One hundred and three years ago this Easter a courageous band of Irish Volunteers set in motion a train of events they hoped would lead to the full measure of Irish freedom. Their aims and objectives were set out in a stirring Proclamation which called for the establishment of a government of National unity based upon the republican principles of popular sovereignty and democracy. It outlined the republican position that Irish constitutional authority resided exclusively within the Irish people. That, ‘the unfettered control of Irish destinies’ must be ‘sovereign and indefeasible’. And it confirmed the republican tradition of good government being constituted in the interests of the public welfare guaranteeing, ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities’ to all citizens and declaring its resolve, ‘to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts.’ It positioned national unity and democracy as core values calling for a ‘National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland, and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women...’ It declared its intention to forge a national unity that would end British divide and rule strategies by remaining determinedly, ‘…oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.” Every Irishman who signed that Proclamation was executed by the British.
In December 1918 the Irish people in the 32-Counties voted overwhelming for a Sinn Féin manifesto that endorsed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The manifesto declared that, ‘the right of a nation to sovereign independence rests upon immutable natural law and cannot be made the subject of a compromise’. Britain responded with the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which partitioned Ireland and formally legislated for the fact that the British government rejected the concept of majority all Ireland opinion. Britain made it clear that the principle of consent did not exist for the Irish nation as a whole and the only principle they would recognise was the Unionist veto in the Six-Counties. The 1918 General Election was the last time the British government would permit the national will to be tested in an Ireland comprising one political unit.
After years of injustice and witnessing Civil Rights marchers being beaten off the streets by British State forces IRA volunteers in the North picked up the gun that IRA volunteers in the South had dropped before the job was finished.
As we stand on the cusp of Britain placing a second border in Ireland republicans across the country will be taking stock and re-examining how we got where we are and how we get to where we need to be.
The holy grail of the British conquest of Ireland has always been about achieving democratic title to its authority. As early as 1799 Undersecretary Edward Cooke wrote to the British Prime Minister William Pitt regarding concerns about Irish MPs swamping the House of Commons should the Act of Union be approved:
By giving the Irish a hundred members in an Assembly of six hundred and fifty they will be impotent to operate upon that Assembly, but it will be invested with Irish assent to its authority.
Nationalists could always be found who would work through British law to implement British strategy. Nurturing a loyal nationalist leadership has been a major strategic objective for the British government since the Act of Union. Britain began by shaping the leadership of nationalist Ireland’s most important institution the Catholic church. It permitted Maynooth seminary to be established in 1795 in order to prevent priests travelling to the continent and becoming exposed to democratic and republican ideas. All students and staff pledged loyalty to the British Crown and took an oath which declared:
…I will do my utmost endeavour to disclose and make known to his Majesty, and his heirs, all treasons and traitorous conspiracies, which may be formed against him or them….
Richard Lalor Shiel addressing the House of Commons on the occasion of the Maynooth Grant of 1845 said:
…Are not lectures at Maynooth cheaper than State prosecutions? Are not professors less costly than Crown solicitors? Is not a large standing army and a great constabulary force more expensive than the moral police force with which by the priesthood of Ireland you can be thriftily and efficaciously supplied?
By the 1860s British strategy had paid off. The Irish Hierarchy recognised the British government as the only lawful and legitimate authority in Ireland and welcomed the advantages of Empire.
Also emerging in power and status was a rising Catholic class of professionals and large farmers who wanted their slice of the pie and cared little whether it was baked in an Irish or British oven. Many in this class had done well out of the famine. They wanted managerial control of a state administration even if it amounted to nothing more than a regional assembly within the United Kingdom.
The degree to which Britain succeeded in nurturing a loyal nationalist opposition can be seen in the Irish Parliamentary Party’s policy of harnessing Ireland to England’s war chariot in 1914 and John Redmond’s description of the 1916 rising as treason against the Irish people.
Sinn Fein have joined the SDLP as inheritors of this legacy. Both parties fuel the Redmondite renaissance in the Six Counties which internalises British constitutional constraints and conditions on Irish freedom. More than that, they have rewritten and redefined the very concept of unity.
The principal difference between Nationalists and Republicans can be summed up in the nationalist concept of ‘sharing this island’ and the republican concept of ‘uniting our country’.
‘Sharing this island’ means finding agreement between nationalists and unionists on a ‘New Ireland’ whose institutions would be predicated on all the old divisions. Uniting our country means building a national coalition of citizens who are politically Irish whatever their provenance or creed.
In ‘sharing this island’ we are being asked to share in the colonial legacy of British imperialism. Most Nationalists believe that British interference ends with the winning of a nationalist majority in a border poll. That is not true.
The Good Friday Agreement is based on the principle that the model of Ireland as one nation is a discredited concept and ensures Britain continues to sabotage our national cohesion even after a nationalist electoral majority is reached in the Six-Counties.
Section 1, subsection VI, of the GFA states the parties to the agreement:
…recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.
In a nutshell, an Irish citizen born in any of the six north-eastern counties in a future united Ireland can be considered a British national. This is a consequence of the dis-united Ireland envisioned by the Good Friday Agreement as opposed to the united Ireland of the Republic declared in 1916 and nationally mandated in 1918. The British-Irish agreement, which gives legal force to the all-party agreement, is an internationally recognised treaty between London and Dublin that Ireland will never forge a united national citizenship. This is what Gerry Adams was referring to when he said in 2015 that a United Ireland, “may not be the one traditionally envisaged over the years” and that there would be Orange parades in a United Ireland.
He went on to say, “We need to be able to consider transitional arrangements which could mean continued devolution to Belfast within an all-island structure.”
Neither Sinn Fein, nor any party to the agreement, will be considering transitional arrangements. These arrangements were already decided upon over twenty years ago between London and Dublin and are not transitional. Any alteration can only be agreed by the two governments.
Just as the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations did not begin until after the British had already partitioned Ireland the Good Friday negotiations did not begin until Britain had already determined the parameters of their outcome in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 and the Framework Documents of 1995.
I was a republican prisoner in Portlaoise prison when reports first came in of the Hume-Adams dialogue. I was asked by a senior republican my opinion on that. I answered facetiously, “as long as Hume comes away with Adam’s analysis and Adam’s doesn’t leave with Hume’s.” I was joking of course. I believed the republican analysis was so clearly correct that those tasked with leading us could be trusted to win a debate in any forum. Not in my wildest dreams could I, or many others, anticipate the degree to which the Provisional leadership would internalise ‘Humespeak’ and begin talking about a disunited Agreed Ireland as opposed to a united Republican Ireland.
John Hume was the principal sales rep on the nationalist side pushing the line that Ireland contained two traditions who would continue to be policed apart by Crown forces until such time they could come together and agree an internal settlement on British terms. Writing in the Irish Times as far back as June 1974 Hume said:
If we get an agreed Ireland that is unity. What constitutional or institutional forms such an agreed Ireland takes is irrelevant because it would represent agreement by the people of this country as to how they should be governed.'
Hume insisted that any agreement on an internal settlement should be passed by referenda North and South. He hoped this would decisively undermine the legitimacy of the republican position by trumping the result of the 1918 election which led to the formation of a 32-County Dáil Eireann. What many forget is that when the Good Friday referenda took place in May 1998 the two jurisdictions voted on separate questions. The North voted on the all-party agreement while the South voted on removing Articles 2 and 3 of their constitution. Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam made it clear that if any dispute arose only the vote in the North would count. One Fine Gael TD and former Dublin government minister got completely carried away with himself declaring that the results of the referenda were, ‘the purest form of self-determination ever given by the Irish people’. Yet English Northern Secretaries, who between them had never received as much as a single vote in the whole of Ireland, were able to suspend the Executive at will with no reference to the Irish electorate. The then Taoiseach Bertie Ahearn also displayed a tenuous grasp on reality when he announced that the Good Friday Agreement effectively took Britain out of the equation in deciding Ireland’s future. Brexit reveals the delusion in that sentiment. British Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May have both re-stated the UK government position that they will never be neutral on the Union.
Hume’s analysis was based on a number of strategic miscalculations:
➽Firstly, that the United Kingdom government is neutral on the Union. How many British prime ministers have to deny that before the penny drops? Related to this was Hume’s theory that the British government has no strategic interest in remaining in Ireland. Hume knew the Provisional leadership needed a declaration along these lines to sell the notion to the grass roots that the Brits had a change of heart and were looking for a way out. Peter Brooke duly obliged with a slippery statement that the British government had ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest in remaining in Northern Ireland’. The Brits were simply stating their interests here weren’t selfish but nationalists leapt on this as a declaration of intent to reconsider their position in Ireland. With the issuing of this statement John Hume believed he had won the argument. Gerry Adams believed he had won the war.
➽Secondly, that the British government has no fundamental problem in principal with a united Ireland. This, at least, is true. England ran a united Ireland for hundreds of years. Ran it into the ground. A united Ireland under the Crown that resulted in what one French sociologist called ‘a nation of paupers’. A united Ireland that brought us conquest and colonisation, famine, partition, all-Ireland institutions such as the work houses and all-Ireland police services such as the RIC and the Black and Tans. Republicans have to be generous on that score and admit Britain has no problem whatsoever with a united Ireland. Britain does have a big problem, however, with the establishment of a 32-County national government. It outlawed the last one we had in 1919 and will only recognise partitionist assemblies north and south which it legislated into existence and then organised and equipped to attack the armed forces of our national parliament in the First and Second Dáils.
➽Thirdly, that Irish Unionists are the British presence. Irish unionists are not the British presence. They were not born in Britain, they do not live in Britain and most have never visited Britain. If holding British citizenship while residing in Ireland defines the British presence then by that logic the entire Irish population prior to 1949 was the British presence. Are Nationalists in the North who hold a British passport the British presence? Or is residing in Ireland as a pro-British Protestant the criteria? If so, Britain still has a substantial presence in the 26-Counties. ‘British’ is a political construct not an ethnic one. It has been described as an imperial euphemism for England. The fact is when Irish republicans speak about removing the British presence we are referring to the UK government’s claim to sovereignty in Ireland and the military and civil apparatus that makes that possible. Ireland belongs to all who live in it. Not a bit of it belongs to Britain.
➽Fourthly, that we must honour the British tradition in Ireland as an integral part of our national fabric. A tradition is a belief or behaviour that holds special or symbolic significance in the evolution of one’s national character. Britishness in Ireland did not evolve as a national tradition, it was imposed by another country in an act of conquest and colonisation. Irish Protestantism, on the other hand, is an important tradition integral to our national fabric and represented in our national flag. A flag that symbolises peace between Catholics and Protestants in a government of national unity. It was never intended to represent a pact between Nationalists and Unionists that Britain remains regardless of what the Irish agree.
Of course, these strategic errors are issues of concern only to a republican. We dissent from a strategy based upon one political miscalculation after another. On the other hand, careerists in the nationalist community interested far more in leveraging themselves into positions of power and influence see no problem at all with it. One doesn’t spend years going to the best schools and working hard to receive third level qualifications to go to an early grave or prison cell resisting the occupation. Far better to accept that somewhere along the line, in a mythical moment never defined, Britain obtained democratic credentials in Ireland. It achieved political and moral legitimacy over whatever section of the Irish people it could control. It’s laws elevated to a moral imperative and the constabularies enforcing those laws invested with the sole monopoly on the lawful use of force.
Britain’s claim to be in Ireland to protect the gerrymandered wish of Six-County Unionism is a feeble alibi. England’s conquest of Ireland began centuries before the concept of Britishness was formed in the early 18th century and long before any plantations were contemplated. Britain won no argument in Ireland. It achieved no mandate for its presence. In the words of Roger Casement, ‘conquest has no title’. Every pretension to sovereignty is the result of theft, coercion or gerrymander. Yet, these pretentions are recognised as lawful and legitimate by every stakeholder in the Good Friday Agreement including a Dublin government which continually claims a national mandate from a Twenty-Six county electorate.
The British state is at heart a sectarian state. It was the British who injected the sectarian dynamic into Irish politics. The term ‘British’ only came into vogue after the Acts of Union in 1707 which united the kingdoms and legislatures of Scotland and England into the Parliament of Great Britain. Central to the Acts was the restatement of the Act of Settlement of 1701 which banned Catholics from becoming monarch. The identification of Britishness with Protestantism was enshrined in law. The ban on a Roman Catholic being head of state remains in force.
It was the Crown, the symbol of British sovereignty, that expropriated Irish land for the plantation of six Ulster counties. The plantation was an act of ethnic cleansing carried out so that Ulster would never again rise on behalf of Ireland. That she would be turned from a beacon of resistance to a bulwark against it. A plantation that would become a permanent dagger aimed at the heart of national cohesion and unity. That is why the Crown is so important in Unionist iconography. Why it adorns Orange banners and why Arlene Foster wears a Crown broach in her public appearances. It symbolises the twin pillars of plantation Protestantism, confiscation and sectarian supremacy.
Irish Protestants inspired, not by the plantation but by the enlightenment, were the founding fathers of Irish Republicanism. These patriots did not accept that being Protestant meant they were British. Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell didn’t accept it. Nor did Henry Joy McCracken. Robert Emmet, the protestant who led the 1803 rebellion, didn’t accept it. Nor did the protestants who founded the Young Irelanders, nor the protestants who helped establish the Irish Republican Brotherhood nor did Thomas Davis, the protestant who wrote ‘A Nation Once Again’.
The Good Friday Agreement was not negotiated by republicans. It was negotiated by the two governments. The provisional leadership were only brought in to discuss the modalities of decommissioning republican mindsets and disbanding the Irish Republican Army.
During the course of many meetings the republican grass roots were told by the provisional leadership that we had to ‘move on’. What they meant was we had to move away. Away from the belief in a united, democratic and sovereign republic. Away from the belief that Ireland, all of it, is a separate nation and has the right to defend itself. We were advised not to be coming to meetings uttering slogans and spouting clichés. They were referring to clichés that contained inspirational quotes from republican proclamations and the pantheon of republican icons. We were issued with new clichés, “get your head around it”, “what’s the alternative”, “think outside the box”. The box, of course, was republican doctrine. We were instructed to think inside a new box designed by the London and Dublin governments. Republican ex-prisoners were told to show leadership. By leadership they meant divesting ourselves of the moral courage to question the path they were taking us on. Despite being constantly assured the leadership ‘had a strategy’ the fact remained it was the British government who had the strategy. The Provisionals simply internalised it and their political snake oil salesmen flogged it to the grass roots as the only cure for partition.
The traditional enemy of Irish republicanism is the British government. The traditional enemy of Irish nationalism, especially in the Six Counties, is Irish unionism. Anything that upset unionists, which amounted to nearly everything, was seen as a win for nationalists and fodder for the notion that the provisional project was working. Veteran SDLP members complained that Sinn Féin swallowed them up but it was the other way around. SDLP political careerists are thinking only in terms of lost seats which Sinn Féin hoovered up by following Parnell’s successful tactic of placing a fighting edge on a moderate demand. The ‘New Ireland’ espoused by Sinn Féin is SDLP dogma to the core.
The Brits have boxed this off beautifully. Not only is calling a border poll contingent on the opinion of an English politician who didn’t know where Ireland was two years ago, but if nationalists win a majority the Good Friday Agreement ensures that the divisions carefully fostered by an alien government remain at the heart of the ‘New’ Ireland.
A key British objective has long been to engineer a situation in which all parties to the conflict agree, or are perceived to agree, with London’s analysis about the nature of the conflict. The irony in all this is that since the joint referenda on the Good Friday Agreement Britain now claims to be implementing and defending the democratic wishes of the Irish people.
Nationalist thought leaders who populate the Good Friday commentariat attempt to define political maturity as the ability to internalise Britain’s spin on Irish democracy. They urge us to join with them in moving on though few ever stood with us in the first place. Republicans have no desire to reach their destination and they haven’t the courage to reach ours.
Propagandists, foreign and domestic, attempt to portray republicans who don’t support the Good Friday Agreement as opponents of ‘peace’. What we are opposed to is legitimising a contract that there will always be an England in Ireland. The British appear confident that, with their help, all-island nationalism will stifle united Ireland republicanism. We shall see.