Paisley had made it personally clear to me that he was up for a power-sharing deal if he could be absolutely sure they would deliver on that. But for him it was a deal-breaker – and quite understandably so, I thought. Sharing government with ‘SinnFéinIRA’ as the DUP always used to call the republicans, was an impossible enough ask without another “Northern Bank”, he insisted, ominously recalling the IRA’s spectacular theft of £26 million in December 2004 shortly after the DUP and Sinn Féin had come the closest yet to a deal.
But I also fully understood why it was a huge step for the republican movement to be associated with the very British law and police force they had long felt oppressed by, albeit importantly in this case devolved to Northern Ireland’s government if we could ever get it established – and thereby not “British” anymore but under Sinn Féin’s partial control through their ministers.
In January 2007 both men undertook a comprehensive programme of meetings with their republican grass roots right across the island of Ireland, determined to persuade them but always aware of the very real danger of splits. By the end Adams looked to me physically exhausted and emotionally drained. But he won the argument, maintained broad republican unity and later sealed the deal with the DUP. In May, McGuinness and Paisley ended up smiling together at Stormont in one of those “it will never happen” moments.
I mention this because – in her compelling and painstakingly researched book – Marisa McGlinchey recalls attending one of these very Sinn Féin meetings in her local West Belfast community in the Clonard Monastery. There she “witnessed heated exchanges as people at the back of the church shouted words like traitor to the Sinn Féin politicians standing on the actual altar”.
Two years later that toxic label was used by McGuinness himself when he condemned as “traitors to the island of Ireland” the small breakaway New IRA and Continuity IRA groups which between them had killed a police constable and two soldiers. As McGlinchey writes: “McGuinness’s comments were widely viewed as a watershed moment in Irish politics” which “evidenced a bitter divide within the contemporary republican world”.
She goes to intuitively impressive lengths to root them within a tradition of what she terms “radical republicanism”. An odd label in my view, for what shines out from her narrative is that it is actually fundamentalist republicanism, which has historically never advanced the cause of Irish reunification in the way the sophisticated Adams/McGuinness strategy undoubtedly has. That commentators now even discuss the prospect of a referendum under the Good Friday constitutional process being successful in the next few years is testimony to that.
If that prospect is real, it is mainly because the Irish border always was going to be the Achilles heel of a hard Brexit. Northern Ireland citizens on both sides of the divide value and wish to maintain its hard-won invisibility, apparently even at the price of challenging the Union if that were ever to be the price for keeping it completely open. That the border is invisible is almost entirely due to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, the end of the IRA’s military campaign and weapons decommissioning, and the 2007 settlement – all of which were achieved with the buy-in of the much-vilified (by dissidents) Sinn Féin leadership.
And note what this has achieved in the practical terms of daily life:
- the different jurisdictions on either side of the border barely matter, and to all intents and purposes the island of Ireland is fast becoming one entity with two systems. The border is completely open and invisible today because there are common rules for trading, services and people movement on both sides.
- Tens of thousands of people live on one side and work on the other. Farms straddle it. Some turn left out of their front gate into Northern Ireland and right into the Republic – or the other way around. Often you’ve no idea which jurisdiction you’re in along its 300-mile length with its near-300 crossing points.
- Over 100 million person-crossings take place every year. Around 5,000 Northern Ireland companies trade over the border. Worth £3.5 billion, the Republic is Northern Ireland’s biggest export destination outside of the UK.
- Over 400,000 lambs and 750 million litres of milk are exported across the border to the Republic of Ireland for processing. There are about 4.6 million lorry crossings a year, along with 22 million car crossings.
- Unique arrangements under the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement for north-south co-operation provide no less than 157 different areas of cross-border work and co-operation. Many of them have also been facilitated by the common legal and policy framework under Ireland’s and Northern Ireland’s common membership of the European Union since 1973.
These areas of exchange and co-operation are the stuff of everyday life – the precious signs of normality in the post-conflict border region. People cross the border in both directions to go to schools and colleges and hospitals, or to get treatment from GPs and pick up prescriptions. There is systemic, continuous co-operation and common standards over food safety and farming; tourism; specialist schools; fighting crime; tackling environmental pollution; good water quality and supply; effective waste management; common bus and train services; cancer care and blood transfusions; sharing gas and electricity supplies.
McGlinchey argues that “Sinn Féin’s acceptance of the consent principle was a major departure from republican ideology”. I am in no position to contest with so authoritative a scholar about the theology of republicanism. If we are talking about what she labels the “absolutist, purist form of republicanism” of the New IRA, the Continuity IRA, and the Real IRA she is almost certainly correct. But to be blunt that is a failed republicanism and in my view always will be. Its politics is akin to the fundamentalism of the global Islamist groups like Al Qaeda or ISIL: sole inheritors of the “creed”, sectarian, marginalised and ultimately self-defeating.
Instead of such impossibilism, for the first time in the history of the IRA there is a practical, achievable route to Irish reunification through the Good Friday Agreement. Yes of course it rests upon democratic consent, and rightly so. But the truth is that there is no alternative for those who want the island of Ireland to be an inclusive constitutional democracy.
These IRA splinter groups are small and isolated in republican-supporting communities. They enjoy nil support on Capitol Hill, where US Congressmen backed by the large and influential Irish-American community granted Adams and McGuinness the quasi-hero status of freedom fighters. The dissidents are also heavily infiltrated by British and Irish intelligence agents. They are infested with criminality, including drug-trafficking to fund their activity. Nevertheless, they are periodically capable of lethal attacks, cruelly highlighted by the despicable murder in April 2019 of the young, hugely respected journalist Lyra McKee.
McGlinchey, locating the dissidents within the long trajectory of Irish republicanism going back to the 1860s, argues that they demonstrate “the cyclical nature of the development of the movement. The central themes of contestation within contemporary radical republicanism – thus principles versus tactics, the ‘slippery slope to constitutionalism’, fears of ‘sellout’, and the ethics and morality of an armed campaign in current conditions – have remained consistent throughout Irish history.”
In that context, the author argues: “The Irish peace process has been transported around the world as a model process; however, the issue of ‘dissident’ Irish republicanism is not one that will ‘go away’ and constitutes the ‘unfinished business’ of Irish republicanism.”
What is not clear to me, however, is what would actually constitute “finished business” for these groups? For them conflict and “the struggle” – either with the Brits or with each other – seem to be ends in themselves. McGlinchey’s otherwise formidable analysis doesn’t really address this question, her framework being more one of the fundamentalists versus the “traitorous” republicanism of Adams/McGuiness, now McDonald/O’Neill. Surely any objective judgement would award the prize for actually advancing republicanism’s objectives – rather than purist posturing on the sidelines – to the latter?
Much more important however is the “unfinished business” of the Good Friday Agreement. The UK Tory government has consistently sided with the unionist parties, the DUP and UUP, under successive Tory secretaries of state since 2010. A notable exception was Julian Smith, who to his great credit “got” – and was respected by all the parties in – Northern Ireland (and promptly got sacked by Boris Johnson for succeeding in getting Stormont restored where his predecessors had failed). Tory prime ministers and their secretaries of state must speedily revert to the stance under Labour of being “honest brokers”, not partisans for unionism or any other party to the Northern Ireland divisions.
That was the only way over ten hard years that Tony Blair achieved and sustained the Good Friday peace process to that decisive breakthrough in 2007. It was also the only way I helped persuade the high priest of unionism, Ian Paisley, to share power with his bitter enemy and former IRA commander Martin McGuiness. Neither of those later-to-be improbable “chuckle brothers” had ever exchanged a word before the DUP-Sinn Féin agreement was sealed. So both sides had to trust Tony Blair and I to be even-handed in transmitting messages and interpreting negotiating stances.
Unless the British restore such “honest brokerage” to the process, the path ahead will be bumpy and, by undermining republican adherence to the democratic politics on both sides of the border, may even give extra oxygen to the dissident paramilitaries and vindicate Marisa McGlinchey’s conclusion that they “are set to remain a permanent feature of the Irish political landscape”.
Either way her book will remain of seminal importance.
Unfinished Business: The Politics of ‘Dissident’ Irish Republicanism, by Marisa McGlinchey, Manchester University Press, 256 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-0719096983
Larry Hughes comments I did my MA dissertation on the dissident subject along the lines of would the real dissident please step forward. It was a real grind of a topic. From a purist point of view as Anthony McIntyre brilliantly stated SF slaughtered every sacred cow of Irish republicanism to get into constitutional British politics.ReplyDelete
However, that aside, people had definitely had enough. I think in terms of assessment the review pretty much nails it. The assertion also that the Tory Party is the major threat to peace is correct today and historically, they played the orange card which led ultimately to partition.
Thankfully today loyalism is demographically old and diminished numerically. The GFAGFA Brexit and demographics have altered the playing field beyond recognition. For everyone's sake let's hope the author of Unfinished Business has got a PhD and a book out of a dead and buried, no longer relevant physical force philosophy.
Let demographics and the desire for continued EU farming subsidies among unionist farmers see unity across The finishing line. We old timers can celebrate inebriated historical spectaculars as the Brits celebrate dam busters, Dunkirk and the battle of Britain.
This is a gold standard review that Marisa will have cause to be pleased with.ReplyDelete
I can see why Peter Hain finds the label radical republican wrong. Instead he prefers the term fundamentalist. But if we look at how say ISIS is described in political lexicon the terms fundamentalist and radical are interchangeable and mean the same thing.
He also claims that radical/fundamentalist republicanism has "never advanced the cause of Irish reunification in the way the sophisticated Adams/McGuinness strategy undoubtedly has."
The first part of this is accurate but less so the second. Neither school has advanced Irish unity. Adams/McGuinness secured zilch on the constitutional question. The terms and conditions remain as they always were throughout the Provisional IRA campaign - consent of a majority in the North.
Adams/McGuinness accepted the the British state terms for achieving unity - only by consent. The British were not insisting that Ireland would never be united but were setting out the only terms on which it would - unity only by consent of a majority of the North's population.
Traditional republicanism failed on the unity question but so too did Adams/McGuinness. Their policy of unity by coercion has failed and it is pointless to flag up Brexit and suggest that the Adams/McGuinness strategy can be credited for the outworking of that, whatever it might be.
In my view it is best to conclude that republicanism is not nor was the answer to the question of partition.
"Yes of course it rests upon democratic consent, and rightly so."
It rests upon the democratic consent of a certain part of society: the people of the UK (excluding the North) have no democratic input whatsoever. If they wish to disengage they cannot do so because their democratic input has been thwarted by the veto given to the North.
That said, if British politicians showed the slightest inkling of trying to understand the North to the extent Peter Hain did, life would have been a whole lot easier for all.
Great review of a great book.
For years through the 90s I consumed the narrative as it was fed knowing no better and that narrative was well crafted and I did accept that the British had relinquished the selfish strategic and economic interest it once had and was genuinely ready to facilitate a settlement carved out by the people of the 6 counties. Theresa mays government certainly rolled back on that and there was tangible signs of selfish strategic and economic interest no less apparent than sentiments of preti Patel and cutting off food supplies to get what they wanted in partnership with the "Fundamentalist" DUP. I read the book when it was released and thought it was brilliant an insight where journalism never goes rather framing the active groups as boogeyman though they are no different than previous generations of Republicans other than strength maybe at mid 60s level if that. Just like the IRA was in decay in the mid 60s it will probably take another huge civil unrest to recreate that military resurgence and it looks unlikely now so the only way forward for republicanism stands as political, and becoming relevant when the border poll finally achieves an end to Britain's presence in Ireland. If it doesn't become relevant we are destined for a more anglo irish version of unity than May be palatable for even traditional freestaters.ReplyDelete
Previous to reading this review last evening I had watched Understanding How Powerful Emotions Drive PoliticsReplyDelete
The herding instinct affords security but when allowed to run unchecked it leads to excessive and repressive domination of outliers and minorities. When this happens the necessary conditions for an uprising or rebellion are in place. Socially responsible leaders will do their best to curb such tendencies to excessive domination (Terence O'Neill) whilst at the same time leaving themselves vulnerable to more populist proponents of same (Paisley).
The fact that the dissidents can't even garner any significant populist support really ought tell them something. But I guess they don't do much serious reflection!
Understanding that all behaviours are attempts to get needs met (including emotional ones) is not a solution to conflict in itself but is certainly part of an an understanding that facilitates greater potential for stability.
The dissidents, no more than those they dissent from and like all of us, have needs for security, needs for autonomy and control, needs for status, needs for connection and community, and a need for a shared identity. Participating in the shenanigans that they do is no more than an unhealthy and vain attempt at getting needs met.
Most discerning people will find themselves, as AM referenced in one of his posts over the last few days, attempting to transcend the identity politics traps and more embracing globalist philosophies and narratives rather than narrow nationalist ones.