Stepping Stone or Stumbling Block?

Today The Pensive Quill carries the first in a five part series of an article by guest writer Liam O Ruairc on Irish Republicanism and the Peace Process

by Liam O Ruairc

The peace process has been the major political development in Ireland in recent years. What is the ‘peace process’? According to the University of Ulster’s Conflict Archive On the Internet: "The Irish peace process, or peace process, is the term used to describe the series of attempts to achieve an end to the civil conflict and a political settlement for the differences that divide the community in Northern Ireland." (1)

A more accurate definition can be found in wikipedia: "The peace process, when discussing the history of Northern Ireland, is often considered to cover the events leading up to the 1994 Provisional Irish Republican Army ceasefire, the end of most of the violence of the Troubles, the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement, and subsequent political developments." (2)

According to Richard English, "the great change which made possible the Northern Ireland peace process was the new direction in which Provisional republican nationalism (sic) turned in the 1990s, easily the most significant change in Irish politics in the last decades of the twentieth century." (3)

What is the nature of this change and what have been the implications of the peace process for republicanism? Is it a new phase of the struggle, a progressive development which provides the transitional mechanisms for a united Ireland as Provisional Sinn Fein claims or does it represent a defeat for republicanism, the copper fastening of partition and the transformation of republicanism into constitutional nationalism?


The peace process involved a dramatic change in the relation of republicanism to constitutional nationalism. Constitutional nationalism is represented mainly by Fianna Fail, the largest political party in the 26 counties south of Ireland; and by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in the 6 counties of the North. Republicanism is usually associated with Sinn Fein and the Provisional republican movement.

Democracy is the central concept of republicanism. It holds that the people of Ireland have a right to self-determination as a unit without external impediment –all Ireland democracy. It rejects the British state’s interferrence in Irish affairs as a barrier to democracy and views this as the root cause of the conflict in Ireland. It argues that the state institutions of the 26 counties as much as the 6 counties retain their legitimacy by a denial and circumscription of political democracy. All-Ireland democracy is denied by those institutions.

Democracy is also central to constitutional nationalism, but it has a very different understanding of the concept. While it talks about the validity of self-determination as an aspiration it accepts existing constitutional parameters and recognises the legitimacy of state institutions north and south and will participate and work through them. It identifies democracy with constitutionalism whereas for republicanism there is a tension between the two.

One of the core differences between constitutional nationalism and republicanism’s understanding of democracy is that for constitutional nationalism there can be no changes in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority there. Unionists must be conciliated not coerced.

Republicanism does not disregard the issue of Unionist consent to political arrangements, where it differs from constitutional nationalism is that it refuses Unionist consent to be a prerequisite for constitutional change. While arguing that it is undesirable to coerce a ‘minority,’ republicanism contends that to give a guarantee to a ‘minority’ in advance against all coercion is to put a premium on unreasonableness and to make a settlement impossible. It will have no incentives to consider other political options so long as the British government gives it unconditional guarantees. The consent of a minority becomes transformed into a veto over the majority - unity by consent of a minority, partition by coercion of the majority. For republicanism to argue that partition is democratic because a majority in the 6 counties favours it ignores the fact that it is an artificial majority that was created by partition in the first place.

Given its acceptance of existing institutional and constitutional parameters, for constitutional nationalism political change can come only from within those and through constitutional means only. The only legitimate means to effect political change are the legal ones, "ballot box and ballot box alone". For constitutional nationalism, this distinguishes the ‘democrats’ from the ‘men of violence’. It repudiates what it regards as the illegal and illegitimate ‘violence of the IRA not because it is pacificst and anti-violence, but because it holds that the only legitimate ‘force’ is that of the state.

Given that republicanism questions the democratic legitimacy of state institutions it is not surprising that it refuses to limit its options to what the state regards as legitimate political activity, including challenging the state’s monopoly of force. It is not that republicanism disregards peaceful and constitutional methods, but it argues that history and experience show that physical force has evoked a response from the British state, whereas peaceful methods of protest tend to be greeted with indifference. If constitutional methods fail, it is prepared to envisage extra-constitutional means as a last resort to effect political change if there is no alternative. Republicanism and constitutional nationalism’s respective understanding of democracy shape their attitude to the use of force. For example, Gerry Adams described the Brighton bomb as "a blow for democracy" whereas constitutional nationalism saw it as an attack on democracy.

In terms of their understanding of democracy and and legitimacy and their relation to the state the opposition between republicanism and constitutional nationalism is sharp. However from the second half of the 1980s, the Provisionals proactively sought to bridge the incommensurable gap between republicanism and constitutional nationalism. According to Gerry Adams: "What is needed is a strategy to bring the greatest possible number of people into the process of struggle. Since at this stage the majority of nationalists look to constitutional nationalism for their political leadership, this requires placing pressure on constitutional politicians to take up and defend the interests of the people they claim to represent." (4)

This meant not just Fianna Fail, the Provisionals political "second cousins" (5) "even Fine Gael retains its Michael Collins tendency and sections of the Labour Party have an anti-imperialist instinct." (6) Shortly before, the Republican leadership had denounced this move as "disastrous, because from Fianna Fail and Fine Gael can only come a dilution of the nationalist aspiration, which could be further diluted under the pressure of Loyalist and British demands." (7)

The Republican view was "that the two parties merely constitute two different brands of Free Statism, both with the same pro-British and partitionist message." (8) Adams argued that the demand for self determination was "vigorously diluted and undermined by 'constitutional' nationalists." (9)
'There can be no such thing as an Irish nationalist accepting the loyalist veto and partition. You cannot claim to be an Irish nationalist if you consent to an internal six-county settlement and if you are willing to negotiate the state of Irish society with a foreign government.' (10)
This is why for republicanism the concept of constitutional nationalism "is a contradiction in terms" as it puts nationalism "within the framework of British constitutionality. Irish nationalism within British constitutionality is a contradiction in terms." (11)

In the North, the movement was also seeking to have a common approach with its main election and political rival, the SDLP. (12) Already during the electoral campaigns for the Assembly in 1982 and the General Election in 1983, the Provisionals while stressing the clearly defined hostility between Sinn Féin and the SDLP, were also making appeals for nationalist unity against the British government.

In 1983, Danny Morrison had urged discussions on how to "secure maximum nationalist successes" (13) and Sinn Fein called for an electoral pact with the SDLP during the 1983 Westminster elections. (14) In a BBC Radio interview with John Hume and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein President called for discussions on 'pan nationalist interests' between the two parties. (15) Whatever its criticism of the SDLP role in brokering the Anglo Irish Agreement, on 18 November 1985, Morrison stated that SF was willing to enter an electoral pact with SDLP and Adams was calling for what he termed "pan-nationalist unity". (16)

By tending to blur the distinction between the terms of nationalism and republicanism, the Provisionals were eliding a previously mutually irreconcilable hostility between constitutional nationalism and republicanism. This involved a gradual shift towards a shared ‘nationalist agenda’. If in 1981 the SDLP were castigated as ‘an amalgamation of middle class Redmondites devoid of principle, direction and courage’ (17) by 1988 Sinn Fein was stating that 'rather than denouncing the party, republicans should take a constructive approach with the SDLP'’ (18).

For that reason, between January and September 1988, representatives of Sinn Fein and the SDLP held a series of four meetings which at the time ended in disagreement. (19) "A simple but fundamental point that few paid attention at the time was that Sinn Fein wanted to cooperate with the SDLP and the Irish government" (20) rather than oppose them as previously. This could only but seriously weaken republicanism’s anti-partitionist thrust, as those elements have always been much more hostile to the IRA than to British involvement in Ireland.


By the early 1990s the Provisional movement was explicitely envisaging a strategic alliance with constitutional nationalism as the way forward. This alliance has been a central feature of the peace process. Sinn Fein, in its own words, was searching for "an effective unarmed constitutional strategy". (21) Central to the new strategy (outlined in the 1992 Sinn Fein document Towards a Lasting Peace and the 1994 Provisional IRA TUAS document) was the idea that the pan nationalist alliance of the Irish government, Sinn Fein, and the SDLP could pressurize the British government in a diplomatic offensive to 'persuade' the Unionists that their interest was in a united Ireland.

The Provisionals spent a long time in the early 1990s building that pan nationalist coalition through secret talks with Fianna Fail and the Irish government, and through open discussions with the SDLP, in particular the Hume-Adams initiatives of 1993. When the Provisional movement finally succeeded to build an alliance with those other political forces, it was not on its own terms: for this 'national consensus' to be possible, it had to accept considerable sections of the SDLP and Fianna Fail's constitutional nationalist agenda.

The emphasis was no longer on the traditional objective of an end to British rule, but upon its recognition that 'the Irish people as a whole have a right to self-determination' . While in appearance being in continuity with traditional republican demand, the concept represented a shift in position, because the constitutional nationalist understanding of self-determination allows for a degree of ambiguity around the means of exercising that right.

For example this means that if a majority of people in Ireland as a whole decide that there will be no united Ireland until a majority of people in the North decide to, that constitutes national self-determination rather than a partitionist compromise. Consequently, the Provisional movement now stated that the exercise of self determination was a matter for agreement between the people of Ireland. This signaled a profound change.

The 23 April 1993 Hume Adams statement contained the following two crucial sentences:
'The exercise of self-determination is a matter for agreement between the people of Ireland. It is the search for that agreement and the means of achieving it on which we will be concentrating.' (22)
Never before had the republican movement stated publicly that there had to be agreement on the exercise of self-determination. That meant that any accomodation had to be based on terms acceptable to the Unionist community. It meant that the unionist community had a veto over whatever was to happen. In other words, it was the Unionist veto rewritten. The Provisional movement now recognised that the consent and allegiance of Unionists are essential if a lasting peace is to be established. While still arguing that the unionist veto must go, they were "seeking to obtain the consent of a majority of people in the North" (23).

However, the difficulty with this is that the unionist right to consent is precisely what republicans have always claimed constituted that veto: unity by consent of the majority of the North of Ireland was nothing more than a partitionist fudge.

Last but not least, the Provisional revised its analysis of the British presence. Rather than being seen as the cause of the problem it was now seen as part of the solution, the British government now given a neutral if not a positive role by "joining the ranks of the persuaders" and convincing the Unionists that their future lies in a united Ireland. The Provisional Movement’s new strategy as outlined in Towards a Lasting Peace "marked in black and white the huge sea change that had taken place in republican thinking", the document "was important not only for what it said but for what it did not say. Gone was the colonial and imperialist analysis and even more fundamental, gone was the traditional demand for British withdrawal": "In 1972, the IRA have the British three years to leave; in 1987 Sinn Fein had extended it to the lifetime of one parliament, or five years. By 1992, not only was there no deadline (…) but Sinn Fein acknowledged there was a role for Britain to play in Ireland." (24)

Thus it is not the Dublin government and the SDLP that had come to the Republican position, but rather the Provisional movement which had moved to the constitutional nationalist position that Irish self determination would have to be achieved with the consent of the people of the North. When the 1994 IRA internal document TUAS argued that "for the first time in twenty-five years all the major nationalist parties are rowing in roughly the same direction" this was true; only one of those parties, Sinn Fein, had altered course. (25)

On top of that, "Fianna Fail was rowing away from its claim to Northern Ireland, and the SDLP was formulating explicit approval of the principle of unionist consent, neither of which could be interpreted as republican advancement." (26) This "effectively marks the ideological defeat of Provisional Republicanism…and the beginning of its absorption into the wider spectrum of constitutional nationalism." (27) Republicanism had become subsumed within a partitionist nationalist project. The price of the inclusion of Republicans in the pan nationalist alliance was the exclusion of Republicanism.

Parallel to this, the objective of a 32 county socialist republic was given a very ‘ultimate’ nature. A very important departure from previous positions was that the Provisionals now stated that "the British government’s departure must be preceded by a sustained period of peace and will arise out of negotiations" (28).

In 1993, Martin McGuiness signaled this major compromise on the objective of 'Brits Out' when at Bodenstown, he spoke about 'interim arrangements', implying that armed struggle might end short of British withdrawal.(29) Those interim arrangements would provide a transition (duration unspecified) into the ultimate objective. Later, in early 1995, Gerry Adams spoke of a 'transitional phase' in which there must be 'maximum democracy', 'equality of treatment' and 'parity of esteem'.(30) Those statements signalled that the Provisional leadership would inevitably attempt to sell any future political agreement as transitional, while ignoring the absence of any concrete transitional mechanisms for democratic political change, thus representing a de facto recognition of British rule in Ireland.


(1) CAIN, The Irish Peace Process – Summary,
(3) Richard English, Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland, London : Macmillan, 2006, 404
(4) Gerry Adams, A Pathway To Peace, Cork and Dublin: Mercier, 1988, 62
(5) Gerry Adams, The Politics of Irish Freedom, Dingle: Brandon, 1986, 48
(6) Gerry Adams, A Pathway To Peace, Cork and Dublin: Mercier, 1988, 37
(7) Fighters Against the British presence, An Phoblacht-Republican News, 7 April 1983
(8) Different brands of Free Statism-Same Message, An Phoblacht-Republican News, 21 March 1981
(9) London-Dublin Accord: What Next? An Phoblacht-Republican News 12 December 1985
(10) The Summit's Depths, An Phoblacht-Republican News, 22 November 1984
(11) Gerry Adams, The Politics of Irish Freedom, Dingle: Brandon, 1986, 112
(12) Gerry Adams, A Pathway To Peace, Cork and Dublin: Mercier, 1988, 73
(13) An Phoblacht-Republican News , 28 April 1983
(14) Gerard Murray and Jonathan Tonge, Sinn Fein and the SDLP From Alienation to Participation, London: Hurst & Company, 2005, 124, 164
(15) BBC, Behind The Headlines, 31 January 1985
(16) An Phoblacht-Republican News , 21 Nov 1985
(17) Why We Ended the Hunger Strikes, An Phoblacht-Republican News, 10 Oct 1981
(18) Broadening the Base, An Phoblacht-Republican News, 30 June 1988
(19) Sinn Fein-SDLP Talks, Belfast: Republican Publications, 1988
(20) Brian Feeney, Sinn Fein: A Hundred Turbulent Years, Dublin: The O Brien Press, 2002, pp.356-357
(21) Quoted in Brian Feeney, Sinn Fein: A Hundred Turbulent Years, Dublin: The O Brien Press, 2002, 380
(22) Joint Statements from Gerry Adams and John Hume, An Phoblacht-Republican News, 30 September 1993
(23) Towards A Lasting Peace, 12
(24) Brian Feeney, Sinn Fein: A Hundred Turbulent Years, Dublin: The O Brien Press, 2002, 378
(25) Gerard Murray and Jonathan Tonge, Sinn Fein and the SDLP From Alienation to Participation, London: Hurst & Company, 2005, 188. Also note that President Clinton wrote that US intelligence services informed him that Adams was willing to call the armed campaign off, and for that reason gave him a visa on order to "boost Adams’ leverage within Sinn Fein and the IRA…while increasing American influence with him." So it is clearly not the Provisionals who were influencing the White House as they claimed, but the White House using Adams to fit the Provisional movement within the framework of US strategic interests. Cfr. Bill Clinton, My Life, London : London : Random House, 2004, 580
(26) Jonathan Tonge, Nationalist Convergence? in: Aaron Edwards and Stephen Bloomer, Transforming the Peace Process in Northern Ireland: From terrorism to democratic politics, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2008, 65
(27) Jack Holland, Hope Against History: The course of conflict in Northern Ireland, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999, 247
(28) It is our job to develop the struggle for freedom-Bodenstown Address, An Phoblacht-Republican News, 5 June 1992
(29) There will be no turning back, An Phoblacht-Republican News, 24 June 1993
(30) Peace means justice – Justice demands freedom, An Phoblacht-Republican News, 2 March 1995


  1. "No Irish nationalist could support any treaty which institutionalizes British government claims to a part of Irish national territory. Indeed, the term - 'constitutional nationalism'- used by Mr.Mallon (SDLP) and his colleagues to describe their political philosophy is a contradiction in terms. The only constitutional nationalist in Ireland today is Sean McBride. He puts his nationalism within a framework of Irish constitutionality. Mr. Mallon, however, puts his within the framework of British constitutionality. Irish nationalism within British constitutionality is a contradiction in terms."
    - Gerry Adams, 1986

    ("The Politics of Irish Freedom", Gerry Adams, Brandon Book Publishers, Ltd., Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland 1986, page 112, lines 26-35.

    NOTE: REMOVED FROM 1995 and1996 EDITIONS).

  2. Here is an interesting article I lost and recently found again. The part about funding rings very true especially in view of PSF's swing towards Anglicisation, The UK City of Culture and all that!!

    I must get round to reading the book...

  3. Liam, I don't think the Provisionals changed direction in the 1990's I think they done a complete u-turn.

    A fag paper could not seperate the so called political and ideological differences between Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

    They (Sinn Fein) are constitutional nationalists in everything but name.

    They are perfectly at ease working within the institutional and constitutional structures.
    The events of last week could seriously weaken many academic arguments, that Sinn Fein remain tentative about upholding the power of the state.
    They had no problem voicing their belief, that the power of the state is the ultimate and the only legitimate power when it comes to the use of violence.

    In many ways they have surpassed the SDLP, as few SDLP representatives ever presented themselves as both moral guardians and PSNI chaperones.

    They, (Sinn Fein) have allowed the republican struggle to be neatly packaged as a few years of sectarian strife.
    Of course they will say the Brits are part of the solution, the Brits had to look the other way as a down payment for that one.

    Constitutional Sinn Fein have to sell this process as a 'Stepping Stone'they have no choice. Alternative republicans take a very different view, they perceive it as a 'Stumbling Block'

  4. my first notice of what would grow into the peace process was around 1987, GERRY ADAMS was on the news talking about a new SINN FEIN document,back then i did not think that it would grow into such a monster, i can remember putting up those blue, freedom, justice and peace posters around the neck of the woods where i live.

    i think that it was michael collins who coined the phrase stepping stone, a lot of good it done him,

    i see that the movement is criticised for asking for a electorial pact in the 80s with the stoops, thats politics, specially if you know that the s.d.l.p will keep saying no, not there fault, just something in their genes, and i am not talking about levi,
    the stoop leaders hate SINN FEIN, and i mean hate, you play with that,no point in huffing, mould them, use there hate.

    to get to a certain point, all things were said to all players, 26 county, 6 county and the brits, all players thought that the movement was just talking to themselves, bless their socks.
    but the only words that would matter are those that IRISH people voted yes to in 1998, the good friday agreement was voted yes by the majority of people in the 32 counties,

    fianna fail was rowing away from its claim of the six counties,
    not exactly, the 26 county claim was got rid of in 1998, in the good friday agreement, and were replaced with the new 32 county articles 2 and 3, page 4 in agreement,
    i personally had a problem with those who wanted to keep the old 26 county partionist claim, just me again, being picky.

  5. While not preempting the rest of your excellent article Liam,I,d be of the opinion that the GFA/BA will be a Berlin style wall around any future attempts at a united Ireland,why would psf want to become a minor player in an all parliment when they can be the big kahuna here.and we may yet see psf becoming an even more unionst party when FF and FG start taking part in the politics of the sick counties.

  6. We are in danger of going over this until we are 'green' in the face. Provo leadership sold out 800 yrs of history and any Republican principles in order to become a Nationalist conformist and populist political party within the UK. "period".
    The peace process became the focal point for every part of the political system to concentrate upon in order to destry the IRA and secure peace within the UK. The Provo leadership signed up to all that for no more than a seat or two at Stormont and the oportunity to lick the DUP hemaroids clean when required. Might we move on to something more interesting???

  7. Liam,

    first chance I have had to read this and as usual it is consistent with your well documented arguments. The democratic end of things interests me and I was wondering about your views on a nation's insistence on obligatory nationalism which rules out any dissent from the nation. If democracy is not about dissent then how democratic can it be?

  8. AM:

    I see a tension between Republicanism and Nationalism. Republicanism is the product of the 18th century, modernity and Enlightenment whereas the nation is an invention of the 19th century. It is the democratic element which distinguishes Republicanism from Nationalism. Republicanism is based on the "people" (demos), nationalism on the "nation" (ethnos). Republicanism is based on "citizenship" whereas nationalism on "nationality". If dissent is central to democracy it logically has to be central to republicanism. However the same cannot be automatically said of nationalism. If nationalism is not necessary democratic, dissent will not be necessarily part of it.

  9. Liam,

    I realise that about the tension. What interests me is the degree to which a nationalist demand – that there can be no dissent from the nation in that the nation is obligatory for all it lays claim to – like obligatory nationalism can be incorporated into republicanism.

    I see a tension between Republicanism and Nationalism. Republicanism is
    the product of the 18th century, modernity and Enlightenment whereas
    the nation is an invention of the 19th century. It is the democratic
    element which distinguishes Republicanism from Nationalism.
    Republicanism is based on the "people" (demos), nationalism on
    the "nation" (ethnos). Republicanism is based on "citizenship" whereas
    nationalism on "nationality". If dissent is central to democracy it
    logically has to be central to republicanism. However the same cannot be automatically said of nationalism. If nationalism is not necessary democratic, dissent will not be necessarily part of it.