Danny Morrison takes a retrospective view of the peace process and some of the compromises on principle and pragmatic gains made by Sinn Fein since it dropped its fundamentalist struggle against British jurisdiction of Northern Ireland. But he argues strongly that Sinn Fein should cool their insistence on a resumption the Assembly and effectively allow Ian Paisley to wait it out so long as he wishes: “…because he represents the largest party might entitle him to be First Minister – but, in truth, who could work with this one-man executive?”By Danny Morrison
A few years ago I was speaking in Fermanagh in front of a mixed audience. A unionist supporter stood up and asked impassionedly had nationalists any idea the devastating effect that 30,000 of them voting for Bobby Sands had on the Protestant community. I replied: had unionists any idea of how nationalists felt at a quarter of a million of their number voting for Ian Paisley who had collaborated with the UDA and continually insulted the Catholic faith.
By his silence I knew the man had never thought about it that way because, you see, nationalists are the troublemakers and unionists are innocent.
I wasn’t comfortable putting a courageous, virtuous person on the same plane as Ian Paisley but the point was apposite. Bobby Sands never instigated the conflict: he was a victim of it.
Following Paisley’s reaction to the recent IMC report (‘IRA didn’t fully decommission/IRA still active’) you can understand the wisdom of the IRA refusing his demand for the destruction of its weapons to be filmed and witnessed by a DUP nominee. Couldn’t you just visualise Paisley at his annual conference last weekend? Not only would he be gloating that he had forced the IRA to wear ‘sackcloth and ashes’ publicly on video – which would have been playing out on a large screen behind his large head – but he would have bellowed that the IRA had lied and not put all of its weapons beyond use, therefore the DUP would not be going into government with Sinn Fein.
Not that the IRA would have acceded to his demand but it is a fact that throughout history it is the people who have been oppressed who are always more willing to shake hands, to compromise for the sake of peace, than bullies and former oppressors.
There are many republicans who feel that the IRA leadership went too far throughout this process. I myself think that whilst there have been mistakes they got the balance just about right. But it has been a difficult road given that the armed struggle was waged – and could only have been waged – with idealistic zeal and for fundamental demands. Independence and a socialist Ireland are what Volunteers signed up for and for which many laid down their lives.
We demanded a British withdrawal within the lifetime of a government. We demanded that Britain recognise the right of the Irish people as a unit to national self-determination. We demanded an amnesty for the political prisoners. And we fought one hell of a long struggle and paid a heavy price in pursuit of those demands.
But there were many lessons learnt along the way. The exigencies of survival meant that republicans couldn’t allow themselves to be constrained by their principles. And so, the IRA began ‘recognising’ courts, particularly in the South where the unchallenged word of a garda superintendent was enough to imprison a Volunteer. Volunteers fought court cases, took the witness stand and refuted allegations of membership and IRA activity. In miscellaneous, political and quasi-political court cases republicans paid fines and some individuals – again quoting pragmatism, but against republican policy – pleaded guilty in court to minimise their sentences.
After the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order was introduced in 1987, republican activists ‘filed’ for marches, albeit insulating themselves from direct dealings with the RUC through using solicitors. It was the same over the Robert McCartney murder – using solicitors and the ombudsman’s office rather than dealing directly with the PSNI. (Incidentally, I consider sorting out the policing issue to be a bigger priority and bigger prize than the restoration of the institutions.)
Republicans have used the courts and judicial reviews to sue the state or compel unionists to obey equality laws.
Purists will argue that this dilutes one’s republicanism – but purists rarely have anything to show for struggle and sacrifice. Life is complex, circumstances change, battles are won and lost, opportunities arise, and, as in nature, it is those who can adapt who survive and thrive. In fact, to use and exploit the system in a considered way, both in its contradictions or whatever advantages it offers to achieve one’s ultimate aims is often to do the revolutionary thing. And this, to me, is the story of the peace process, and the peace process to me is a phase of struggle.
The physical war with the British government is over – though other battles continue, particularly with regard to the truth about its murder campaign. Britain remains as the administrator of the North. But it is willing to devolve powers to an assembly and an executive and work cooperatively with Dublin despite unionist objections. The British army is no longer in our faces or a part of our lives. The majority of political prisoners have been released. Irish government involvement in the North is now a fact of political life. Sinn Fein involvement in the Irish government is an election or two away.
As Dermot Ahern pointed out the other day to unionists, the people of the twenty-six counties agreed to the amendments of Articles 2 & 3 of the Irish Constitution as part of the Belfast Agreement which involved a power-sharing executive and all-Ireland bodies. Neither government is prepared to abandon the Agreement. Nor, it seems, are republicans, who view it as a major compromise but also the template for change and working towards Irish unity.
Which brings me back to Paisley.
Increasingly I think we must need our heads examined. Just because he represents the largest party might entitle him to be First Minister – but, in truth, who could work with this one-man Executive? He is ill-mannered, arrogant, pompous and bigoted. We want the North to change, to modernise, and not to be stuck in the sixteenth century having the Protestant Reformation shoved down our throats. What an advertisement he would be around the world.
We would be a laughing stock.
We would be building on gas.
I thank God that Paisley is terrified of being First Minister, and that the DUP by making the North ungovernable within is demonstrating that the North is a failed political entity. Ironically, that was one of the aims of the IRA’s armed struggle. Goodbye Sinn Fein/IRA, Hello DUP/IRA!
Republicans should remember that they wanted to bypass a northern assembly and executive and work macro-politically towards unification. Sinn Fein should go back to basics and demand the abolition of the failed assembly.
Even though Hain rule is misrule and unrepresentative rule, it is better than Paisley rule. We’ve waited for 800 years, what’s a few more?
First published in Daily Ireland
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty