Sinn Fein And The Fog Of Party Politics
The Treaty parties have run out of steam. They were rejected individually by the electorate, and they were rejected even as a pair. They were rejected because they became a pair. And they became a pair when Fianna Fail rejected its heritage as the anti-Treaty party and became a Treaty party.
Martin Mansergh, one-time adviser to Fianna Fail Taoiseachs, made the going in this development. Now, reviewing the outcome in his column in the Irish Catholic, he remembers that Fianna Fail came out of Sinn Fein and he envisages reunification. That would be entirely against the grain of the development which he helped to set in motion, and it is hard to see where in Fianna Fail the political capacity survives to attempt such a thing.
Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin has given a firm understanding not to collaborate with Sinn Fein under any circumstances. Irish Times columnist Pat Leahy says “there is no way that Martin can or will change his mind on this”, and that his position has been bolstered by the statement “from Garda Commissioner Drew Harris agreeing with the assessments of the PSNI and the British government that the Provisional IRA’s army council still oversees Sinn Fein” (Feb. 22). Harris is, of course, a British political policeman, drawn from the PSNI, who was put in control of the police force of the Irish state. But Martin’s intransigent stand had nothing to do with British influence. It was all his own idea.
Conor Brady, a former Editor of the Irish Times, writes in the British Sunday Times that “Sinn Fein Can’t Shrug Off Security Risk Fears, and that
“Embedded links to the IRA and its violent past will continue to haunt the party’s ambition to enter government in the Republic” (March 1st). And the Irish Times of March 7th has an editorial entitled, “Sinn Fein: Getting Used To Scrutiny”.
Sinn Fein is the most scrutinised party there has ever been in Ireland. Its whole life has been lived under close police scrutiny, accompanied by a continuous propaganda barrage directed against it by all other parties and by the established media. That it was the war party in the North was known to everybody who voted for it and made it the most popular party in the South. And the fact that it is part of the combination Sinn Fein/IRA has been rammed home every day for fifty years. There is no secret past to haunt it.
What must be haunting the Treaty parties is the mess they have made of the business of governing the country by undermining themselves as a viable party system.
If they persist in their present stance of refusing to phase Sinn Fein into the business of governing the South—or, as Leahy puts it in his hysterical way, if they “will not crawl away leaving the stage to MacDonald”—the outcome is likely to be another Election with a significant increase of Sinn Fein seats. And, if it wins a majority of the Dail seats, what then? It has been widely described as Fascist by members of the Establishment. Can a Fascist party be admitted to power in the state just because it wins an Election? Is that not said to be the great mistake made in Germany in 1933?
Conor Brady is an Appeaser. He assumes that Sinn Fein will be allowed to govern. But—
“The night before Sinn Fein ministers are given their seals of office… the night skies over the garda depot in the Phoenix Park would not glow with burning files—but only because the data systems are now computerised. It is certain that great volumes of sensitive data would be dumped, wiped or hidden away. By definition, the relationship between the government and the state’s security agencies would be altered. Garda and military chiefs would have more than a little difficulty relating to new masters who insist on referring to the Republic of Ireland as ‘the Free State’ or ‘the south’ and to Northern Ireland as ‘the six counties’.”
This is with relation to 1932, when Fianna Fail—the Anti-Treaty Party—won the election against the Free State governing party, which had been directing a draconian “law and order” policy against it.
Fianna Fail was then regarded by Free Staters as being little more than a front for the IRA. And the IRA was seen as being Communist. It would have been a serious matter indeed if the Free State party had refused to concede state office to the Dail majority. The IRA had revived strongly since the defeat of 1922-3 and the electorate had freed itself from the spell of the Free State terror of that period. So, rather than revive the Civil War on unfavourable terms, the Free State party gave way to the Dail majority and relinquished office to Fianna Fail. But, before doing so, they destroyed the documentary evidence of what they had been up to for ten years.
Fianna Fail governed with the support of the Labour Party for a year. In 1933 it went to the country again and gained an outright majority. The Free State Party (called Cumann na nGaedheal) then remade itself as a Fascist Party (Fine Gael), under the leadership of General O’Duffy, for the purpose of saving Ireland from Communism. Leading academics supported it with learned books about the imminent danger of Communism under Fianna Fail. But Fianna Fail stabilised the situation by winning every General Election until 1948.
Fintan O’Toole is made of sterner stuff than Conor Brady:
“What Sinn Fein has to confront, sooner rather than later, is that it can’t continue to legitimise the ‘armed struggle’ of the Provisional IRA without giving exactly the same legitimacy to every other gang that puts a different adjective before those three sacred letters: continuity, real and new. Shouting ‘Up the ‘Ra’ is not a performance by historical re-enactors—it is a live device, primed to explode into contemporary reality” (Sinn Fein Has To Stop Legitimising Terror. Irish Times, Feb 25).
To admit Sinn Fein to the legitimate politics of the South before it has somehow de-legitimised the means by which it brought about a functional settlement in the North confers a general right to make war on any group which cares to assert it. Is that not the meaning of O’Toole’s tortuous paragraph? And does it not follow that preservation of the legitimate order of the State requires that Sinn Fein be kept out of Office by whatever means are necessary?
Sinn Fein is in the Northern Government—insofar as there is Northern Government. It got there by making war on the State. That war was legitimised by the peace settlement which ended it. Northern Ireland is more settled under that settlement than it ever was before.
What is now demanded of Sinn Fein by the Irish Times is that it should de-legitimise itself as a successful war party in order to fit itself for admission to government in the South. How might it do this?
And there is another difficulty. The State on which the IRA made war, and with which it made an advantageous peace settlement, having established its credentials in a long war, was not a legitimate State in the view of the Constitution of the Irish state in which Sinn Fein has now become a major party.
We know that very well because we picketed the Department of External Affairs in Dublin, early in the Northern war, with a demand that the sovereignty claim over the Six Counties in the Irish Constitution should be repealed as a contribution to peacemaking in the North. No party in the Dail supported that demand, nor did any TD except Jim Kemmy, nor did any newspaper (including the Irish Times).
The only State the Provisional IRA has made war on is the British State in the Six Counties, which was illegitimate according to the Constitution of the Irish state.
During the War the Courts of the Irish State, in accordance with the Constitution that bound them, rejected extradition warrants from the illegitimate British regime in the North. And, when the Dublin Government, in 1973, signed an agreement with Britain which seemed to recognise the legitimacy of the British State in the Six Counties, it was taken to Court for acting in breach of the Constitution. The responsible Ministers were Garret FitzGerald and Conor Cruise O’Brien. Their defence pleading in Court early in 1974 was that they had only made a de facto agreement with Britain which left the sovereignty claim over the Six Counties intact for any future Government to implement. The Court accepted this defence, but made it clear that recognition of the Northern regime as legitimate would have been unconstitutional. And that was what undermined the first power-sharing arrangement in the North, the Sunningdale Agreement, which Ulster Unionists had entered into on the understanding that Dublin had withdrawn its sovereignty claim over them.
When a State de-legitimises another State that is a subversive act against the other state, to put it mildly. When the British State declared that it did not regard the Syrian regime as legitimate, that was a deliberate act of subversion.
The Treaty regime recognised British sovereignty in the Six Counties, but it did so with a bade grace, and only because the British Government would not otherwise have established it in power in the 26 Counties. When the Anti-Treaty movement came to power ten years later it revoked that sullen submission to British sovereignty in the North and the Treatyites did not challenge it on that ground. The new Constitution, adopted by referendum a few years later, specifically asserted de jure sovereignty over the Six Counties. When Fine Gael eventually came to power in 1948 it launched a great propaganda offensive against the illegitimate British regime in the North.
The legitimacy of the State on which the new IRA declared war in 1970 was not recognised by the Irish State until the IRA had fought its way to a basic and orderly restructuring of the British system in the North in 1998. It was only then, and with the permission of the IRA, that the subversive sovereignty claim by the Irish State on the British State in the Six Counties was repealed.
Britain recognised as being legitimate in fact—as having been necessary—the party that had made war on it. It would have gone further in that direction if Dublin had entered into the spirit of the 1998 Agreement. But Dublin was more concerned with fig leaves than with political facts, and its Establishment has now suffered accordingly.
Sinn Fein was a war-party in the war against the British State in the Six Counties. The Constitution of the 26 County State declared that the British State in the Six Counties on which the IRA made war was illegitimate, and was a usurpation of Irish sovereignty. It held that position throughout the Northern War.
The IRA did not declare war on the 26 County State, and the 26 County Courts interpreted the Constitution as entitling IRA members who had been active in the North to take refuge in the South from the British justice system in the North.
The Provisional IRA did not make war on the Southern State. The Official IRA did so to some extent, and it contemplated revolution against the Southern State, and it condemned the Provisional IRA for being purely national in its outlook and basing itself on the nationalist community in the North in its efforts to free itself from the stifling conditions the British State had imposed on it.
Official Sinn Fein never became a serious electoral force in the South but it was given major influence against the Provos in the Dublin propaganda apparatus.
There are no clear Constitutional grounds for the decision of the Dublin Government to treat the Provisional IRA as being in rebellion against it when it made war on the Constitutionally illegitimate British regime in the North.
It might be that its reasoning was that the assertion of de jure sovereignty over the Six Counties by Article 2 of the Constitution, though its implementation was suspended by Article 3, still gave it the authority to decide whether there should be war on the illegitimate British regime, and that the decision did not lie with the actual nationalist community in the North, which suffered from the illegitimate British rule.
No Dublin Government ever explained what it thought the combination of Articles 2 and 3 meant in practice. But the Courts decided that it meant something, and interpreted it in favour of the IRA.
The IRA was not in any ordinary sense a war party against the Southern State. It looked to the Southern State, in the light of its Constitution, to be a place of safe retreat, and the Courts upheld it in that view (until very recently when it extradited a republican to Northern Ireland in respect of action taken a generation ago).
But Sinn Fein is now being treated as having been a war party against the Southern State, and therefore being ineligible for taking part in Government. That is the current position of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
And that position seems intelligible to us only if the assumption is that the nationalist community in the North owed allegiance to Dublin and that the Northern decision to make war on the British regime, which the Constitution of the Southern State said was illegitimate, was an act of treason against Irish sovereignty, because Dublin Governments did not authorise it.
But we doubt that there was any reasoning at all on this question. Dublin Governments, in anything seriously involving Britain, have been afraid of their shadows.
And there is at any rate no serious comparison to be made between Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail in 1932. Fianna Fail had made war on the Free State and not at all on Britain. And the Free State Government had committed war crimes against the anti-Treaty movement if that term had any meaning at all. And nothing of that kind exists between FG/FF and Sinn Fein today. FG/FF are just lost in the ideological fog in which they concealed themselves during the Northern War.
Fintan O’Toole lives in a world of sensationalist journalist abstraction. So he writes about a newly-elected Sinn Fein TD, who won against all the odds: “Shouting ‘Up the Ra!’… Is a live device, primed to explode into contemporary reality”?
How can that be? Because the Provos—a hastily-formed group—asserted in 1970 the right to fight a war in the North, and they fought it to a negotiated settlement, and they took Government Office in the negotiated settlement, and they refuse in retrospect to brand themselves as murderers.
Therefore anybody who utters the magic slogan : “Up the Ra!” can do in the South what the Provos did in the North, make war?
This is the world of Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves. The slogan there, as far as we recall, was Alka Shazam!, which caused the rock to move.
This ‘Up The Ra’ magic is a “toxic tradition” O’Toole says.
Ferghal Keane (the one who is “a senior foreign correspondent with the BBC”) describes it as “the most toxic political word in the state” (Irish Times, March 17). He says “the IRA past is not history, at least not in the sense of something that has vanished into an unmarked grave”.
How could it be when the state itself is a product of it, as Keane acknowledges. And he looks hopefully to Mary Lou to exorcise the magic, to purge the poison: “Her performance… has been surefooted, and she is surely in a strong position to set in motion a critical examination of the past.”
There was a moment when Mary Lou seemed very willing to disown the past and treat the state brought about by IRA action as worthless, and open the way for a comprehensively bland and nondescript future, such as would meet with the approval of a Foreign Correspondent of the BBC. But that moment seems to have passed.
In case it hasn’t, here is Keane’s helpful advice to her:
“She could become the first republican leader in Irish history to say that we must speak all the truths of war and not just those that damn our enemies. This period of centenaries reminds us well of the absence of honesty in the wake of the War of Independence and the Civil War. Our new state groaned under the weight of suppressed trauma and buried lies…”
It seems to us that “our new state” dealt with its conflicts (most of which were imposed by Keane’s State) openly and vigorously, first in war and later in politics, and, instead of being weighed down with an overstuffed unconscious filled with traumas, appears almost to have no unconscious but to exist entirely on the surface. Freud is reported as saying that the Irish could not be analysed for lack of a problematic Unconscious.
They could now do with a bit of history. And what history is there is the past half-millennium if resistance to British subjugation by the “Ra” is left out of it?
Keane’s ideal of Irish normality is of course West Britain. He hails from Kerry but is by profession a British propagandist. The BBC is a British State institution. The issue was put to the test in the North when Vincent Hanna, then the presenter of Newsnight, got the notion that the BBC was an independent Guild of broadcasters and broadcast an interview with Martin McGuinness and Gregory Campbell, contrary to Government instruction, and was sacked—and the Board that authorised it was purged.
The rule that the BBC was obliged to be “impartial” but was forbidden to be “independent” was enforced on the dissident propagandists. The meaning of “impartial” was that it had to act within the parameters set by the Government and the Official Opposition, giving expression to their views but not going beyond them.
With a bizarre debating point, Keane OBE has aligned himself against the IRA that brought its war to an orderly conclusion, by citing the fragment of it that resigned in order to continue the war to a bitter end.
David Cullinane, on winning the Waterford seat, reminded us that a Northern Hunger Striker, Kevin Lynch, had contested it in 1981 and lost. Cullinane’s victory demonstrated how opinion in the South had moved towards the IRA which had fought the war in the North to an orderly conclusion. He reflected that this may be of some consolation to Lynch’s family. So, Up the Ra!
Not at all!, says Keane OBE. The Hunger Strikers rejected the settlement made in 1998. The Provo leaders sold the Hunger Strikers down the river:
“Recalling the hunger strikes of 1981 and the memory of Bobby Sands, he [Cullinane] spoke of Sinn Fein’s electoral triumph as a “fantastic moment” for Sands’s family if they were watching. Not quite. The Sands family’s most prominent voice is Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, who has publicly denounced Sinn Fein’s pursuit of electoral politics. At Bobby Sands’s mother’s funeral in 2018 Sands-McKevitt turned on the Sinn Fein IRA leadership, accusing them of breaching the family’s trust. To the bitter enders of the dissident movement, the sight of David Cullinane shouting ‘Up the Ra’ will have been obnoxious, for very different reasons than those felt by the victims of the IRA…”
In wars there are victims on all sides, and war is the most permanent and universal feature of all public human activities. And the State which Keane OBE serves as a propagandist has made more wars than any other in the last few hundred years. But the relevant matter is not the victims but the participants. The non-belligerent victims of Hiroshima were killed in order to exert pressure on the Japanese Government to make an unconditional surrender and save some American military lives. Their killers have never bothered their heads about them, but the killing at least had an identifiable purpose—unlike that of the Dresden fire-bombing when the War was all but over.
The opinion of participants are what are relevant to the matter under discussion. Adams and McGuinness persuaded most of the leaders of the IRA that a functional settlement could be made which would transfer the momentum of the War to politics, and this was carried through. A minority regarded this as treason. Many of them were induced by Official IRA member Lord Bew, and by journalist Ed Moloney, to take part in an exercise intended to discredit Adams and damage the Agreement. They were interviewed on record at Boston College. The tapes were supposed to remain secret until they became politically irrelevant, but Moloney could not contain himself and drew attention to them. The State prosecution then demanded access to them and got it. And the witnesses against Adams found themselves being prosecuted on the basis of what they said about themselves on the tapes.
What they said against Adams was dismissed by the Courts, because it was said in response to leading questions by the interviewers and there was no devil’s advocate.
Lord Bew’s Boston College escapade at least had the merit of demonstrating the political acumen of the opposition.
O’Toole reflects sententiously:
“The most awesome acts—the irreversible annihilation of human beings—require a much lower standard of authority than the mundane day-to-day business of governmental administration. The mandate for murder is much more cheaply purchased than the mandate for fixing potholes.”
And he gets paid good money for that!
There is no standard of authority for making wars. War is a lawless activity. Laws of war were supposedly established by the United Nations but they have only ever been applied by victors against vanquished.
On O’Toole’s view the Provos were a murder gang. The nominal authority for killing in the Six Counties was the British Government. It did not commission the Provos to kill. It reserved the right of killing to itself. The Dublin Government, which asserted de jure authority, did not commission them either. The Provos did it on their own authority. And if they had the right to do that, then everybody has the right to do it, and therefore everybody can do it. And therefore things will fall apart in the world if Sinn Fein does not recant, and does not condemn the IRA as a murder gang, and thus repeal the anarchic right of everybody to make war, which they asserted fifty years ago!
*The regime under which the British State has been governed for a little over 300 years was founded by an act of war in breach of law. Edmund Burke, the most constitutional of British political philosophers, admitted that this was so, but he thought it was not a fact to be dwelt upon and extrapolated into a precedent. Revolutions do not result from precedents. And wars by a people against a regime are not caused by principles, good or bad. And if a people rebels against a powerful State, and the war is carried through to a successful outcome, that fact is of itself proof that there was sufficient reason for it. The particulars of situations are what matter.