Who Won and Who Lost Politically

Guest writer,  Liam O Ruairc with a speech he delivered at the 'Nordirland: Einblicke in die linke republikanische Bewegung' conference in Hamburg, 30 May 2014. Liam O Ruairc is a former co-editor of The Blanket.  The German version can be found here

This year marks twenty years since the 31 August 1994 IRA ceasefire and sixteen years since the 10 April 1998 Belfast Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland, if we are to believe the media.


To sum up, these three points are what parties signed up to politically on 10 April 1998 :

First British sovereignty over Northern Ireland remains intact

Second, historical adversaries in Northern Ireland agree to share power in a local Assembly

Third six cross border bodies between north and south of the island are set up to recognise the ‘Irish dimension’[i].

The first and most important question is who won and who lost here ?

The first time the IRA entered into negotiations with the British government during the 1968-1998 conflict was when on 7 July 1972, when an IRA delegation -including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness who later participated in the negotiations leading to the 1998 Agreement- was flown over to London to discuss with the British government. The three central political demands of Irish Republicans-Sinn Fein and the IRA-were :

First a British declaration of intent to withdraw from Northern Ireland within five years.

Second an all-Ireland constituent Assembly to democratically determine the future of the island.

Third the release of all persons imprisoned as a result of the conflict[ii].

But the British state’s alternative to the political demands of Irish republicanism in 1972/1973 were already the following three points :

First British sovereignty over Northern Ireland remains intact

Second, historical adversaries in Northern Ireland agree to share power in a local Assembly

Third six cross border bodies between north and south of the island are set up to recognise the ‘Irish dimension’[iii].

Based on that it is clear that the conflict has been settled on what were the British government’s terms and that Sinn Fein now accepts as way forward what had been the British state’s political alternative to republicanism since 1972. Therefore Sinn Fein was unable to‘republicanise’ the peace process, rather the peace process was a means of ‘de-republicanising’ Sinn Fein. It was ideologically wrong and tactically stupid.

The peace process and the 1998 Agreement may have included republicans, however they excluded the political objectives of republicanism. As early as 1999, senior Sinn Fein member Francie Molloy was forced to concede that his party 'are really prepared to administer British rule in Ireland for the foreseeable future. The very principle of partition is accepted[iv].'

The 1998 Agreement appears as even more of a defeat for republicanism if compared with the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973-1974. Twenty five years before the Belfast Agreement a deal had been reached where the British state conceded a local power sharing Assembly in Northern Ireland with various cross border institutions. There was nothing in the 1998 Belfast Agreement which had not been on offer twenty five years earlier, as the parameters were the same. This is why Northern Irish politician Seamus Mallon nick-named the 1998 Agreement‘Sunningdale for slow-learners’[v]. Another Irish politician named Austin Currie wrote that from a republican or nationalist view Sunningdale was a better offer than the Agreement twenty five years later[vi].

Republicans–including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness- had rejected the Sunningdale Agreement[vii]. If Republicans were right to accept the Belfast Agreement ; then why did they reject the Sunningdale Agreement which was better deal for them, and if they were right to reject Sunningdale why did they accept the 1998 Agreement which offered less than twenty five years earlier? It raises the question why so many people had to die, suffer and go to prison in the twenty five years between 1973 and 1998, and for what…

Republicans who support the political line of Sinn Fein say the 1998 Agreement is not a strategic failure but a new phase of the struggle. This sounds a bit like this general who is supposed to have said ‘we’re not retreating, we are simply advancing in another direction’. As we will see later, the Belfast Agreement does not allow a transition to a free Ireland, but rather the full transition of Sinn Fein into the British administration.


I have so far argued that the peace process and the 1998 Belfast Agreement represent a political defeat for Irish republicanism and a victory for those who want to maintain the British connexion. However a curious feature that many observers notice is that those that won politically (Unionists) think that they have lost, whereas those who lost politically (republicans and nationalists) believe that they have won. Indeed, on 25 June 1999, British Prime Minister Tony Blair noted that pro-British unionists « are too stupid to realise that they have won and Sinn Fein too clever to admit they have lost »[viii]. As Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff argued: “The paradox was that it was much harder to sell the Agreement to the unionists than to nationalists and republicans. In many ways, republicans had had to concede more. After all, if they accepted the principle of consent, that it was for the people of Northern Ireland to decide their future, what had the armed campaign and the suffering been for?”[ix]

The peace process and 1998 Belfast Agreement have a double logic. On the one hand they reinforce the Union with the United Kingdom, but on the other had the British state through a number of reforms created significant social mobility amongst the nationalist and republican population resulting in the formation of a new nationalist republican bourgeoisie – like the ANC created a black bourgeoisie in South Africa. The new nationalist bourgeoisie and republican middle class are the clear winners of the peace process in social and economic terms.

The richest part of Belfast, the Malone Road now has a nationalist majority, and the majority of customers for private jets came from that community, which made one commentator pertinently ask : « What did Bobby Sands kill himself anyway ? Was it so that his fellow northern Catholics could own jets ? Drive BMWs ?[x] » In 2001, only two of the 20 most affluent areas in Northern Ireland had a nationalist majority, by 2011 six of them had[xi]. As Paul Bew noted, this has lead to a shift in the nationalist population from a mood of ‘rage’ to one of ‘vanity’[xii]. When asked whether the nationalist middle class has been the real beneficiary of the republican armed struggle, veteran republican Brendan Hughes answered: “Well, it has not been republicans –apart from those republicans eager to join that class.[xiii]

Broadly speaking, the nationalist population has seen substantial improvement in its material conditions, and has a feeling of being dynamic and on the move[xiv]. One of the most striking facts is that the average hourly wage for nationalists and republicans (£9.44 per hour) is now higher than that of pro-British unionists (£9.11 per hour)[xv]. Nationalists are today much more comfortable and less alienated from state institutions in Northern Ireland. In contrast, if thanks to the 1998 Agreement the Union with the United Kingdom has been reinforced, living conditions for pro-British unionists have deteriorated. If universities and institutions of higher education now have a republican and nationalist majority, 13 out of the 15 areas with the worst academic and school results are in pro-British unionist areas. It is estimated that a person coming from a poor republican or nationalist background will have one chance out of five to go to university whereas someone from a unionist background one chance out of ten[xvi]. Traditional sources of employment of the pro-British population such as shipbuilding also evaporated due to de-industrialisation and other tendencies. Manufacturing jobs where pro-British unionists were heavily represented have gone down by 26.5 per cent since 1998[xvii]. Today 24% of protestants in the 16 to 24 years aged group are unemployed compared to 17% for catholics[xviii].

So they have the feeling of having lost, whereas the nationalist population’s quality of life gets better which makes them think they have won. Back in 2001, the then British Secretary of state for Northern Ireland underlined« Protestant alienation » and warned of the danger that Northern Ireland could become « a cold house for protestants »[xix].This decline does not push the pro-British elements politically to the left but rather to the far right, blaming their problems on immigrants and republicans. According to police statistics pro-British groups are behind the vast majority of racist attacks in the north. Despite all the talk about the 'progressive' role of loyalist 'ex-combatants' in 'conflict transformation', they  essentially remain “a lumpen narco-bourgeoisie with a parasitic relationship to the communities in which they operate[xx]”.

What has been described just above has been used by Sinn Fein to disguise its defeat as some sort of victory. Historically, nationalists and republicans were second class citizens in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein argues that republicans have won the war because nationalists and republicans are now equal citizens. However, this is a totally revisionist account. If one looks at historical evidence the war was for national liberation and a democratic socialist republic, to end British rule in the north and not a war for equal rights for nationalists under British rule in Northern Ireland[xxi].


Sinn Fein is now a partner in government in Northern Ireland. In class terms, it represents the interests of the new nationalist bourgeoisie. According to Tony Catney, the party’s former head of electoral strategy, Sinn Fein attracts « new Catholic money…largely apolitical but nationalistic in its aspirations[xxii] ». Since it aimed to be in government, it had to pressurise the IRA into decommissioning its entire arsenal and recognise that the British state had the monopoly of legitimate force.

On 28 July 2005, that the Provisional IRA formally issued a statement, declaring that its war was over. Why was that statement issued? There is a fundamental contradiction between accepting the legitimacy of a state, of its laws and institutions, and armed insurrectionary politics dedicated to overthrow them. One cannot accept that the state has the monopoly of legitimate force and at the same time have links to an illegal army refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the government and ready to kill its servants. There is no chance that government parties would ever consider having Sinn Fein in government as long as the party retain links to an illegal organisation carrying unlawful activities. That is why sooner or later the Provisionals would have to issue such a statement.

Consequently, the statement confirmed the Provisional IRA leadership’s intent to complete the destruction of its arsenal. In October 2001, it began the destruction of its stock of weaponry; and in September 2005 it completed the process. The political significance of decommissioning is crucial. It showed that the Provisional IRA war was truly over -an army does not destroy its weapons if it is to fight a war. It was an act of surrender. There has never been a situation in the world where an ‘undefeated army’ has willingly and unilaterally handed over its weapons to its enemy. It also elevates to a higher moral plateau British state weaponry. "Basically republicans are being told that the weapons used by Francis Hughes, the deceased hunger striker, to kill a member of the British SAS death squad are contaminated in a manner which the weapons used to slaughter the innocent of Bloody Sunday and the victims of shoot-to-kill are not[xxiii]".

Logically, once the Provisionals agreed not to oppose the armed forces of the state, they would have to explicitly accept the state’s monopoly of armed force and agree to observe its laws. In practice, this means supporting the police forces that they had been fighting for more than three decades. There was a contradiction with the fact that while the party was prepared to administer British rule, it refused to accept British policing structures in the north. The party cannot have Ministers making the laws and at the same time refusing to endorse the forces in charge of implementing them. This was an absurd and illogical political position. One either rejects the legitimacy of a state or accepts it. One cannot reject the legitimacy of one arm of the state and accept the legitimacy of another.

Thus on 28 January 2007, a Sinn Fein special conference made a decision to support the PSNI and the criminal justice system and actively encourage everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the police services in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the criminal justice institutions. The result is that Sinn Fein now defends the PSNI, prison service and implicitly the British army and calls for more repression against those republicans who want to continue the struggle[xxiv]. What has happened over the 16 years since the Belfast Agreement prove that it does not allow a transition to a free Ireland, but rather the full transition of Sinn Fein into the British administration.


In 1986, denying that the current leadership of the IRA and Sinn Fein 'are intent on edging the republican movement on to a constitutional path', Martin McGuiness then declared: 'I can give a commitment on behalf of the leadership that we have absolutely no intention of going to Westminster or Stormont. (...) Our position is clear and it will never, never, never change. The war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved. (...) We will lead you to the Republic[xxv].' Eight years later, in 1994, the‘war against British rule’ was over, and five years after that, in 1999 Martin McGuinness was a British Minister of Education in the Stormont assembly of which he now is deputy first minister. A key question is explaining what lies behind the transformation of the movement, from anti-systemic force to part of the system it was pledged to destroy.

Many republicans opposed to the peace process and the 1998 Belfast Agreement have unfortunately simplistic explanations. According to the ‘traitors thesis’, it is because Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were British agents or corruptible individuals. This is unsatisfactory –it is like explaining Perestroika by claiming that Gorbachev was a CIA agent. According to the ‘no alternatives thesis’, it is because the IRA’s armed struggle was in a really bad state at the beginning of the 1990s. If in 1972 for example it had killed 128 soldiers, in 1992 it was only four. There was a peace process, and republicans decided to give it a chance, and if it doesn’t work they could always go back to war. But they found themselves in a situation where going back to war was unsustainable in practice (1996-7 campaign) and if they pursued that path they would lose everything they had invested in this process, so they got stuck with the peace process as the only option. But this does not explain why they came to actively embrace the system they opposed.

To adequately explain the transformation of the movement from anti-systemic force to part of the British establishment, a materialist explanation centred on the objective and subjective contradictions of the movement is required. The objective contradictions are located in the ambiguous relation between Sinn Fein and the state. On the one hand the IRA aimed to destroy the state but on the other Sinn Fein was intent to make it work (ie getting more social housing, unemployment benefits etc) Its relation to the state was not revolutionary but clientelistic. The state is seen as a source of oppression (ie British soldiers) but also as source of income (ie more social security) Objective clientelistic relations laid the basis for a process of institutionalisation and upon which they later integrated the state as British ministers[xxvi]. Thus it is not a matter of individual betrayal or sell-out, but of the existence of a social layer whose objective interests within existing social relations of production lead them towards accommodation with the status quo.

It is interesting to note that in 1988 a ‘communist republican’analysis written by IRA prisoners gave an impressive depiction of the ambiguous but real nature of Sinn Fein’s bedrock of support : « In Northern Ireland, a section of the Catholic population views republicanism as a threat to hold over the heads of British authorities in lieu of improvements in social conditions…Where long-term unemployment is endemic, there is a tendency to view the state as a source of income rather than an organ of control…this tends to produce a section of society with more of the characteristics of the old Roman plebs. In a modern context this leads to reformist demands for increased state benefits and improved leisure facilities. Support for republicanism therefore can be analysed as a means of forcing concessions from a mean government. When these concessions are achieved, there is a noticeable cooling in republican ardour[xxvii].”

This material basis for the development of reformism is also reinforced by a number of subjective contradictions in the political line, chiefly by a confusion between principles and tactics. To justify their changes of policy the Sinn Fein leadership was forced to redescribe principles as tactics. With every principle redescribed as a tactic, there were soon no principles left. This opens the door to opportunism. Opportunism was itself re-packaged as‘pragmatism’,by another set of confusions -between short term interests (say better living conditions for nationalists and republicans in the north through British funding) and long term objectives (the end of British rule). The majority of members of Sinn Fein and the IRA followed Gerry Adams and McGuinness because they were more loyal to the movement than to the principles of the movement. This is the republican version of the social-democrat maxim‘the movement is everything, the principles nothing’.


An important thing which is ofter forgotten is that the peace process is not just a political phenomenon, but also has an economic aspect. According to the government, ‘peace process’ plus neo-liberalism equals prosperity and will generate economic ‘peace dividends’.The peace process goes hand in hand with the neo-liberal reconstruction of Northern Ireland[xxviii]. The photograph of former IRA commander and Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness with the pro-British unionist Ian Paisley opening the Nasdaq stock market in Wall Street on 5 December 2007 illustrates the idea that the ‘invisible hand’of the market has the power to reconcile historic enemies. Also a photograph of the same two people opening the first IKEA store in Northern Ireland on 13 December 2007 shows that what really matters now is no longer British or Irish sovereignty but the sovereignty of the consumer.

However peace process and neo-liberalism have not altered the fact that Northern Ireland remains a failed economic entity. The region is dependent upon British financial subsidies. The British government spends £5850 per year for every person living in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s fiscal deficit is 38.3 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), whereas the UK average is 12%. To take an international example, Greece’s fiscal deficit stood at 13.6 per cent of its GDP in 2010 whereas in Northern Ireland it stood at 32 per cent that year.

Economically, Northern Ireland is characterised by:

Low productivity – it is 82.8% of the UK average and the lowest of all UK regions

Low wages – wages stand at 88% of the UK average and are the lowest of all UK regions

Economic inactivity rate of 27.2% - significantly above the UK average of 22.2%

Living standards below UK average[xxix]

Public spending represents over 70% of Northern Ireland’s GDP – OECD countries average is about 28%. Over 30% of the workforce directly works for the public sector. Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK where wages are higher than they are in the private sector –public sector wages are on average 41.5 percent higher than those in the private sector; and private sector wages are the lowest of the UK, 82.8% of the UK average[xxx]. The capitalist class in Northern Ireland is a ‘micro-group’ as under one percent of the population there lives of investments, half the UK average[xxxi].

In a 2011 report, the Northern Ireland Assembly's Research and Library Service studied deprivation and social disadvantage since 1998. It found little evidence of 'peace dividend' and that the gap between the well-off and the disadvantaged ‘persisted and in some cases increased since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement’. Of the 56 wards ranked as the most deprived ten percent in 2001, the researchers found that only 14 areas had climbed out of deprivation by last year. In some cases this had been achieved only because of boundary changes[xxxii]. Even The Wall Street Journal notes that: ‘In the decade following the official end of‘the Troubles,’ levels of poverty in both communities has not been reduced. Any peace dividend Northern Ireland received has failed to reach those that most needed to see economic improvement. Indeed, working class communities, which were heavily subsidised by the British state during the Troubles, have actually seen their economic position decline in recent years[xxxiii].’

What about the workers movement and the left? Will the lack of peace dividend enable them to build up support? Over two hundred thousand people are members of a trade union, but class politics are absent and the left is largely irrelevant. The trade union movement ultimately defend the sectional interests of public sector workers rather than the interests of the class as a whole. The class is atomised and politically invisible. The main left parties campaigning are the Socialist Party (the sister organisation of SAV in Germany) and the People Before Profit (the sister organisation of Linksruk-Marx21) plus a couple of individual anarchists. Their election results are dismal (they have one councillor out of 462) and influence marginal. A concrete example of this was the G8 summit that took place last year in Northern Ireland. It was the most peaceful and ordered G8 summit in history. The only two arrests made by the police during the G8 were unrelated to any protest action. The very concept of politically ‘left-wing’ or‘right-wing’ remain very marginal. In a major opinion survey in Northern Ireland in March this year, only 25% of respondents were able to describe their political views as either left wing or right wing. And 34% said they didn’t know how to categorise their views in these terms or able to characterise the policies of the different political parties in those terms[xxxiv].

Most economic analysts, such as the Pricewater-House-Coopers’ Economic Outlook, believe that economic conditions in Northern Ireland are more likely to get worse than to get better. Will worsening economic conditions affect the peace process? Leading Irish politician Michael McDowell predicted last year that the peace process will survive the economic downturn on both sides of the border. Politics in the north could become more divisive in the absence of economic progress, but he said he didn’t believe there was a fundamental risk that it would slip back into conflict[xxxv]. This raises the important question of the political effects of the economic crisis. There is no automatic connection between an economic and a political crisis. There is an economic crisis, but it has not yet reached the stage of an organic crisis – where the very legitimacy of the system itself is questioned. Instead, in the north the crisis has led to calls to lower corporation taxes. There was a substantial one day strike on 30 November 2011 over public sector pensions but it seems to have had little political effects. Such protests remain limited to 'economic-corporate' interests and are unconnected to the question of winning political power and the transformation of the state. All this can leave one sceptical about the prospects for working class politics in the current climate.


The peace process and 1998 Belfast Agreement have given central importance to victims of the conflict and to the notion of victimhood. Political actors now mainly define themselves as‘victims’ or representatives of groups of victims and politics is often reduced to victims competition. But as the psychoanalyst Jacqueline Rose has put it in  'A Life in Writing', The Guardian, 3 February 2012, “Victimhood is something that happens but when you turn it into an identity you're psychically and politically finished.i

This is particularly true if one takes into account the fact that the peace process has gone hand in hand with a process of de-politicisation. With the peace process, the conflict has been fundamentally redefined. Previously the conflict was clearly understood as a political conflict between two opposite political ideologies –republicanism and unionism, the question was who was ultimately sovereign, the British state or the people of Ireland as a whole. The peace process has fundamentally altered this: the conflict is now redefined not as a political dispute between two opposite political ideologies but as a cultural clash between two different cultural identities. According to this new paradigm, the reason why there has been a conflict in Northern Ireland is because the Irish cultural identity was not respected and people thought the British cultural identity was under threat. The solution is to show 'respect' to all identities and cultures[xxxvi]. However, the parameters of the conflict between republicanism and unionism were never about British identity versus Irish identity but between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke.

The fact that politics has been sublimated into culture explains the shift from the material to the symbolic. All political parties now accept the legitimacy of Britsh rule and of neo-liberal policies so they have to differ on mainly symbolic issues. The conflict is now no longer about who should rule (British government or Irish people, which class etc) but how many days the British flag should be displayed, whether Derry should be called Londonderry, or if there should be an Irish Language Act. Northern Ireland has gone from the politics of imperialism versus anti-imperialism to the narcissism of small differences. Republicanism was never about particularistic ethnic demands but universalistic claims, so the new politics of Sinn Fein are essentially identity politics[xxxvii]. The peace process is not about conflict resolution or conflict transformation, but rather about 'conflict management' of different identities. From a progressive point of view as Edward Said puts it: “There’s so much factionalism, so much sectarianism, so much petty squabbling over definitions and identities that people have lost sight of the important goal, as Aimé Césaire described it, the rendezvous of victory, where all peoples in search of freedom and emancipation and enlightenment gather[xxxviii].”

The peace process and 1998 Belfast Agreement have given central importance to victims of the conflict and to the notion of victimhood. Political actors now mainly define themselves as‘victims’ or representatives of groups of victims and politics is often reduced to victims competition. Closely connected to victims culture, is what Frank Furedi referred to as 'therapy culture'. Issues like Bloody Sunday were previously understood through the prism of repression and national liberation struggle. Today conflict management is about therapy for victims, which de-historicizes and depoliticizes the conflict . Related to this is the issue of inquiry culture and compensation culture. Before nationalists and republicans were demanding the British state to withdraw, whereas today they are demanding more inquiries from that very same state in order to get material compensation. All this points to a very weakened sense of agency and diminished political expectations.

The issue of the past is also another morbid symptom. A society’s relation to its past cannot be divorced to its relation to its present and its future. The problem is that Northern Ireland is uncomfortable with its present and its future, so politics is about the moral management of the past or using it as a blanket comfort rather than preparing for power in the future.


If the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is a settled issue for the foreseeable future and the war is over, what about minority oppositional republican currents who reject the 1998 Agreement? They are very fragmented: there currently are at least five different political groups and four separate armed organisations, not to mention independent republicans not aligned to any of these groups. While some of them have been set up on real political principles, others have only come about because of personal networks and localistic ties. Their attitude to socialism ranges from hostility to explicit support. The media has concentrated on the organisations intending to continue the armed struggle, even if not all republicans opposed to the Belfast Agreement support armed actions in the current circumstances. These four separate armed organisations have carried out a total of 39 operations in 2010, 26 in 2011, 24 in 2012, and 30 in 2013. Over the past eighteen months they have failed to kill a single member of the British army, police or prison service. As Ciaran MacLochlainn, the former commander of RIRA prisoners in Maghaberry put it: « What presently exists is something between an illusion of war and an aspiration to wage war, but there is no war.[xxxix]” Much of the public activity of those groups revolves around building support for what they call their ‘prisoners of war’. The prison population in Northern Ireland last year stood at 1862 inmates, and fewer than 40 of those were republican prisoners, which helps explain general public apathy to their plight. It is worth noting though that Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of prison population in the Britain and Ireland for non-payment of debts – ‘social’ prisoners today massively outnumber ‘political’ prisoners. But in terms of ‘social’ issues those groups tend to concentrate in vigilante type activity against people accused of being drug dealers or involved in anti-social behaviour.

There are small localised pockets of support for these groups, but overall they remain marginal. Objectively and subjectively, it remains very much a problem of ‘republicanism in one street’. In the local elections last week one group campaigned under a ‘Reclaim YOUR Community’ banner which can illustrate their political horizon. Another party campaigned under a reactionary ‘Buy Local’ and ‘Buy Irish’ platform. “Think local, shop local so that we can have a community we can be proud of. How many people living in rural Ireland drive by their local shops, stores and industries and drive inside the city boundaries to do their shopping, forgetting that by doing this they may save a few Euro, but they too are contributing to the destruction of the ecosystem that keeps rural Ireland going?"[xl] With their emphasis upon ‘small is beautiful’ ideology, their anti-capitalism is essentially the resentment of the corner shop against the supermarket.

The central problem for socialist republicanism and oppositional currents is the long term decline of a political space. It is useful to draw an analogy with what happened in the 26 counties in the south of Ireland which became the Republic of Ireland.

The southern Irish state was a product of civil war, so when it was set up in 1922, there still remained significant opposition to state institutions from a significant proportion of the population. Therefore, there existed some real political space to build up an oppositional movement. What happened next is that a section of the republicans who lost the civil war formed a political party called Fianna Fail with the aim of destroying the state from within once they would get into power. But once they became the ruling party, they of course became part and parcel of the very system they intended to destroy. However, in the process Fianna Fail managed to pass a number of reforms which satisfied an increasing proportion of the population. The consequence of those reforms is that state institutions became more and more legitimate in the eyes of a population who had previously been alienated from them. Therefore the political space to build an oppositional movement instead of increasing became more and more narrow. Republican, socialist and oppositional movements became more and more marginal. The result is that today among the 949 local authorities seats in the 26 counties south of the border, just one is occupied by oppositional republican councilor.

The same process has happened in Northern Ireland but on a faster time scale. Northern Ireland state institutions were perceived to be pro-British and nationalists and republicans felt like second-class citizens and were therefore alienated from the state. Sinn Fein supported the 1998 Agreement and went into the northern state with the intent to destroy it from within. As we have seen Sinn Fein has become part and parcel of the very institutions it was pledged to destroy. However in the process they have been able to introduce legislation and reforms which drastically improved the position of nationalists within the northern state. The result is that nationalists and republicans feel increasingly comfortable within the northern state and its institutions are becoming more and more legitimate in their eyes. Not only is there little appetite for war among the republican population but the political space for an alternative project is becoming more and more restricted. Today, just 4 out of 462 council seats belong to alternative republican councillors. In 1988 an IRA spokesperson told a journalist“repression we can survive, reforms we cannot[xli]”.So-called dissidents face the same fundamental problem, and in difference to the past, British rule in Ireland today relies much more on the ‘soft power’ of the state (ie government funding for the community sector and benevolent ‘conflict transformation’ and ‘healing through remembering’ therapeutic type initiatives) than its ‘hard power’ (repressive state apparatus), the British state putting much more emphasis upon consent rather than coercion – only the most stupid of republicans or socialists believe that state power is built on coercion and special bodies of armed men alone.

This is not a problem unique to Ireland. In no European country has a communist movement been able to break the hegemony of social democracy over the working class. Reformist strategies and the sufficient legitimacy the system has been able to gain have been able to curtail the political space open to radical currents to such an extent that it is difficult to see them being able to make any breakthrough.


The peace process was fundamentally about the reconstruction of bourgeois rule in Northern Ireland, not within the context of the British Empire but within the context of the European Union[xlii]. For Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, the peace process was about the “demobilisation, deradicalisation and demilitarisation” of anti-imperialist forces “and it has done all three”[xliii]. This is why it is more accurate to speak of a ‘pacification process’ rather than a ‘peace process’. Opposition to the peace process does not mean that one is for a return to conflict and armed struggle. Some of the most trenchant republican critics of the Belfast Agreement state that it is the ‘process’ they are against, not the ‘peace’[xliv]. Their fundamental objection against the peace process is not that it has taken the gun out of Irish politics but that it has taken radical politics out of Irish republicanism.

Northern Ireland is not insular and follows global trends. The peace process is part of the worldwide crisis of actually existing national liberation movements (ANC, PLO, Sandinistas etc) and collapse of actually existing socialism. The change in the international balance of forces after the collapse of the soviet bloc put national liberation projects in a position of weakness and forced them to accept unfavourable deals. In the same way that the Republican Movement was associated with the rise of anti-imperialist movements, its evolution also reflects their decline. The peace process and the 1998 Agreement are the Irish equivalent of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis[xlv].

The peace process is a symptom of a thermidorian age which has witnessed the collapse of historical forces and transformative projects. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, dialectic is at a standstill. But to the pessimism of the ‘lost cause’ and the resignation of the vanquished, Edward W. Said opposes “the individual intellectual vocation, which is neither disabled by a paralysed sense of political defeat nor impelled by groundless optimism and illusory hope. Consciousness of the possibility of resistance can reside only in the individual will that is fortified by intellectual rigor and an unabated conviction in the need to begin again, with no guarantees except, as Adorno says, the confidence of even the loneliest and most impotent thought that ‘what has been cogently thought must be thought in some other place and by other people’. In this way thinking might perhaps acquire and express the momentum of the general, thereby blunting the anguish and despondency of the lost cause, which its enemies have tried to induce. We might well ask from this perspective if any lost cause can ever really be lost[xlvi].”

Thank You.





[i]               See : Austen Morgan, The Belfast Agreement : A Practical Legal Analysis, London : The Belfast Press, 2000
[ii]               For the IRA’s demands see Hansard 840 (10 July 1972), col. 1179-1180 ; Sean MacStiofain, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Edinburgh : Gordon Cremonesi, 1975, 282 ; Daithi O’Conaill, Three Basic War Aims, Republican News, 5 August 1978
[iii]              Cfr. Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, London : Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 18 July 1973 ; Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals, London : Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 20 March 1973, Cmnd.5259 ; The Future of Northern Ireland : A Paper for Discussion, Belfast : Northern Ireland Office, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 30 0ctober 1972
[iv]          Liam Clarke and Michael Jones, Trimble shows more flexibility over IRA Arms, The Sunday Times, 28 March 1999
[v]               Party faithful look on Mallon as the heavyweight puncher who will leave political opponents bloodied, The Irish Times, 2 April 1997
[vi]              Austin Currie, All Hell Will Break Loose, Dublin : O Brien Press, 2004, 431-435
[vii]             For example : Gerry Adams, The Politics of Irish Freedom, Dingle : Brandon, 1986, 110
[viii]             Alastair Campbell, The Irish Diaries, Dublin : The Lilliput Press, 2013, 212
[ix]              Jonathan Powell, Great Hatred, Little Room : Making Peace in Northern Ireland, London : The Bodley Head, 2008, 109
[x]               Jim Cusack, Who’s got the bling here – Catholics or Protestants ? The Belfast Telegraph, 18 June 2008
[xi]              Paul Nolan, Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report Number Two, Belfast : Community Relations Council, 2013, 93
[xii]             Paul Bew, The Making and Remaking of the Good Friday Agreement, Dublin : The Liffey Press, 2007, 71
[xiii]             A Dark View of the Peace Process, Fourthwrite, Issue 1, Spring 2000
[xiv]             Research shows Catholics gained more from NI peace process than Protestants, The Belfast Telegraph, 31 March 2008
[xv]             Paul Nolan, Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report Number One, Belfast : Community Relations Council, 2012, 9
[xvi]             Ibid, 105
[xvii]            Clare Weir, Shopping costs soar since 1998 Agreement was signed, The Belfast Telegraph, 11 April 2014
[xviii]           Paul Nolan, Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report Number Three, Belfast : Community Relations Council, 2014, 13
[xix]             Reid warning over alienation, BBC website, 21 November 2001
[xx]             Daniel Finn, Ireland On the Turn? New Left Review January-February 2011
[xxi]             See : Henry McDonald, Gunsmoke and Mirrors : How Sinn Féin Dressed Up Defeat As Victory, Dublin : Gill&Macmillan, 2009 for a polemic against this thesis
[xxii]            Tony Catney, Sinn Féin’s Electoral Growth, Fourthwrite, Issue 2, Summer 2000
[xxiii]           Anthony McIntyre, Another victory for unionism, The Sunday Tribune, 4 July 1999
[xxiv]           Adrian Rutherford and Deborah McAleese, Dissident attacks prompt calls for special PSNI unit, The Belfast Telegraph, 10 March 2010
[xxv]            The Politics of Revolution : The maiin speeches and debates from the 1986 Sinn Fein Ard-Fheis including the presidential address of Gerry Adams, Dublin, 1986, 26-27
[xxvi]           Kevin Bean, The New Politics of Sinn Féin, Liverpool :Liverpool University Press, 2007 for the best analysis
[xxvii]           Quoted in : Henry Patterson, The Politics of Illusion : Republicanism and Socialism in Modern Ireland, London : Hutchinson Radius, 1989, 207-208
[xxviii]          See : Confederation of British Industry Northern Ireland, Peace-A Challenging New Era, Belfast :CBINI, 1994 ; The Portland Trust, Economics in Peacemaking : Lessons from Northern Ireland, London : The Portland Trust, 2007
[xxix]           Source of all those figures : Paul Nolan, Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report Number Three, Belfast : Community Relations Council, 2014, 20-21
[xxx]            Paul Nolan (2013), 26-27
[xxxi]           Paul Nolan (2014), 71
[xxxii]           Diana Rusk, Quality of life in north’s deprived areas worsens, The Irish News, 24 March 2011
[xxxiii]          Neill Lochery, There May Be Trouble Ahead in Northern Ireland, The Wall Street Journal, 14 September 2011
[xxxiv]          Rebecca Black, We’re far more interested in the economy than politics, but most don’t trust Stormont to handle it, The Belfast Telegraph, 7 March 2014
[xxxv]           Paul Cullen, Peace process will survive despite downturn, says McDowell, The Irish Times, 25 February 2012
[xxxvi]          Chris Gilligan, The Irish question and the concept of 'identity' in the 1980s, Nations and Nationalism 13(4), 2007, pp.599-61
[xxxvii]         Kevin Bean (2007), op.cit.
[xxxviii]         David Barsamian and Edward W.Said, Culture and Resistance : Conversations with Edward W..Said, Cambridge, Mass. : South End Press, 2003, 190
[xxxix]          Barry McCaffrey, RIRA ‘war’ must end says senior dissident, The Irish News, 14 October 2005
[xl]              Vote NO 1 For Republican Sinn Féin Candidates on May 23, Saoirse, April 2014
[xli]             Quoted in leader column of Fortnight, September 1988
[xlii]             John Newsinger, The Reconstruction of Bourgeois Order In Northern Ireland, The Monthly Review, June 1998
[xliii]            R. Sotscheck, Interview with Bernadette McAliskey, 6 April 1999, in D.Schulze Marmeling, H-C Oeser, J. Rademacher, J. Schneider (Hg), Irland Almanach 1-Krieg und Frieden, Munster : Unrast Verlag, 1999
[xliv]            For example : Anthony McIntyre, The war may be over, but violence still lingers on, The Scotsman, 3 November 2000
[xlv]             Arthur Aughey, Fukuyama, the End of History and the Irish Question, Irish Studies in International Affairs, 9, 1998, 85-92
[xlvi]            Edward W. Said, On Lost Causes, in : Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 2000, 553


  1. Liam,
    A very informative and educational piece. I would agree with the idea that the Movement and its personality cult dominates rather than the ideals or principles of Irish Republicanism. That much is very clear today. And because of this, we played the British political game and therefore we played by their rules with the result that we lost and we still do.
    During the recent elections I read reports and election banners from the various parties opposed to SF and they all focused on local issues which you drew out attention too, if they, the localised political parties, rise to the surface and are deemed a threat, can all be easily appeased. We need to step out of the game and stop playing altogether. The British have very successfully stepped back from it all and have equally successfully portrayed the war as two communities at silly loggerheads. How do we achieve ending the game is difficult to determine but to focus on ‘class war’ is so 19th / 20th century...people don’t get ‘class’ anymore. So how do we do it? I think that the focus should be on the immediate disease, Britain’s presence here, and not on the broken sewer pipe spreading the disease – Unionism. Focus on Britain and ignore Unionism as something of a separate entity from Britain, simply ignore them...I don’t think anyone has ever tried that. Why do we need to include Unionism in any settlement? Deal with them as ‘the British’ and the two communities at silly loggerheads idea flounders.

    But the question that needs asking is why did we play their game?

    McGuinness once alluded to a bus traveling to Dublin and how it would be stopping along the way to let people off and take people on.....how did it end up in London? Oh, I know it is too simple to label the betrayal as committed by touts but in order for Britain to have achieved this betrayal they needed their ‘people’ on the inside to steer the bus to where they wanted it to go.

  2. Great read. Agreed. Westminster 1919. Sure it will be one of the milestones in the All Ireland Project, work than one out, without thinking of "doublespeak".

    It is being thrown about quite often now in the media, a little like Tom hartley "flying political kites and opinion" back in the day.

  3. This article was good but depressing reading for me. My hope is to see a United Ireland in my lifetime. And for me, that would be the priority..I know people on here are left wing etc..But I would happily live under any political spectrum, once it was a 32 County Ireland, free from Brit rule.
    To that end , I had a few ideas about how that might be made possible by some very devious political, although peaceful means.This would involve non-violence but they would be seen by many people as dis tasteful but I believe the end would justify the means.
    Basically, it involves using the predjuices of Unionism against itself.these have been given vent by Peter Robinson recently. But have been always there.
    If I am allowed to,. and If anyone is interested, I would flesh this out further.

  4. Niall & Ozzy,

    ideas like those alluded to in your respective comments would make for useful opinion pieces if either or both of you want to flesh them out for the blog

  5. Wonderful piece, with many a thought provoking point..

    Shows how time and history do ebb and flow.

    To the early part of the piece, political winners and losers. Followed by a delve, into the rise of economic capital. A rise for those the author deems the political losers.

    I read it once, and then again, and again. It is a world turned upside down. Civil Rights infiltrated by IRA ? Reverse.

    And since no one is allowed to talk straight, a ramp up. The institutionalized silence rings on..

  6. Am
    Would love too. Will get back to you on this.

  7. @ Am thanx.

    My idea is simple one really.
    Certain boundary changes in the councils in da North make this possible.

    Basically..I thought about Judo and how in that sport you use the opponents own weight against him.
    To that end We know, in particular of the older Unionist section, that they dislike certain religions and races.
    So, as in Judo, this is the Weight we use against them.
    Now, my case history would be Brixton in London..In the 1960's and 1970's This experienced White Flight..When the English "Alf Garnets" type refused to live next door to immigrants.
    So, Could we have an Orange flight..In places like Coleraine and Belfast, where these councils are in Nationalist hands.
    Syria , is having a horrible civil war..David Cameron the "Uk" Prime minister says So called "UK" should take in more refugees.
    What better place to house them than in Unionist areas?
    Sit back and watch Orange flight a la Brixton.
    This would work because A) Nationalist areas are short of housing whereas Loyalist areas have empty properties.
    The only Cavet is..Would it be wise to start in Coleraine as these people would only move East of the Bann..And We need them a lot further East than that. And whilst that would cement control in the Derry area this is NOT enough.
    So, this needs serious working out, of the kind that I would not be able to do..If would require a greater knowledge of who controls what etc.
    Secondly it would require real strategic thinking.Would you limit this policy to East of the Bann...Or would you carry it out in Belfast and Coleraine at the same time?
    Secondly, Who would put their name to this plan..They would draw some serious flack, when it came out.
    I am thinking it can be sold as British Policy about doing more to take in refugees from Syria,...A pure humaitarian gesture..This is the Optics.
    The Belfast Telegraph is producing so many polls in order to prevent this Orange flight from occuring...I think this would accelerate it.
    Not exactly tasteful..But then neither is "Alf Garnet".

  8. Syria , is having a horrible civil war..David Cameron the "Uk" Prime minister says So called "UK" should take in more refugees. What better place to house them than in Unionist areas?

    Or simply house nationalists who need re housed in vacant houses in unionist areas. That way the vote has a better chance of going to a nationalist/republican...

  9. Ozzy

    'Would it be wise to start in Coleraine as these people would only move East of the Bann..And We need them a lot further East than that'.

    That gave me a great laugh. Cheers for that. If Syrian refugees moved into loyalist areas they'd better bring some guns from Syria with them. Ironic as it is, 'planters' who instantly develop serious speech impediments if asked to say they are Irish are attacking 'foreigners' who move into their neighbourhoods. Yet they insist upon marching through Catholic Irish areas as a cultural right and tradition.

    The ugliness of DUP thinking was embarrassing to the party because it manifested the pure hatred of Catholics here in a racist form which the public in the UK could understand. They were seen for what they are and the UK people, whilst having border issues do not like racism in general.

  10. Great piece, covers so much ground. In truth a lot of it is uncomfortable to read. The section on normalisation was brilliant and this is something we need to be examining. In my view an electoral strategy will not end partition because as Larry has been keen to point out to me several times over the past few weeks it takes on its own dynamic and results in the system swallowing you up

  11. Anthony,

    I will be sending you an opinion piece in response to this article by Liam O'Ruaric.


  12. Niall,

    we have withheld your comment on the basis that you may have submitted it as an article as we suggested earlier. Do you want it to feature as an article? Send me your email address to the comments here (it won't be published) as I no longer have it and I will get back to you.