the Sinn Fein sleight of hand which has brought matters to this point. As republicanism was being shunted to the scrapheap the equality agenda was slipped in and fallaciously termed republican. But how shallow even that has proven to be. The deferential demeanour of McGuinness toward Paisley accentuates his deputy status. For all the shouting of no return to second-class citizenship crown minister McGuinness has settled ably into his second-class ministerial portfolio. Paisley jubilantly proclaims how he will not shake his deputy’s hand. McGuinness accepts it as would a slave who exudes no sense of self-consciousness in kneeling down to kiss his chains. Hardly a psychological fillip to nationalist sensibilities.

So undisputed has the Paisley command of the First and Deputy First Minister’s Office been, the term ‘Paisley government’ is an apt one to describe the executive. It is with no intellectual discomfort that Paisley can be referred to as a British government minister. Considerable cerebral contortions have to be performed before Martin McGuinness can be looked upon as an Irish government minister. So far none have come to the vaulting horse to give it a try.

For all the talk of major shifts within nationalism the central themes of two decades ago still prevail. The ideas of the SDLP – power sharing and cross border bodies - constitute the dominant nationalist discourse. Those concepts are just being expressed by different faces. The SDLP argument has won the day, Sinn Fein merely the vessel in which the message is now carried.

When the SDLP and Sinn Fein engaged in exploratory talks early in 1988, what the Hume led party said then is, give or take an inflexion or two, what Sinn Fein is saying today. And what Sinn Fein said then has become the discourse of those dissident republicans so reviled by the current Adams entourage. Small wonder that Sinn Fein’s current resistance to British rule carries with it all the vigour of Hume and Fitt’s opposition.

At best all that has been achieved by the Provisional movement is a return to the early last century Joe Devlin position of accepting partition on a temporary basis. Given that this is as good as it gets there is some indication that within the leadership there is an unspoken acknowledgement that the armed struggle should have ended in 1974. Hence, one of the main leaders pretends to have left the IRA around that period while another is flabbergasted that the taoiseach would suggest he was ever a member of it at any time. Neither can justify having signed off on the travesty they breathed life into through the wholly unnecessary and failed long war strategy.

It would be easy but dishonest to assert that a republican strategic alternative to the long war might have provided a solution. Even had the leadership not become power obsessed republicanism was never the answer to partition. It had neither the force to compel unionists to submit to a united Ireland nor the moral authority to persuade them. Writing in 1954 on the very question of the divided country John V. Kelleher suggested that a political problem is rarely solved by those who ‘tend to see it as it first existed and not as time and society continually refashion it … the history of the problem is nearly irrelevant to its solution.…’

The republican project is now caricature. A quaint Kafkaesque production where those who died to make it stage worthy do not come back to take the encore at the end. That is reserved for those who sent them to their deaths in the full knowledge that the ground they were dying to take had long since been traded in. From tiochaidh ar la to chuckle ar la the republican odyssey has been one of abject failure, marked at every step of the way by the graves of the innocent and republican activists.

For sure republicanism has been defeated before. But never in its long history has it been hollowed out as it is today. How the republican project which began as Brits out and ended as Paisley in will fascinate generations to come.

Former IRA hunger striker Laurence McKeown once posed a very pertinent question to the criminal killers of Robert McCartney. Calling on them to do the honourable thing and admit to their part in the murder of the Short Strand father of two, he asked if being part of the movement was more important for them than the objectives of the movement. This in turn begs the probe of why McKeown’s provocative question was so restricted in terms of whom it was addressed to. It could just as easily have been put to anyone still in the Provisionals. How can any republican remain associated with what is so blatantly the antithesis of republicanism? Does belonging have more currency than achieving?

In the heartlands the failure is at least registering. In Ballymurphy, where Sinn Fein lorded it up while sucking the vote out of those it treated little better than serfs, complaints from people expressed in a recent academic study suggest that the party has delivered very little in return. Constituents in the Adams stomping ground now claim to be worse off than they were during the years of violent conflict. An ominous indictment of the harbingers of the new dispensation.

Ultimately, the denouement of the republican struggle has demonstrated that under the sun there is nothing new. Elements like the current Sinn Fein leadership have always corroded revolutionary initiatives. Eric Hobsbawm in his magisterial history made the following point about the phenomenon. ‘Moreover having gained power by the efforts of the radicals – for who else fought on the barricades? – they immediately betrayed them.’

As the theocratic leader of Northern Ireland might say – Amen.

First published in Irish Review: Special Issue on Belfast Agreement, March 2008.


  1. Great piece and spot on Anthony.. Thank you for sharing.

    I honestly don't see this government lasting much longer. I am amazed at the bitterness and animosity that the Unionists hold against the Nationalists. It's going to take a long time for them to get over it.

    In the meantime..fromall I read..this group hasn't accomplished much for the lower income people. Either in policing or trying to make more jobs.

    I know it must be a lonely road..but keep on .Have a great day..

  2. in derry so called republicans are calling for taxi price fixing. shame on them for treating the working classes, that they were once part of, this way