“Those who cannot think straight about Ireland cannot think straight about anything”

As Mick said, there’s been lots of good journalism recently, and here’s another example. At OpenDemocracy Fred Halliday, in a less polemic piece than Christopher Hitchens, firstly addresses the positive points of the ‘indigenous’ deal.. before noting the unaccounted for past and raising some still-open questions.While I’d encourage you to read the full article I’ll extract a few paragraphs..

Firstly, some of the good news

The historic agreement on 26 March between Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley on the formation of a Northern Ireland government illuminates the point. It is, in two clear respects, good news. First, it is for real: the agreement represents a major shift in the historic positions of both Adams’s Sinn Féin and Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party towards formal cooperation, and it should work for some time at least. Both sides have abandoned the maximalist goals that they espoused for many years: a forced unification of Ireland on the Republican side, the maintenance of Protestant domination on the Unionist. A measure of mutual recognition, of the legitimacy and rights of the other community, has been attained.

But he also identifies some very clear limits to that deal

Against these positive points, however, two limits of the Adams-Paisley entente need to be noted. First, while the politicians at the top may work together, the peace that may now prevail in Northern Ireland involves the almost complete separation of the two communities, in education, social life and political affiliation. Uncannily, a new European model of inter-ethnic conflict resolution has emerged based not on enlightenment and shared citizenship but on separation into distinct communities: in Belgium, Bosnia, Cyprus this has become the norm, and Northern Ireland is no exception. They may have common sports teams, and a rather similar sense of humour and affection, but there the intermingling stops. It was bad in the 1960s, before the fighting began and, by all accounts, it is as bad or even worse now, especially amongst the young.

Second, this deal, like many others in the modern world, is being carried out by leaders who, by dint of their compromise and the international support attached to it, will enjoy complete immunity, if not absolution, from the errors and crimes of their own past. Ian Paisley was never directly associated with the armed Protestant killer-squads that stalked Belfast in the 1970s; but by his alarmist and sectarian rhetoric, and his rantings about the papal Antichrist and Dublin, he certainly played a major destructive role, in two ways – by fomenting the kind of Protestant intransigence whose result was the forcible movements of population within mixed districts of Belfast, and by sabotaging earlier peace agreements that, had they been implemented, would have saved many lives.

The IRA – when it was organised, led and directed by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and their associates – was for years the perpetrator of terrible crimes, among them the shooting, bombing, kidnapping and torturing of both Protestant and Catholic inhabitants of Northern Ireland. Now Gerry is all smiles, the promoter of peace and author of saccharine autobiographies in which not a fly is hurt, but this belies his sinister, and wholly unaccounted for, past.

And, he argues, there is a still-open question about the future

This raises a much larger question left open by the Belfast agreement: that of the political future not merely of Northern Ireland, but of Ireland as a whole. Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party confines itself to Northern Ireland. Its goal is to preserve the separate status of that entity, and defend the rights of its Protestant inhabitants. It has no broader, British, aspirations: Northern Irish Unionism has long lost any links to the Conservative Party in Britain. To a considerable degree Paisley has achieved his goal. The same cannot, however, be said of Sinn Féin, the party that created and directed the IRA. Even if its century-long pedigree is contested, Sinn Féin is in its broad manifestation at least one of the longest-lasting parties in Europe; and throughout its history its overall aspiration has not changed – that of ruling over a united Ireland.

In this, the Belfast agreement, while surrendering an immediate claim on the north, is of great assistance, as it enables Sinn Féin to enter the elections in the Republic of Ireland, scheduled for May 2007, in a much stronger position. Already, with the new nationalism prevalent in the south as a result of economic prosperity, and with a younger generation of voters apparently unconcerned about Adams’s past, Sinn Féin is in a strong position to emerge as a coalition partner in any new government and reclaim the historic leadership it won in the last all-Ireland elections in 1918.

Both the other main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are in fact historic splits from the “old” Sinn Féin itself. The result of the Belfast agreement may, therefore, be to strengthen Sinn Féin in pursuit of its long-term nationalist goal, and allow this sinister, corrupt, and devious organisation – whose very name in Irish (“ourselves alone”) is a nonsense in the age of globalisation – to assume the power to which it always aspired. That would be a high price, if arguably a necessary one, for the conclusion of the past forty years of violence in Northern Ireland. In this sense, the “Irish question” is far from being resolved.

, , , , ,

  • mickhall


    I normally like Fred’s work but cannot see much in this that has not already been said. Having said that there has been very little critical analyses of the new executive etc within the English press, especially the liberal or centre left section.

    Best regards

  • Henry 07

    The heading raised expectations that the article failed to meet.

  • Pete Baker


    Some of it may have been said before, but not necessarily all in the same place.. nor so well.

  • Aldamir

    The article was a bit disappointing. It raised quite a few interesting questions, but passed no comments on them and then ended with a fairly lame “In this sense, the “Irish question” is far from being resolved.”

    The interesting questions are:

    1. The NI deal is within the current orthodoxy for conflict resolution. This orthodoxy believes that the type of sectarian carve up that we have is the normal way of resolving the problems of a divided society. My own belief is that this orthodoxy should be challenged.

    2. The top down elite deal provides immunity to its participants. My own belief is that a new page needs to be turned. I would suggest that legislation should limit the time in office of our current power holders. I do not relish the idea of a DUP/Sinn Fein coalition led by the surviving members of the current parties continuing in power for the indefinite future.

    3. The article hints at the immunity issue paving the way for Sinn Fein to take power in the south with its sinister side intact. This is a real possibility.

  • Henry 07


    1. The NI deal is within the current orthodoxy for conflict resolution. This orthodoxy believes that the type of sectarian carve up that we have is the normal way of resolving the problems of a divided society. My own belief is that this orthodoxy should be challenged.

    Welcome to the anti-partition platform.

  • Henry,

    Great to see the shiny new branding, but if you have the time, it would be good to hear you expand a little on the one liners! 😉

  • The Dubliner

    It’s a cogent and succinct summery of the core dynamics, but flawed by depicting opposition to British rule as being the central dynamic of nationalist violence when it was actually opposition to how the British ruled.

    To that end, the nationalists used violence to oppose misrule and to secure reforms. Unity, in that context, was the preferred ‘final solution’ to that misrule, but it was just one possible solution, with the other solution, an internal settlement, also being acceptable – as it could not be if PSF supporters were republicans instead of nationalists. Stealing historical names such as Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army simply served to drape a cloak over of respectability over a campaign that was nationalist and sectarian in its true form – using violence to secure social reforms.

    As to how well PSF can do in the south: that’s down to how many supporters they can gain from the unthinking and the disenfranchised elements by cult of personality and promises. There core aim is to prostitute Irish unity in the south for selfish party political gain as they did in the north, but I really don’t see them having any success with that strategy – they will be confined to the lunatic fringe in the south where they properly belong.

  • Aldamir

    “Welcome to the anti-partition platform.”

    Funny, Irish “republicanism” is still moaning about the evils of the Plantation. Not exactly a nation builder that one…

  • Henry 07


    Time is my problem right now. Bloody Celtic Tiger!

  • Greenflag

    Nothing new from Halliday . As Dubliner says a cogent and succinct analysis but he misses Irish nationalism by the proverbial mile and exaggerates SF potential in ROI. He might want to remind himself that it’s no longer 1918 .SF will get a bounce in the coming election and that’s all it will be . SF may well become Coalition partners in a future ROI Government but if so it will be under radically different conditions than how this was achieved in NI. It would be a voluntary coalition between like minded parties and be achieved by the ballot box .Any attempt by SF to achieve political power in the Republic by the gun or ‘sinister’ means is doomed to failure . The Republic’s Constitution stands atop the rock of overwhelming public support across all parties /denominations and classes .

    Dubliner’s assessment of SF support as being ‘lunatic ‘ fringe is ‘elitist’. There is room in Ireland for a leftist party/parties not as the majority party in any future coalition but as junior partner. Probably 20 to 25% of the electorate will vote Labour or SF . The remaining 75 to 80% will go to FF, FG, PD’s and Greens/Independents.

    ‘In this sense, the “Irish question” is far from being resolved.’

    Not as far as Halleday may imagine . Finding an Irish solution to the British ‘problem’ in Ireland may turn out in the end to be an easier fix than finding a British solution to the ‘Irish problem in Britain/UK’ . While not wishing to exaggerate the significance of the week’s events or read too much into them -the ice has been broken and political pragmatism should prevail from this point on.

    Irish Nationalism has proved itself mature ‘enough ‘ to deal with the new immigrant population so I don’t see any reason why it would not also cope/deal with any ‘new ‘ British minority in the NE of the island . The question is whether in the future the ‘stroke ‘ people in NI would /could ever accept ‘minority’ status in any single all Ireland political identity . The evidence to date is that they won’t. Could that change under Paisley ?

    If Paisley starts pushing the DUP in the direction of ‘protectors /guardians ‘ of the ‘protestant’ interest in NI or in any future UI as opposed to over emphasing the UK connections – then he Paisley would be pushing an open door .

    Que sera sera

  • dub

    its a shame that Halliday repeats the old mis translation of sinn fein for contrived ends.

    whilst the party does indeed have a sinister past and part… it is also full of genuine people who are really trying to move things on, good people in another words, and brave people.

    greenflag, spot on.