In the beginning was ‘Northern Ireland’. This weird political concoction was set up in 1920/1 for British Imperial purposes quite apart from any desire to produce a settlement of the national division on the island and “the better government of Ireland”. The detachment of the 6 Counties from the rest of the island and their semi-detachment from the body politic of the U.K. established the thing called ‘Northern Ireland’ in Britain’s interests without regard to the good government of the inhabitants of the territory it comprised. There can be little doubt the deed was done by Westminster to build an arena of conflict that could be ring-fenced and locally managed.
Secondly, the construction of this novel and perverse political structure had the strategic purpose of acting as a kind of lever on the national movement that was taking shape in the south of the island, which Britain wished to control and establish hegemony over. The emergence of an Irish democracy which Britain could not stop could still be curtailed in one way or another as an independent expression, it was thought. And so the political innovation called ‘Northern Ireland’ was created to act both as a prize for Anti-Partitionism to encourage its moderacy and a deterrent to any enhancement of sovereignty it may have inclined to.
Having successfully divided the Irish national movement and provoked it into a war on the Treaty of 1921, and having confined conflict to the 6 counties, Britain largely withdrew from its pseudo-state, though retaining ultimate authority and responsibility for it at Westminster. Control of the false front it constructed was franchised to Unionism with its two-third majority over the one-third trapped on the wrong side of the Border.
The fact that conflict was kept at a level which could be ignored by Westminster for over 40 years was to do with a number of factors. Firstly, the Catholic community suffered such a catastrophic defeat in 1922 as a result of Michael Collins’ erratic adventurism in the North, followed by the Boundary Commission debacle, that it was subdued for a generation. Secondly, Unionism, having no talent for statecraft and recognising this, sensibly opted for indulging in minimal political activity beyond the policing of the minority to keep them in their place. They were aided in this by the British welfare state which looked after the Catholics who had not been encouraged to emigrate, at a subsistence level.
What finally destabilised the North was the Taoiseach’s unfreezing of the situation in 1965 and Lemass-O’Neill. What this did was encourage a political activism that the pseudo state could not contain. Up until the 1960s the Catholics had waited around for deliverance from Dublin, indulging in various ineffective Anti-Partition campaigns. There was also a small IRA campaign in the 1950s from across the Border than had little impact on the community. But then Lemass abandoned the Northern Catholics, turning them into “fatherless children” in Eddie M’Ateer’s phrase, and encouraged them instead to make the best of their lot in the 6 counties under Unionist sufferance.
The only way Catholics found they could make the best of their lot in the 6 counties was in becoming active and taking to the streets. This was because when the Nationalists became an Opposition at Stormont on the orders of the Taoiseach they revealed the system they had carefully boycotted to be the fraud they had understood it to be all along. It was incapable of satisfying them, even apart from their desire for an end to the Border. For one thing participation at Stormont could not get to the root of their problem and it was essentially there to uphold the dominance of the majority over the minority. Civil Rights was not seen by Unionism as ordinary citizens calling peacefully for their rights but as a more sophisticated form of attack on ‘Northern Ireland’ itself. And that was what it turned out to be when Unionism failed to test its demands by conceding Civil Rights – which were essentially “British Rights for British Citizens”.
The result was August 1969.
August 1969 was an interregnum – a pivotal event in the life of the Northern Catholics. When the Unionist government attempted to suppress the Catholic activism it produced a defensive insurrection. When Unionism failed to suppress it nothing could be the same again – and it wasn’t. The Unionists acted as they did in 1920-22 to put down the Fenians through a combination of security force assault and private collective action. All sections of Unionism knew instinctively what they had to do. They had to shock and awe the Catholics to make the Croppies Lie Down. But this time they failed.
They failed because Civil Rights had mobilised the Catholics and made them more cohesive. They had become more independent and resilient than before, having recovered from the catastrophe of 1920-25 at last. And they also had developed a more effective strategy with regard to the British/Stormont interface through the Civil Rights agitation.
The Unionist Pogrom consolidated the Insurrection because the more drastic force which might have been applied to put the Fenians down once and for all did not materialise. Britain interposed itself militarily and then politically as a buffer between Stormont and the Catholics. This posed fundamental and existential problems for the Unionist Party which suddenly lost the role it had been given by Westminster in 1920 to provide “peace, order and good government” in Britain’s outpost.
In the 9 months after August 1969 the North went into flux. Many courses were possible. This was the period which determined what form the subsequent conflict would ultimately take. The internal forces in the North were roused and mobilised so it was what what was done in London and Dublin that really mattered. And what the British and Irish Governments did, or did not do, in this period largely determined the course of events over the proceeding decades.
Britain bears primary responsibility for what happened because whilst it undermined Stormont by its intervention of August 1969 it determined to uphold the 1920 situation rather than putting an axe to the root of the problem. The Labour Cabinet’s discussions and the dispatches of Oliver Wright, Jim Callaghan’s enforcer in the North, reveal that the problem was seen as maintaining Westminster’s arm’s length policy of the 1920 settlement. To do this it had to be “cruel to be kind” to the Catholics. This involved reforming Stormont in a superficial way and repressing the Catholics, since the 1920 settlement ultimately made Westminster dependent on the Unionists to “hold the ring” and do the local dirty work. The Unionists, although disorientated by the concession of the Civil Rights programme, were the indispensable mainstay of what was constructed in 1920 and had to be preserved and sated by Westminster. Without their co-operation Whitehall had to govern itself and disrupt its strategic objective with regard to the island.
Callaghan made some noises about more fundamental reform, particularly in bringing the North into the UK Labour movement to overcome sectarian division. However, he was soon disabused of such an approach and returned to the default position of 1920. Oliver Wright reported “mission accomplished” to Callaghan in early 1970 and packed his bags. The view was that things had settled and Britain could relax reforms to placate the Unionist mass-base and gradually withdraw leaving “Ulstermen to carry the can”.
Dublin is responsible for what subsequently happened after August in a secondary way. Taoiseach Lynch’s policy on the 6 Counties has been fundamentally misrepresented in recent years. Lynch reacted to the events of August with a provocative speech saying he “would not stand idly by” and that had an incendiary effect in Belfast. However, in the aftermath of the Unionist assault the Dublin government adopted an activist policy with regard to the North that involved planning for potential military intervention and the political organising of the Northern Catholics. That was the policy of the Fianna Fail government, not just that of a few individuals who were actually loyal servants of the State and later scapegoated at the Arms Trials.
The Irish State files reveal a belief in the Lynch government that something like Fianna Fáil was needed in the North and that the Northern Catholics were too timid and enamoured with the British welfare state to be sound. Lemass was even acknowledged in 1969 as the great destabiliser of the North who opened up the Anti-Partitionist struggle again through his wise policy. But the Northern Catholics were not Anti-Partitionist enough for Dublin’s liking, despite John Hume assuring the Taoiseach’s representative in the North that “the Civil Rights policy had succeeded where an overt nationalist policy had not but the ultimate objective was the same.” That is all in the Irish government archives.
The Irish News put its faith in moderation in its New Year editorial of 1970 but a month later as things began to slide it warned the Lynch Government that moderacy was a policy that was inadequate to what was happening in the North. It noted there was “violence in the people” brought about by their continued desperate situation that remained unaddressed by Westminster. It must have been conscious that the Taoiseach, with his chief advisor, T.K. Whittaker, was prone to ineffectual moderation after a signal of such in the Tralee speech. This moderation policy was fundamentally empty and could not deal with the acute state of affairs that had been developing after August. The heat generated by what happened in August may have appeared to have subsided but it had not been extinguished and it was about to flare up again with a more lasting flame.
But in May 1970 Lynch suddenly subverted his own activist policy under pressure from the British and instituted the Arms Trials against those who were executing that policy. British Intelligence rumbled Lynch and put it up to him and his nerve cracked. The Taoiseach ordered halt and about turn, blaming the men he had given orders to for carrying out their own independent manoeuvres. It was nonsense and was not believed at the Arms Trials but a deliberate attempt ever since has been made to cover Lynch’s tracks lest the reality be faced.
Lynch’s retreat from the North had a huge effect on the Northern Catholics. It brought about a confusion whose only historical parallel was the Collins’ debacle in 1922. The Taoiseach’s about turn particularly affected the Northern Defence Committees who were the basis of the development of a potential slightly constitutional political force, and it drained away their influence behind the barricades. It also paralysed the constitutional nationalists like Fitt and Devlin who became suspects in gun-running and became very wary of Dublin. Only Hume was insulated from Lynch’s volte face because he had made no demands for weapons from Dublin like his constitutional comrades. He was not a “gun-runner” and was providing intelligence for Dublin through Eamon Gallagher.
Despite what the Official Republicans said, and what its various derivatives in politics, academia and the media maintain, it was not the Fianna Fáil intervention in 1969-70 that created the Provos it was Lynch’s loss of nerve, and Dublin’s withdrawal from the North with the Arms Trials, that blew the fragments into the flame was igniting to create the fire storm.
I have not mentioned the Provos yet because the new Republican Army were a consequence of all this, not a cause of it. The Provos emerged from a small, rather inconsequential nucleus, because of what London and Dublin did to Northern Catholic politics. They were a rather ambiguous body at the start but became the only element that was relevant to the situation that Catholics found themselves in – under increasing oppression from the military apparatus of the State in support of the Unionist regime and the 1920 Act, and let down by Dublin in their hour of need. West Belfast was not traditionally Republican. It had been Hibernian/Devlinite in the past, had voted for Jack Beattie and Gerry Fitt (British Socialists) at elections and had a high proportion of men who had served in the British forces which produced the Catholic Ex-Servicemen Association as its defenders, who were probably more numerous than Republicans in 1969/70.
Midway during 1970, the Northern Catholics had to fall back on their own resources and produce something that could advance their interests or lie down under the Unionist heel. There were no other options – not even an SDLP at that point. The British had closed off one line of possible development and the Irish government the other. It was not entirely clear what political objective the community had at that point. They first of all needed fundamental changes to the political set-up in the North, which Britain was unwilling to force, so the other, wider, objective began to move from being an ideal, and the pursuit of a few, to being something worth fighting for by the many. There was only one group that had a programme and strategy of that kind and West Belfast began to Republicanise itself through 1970 and 1971 for the struggle to come.
The architects and operators of the 1920 system presented the minority community with a stark choice between permanent second class citizenship in the 6 Counties and war in 1970 and after the events of the previous year and actions/non-actions of London and Dublin there was only one road that was going to be travelled.
The British who had initially abandoned West Belfast to its own devices then reacted to the Republican growth with the tried and trusted military response they had applied to insurgents in the colonies. The Falls Curfew, Internment and finally Bloody Sunday all failed to stem the rising tide and actually had the effect of intensifying the Republican upsurge.
It took the SDLP a full year after August 1969 to emerge as a conglomeration of interests in the Catholic community. It contained many chiefs but much fewer Indians. The elements that formed it had initially established a “shadow cabinet” that was quickly shown to be a nonsense in the situation. But the SDLP was something that gained much favour in both London and Dublin as reinforcing the detachment of both states from the 6 Counties. It enabled both to step back from the problem and was a perfect fit for the 1920 settlement and an instrument of moderation for both London and Dublin.
The party was formed and lived in a hinterland between Anti-Partitionism and reform within the Stormont system. Then Faulkner put it on the spot with an unexpected offer of participation. The SDLP initially accepted this offer and described it as “Faulkner’s finest hour”. However, unbeknown to its leader, Gerry Fitt, Hume had made a secret arrangement with Dublin during mid-1971 to work for the destruction of Stormont. Hume pulled the SDLP out of Stormont using the shooting of two Derry men as an excuse to avoid participation. The SDLP then withdrew to what it grandiosely called its “Alternative Assembly” or “underground administration” at Dungiven, which was subsidised by the Taoiseach, but amounted to nothing. It helped organise a civil disobedience campaign against Internment which Sinn Fein welcomed as the SDLP coming over to its policy.
The SDLP departure was made before Internment and it was a cause rather than a consequence of the British military operation that symbolised the national war that had developed. Internment led to Ballymuphy and Bloody Sunday which were “administrative massacres” meant at ending the Insurgency. They failed, intensifying it, and instead led to Britain sacrificing Stormont with a stroke of the pen in Whitehall.
During this period the SDLP rode on the back of the war and essentially became the political expression of the Insurgency against Stormont. Dublin adopted a position of realpolitik, in relation to the war the Republican Army appeared to be winning in the North. Constitutional Nationalism would take what it would gain from the Provo War effort whilst condemning the more bloody events, of course.
After the fall of Stormont the Republican Army had to escalate the War or settle. But no settlement was offered that satisfied the Provos at the height of their power. So the bombing campaign was intensified with an increase in civilian casualties. A massive military operation called Motorman, involving over 20,000 British troops, reoccupied the Republican areas and altered the military situation fundamentally.
This military conquest gave London, Dublin and the SDLP the political space to put together a settlement with Faulkner’s Unionists. The SDLP abandoned civil disobedience and went into talks after Heath threatened integration with the UK, without them.
Faulkner was the best Unionist leader ever and had a genuine desire to accommodate the SDLP and Dublin in the construction of a functional settlement. He went the extra mile in agreeing to a Council of Ireland in the deal at Sunningdale and a Powersharing Executive was established. Unionist opposition, although expected, was initially limited. But this unfortunately only encouraged Dublin and the SDLP to push too far, too quickly.
Both the Dublin government and the SDLP overplayed their hand in their running of the Executive that was established through Sunningdale. They did not realise the limitations of their power, which largely came from the War effort of the Republican Army. They underestimated the national substance of the Protestant community which whilst appearing like a disorganised rabble, shaping up for a backlash in its dying gasp, proved to be much more than that.
Dublin attempted to dodge the Constitutional issue in the Boland case and this strengthened Unionist resistance to Sunningdale. The SDLP rank and file, buoyed up by the political fragmentation of the Unionist Party, pushed for the full implementation of the Council of Ireland and threatened to pull the Executive down themselves if the process was not speeded up. The Ulster Workers Strike called was treated with the contempt Joe Devlin had exhibited for Carson’s Army with a similar result. Both Dublin and the SDLP hadn’t it in them to conduct a tactical retreat to preserve their gains and save Faulkner. The British Labour Government then bungled the handling of the situation, generating widespread Protestant resistance and Faulkner, upon whom all ultimately depended, resigned.
The Republicans had no responsibility for the failure of Sunningdale. Unionism can hardly be blamed for the failure since its opposition was a given.
The period after the fall of the Executive was a bad one for all. The Labour government was politically bankrupt and with little idea of what to do began dropping hints about withdrawal. Ulster Nationalism began to be encouraged by Whitehall in Unionists to get the problem off their plate. The result of this was a great increase in sectarian killing and the diversion of a part of the Republican War into communal warfare. This was encouraged by Whitehall through a Truce with the IRA which had the effect of removing Britain from the equation and concentrating minds on the loyalists and a post-British scenario. An important intervention by Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adams was necessary to refocus and return Republicans to fighting the enemy.
From the start the Republican Army had insisted its enemy was the British State in Ireland rather than the Ulster Protestants. This was despite the fact that Britain had interposed the Unionists between it and the Catholic community as an instrument of policing and ‘Northern Ireland’ was entirely communally based in character, making for the high probability of sectarian warfare.
The Irish state archives reveal that the SDLP met the Irish government at Bunbeg in August 1974 and discussed a plan to use the Irish army in conjunction with the British army to produce a final solution to the Unionist complication. This envisaged an Irish army invasion of the North with British collaboration to remove what was termed “the expendable element” i.e. the Protestants, from the equation. The Irish government stated to the SDLP leadership at this meeting that it was so fearful of the situation by that point that it had implored the British to remain. This signalled the utter failure of Dublin policy on the North and the SDLP was denied its dream of an inter-state military repression of Ulster Protestants.
After Roy Mason had replaced Merlyn Rees and things had been stabilised both wings of nationalism began a process of regrouping. Regrouping was essential because it was now clear that the Northern Catholics were on their own. Dublin was a beaten docket after the reassertion of Protestant power and the British/Loyalist bombing of Dublin/Monaghan. No help could be hoped for from that quarter.
The SDLP replaced Fitt with Hume and the Republican Army dug in for a long war aimed at winning a place at the conference table and gaining the best terms possible. The War could not be ended because there was nothing on offer but a Unionist victory for a laying down of arms. The British strategy – which fell back on military advice after political bankruptcy – was also long war with a wearing down of the Republican Army through attrition by the related strategies of Normalisation, Ulsterisation and Criminalisation.
Long wars tend to change social reality and power relations in a much more fundamental way than short ones. That is one of the reasons why attritional warfare has been favoured by Britain, the great war fighting state, over the centuries. However, that is only the case if the enemy can be ultimately ground down. If they cannot then the enemy emerges stronger after long war than short one.
Ulsterisation led to a replacement of British casualties with local ones by placing Ulster Protestants in the firing line. Normalisation was difficult due to the paramilitary policing and collusion that Ulsterisation increasingly produced. Criminalisation was defeated through the Hunger Strike which launched Sinn Fein as an electoral force to compete against the SDLP.
The new Republican Army was unlike anything that had preceded it. It showed the qualities of resilience, endurance and flexibility that impressed Britain most in warfare. New fronts were opened to frustrate Britain’s attempts to wear down the Insurrection. Sinn Fein began to take back the battlefield that had been stormed by the British Army in Motorman. It engaged in operating the British welfare state on behalf of its community and could not be dislodged by the State due to Thatcher’s run down of the public sector.
The rise of Sinn Fein led to panic in Dublin and to the Irish Forum to give a leg up to the SDLP. But when Thatcher publicly humiliated its report with her “Out, Out, Out” speech she seriously damaged Hume and the SDLP. Unionists enjoyed the spectacle of Hume as a broken man on a trip to the U.S. But it was suddenly realised by more thoughtful people in the British State that the SDLP was the only buffer it had against the rise of Sinn Fein and something had to be given it, or it would disappear. Then Britain would have to deal directly with Sinn Fein. After the Provos visited Thatcher at Brighton she conceded to Dublin’s diplomacy and gave it the Hillsborough Agreement as a leg-up for the SDLP. Dublin congratulated itself.
The Hillsborough Treaty of 1985, although it drove Unionists into frenzy, was an almost complete failure and created an Ice Age in politics. Its stated aims were reconciliation, pacification and stability. It achieved none of these and led to an increase in all areas of conflict and a prolongation of war. Hume hoped for a “lancing of the Unionist boil” indicating that the principle of consent was very conditional and only really applied to the final act of Unionist surrender. But although the Unionists were dealt a severe blow Britain’s determination to maintain the 1920 settlement meant that not enough was achieved for the SDLP and the momentum of it died with a disenchanted Thatcher, who saw she had been cheated of the security she signed the deal for.
During this Anglo-Irish process Republicans stayed their hand. They were not unduly worried about it and, instead, learnt and took from it. It was then Republican Peace moves that reintroduced fluidity into the situation. Initially Republican feelers were put out to Thatcher but she ignored peacemaking in favour of Hillsborough and then the SAS.
A parallel process began to take place involving Gerry Adams and Charlie Haughey with Fr. Reid as intermediary during 1985-87. The correspondence in these talks that is now availablee sketches out the proposal for a nationalist consensus and the actual course of the process over the following decade. Its course was plotted entirely before any involvement from Hume or the SDLP. Haughey did not trust anyone in Dublin beyond his close circle with the delicate growth and the process was helped along by Cardinal O’Fiaich, who shielded Fr. Reid from those elements in the Church who would have undermined it. Haughey was really crucial to it, as he was to the rejuvenation of the Southern State but you would never hear that.
When it was considered politic, in 1988, Hume was taken into confidence, but not the SDLP, who were considered untrustworthy. Hume was led to believe he had begun the process with Adams to protect him from his critics. Then the SDLP were reluctantly led into short-lived talks with Sinn Fein, that were bitterly resented.
The bit came to the bit at the mysterious Duisburg conference in late 1988. This was the culmination of Hillsborough for the British. Having given Hume his leg up they now hoped to set up a devolutionary scheme with the chastened Unionists, who by that time were begging to be let back into the party. They expected Hume to pay the forfeit for the selling-out of the Unionists. Seamus Mallon was given the task of negotiating the deal and he thought he had succeeded, only for at the vital moment to see the whole thing shot down by Hume.
Hume broke ranks with his party because the bigger deal was suddenly a possibility – a settlement that would involve everyone including Republicans. That was Hume’s ultimate desire and he shafted Mallon and the British at Duisburg, throwing his weight behind the Republican peace process.
Hume had given up on his earlier belief on the emergence of a progressive Unionism and had come to understand the continuum that existed between the two wings of nationalism. He was motivated by wishing to improve the fortunes of his community rather than by any desire to play out the games of transient party politics. He entered into open talks with Gerry Adams. A final attempt was made to divert the Republican Army into sectarian war in this period by loyalist groups working with elements within the British security apparatus and supplied by Apartheid regime weaponry from South Africa. Attacks were mounted on Republicans and their families to separate the fish from the sea and to provoke a counter-attack on the community from where the death squads originated. Sinn Fein held its nerve.
The IRA ceasefire of 1994 was the beginning of Sinn Fein translating the momentum of the War into politics. Republicans conducted an orderly retreat from the battlefield – the most difficult manoeuvre in military affairs – maintaining cohesion and discipline. This was a very dangerous period when Republicans came up against a variety of forces which aimed at disorganising and defeating them. The Republican command managed to retain its solidity by resisting these pressures whilst bringing the rank and file with them on the path to an unarmed strategy. What the Republican Army did from 1994 in the transition between War and politics was as important as anything it did in its earlier military offensive.
The first ceasefire broke down due to John Major’s dependence on Unionists to bolster his small Westminster majority in the face of pressure from his euro sceptics. But it was Taoiseach Bruton’s failure to maintain the solidity of the nationalist front that finally led to the bomb at Canary Wharf. It took the election of Tony Blair with his massive majority in 1997 and the return of Fianna Fáil to put things back on track.
A year later, in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed. This came about because the Republican Army had remained, undefeated in the field for 28 years. The Agreement and new constitution was the price Britain paid to stop the War and further bombs in the City of London. It never had any previous intention to pay that price. England likes to fight its wars to a definite conclusion.
The Republican War on the British State led the State to exert pressure on the Unionists to submit to a rearrangement of the internal mode of government in the North. The Agreement formally equalised power between the communities within a power-dividing executive. The 1998 Agreement was a much more substantial achievement than the attempted settlement of 1974. It was free-standing and mandatory with a more powerful political force involved in it. Republicans were an integral part of it, putting much greater steel into things from the nationalist side. The Catholic community and its battle hardened instrument had proved its resilience and ability in politics and power relations had fundamentally shifted between the two communities during the 2 decades of Direct Rule and Insurrection. The resurgence had gained institutional recognition.
The primary Republican War Aim offered the ultimate solution to the Catholic predicament in the Six Counties—and still does. But it was, and is, not available and a transitional stage which buried all chance of a restoration of Unionist sub-government forever constituted an acceptable stepping-stone for the community. That was the secondary War aim and it was widely understood within the community as such—except by some disgruntled ‘Revolutionaries’. Sinn Fein—as the Republican Army before it—is a product of the Northern Catholic predicament and historical experience, not a disconnected “Revolutionary” ideology.
The ultimate objective of the new Republican Army proved utopian in the military phase because of the pre-existing national division in the North – which existed centuries before the Provos. So a united Ireland proved to be militarily unachievable and the secondary aim, which fundamentally drove the war from the community, was snapped up. Politics could do – or fail to do – the rest. The position established was an advantageous one with much greater likelihood of advance to the ultimate objective than retreat. It recognised the forces on the island that lay as a barrier to unity and set out to do something about them rather than wallow in shibboleths.
Unionism had signed up to the 1998 under duress and First Minister Trimble proved a reluctant and obstructive partner in peace. Trimble believed he could “liquidate the enemy” in its disengagement from war. He thought he could either encourage them back to a war he believed they were no longer able to fight or force them into a surrender of arms that would shatter the Republican movement. He was encouraged in this by a host of ‘exotic advisers’ like Eoghan Harris and Sean O’Callaghan plus the Sunday Independent crew. He was also advised by ex-Official Republicans who were still waging their war against the Provos from academia and the media. Finally, Trimble counted on the support of US neo-Conservatives whom he believed to be all-powerful in the world after 9/11. After the defeat in Iraq this element, having failed to re-order the world, and produced only chaos, became a liability.
Trimble not only shattered himself and his party in his strategy of war by other means against but also broke the SDLP, which under Mallon had offered him their support in excluding Sinn Fein from the executive. The reluctant Trimble rejected Mallon’s offer and pulled the institutions down again and again – with British suspensions thrown in – to create a very dysfunctional agreement.
Trimble used a letter from Blair, written outside the terms of decommissioning laid down in the Agreement, to obstruct its implementation. The institutions agreed upon at Easter 1998 functioned for a total of only 18 months during the proceeding 9 years. It was envisaged that decommissioning would take place over 2 years of functioning government but Trimble’s obstructionism turned everything into a duel with Republicans that he ultimately lost.
All the British attempts to save him came to nought and Sinn Fein and the DUP replaced the moderate centre as the predominant partners in the government. The DUP was always the more socially representative element in Unionism and after Faulkner there was little political skill left in the party that governed ‘Northern Ireland’ for more than a generation.
Sinn Fein and the DUP gave ‘Northern Ireland’ the most functional government it ever had. Paisley, who initially declared his intention to ‘Smash Sinn Fein’ after seeing how the land lay decided to draw the Republicans into government and share the cake he could only have himself if he let Sinn Fein have the other half. He believed he could implicate SF in the system and slow any momentum they had gained through the more substantial presence of the DUP beside them.
After Paisley gave way to Peter Robinson things initially remained functional. But then a combination of events conspired to poison relations. The discontent DUP backbench, feeling the heat of Jim Allister’s breath on their necks, began to revolt and constrain Robinson.
A curious alliance of rejectionist Unionists who could not accept the equalising effect of the Good Friday Agreement, elements in the British State who wished for victory in a war they had failed to win on the battlefield, hostile elements in the South and die-hard, disgruntled Republicans who described the Sinn Fein journey as a Great Betrayal became bent on wrecking activity. This was the Anti-Sinn Fein symbiosis – the living together of unlike organisms which fed off each other politically.
Republican die-hard disgruntlement over the calling off of the War before final victory/defeat came down to the Republican Army being in essence partisans rather than revolutionaries. “Revolutionary” ideology had infected the Republican movement in the 1960s as it had the Civil Rights movement. It messed up the minds of what became the Officials and made them incapable of responding to the events of August 1969. The Revolution that never was, was lost, and the losers retreated into academia and the media, acting like hurlers on the ditch.
The Provos had a greater resistance to foreign ideology due to the traditional views of their Southern Anti-Treaty leadership and the fact that the new volunteers were a product of the real conditions of life in the North, rather than left wing dogma. But many of those who spent lengthy time in gaol had time to think and were drawn to revolutionary ideas courtesy of the extensive Long Kesh library of Marxist thought and activity. The British facilitated the access to this revolutionary knowledge for sound reasons. It created restless and dispirited people in the ranks who would be there when the conflict had to end in compromise at the conference table. The Boston College project was a manifestation of this.
The Dublin government also began to detach itself from the alliance that had made 1998 possible. The partners in moderation that the GFA had been meant to produce – the UUP/SDLP Executive – had failed, SF had grown more and more popular and moved south with some effect, journeying into territory in which northerners were unwelcome. The order of the day was to “Get Adams” and the hunt was on from a weird alliance of disgruntled Republicans, fundamentalist Unionists and the Dublin media and political establishment. The objective was to stop Sinn Fein, culminating in the Southern General Election of 1916 where the intention was not only to prevent Republicans entering government but also to prevent them becoming the Opposition!
All of this wrecking activity helped to bring the 1998 institutions to the brink again in the North. ‘Northern Ireland’ R.I.P. – Restless in Peace. The party of John Hume has even gone into an illusory Opposition with the former one-party government of the statelet. But ‘Northern Ireland’ cannot be fundamentally improved for its inhabitants short of its demise.
What exists at the moment in ‘Northern Ireland’ is a position of stalemate between the two communities. The problem for Republicans is the national will of the Ulster Protestants – a will to be anything but Irish. That hasn’t gone away y’know. However, it is no longer Unionist consent that is needed for a united Ireland, it is ‘Northern Ireland’ consent under the terms of the Agreement.
History did not end in 1920, the map of Ireland is unfolded again.
(A version of this talk was given in Belfast at the launch of Resurgence on 24 June at the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, Cathedral Quarter)