Triumph of Sinn Fein

Sinn Féin’s winning of more seats than any other political party in the NI Assembly elections has produced some sniping from begrudgers who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the achievement. The objective has been to denigrate the triumph of Sinn Fein by claiming that the party’s performance has been less impressive than it has been presented, and signals something different than a Republican victory. That view will cut little ice in the North itself.

Fintan O’Toole has written ‘Old North is Dead but Cannot be Reborn’ for the Irish Times (9.5.22):

“there is… a large and growing nonbinary identity. The “two-traditions” model was never adequate to the complexities of Northern Ireland but it, too, is now surely dead. The rise of Alliance has made it definitively defunct. This means, for a start, that the internal political architecture created by the Belfast Agreement is obsolete. It disempowers those voters who do not wish to place themselves within the old binary categories. But it also means that whatever “the new” is, it can’t be a simple move from one monolith (a unionist-dominated Northern Ireland) to another (a 32-county republic that is merely an extension of the existing 26-county state). It has to be new in a much larger sense – innovative, nonbinary, rooted in fresh thought about how political identities and democratic states need to function in the 21st century.”

Now that Sinn Fein has won the game O’Toole seems to want to have it that the game was already over and the winning of the game is of no consequence.

It is apparent to anyone who lives in the political entity of ‘Northern Ireland’ that it is certainly not a normal democracy, as O’Toole asserts. It was created with the intention of having a permanent majority governing a permanent minority and that is how it functioned for 50 years, until its collapse. In 1998 it was reconstituted formally on communal lines but still on the understanding that there would be a permanent Protestant majority, with a Catholic minority protected from it through institutional safeguards. It’s structures were designed to promote a moderate centre, constituted by the UUP and SDLP, and a marginalisation of its extremes. But the DUP and SF came to power and spoiled the plan. And for a brief spell, from 2007-11, it worked well, to the amazement of all.

Then it was discovered that what was put in place in 1998 did not work.

Some, in recent years, have thought it could be made into a normal democracy by manufacturing an opposition. That opposition was ineffectual and has been decimated. 

Now it seems O’Toole wants to make ‘Northern Ireland’ into California with its non-binary, identity politics overriding the constitutional question and historic political categories. What the British, Irish and US governments took years to put together is to be broken up because the Alliance Party got some extra seats.

It should be plain for all to see that ‘Northern Ireland’ is the last place in the world in which an individual can reinvent themselves into a different category on a whim. Social intercourse is entirely built around discovering what an individual really is – and that can only be Prod or Taig. Everything else in life is a luxury.

But it seems that history and historical experience is of no consequence when Ireland (having “matured as a nation”?) can be metamorphosed into whatever progress is in the air. But we can comfortably predict that the North, where people live lives in touch with the more fundamental elements of social existence, will likely prove more impervious to transformation and re-identification.

O’Toole will find that far from a political transformation having taken place in the North there has been an absorption and harnessing of the current progress fashions indulged in by the superficial layer of humanity to the communal war of attrition. 

The Northern Catholic community has developed into a highly sophisticated and tactically flexible voting mass. It is clear that it voted overwhelmingly for Sinn Fein where there was the opportunity of electing the maximum amount of republicans and where there was not it set about damaging the DUP to prevent it retaining the top spot necessary for the First Minister.

The Catholic community has observed, over the last decade, the challenge the Alliance Party has represented to the DUP. The DUP hysterics directed at the Alliance, along with loyalist intimidation, has shown the Catholic voter that to get at the DUP, and “don’t feed the crocodile unionism” the Alliance is the best weapon. 

The DUP became prone to undermining with the demise of Arlene Foster and the Brexit vote. From that point onwards it found its vote being shaved from both ends – the liberal unionist and intransigent unionist ends. Donaldson took over the leadership to stop the rot but he has failed, leading to a loss of DUP voters to the TUV. But the TUV could not achieve the numbers in each constituency to translate this into seats.

The Catholic community has come to understand that the SDLP vote is a wasted vote when it comes to damaging the DUP. By voting Alliance, or giving the party second preferences, the Catholic voter can combine with the liberal Protestant voter to deprive the DUP of seats. That cannot be achieved by voting for a Catholic-nationalist party like the SDLP. The taking of a couple of seats from the DUP on the final counts was crucial to ending its top dog status. In North Antrim, for instance, the well regarded and very competent, Melvyn Storey was squeezed out by an Alliance candidate.

Observers suggest that there is still a unionist majority in NI and Sinn Fein are not really growing their vote. They fail to understand what the Catholic community is doing. It understands Sinn Fein as its primary instrument and is doing what it can to give them primacy in the Assembly and this involves damaging the enemy as much as it does assisting Sinn Fein. Catholics know that just as they made Sinn Fein, Sinn Fein made them. 

There is also some talk among nationalists about moulding a more accommodating unionism through promoting the Alliance. It is noticeable that there are candidates from the mainstream Catholic community prominent in their new gains. They are taking votes from people who desire normal politics – however, fanciful that might be. Unionism in its various forms has proved incapable, since it rejected the normalisation of politics through the organisation of the parties of state, of incorporating this element.

A century ago this year the Northern Catholics were demoralised by the activity of Michael Collins. The faith placed in Michael Collins by Northern nationalists that was dashed by his failure, with 6 County Catholics left high and dry, debilitated the community for nearly half a century. It did not recover until it embarked on a journey which started from the cataclysmic events of August 1969.

Collins was outwitted by the British after they got his signature on the Treaty and he was sold a pup on the Boundary Commission, which Lloyd George led him to believe would whittle away the 6 Counties to an unsustainable rump. He had earlier tested the sustainability of the 6 County entity at Beleek/Pettigo and got a bloody nose from the state behind the false front. He and General Eoin O’Duffy had destroyed the Northern IRA in an aborted offensive, mysteriously called off at the vital moment.

After the failure of Collins and the abandonment by Dublin of the Northern Catholics they found themselves cast adrift in the Six Counties. Northern Nationalism attempted to pick itself up after the traumatic events of 1920-5. But what was it to do in the situation it found itself? Was it to act out the part of a subdued and permanent minority that was designed for it within the new construct of ‘Northern Ireland’ or was it to withdraw into itself and have nothing to do with the permanently subordinate and humiliating position that it was placed in? 

That was the dilemma that faced Northern Catholics cast adrift of both the Irish and British States within the Six Counties during the next half century.

The Northern Catholics were then confronted by the very peculiar entity that they were trapped within – a “pseudo-state” with “a simulacrum” parliament in which nothing meaningful could be done.

The Irish News in Belfast, appealed to Nationalists to shake themselves out of a feeling of helplessness and despair and make the best of things in the Six Counties. It immediately called for the unity and the development of an effective Nationalist organisation. Its editorial of 17th December 1925 consisted of a review of recent events that was headlined ‘The Folly of Despair,’ and it was aimed at nationalists crest fallen at the fiasco of the Boundary Commission.

“The Treaty made on December 6th, 1921, was a complicated document; Articles V and XII provided ample materials for controversies, disputes, intrigues and negotiations. At the end of four uncertain years the situation is clarified at last… no change will be made in the Boundary set up by the Partition Act of 1920.

“Border hopes… aroused by the existence of Article XII with its provision for the appointment of a Boundary Commission to produce a geographic and economic transformation under conditions capable of many divergent interpretations, have vanished now. The Six Counties are the Six Counties still. All the Nationalists placed under the Northern Government at the end of 1920 are in the same position at the end of 1925. No doubt Irish conditions will be altered to some extent in due course; but the changes will come naturally, gradually and in accordance with developments that cannot be foreseen. And, in the meantime, as MacMahon said when he had stormed the Malakoff fort – ‘Here we are: here we shall remain’ …

“We are here; there are 450,000 of us. We can recover all that has been lost within the past half-decade, win the respect of opponents while contending manfully for our rights, and help and hasten the realisation of national hopes by proving our lot in the land where our lot is cast. But we shall sink lower and suffer more sorely if we keep on railing at others and groaning on our own account instead of coming together and putting our hands to the work that must be done.”

The outstanding writer of this Irish News editorial was the Corkman, Timothy McCarthy (1865-1928). It sums up more than any other single piece of writing the Catholic predicament in the 6 County entity and how it was to be manoeuvred out of, in time. 

The Irish News had been worried about the Boundary Commission because it feared the isolation of the Catholics of eastern Ulster, including Belfast, if the Border Nationalists joined the Free State. It wanted the greatest number of Catholics in the Six Counties to maximize nationalist influence in the area they were marooned in to maintain the possibility of someday outnumbering the Unionists. It opposed the Boundary Commission on the basis that the Catholic minority needed to be as large as possible so that eventually Irish unity could come about.

Perhaps its relief at retaining the maximum numbers of Catholics within the Six Counties produced its greatly optimistic reading of what might be accomplished given unity and organisation.

The reference to the Malakoff fort concerned General MacMahon’s taking and holding of the Malakoff redoubt during the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War against the Russians. This was a defining moment in the fall of the city to the French after the British had failed to take it. MacMahon had been ordered by his commander-in-chief to evacuate the redoubt he had captured but replied with the legendary response: “J’y suis, J’y reste”.

Marshal MacMahon was a descendant of the Wild Geese. He commanded the defeated French army at the battle of Metz in the Franco-Prussian war, helped put down the Paris commune and rose to become Chief of State in France and the First President of the Third Republic.

I don’t know if The Irish News meant what it seemed to mean through this analogy – that the Northern Catholic presence, if kept solid and redoubtable, would ultimately result in the fall of the Unionist citadel – but it certainly had such an intention.

Timmy McCarthy would be smiling if he saw what has happened in 2022. He was a staunch Redmondite and is buried near his chief, Joe Devlin, in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast – and not too far from Bobby Sands and his comrades.

The Northern Catholics slowly learnt, out of the Collins experience, and then the further let down by Taoiseach Lynch in 1969-70, to trust only in themselves and what they have produced internally, out of themselves. And now that Belfast has fallen, Dublin is next.

There are seeming mysteries that have come from the resurgence of 1969, out of the catastrophe of 1922-5. Such things are beyond comprehension to those who think within established parameters and do not understand what ‘Northern Ireland’ is, and the history of the Northern Catholics – who, like the Ulster Protestants, have refused to be anything but themselves.

To be published in Irish Political Review, June edition.

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