‘Northern Ireland’ – Restless in Peace

This summer will see the publication of ‘Resurgence’ – the second and final volume of ‘The Catholic Political Predicament in ‘Northern Ireland.’ It takes up the story where ‘Catastrophe’ left off, in August 1969, the pivotal event in the resurgence of the nationalist community after the catastrophe of 1920-25. Over the next while I will be posting up some selections from the final chapter ‘Restless in Peace’ (Ch. 18) which deals with current events in Ireland, up to Easter 2016.

The settlement Britain made in 1998 – the Good Friday Agreement – did not work out as intended despite giving ‘Northern Ireland’ the best government it ever had. The objective of the Agreement was to establish a harmless middle-ground Unionist Party/ SDLP coalition, along with a marginalised Sinn Fein and DUP. That would have succeeded, after 28 years of trouble, in putting ‘Northern Ireland’ back in the box that was closed in 1921 and marked with the words: “Do not open under any circumstances”. The ‘consociational’ principle, on which the new political structures were based, envisaged the establishment of a moderate political elite, which would nullify the ‘extremes’ and the activist elements of society. The Executive Ministries were initially allotted considerable independent power and the Assembly was rendered weak by placing nearly all the parties within it in government.

After the failure to save Trimble from the electorate, something very unexpected happened. Sinn Fein and the DUP led by Paisley cobbled together a functional arrangement to work the Agreement. The ‘extremes’ began to operate it with much greater success in terms of peace and stability than was ever managed by the ‘moderate centre’—or imagined possible at all. And, when Paisley gave way to Peter Robinson, this functional arrangement continued for a time, with the communal conflict being blunted by the ‘extremes’ in power, whereas the ‘moderates’ had only sharpened it.

But things can never rest in ‘Northern Ireland’ and those who did not like the settlement such as it actually was—who were many and varied—could not help but set about undermining and unravelling it, despite knowing full well the consequences of doing so: ‘Northern Ireland’ RIP—Restless in Peace.

Three important developments followed that deserve our attention. Firstly, there has been the spread of Sinn Fein across the Border and the reaction to that. Secondly, there has been the Boston Project and associated pursuit of the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams. Thirdly, there has been the destabilisation of Unionism, brought about by the equalising effects of the Agreement. These three developments have run in parallel, feeding off one another and tending towards what could result in an unravelling of the Peace, so painstakingly put together over two decades.

The achievement of the 1998 Agreement in the North had repercussions for the political prospects of Sinn Fein in the South. For most of its existence, since the rise of Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein had been an ideological rather than a political force in the 26 Counties. De Valera reduced it to little more than the Wolfe Tone Annual and Brian O’Higgins’ marvellous Christmas cards. At times Sinn Fein had political effect but its main influence was as a kind of guardian of principle.

In the aftermath of August 1969 Fianna Fail wondered why the Northern Catholics had not developed a Fianna Fail of their own, rather than the miserable thing they had produced in the Nationalist Party. But, since the 1998 Agreement, after the Republicans had fought a long war and remained undefeated, many Southerners began to see Sinn Fein much as Fianna Fail had been seen in the 1920s.

The governing parties in the South (unintentionally) provided the space for this new Sinn Fein to step into. As a reaction to the War in the North, they had been increasingly denying their history, allowing it to be written by those who left the country for retraining at Oxford and Cambridge, people who came to see a different world than that derived from independent Irish experience. Within Ireland the aim seemed to be a rehabilitation of British rule and a denigration of the independence movement. The skewed academic history of the ‘Trinity History Workshops’ and others was allowed to go unchallenged, except by vigorous groups of amateur historians and community groups from the substance of the country.

The South began to bask in the prosperity that Haughey had created, while increasingly denigrating the maker of their place in the sun, and they got very blasé about such worthless commodities as ‘history’. Politics was about facilitating property speculation and money-making.

The party had become the fourth largest party in 2002 but its representation in the Dail dropped from 5 TDs to 4 five years later.

After the party’s poor performance in the Southern General election of 2007, Sinn Fein was widely ridiculed by commentators as Northern blow- ins, ignorant about the South. Its leaders were portrayed as economically incompetent. And then crash went the Tiger! The governing parties were confronted with a vibrant and subversive political force, flooding into the national political space they had evacuated, in a situation where the populace felt cheated by those elected on promises of prosperity. In the 2011 General Election, in which Fianna Fail suffered a dramatic collapse, Sinn Fein increased its representation to 14 seats, its highest total since 1923.

The Establishment parties dealt with this problem by abandoning what they had been saying about the North for a generation—that it produced trouble because of what it was: a Partitionist entity that oppressed its Nationalist minority. Now suddenly it was Sinn Fein, the rising force, which was responsible for all the ills of the North: it was the Republicans who were the source of the problem that had brought them into being! However, this about-turn just did not wash with the people, after all they had been hearing over the years. So Sinn Fein became a Going Concern in the South.

The primary stimulant disturbing the Northern settlement seems to be Sinn Fein’s structure as an all-Ireland party. The organisational range of Sinn Fein poses a problem for both Dublin and London. The Dublin Establishment, right across the political spectrum, became concerned at the State ambitions of the blow-ins from the North. They represented something that Fianna Fail was in its past, a vigorous and ‘slightly constitutional’ party, that was not entirely manageable by the State apparatus constructed over the generations. Interestingly, it was the thing that Tánaiste Erskine Childers thought was needed in the North in the aftermath of August 1969, but, when it actually appeared in substance three decades later, Dublin went into panic mode.

The historic policy of Dublin since Partition, despite all its Anti- Partitionist rhetoric, was to seal off the North as a thing dangerous to its national independence and sovereignty. Perversely, since the Southern State began surrendering its independence of mind—largely because Britain succeeded in making it feel guilty over the Northern conflict—it has had to face a potential disruption to both its cosy set-up and to its developing relationship with Britain.

Sinn Fein blossoming as an all-Ireland party was also problematic for Britain. The original purpose of ‘Northern Ireland’ was to exert leverage over the bulk of the island and it performed this function spectacularly well, particularly in the half-century after 1970, as England extended its influence.

However, what would happen if the same party had power and influence on both sides of the Border and that party had proved itself able to deal with Britain by being impervious to British wiles? Where would the lever be then?

The secondary problem was the DUP. Sinn Fein’s partner in government in the North was also a less malleable force than the Unionist Party. It was far more representative of the Protestant community and had an independence of spirit that the “fur-coat brigade” of Unionists never had. From O’Neill through to Trimble the Unionist Party always did what Britain required of it. Even Faulkner, the best Unionist politician by a long way, was persuaded to drop his demand for political integration when Whitehall had a word in his ear.

On the other hand, Paisley continuously frustrated British initiatives and Peter Robinson, through his adventurist actions in 1986, alarmed those implementing the Hillsborough Agreement, deterring its full application.

And, of course, the DUP then embarked on a functional arrangement with Sinn Fein, against all odds and expectations.

For the simple-minded in Dublin, Paisley and the DUP had never ceased to be the principal hate-figures in the ‘Black Protestant North’. Paisley remained a religious enthusiast when the South began to become confused about its Catholicism. So he was labelled a bigot in Dublin and by the Southern media— taking the attention off its own bigotry—although there is a strong historic strain of liberalism in Ulster Presbyterianism and Paisley was very representative of it (That idea will, of course, be appalling to the simple-minded.)

It was such considerations that seem to have prompted the extraordinary informal grand alliance which is determined to undermine the functional DUP/Sinn Fein cooperation which, from various political positions, is believed should never have happened.

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