Totally Useless Armchair Strategists..?

Sinn Fein really needs to tell its armed critics that the struggle for a united Ireland was abandoned because there was no strategy either armed or otherwise to secure it. Moreover, that the activities the party is now involved in are designed to gain a better deal for Northern Irish Catholics under British rule.

So wrote dissenting republican Anthony McIntyre on Friday. The day beforehand, Newton Emerson, from the other side of the political fence agreed. And, while both are veteran critics of Sinn Fein, neither sees the dissidents’ military campaign as likely to succeed. More likely it’s doomed – although it’s still a fairly clear, easily understood and simple strategy. Just destined to failure. And elsewhere, the DUP is in the driving seat and being careful not to rock the boat, to mix metaphors badly.

So where now for the republican project? Mainstream republicanism is now part of an establishment and is wedded to politics – yet SF’s political strategy for uniting Ireland seems more elusive and illusionary now than ever before. At the ard fheis, Adams pointed to a drive to unite the Irish diaspora behind a campaign for a UI. ‘Unionist outreach’ has been barely visible, perhaps occasionally contributing to warmer relations, but is unlikely to result in votes, either in elections or a referendum. So is that it? I guess many republicans have invested too much trust in SF to let go, but it seems more like blind faith these days. Or perhaps the pleasure is in the chase, and not the catch, with fuzzy aspiration replacing the zeal of old. Read the keynote speeches from the ard fheis; the Assembly seems less and less a means to an end, and looks more and more like an end in itself.

Which is just fine for virtually everyone (except republican dissidents and the Jim Allister cult following), but it shouldn’t be confused with a master plan for re-unification.

So does SF’s strategy really lie in tatters? If not, then what exactly is it? And if it does exist, then why is a naturally suspicious and distrusting unionism so unconcerned? Beard-stroking platitudes can only cut it for so long. It’s going to have to be a helluva speech next Sunday, Gerry…Newton Emerson’s article:

Dissident republicans have ?no strategy? for uniting Ireland. This was the standard response Sinn Fein trotted out yet again after Monday?s coordinated disturbances.

In fact, the dissidents have exactly the same strategy Sinn Fein had until at least 1994 although we are far too sophisticated to mention that now.

The dissidents are attracting people back to Sinn Fein?s old strategy because Sinn Fein does not appear to have a new strategy although we are far too sophisticated to mention that either.

Over the past 15 years, most people have finessed the constitutional issue down to the point where mentioning a united Ireland at all is akin to breaking wind in church.

If the dissidents have brought any new tactic to republican strategy, it is their willingness to blow a raspberry at the congregation.

Sinn Fein did once have a post-ceasefire strategy for uniting Ireland.

The details are debatable but a rough outline can still be discerned from the wreckage.

After softening unionism up with a bad-faith approach to the Good Friday Agreement, the coup de grace would be delivered by the 2001 census, which was projected to show an imminent Catholic majority.

The first of the agreement?s septennial border polls could thus be demanded as early as 2002, commencing a countdown to unity.

Sinn Fein would then turn its attention south, aiming for cabinet posts. Ministries would be coordinated on both sides of the border to create de facto all-Ireland governance.

Gerry Adams would have been nominated for the Irish presidency in 2011 and a second or third border poll would have been timed for the final triumph in 2016.

Failing that, the next generation of republicans could crack open the IRA arsenal and go back to ?doing what they do best? as senior figures assured the faithful at numerous graveside orations.

Sinn Fein has been known to deny that this was the gist of Tuas, its Totally Unarmed Strategy.

Sinn Fein also denies that Tuas actually stood for Tactical Use of Armed Struggle. But whatever Sinn Fein?s strategy was, it has clearly gone horribly wrong.

The 2001 census showed a majority of Catholics among children but not enough Catholics to deliver a Catholic majority overall, perhaps ever.

Unionism survived the carefully plotted implosion of the UUP and is probably well rid of it.

International opprobrium over the Robert McCartney murder and the Northern Bank robbery forced the IRA off the stage in 2005.

Denied the whiff of sulphur, Gerry Adams merely stank in the 2006 Irish general election. The last deadline to time a border poll before 2016 has expired.

But the most incredible failure of Sinn Fein?s united-Ireland strategy has been the failure to adapt it to circumstances.

In particular, Sinn Fein should have seized on Ian Paisley?s emergent Ulster nationalism during his year as first minister.

Instead, it spent a year planning a stand-off with Peter Robinson.

Gerry Adams often talks about ?the logic? of political positions.

The logic of Mr Robinson?s position, as he inherited Ian Paisley?s crown, was that he could not back down under any circumstances.

The dissidents must have drawn great strength from Sinn Fein?s ensuing humiliation.

It is notable how Sinn Fein and the dissidents still use the terms ?ending partition? and ?British withdrawal? interchangeably, while also insisting that unionists are not British.

There is no logic in this position either. If unionists are not British, then partition and the British presence are not the same thing, even if ending them are steps on the same road.

A once-in-a-lifetime chance to develop this difference opened up in mid-2007, when Ian Paisley declared himself ?a proud Ulsterman and a proud Irishman? and blamed the Troubles on ?British betrayal?.

Why was this opportunity to build a united Ireland via Northern Ireland squandered?

Sinn Fein has dropped enough principles in its time to drop the rhetoric on ?partitionism?.

It has stolen enough of the SDLP?s clothes to rework John Hume?s ?post-nationalist? vision. But still the only united Ireland it will contemplate, when it publicly contemplates it at all, is a 32-county republic declared from the Hill of Tara by President Adams the First, flanked by weeping women, jubilant youths and a chorus of harp-playing virgins. The gap between this fantasy and reality is where the dissidents flourish.

So we are back to the politics of the burning barricade, which is real enough for those who enjoy that sort of thing.

If it is Sinn Fein?s united Ireland or nothing, some degree of nihilism is inevitable.