The End Of An Era?

Irish Political Review Editorial October 2017

Northern Ireland is without a Government at the moment. It has been without a Government since before the last British General Election. Or, to put it another way, the Northern Ireland region of the British state is being governed by the Government of the state and that is not what the State wants.

What the State wants is to have a subordinate Government in its Six County region—a Government which has no power of its own, but whose flimsy existence at Stormont helps to conceal the fact that the British system of government in its Northern Ireland region is, and always has been, essentially undemocratic.

The Fianna Fail leader, Micheál Martin, is unhappy that Sinn Fein is not facilitating British policy by enabling the Northern Ireland false front of democracy to be restored. He says that Sinn Fein is falling down on its duty as a class party by giving priority to national considerations. He urges Sinn Fein to get back into harness with the DUP, restore the subordinate Government, and then undo the austerity regime imposed by Westminster.

We recall a time, not very long ago, when Sinn Fein, in the government at Stormont, was refusing to implement the austerity measures demanded by Westminster, and Mr. Martin condemned it for refusing to take the hard, unpopular decisions that Governments often have to take, and said that proved that Sinn Fein was unfit to take part in a Government of the Republic.

And Mr. Martin has forgotten—if he ever took enough interest in the North to have known it—that the austerity measures in question were imposed by Whitehall against the opposition of the subordinate Stormont Government, even though the authority in the matter lay with the devolved Government under the terms of the Agreement which was supposedly the Northern Ireland Constitution.

All the powers of state lie with Westminster. It set up a subordinate Six County Government to exercise some of them. But the Six County system has no sovereign authority at all, even within the sphere allocated to it. Whitehall can over-rule its decisions whenever it pleases. It has both legal power and the actual political influence to do so.

There is authentic devolution in Scotland. Whitehall would not dare to over-rule it in its exercise of powers devolved to it, as it did with the northern Ireland Government on the austerity issue. Devolution was conceded to Scotland in the hope that it would appease the Scottish Nationalist movement. It appears to have done so. But the measure of appeasement has conferred layer of actual authority to the Scottish devolution system that Whitehall would over- rule at its peril.

That is not the case with the Six Counties. The Northern Ireland system was imposed, in response to no demand for it, as British policy for handling the Irish situation as a whole.

The two national communities with conflicting interests that made up the Six County Area were bundled into the strange Northern Ireland adjunct of the British state. Neither of them wanted it, but Whitehall persuaded the Protestant Community to accept it, under the threat that otherwise they would come under an Irish Home Rule system. For half a century the Protestant majority ruled over the Catholic community, in exclusion from the political life of the British state, in the make-believe ‘Northern Ireland state’, with most of the services of State continuing to be provided by Whitehall.

Communal conflict—called “sectarian conflict” by superficial political commentators who did not trouble to see what the ground of it was—was what happened in the Northern Ireland political vacuum.

It was all that was there to happen.

The Protestant Community became addicted to the political system which it had not wanted but had agreed to rule. It called itself Unionist, but had agreed to operate a system outside the political life of the Union, and was damaged by that decision. It had no political purpose beyond turning out the Protestant vote at every election in order to keep itself ‘connected’ with Britain.

The Catholic community has been accused of refusing to participate in the Northern Ireland political system, but there was actually no internal political life within the system for it to participate in. It was routinely humiliated in the most casual manner by the rulers, and it was discriminated against routinely, but it was aware of itself as a politically detached segment of the Irish nation, which had formed a state through war with Britain, and so it had a political purpose beyond Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland it lived in its own life within its own culture and it grew despite discrimination and strong inducements to emigrate, and bided its time. After half a century it launched a War against the State and sustained it until the State re-ordered the devolved system in a way that abolished the majority of political status of the majority population. Throughout the War it grew in confidence as well as numbers.

A position has now been reached where Unionism is no longer a political majority. In the last Elections (Six County and state) the combined votes of the Unionist Parties was less than the combined votes of the other Parties. (The holding of Censuses was abolished sometime ago in order to conceal ‘Demographics’.)

Northern Ireland is without a Government (but the Six Counties isn’t) because of gross mismanagement by the DUP leader of the subsidised heating issue when she was a Minister. Sinn Fein under Martin McGuinness appeared willing to fudge a way through the crisis but the SDLP would have characterised it as a DUP stooge if it had persisted in the attempt, so it resigned from the Government when Arlene Foster would not stand aside while an investigation was being held.

The SDLP at the time was refusing to participate in Government in accordance with the spirit of the 1998 Agreement. It made an alliance with the Official Unionists in an attempt to break the Agreement and restore some kind of majority rule system. Sinn Fein, having been put under pressure to end collaboration with the DUP, was then criticised for not getting back into coalition quickly without any real change in the circumstances under which it was under pressure to resign.

The new SDLP leader, Colm Eastwood, having tried to restore SDLP fortunes by means of an anti-Republican pact with the Official Unionists, and come to grief in the Elections, has reverted to Republicanism. Sinn Fein has made a “stand-alone” Irish Language Act a condition of entering government again. The DUP insist that any Language Act must put on a par Gaelic and a variety of Scottish said to be spoken somewhere, but impossible to find.

Sinn Fein insists that there must be an Act that it is specifically directed for the revival of Irish, which has been seriously undertaken in the North ever since Partition. It points out that such an Act has already been accepted in two official agreements, which have never been implemented.

Official Unionist Reg Empey says that, if this is done, everyone will be forced to speak Irish, thus putting pressure on the DUP to maintain a hard-line stance. But the SDLP supports the Sinn Fein position—as does the Fine Gael-led Irish Government.

Fianna Fail says Sinn Fein should put nationality on the long finger and get back into government as a class party and reverse austerity.

When did Sinn Fein ever present itself as a class party? a Labour Party? It is a nationalist Party formed by the working class—the most working-class party in composition that there has ever been amongst the major Parties in Ireland or Britain, but a nationalist party. It treats social issues within the context of nationality—Just as Connolly did.

Fianna Fail seems to have lost itself under Martin’s leadership. He is going down the way prepared for Fianna Fail by Martin Mansergh who tried to obscure its origins in the War against Lloyd George’s one-sided ‘Treaty’. (And could it be that he is being advised by Ireland’s most blustering political commentator, Eoghan Harris?)

Fine Gael, however, seems to be changing in the other direction.

Fianna Fail has been ‘maturing’ towards the view that the Treaty State replaced the elected Republic in a democratic way in 1922-3, while Leo Varadkar has commented that the Treaty regime was established by means of war-crimes.

The crucial event leading to the crumbling of Republican morale in Fianna Fail was Jack Lynch’s prosecution in 1970 of members of his Government and Army for treasonable conspiracy when all they had been doing was carrying out his own Northern policy of 1969, and his prosecution of John Kelly, who had been his liaison with the Northern Catholic Defence Committees, which had been formed in response to the Unionist pogrom of August 1969. He did this under pressure from the British Ambassador, acting through the Fine Gael leader.

The court verdict in all cases was Not Guilty, and was strictly in accordance with the evidence presented. Respectable people in all three Irish parties, who had been routinely mouthing Anti-Partition slogans until then, were frightened out of their wits by the turn of events in the North, swallowed Lynch’s suggestion that either the jury had been packed by the IRA (which barely existed at the time) or had been intimidated.

Dermot Keogh, who was on the editorial staff of the Fianna Fail daily paper, The Irish Press, had a vision of Fascism while reporting the burning of the British Embassy in Dublin in 1972, in response to the administrative massacre enacted by the British Army in Derry on Bloody Sunday—not that the British regime in the North was Fascist but that the nationalist response to it in kind was Fascist.

It was arguable that the British regime in the Six Counties was Fascist. We never described it as such, but since it was obviously not democratic the idea that it was Fascist could not be dismissed out of hand. But Fascism is not the only kind of undemocratic government.

Keogh left the newspaper business for academia. He became an influential Professor in Cork University where he cultivated the notion that Northern Ireland was not an undemocratically governed region of the British state but was itself a state, and he wrote a hagiography of Jack Lynch.

No reasoning was ever brought to bear by Keogh on this matter. He did not review the institutions of state in the North and show that they were were not institutions of the British state, entirely under British sovereignty and administrative control. What he relied on was not reason but administrative academic control of commercial publishing in the circumstances where third level education was undergoing phenomenal expansion.

It was necessary for the frightened minds of the Free State Establishment in the Lynchite era that the plain fact that Northern Ireland was an undemocratically governed region of the British state should not be seen. If it was seen, then some thought would have to be given to the consequences of undemocratic government. And, judging by what was said with regard to other parts of the world, the conclusion must follow that war was a possible consequence.

In the era of general democracy, are the victims of undemocratic government in a region of a democratic state, who are deprived of the means of political remedy by Constitutional means, to be allowed to do nothing but suffer patiently?

War was the actual consequence of undemocratic government in the North. That seems to have been half-conceded in many quarters, which at the same time deny that it was a legitimate consequence. It is a nonsensical distinction which expresses nothing but an evasion of thought.

This state of mind of the Lynch era (which may now be approaching its end) was neatly summed up by Colm Toibin, in his function as a fiction-writer as distinct from a direct commentator. His early novel, The Heather Blazing, is one of the very few modern Irish novels that engages with politics and law. A Government advisor reflects:

“He had written a report for the government, which he presented early in 1972, on the ways in which the government should respond to a concerted campaign by the IRA… There were two chapters in his report…; no one, beyond those who were entitled to see the report, had ever read these chapters. He had been told several times that they had been influential and had helped shape government policy… He had warned never to allow public opinion to become inflamed… The north, he argued, must be presented as a different society, a place apart” (p177-8).

The Dublin Establishment sleepwalked through the war in the North, uttering phrases as a robot might do. Opinion surveys were arranged to show that public opinion had gone off the North and wouldn’t have it if it offered itself. And all the time the assertion of sovereign right over the north lay in the Constitution.

Keogh’s characterisation of the Provisional movement as Fascist was not seriously disputed by Important People. But the Fascists won—and they gave permission to the Dublin Establishment to repeal the sovereignty claim in the Constitution.

The 26 County State had no Northern policy between the time of the Arms Trials of 1970 and the Constitutional referendum of 1998. Its function under the Good Friday Agreement should have been to act as an advocate and guarantor of the northern nationalist community. But it could not do that coherently without recognising, at least de facto, that there were two distinct national bodies in the Northern situation and aligning itself with one of them. Under denial of the two nations reality that would be ‘sectarian’.

The Official IRA condemned the Provisionals as sectarian in 1970 because they acted within the social facts of the North. Micheál Martin has done the same with regard to Sinn Fein conduct of politics within the Agreement system. But what was the essential thing that this universally-applauded Agreement did? It gave Constitutional recognition to the fact that the population of the North was in fact two distinct populations which did not constitute a common body politic. We welcomed it at the time for what it was: an arrangement for the separate development as far as possible of the two communities, the two political bodies, the two nationalities—or whatever other name you prefer to call them, which amounts to the same thing.

The British Government had to concede a lot to get the Agreement. It then tried to get back what it conceded—that is what Britain normally does. Dublin Governments have, for the most part, been more British than the British on the matter. They have a degree of official standing under the Agreement but have not troubled to familiarise themselves with the mechanisms of the Agreement.

If, over the generations, they had tried to understand what Northern Ireland was, and to deal with it realistically, they would have had to understand what Britain was. The reality of Britain is not grasped by standard Anglophobia any more than by standard Anglophilia. Ping-pong between the two is all that there has been in nationalist intellectual or academic life. That is why Brexit was traumatic. The actuality of British political life lay beyond the understanding of both.

Political life within Northern Ireland under Brexit influence remains much as it was before Brexit: a process of attrition between two national communities. That is what it has been ever since 1921, whether in war or peace. Gerry Adams is hated no more on the Unionist side than John Hume was.

The British purpose in setting up the Northern Ireland system—unique in Constitutional history—can only have been to deter the independent development of nationalist Ireland by offering the illusory hope of unity if it conciliated the Ulster Unionists. Brexit, by raising the prospect of a land border in Ireland between Britain and the European Union, brings greater powers and complexities into play. The context of communal attrition within the North is changed, but we do not expect it to cease.

PS: What is said about the Dublin Establishment should be read as excluding Charles Haughey who, as Taoiseach, was very widely regarded in political circles as a dodgy intruder, and whose remarkable achievements during his few years as Taoiseach without a secure majority have never been consolidated in political literature into something that could be called a political heritage. His astonishing tour de force did not seem to be appreciated anywhere outside of Athol St.

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