The Elephant Room

Tag cloud based on posts discussing Ronan Kerr's murder. 


Here’s a graphic illustration of reactions to the murder of Ronan Kerr. Now, I’m not suggesting that commenters on are a cross-section of anything other than commenters on (or trying to promote blogs as anything other than conversational noise). But I’d seen a few people dismissing the reaction, both on here, and elsewhere, and pointing to an underlying tension that they consider is barely disguised, even at the best/worst of times. The above, courtesy of  Wordle is a word cloud from all the text in comments on the half a dozen or so threads reacting to the murder (basically starting with Turgon’s) up to around 12 pm last night, with only posters names edited out and plurals/singular words condensed (for the pre-condensed version see here). You can make as little or as much as you want from it – but the most frequently occuring word is people.

I had expected the emphasis to be more strongly on an elephant in the room for republicans (inside and outside of Sinn Féin) – the historical and definitive failure of violence to achieve it’s overall objective of a united Ireland. Challenging as public discussion of it might be, the logical under-pinning to Sinn Féin’s political strategy is simple: violence didn’t work as a tactic with the obvious proof that it didn’t achieve its strategic goals. However, whether violence ever worked on the Irish political stage also requires unionists, and the state, to bring so many elephants into the room that any conversational space gets squeezed out (although I’m going to address those elephants in a follow-up, just not today).

The militarisation of the ‘Irish question’ in the early twentieth century took place in the aftermath of the Boer War, which consciously, or unconsciously, must have given significant shape to the expectations of how a conflict would develope between a modern Empire and western European insurgents. The imposing backdrop of the widespread militarisation and socialisation of violence that was brought about by the Great War was the formative experience for a generation of soldiers, which, in itself, under-pinned much of the political direction of Ireland (and indeed Europe) in the first half of the twentieth century. Even in this light, the attempted establishment of the Irish Republic in 1916 was a military and tactical disaster, failing in a number of key areas such as securing major infrastructural nodes and the lack of provision of artillery. Strategically, it achieved limited goals in promoting the concept of an Irish Republic, but I suspect that the overall doom-laden vision of those who actually turned out on Easter Sunday was heavily fuelled by stories of the Paris Commune rather than more immediate practical lessons in siege-and-hold military tactics.

The campaign that followed the end of the Great War saw republicans largely avoid set-piece engagements with units of company size rarely deployed. Either way, neither in 1916, nor during the War of Independence, did republican strategy target a limited, partitioned solution, so ultimately, it too failed in its objective. The ‘political’ solution, to geographically define unresolved issues of hegemony and identity to the six counties in the north-east was to be qualified by the rapidly-ignored Boundary Commission. Militarily, challenges to a partitionist solution failed during the Civil War and in subsequent sporadic attempts to catalyse political changes through violence.

The dramatic increase in intensity of violence at the end of the 1960s is obviously all to fresh in many peoples’ memories. Oddly, many assumed at the time that it would be short-lived. Indeed, when Whitelaw seemed to be putting the suggestion of withdrawl on the table in 1972, he may have even reinforced the idea that the IRA campaign was close to, and capable of, achieving its overall objective (Brian Walker will happily correct me here if that isn’t correct). Any immediate prospect of success was obviously chimeric with a futile attempt to return to the Whitelaw dynamic in 1975 followed by confrontations with the critical mass of republicans held in state prisons. A lengthy security campaign provided the state and it’s civic society ample opportunity for the development of counter-insurgency tactics. In such a small society, the human toll of the actions by various republican groups, which included many deaths and injuries to those supposedly not regarded or intended as ‘targets’ is hardly measureable.

But, perhaps the most damning indictment of violence, as a tactic, came in Jim Molyneaux’s assertion that it’s end was the greatest threat to the ‘union’. Indeed, the only sustainable solution, for republicans, lies in persuading enough of the electorate to support a united Ireland. Oddly trying to persuade unionist politicians, per se, is a distraction, since by definition, they hold their own political convictions. The real theatre of conflict to be fought over here is in the minds of voters (not politicians). This is the dynamic and presents unusual challenges to others (e.g. what will the Alliance agree as the status quo if it takes so many seats that there are more designated nationalist than unionist MLAs)?

This a point on which those, who still believe they can attain the strategic goal of a united Ireland by violence, should ponder. History doesn’t give them any chance of success.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    A very interesting and thoughtful post, John. My pennyworth on this, as I didn’t post on any of the other threads, is that the path to peace has been sold to Nationalists – through Sinn Fein directing the narrative – in a way that legitimises past violence, even while seeking to move on from it. It’s sold peace as a strategy – we believe this is a better way to achieve our goals now – rather than a position born out of a principled objection to “political” violence of any kind.

    The Republican Movement has never really faced up to the wrongs it wrought upon society in the Troubles. No proper apology, the continuing pretence of having fought a “war” (though eschewing both the Geneva Conventions and suddenly switching into peacetime rules when it comes to “enemy action”), no compensation for their victims, no enquiries – no guilt, it seems.

    Little wonder then that some Republicans still think murders like that of Ronan Kerr are consistent with mainstream Republican tradition. The recent history they have been sold leads directly to this way of thinking.

  • wee buns

    Thanks for the refreshing post John.

    Usually loudest & most public discussions are the moral ones of good versus evil, which is where the leadership on both sides, is stuck at, and unfortunately likely to remain stuck at. Didn’t Thatcher do it first with her ‘war on terror’ & every country in the world has followed suit, in a clear attempt to shape people’s thinking and gain support for action of whatever sort. It has short term political pay offs: the leaders get credit for taking strong moral positions, but is usually followed by a rise in repressive measures which stripping citizens of constitutional protection. You can see it on the world stage by the implementing so called ‘security’ against terrorism. All of which does nothing to extend the moral understanding of causes/implications of violence within the community, be it neo-Nazi, Al- Qaeda, Christian fundamentalist gunman or dissident republicans.

  • Henry94


    I think John’s emphasis on the failure of armed struggle will have more to say to republicans that your wondering about the absence of a “proper” apology.

    It is in the nature of the hoop-jumping agenda that no apology can ever be proper enough. Unionists have analysis of the troubles that absolves themselves from any blame and continuously insist that everyone else buys into it.

    The trouble is that it provides republicans with an excuse for not doing our own analysis of the failures of armed struggle. By having to defend the struggle from unionist revisionism we dodge having to do our own revision and ask our own questions.

    It’s sold peace as a strategy – we believe this is a better way to achieve our goals now – rather than a position born out of a principled objection to “political” violence of any kind.

    Is a principled objection to any violence held by anybody else? Would the Union Jack not still be flying over Dublin if that was the position taken by republicans in 1916.

    It is wrong to use violence not just because it can’t deliver a united Ireland but because even if it could that kind of united Ireland would hardly be worth having. Just as majority rule imposed by force in the north was not worth having and ultimately fell apart.

    Violence by various people for various reasons brought us to the dilemma that was left when Stormont fell. It didn’t move us an inch on from that or back from that. It never will. I don’t blame people on any side for not understanding that at the time but how thick would you have to be not to understand it now. Most of us get it and we need to form an immovable block against those who don’t.

    Little wonder then that some Republicans still think murders like that of Ronan Kerr are consistent with mainstream Republican tradition. The recent history they have been sold leads directly to this way of thinking.

    It is consistent and that’s the reason the failure of armed struggle absolutely must be talked about. But it must be talked about from a republican point of view. That’s where the debate has to be.

  • DC

    This is the dynamic and presents unusual challenges to others (e.g. what will the Alliance agree as the status quo if it takes so many seats that there are more designated nationalist than unionist MLAs)?

    Interesting point, but under your philosophy of appealing over the heads of the politicians and to the people directly such a situation – should it arise in the assembly- doesn’t merit a response, because only the people can decide, rather than politicians, be they larger in number as nationalists over smaller in numbers unionist ones or otherwise!

    There could well be a larger number of nationalists on a regional turn out of 40% of the vote, but if a referendum were called – the result could be a higher turnout into the 90s say and a vote to keep the status quo could be won anyway.

    My view on designations is that a new party or one looking to modernise things should go to the assembly and dual designate – say for convenience there were 20 MLAs elected, have 10 as nationalist and 10 as unionist – and vote tactically as and when a community vote can be turned into hard policy. Such as voting nationalist on issues of protecting health, whereas voting unionist to say introduce water charges, if you like. These are policies which can be argued on social and economic grounds, hence the need to register a vote, which is denied to the current ‘centre’ party – Alliance.

    Besides, a reduced number of unionist MLAs still won’t matter a jot because the voting arrangements are such that vetoes can still be had based on the proportion of the bloc rather than any specific number, the system will still protect unionist or nationalist interests regardless of the number of MLAs designated. If I am correct it will be a majority of the bloc as registered, so you could – say – have a bloc designation with only 6 unionists in it but in theory if 5 out of the 6 decide to vote against the community veto will carry. Despite a greater number of MLAs belonging in the nationalist bloc, even it were into the 100s!

    So the system will work against nationalists in the future should a larger number of people become converted to voting for nationalist parties in future.

    Like anything built on maths and numbers – the system can be rigged or manipulated for both good and bad effects – hence my proposed idea of dual designation, a numbers game to interfer with the voting patterns in a bid to push policy over the finishing line, which could otherwise be resisted by old and outmoded unionist and nationalist parties with their vetoes in tow.

  • DC

    Actually the outworking would be say if you had 10 MLAs in both unionist and nationalist camps, when voting for a nationalist instigated issue a dual designating party would use its 10 MLAs in the unionist bloc to try and push up the numbers in favour. And vice versa for unionist ones.

    In time, the idea would be to increase the number of MLAs and have bigger sway across both blocs to interfer better and keep things progressing where previously deadlock was recorded. It would also – if successful – reduce the relevance of the designation system itself and reduce the appeal of political parties operating under those fixed nationalist identities: Unionist and Nationalist.

  • John, might I suggest that there were two interlocking questions a century or so ago: the ‘Irish’ and the ‘Ulster’ questions? I presume Home Rule was London’s response to the Irish question and the ability of Irish nationalists, operating as a bloc, to determine the make-up of UK government. I suspect that Home Rule might have proceeded relatively smoothly had it not been for the Ulster question and Ulster unionists desire for the island to remain within the Union. The formation of the Ulster Volunteers was followed by the formation of Irish Volunteers. To today’s eyes a Provisional Government of Ulster might look like an Irish republican structure whereas it was an Ulster unionist one.

  • Tomas Gorman


    Acquiescence to the status quo is both cultivated and held by armed force. Is the use of force a moral issue? If it is, then why is one force good and the other bad?

  • John Ó Néill

    Tomas, I did point out that I simply couldn’t fit all the elephants into one post (I intend a follow-up over the weekend).
    Force, actual and threatened, has not perpetuated a solution from any direction (since the united Ireland project has been equally resistant to violent opposition over the years). I’m trying to get past the concept of a shared morality as it tends to be stubbornly subjective and elusive (and it really helps to hide behind the elephants when discussing it).
    The debate for republicans should be over tactics being fit for purpose for a sustainable solution and attainment of strategic aims. The current argument is simple regarding the united Ireland project – violence hasn’t produced the goods. Surely that is obvious.

  • perseus

    wise words Henry94
    I do believe you speak for the conscience of Republicanism.
    Indeed all these hungerstrike and patriotdead commemorations are just not hitting the notes anymore is any kind of consonance:

    It must be remembered that after the 1916 rebels executed, not one irishman since, in any war, in any decade has advanced irish republicanism as regards partition.

    I think we should have one day a year (only) where all the victims of the troubles are remembered on all sides.

    Only now can I suggest we use 11/11 at 11pm, and stop splitting hairs. Wear a poppy for all .
    Life is too short and precious.
    Perhaps then Unionists too would gradually come to accept the Easter Lilly as the agreed “birth of the nation”, and wear it.

    Rhonda Paisley painted a picture flowe-power bringing together these iconic symbols.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    I’m sure you’re right, Republicans are unlikely to listen to me as I’m not a Republican (at least not an Irish one). I’m not sure that’s a great boast for the open-mindedness of Republicans though. Do they not care what Ulster Protestants think? I thought we were Irishmen too to them …

    So violence hasn’t produced the goods for Irish nationalism. Indeed it hasn’t. But surely it would have been wrong, even if it had produced the goods?

    Other posts have shown

  • wee buns


    ‘’ The debate for republicans should be over tactics being fit for purpose for a sustainable solution and attainment of strategic aims. The current argument is simple regarding the united Ireland project – violence hasn’t produced the goods. Surely that is obvious.’’

    There is absolutely NO incentive for the leadership to have this debate. We = good: Them = evil. That suits them grand.’ We’ are the moral community.
    But ‘they’ also form a moral community as they see it.
    It’s a simplified & distorted world which cannot marry with authentic republicanism. Just as Thatcher, Bush and every consequent leadership since have shown ‘War is the health of the State’.

    The notion of ‘universal rights’ is where conscientious republicans need to look. It’s where Palestine is looking. It’s a larger moral framework…which recognizes that many competing claims to moral community exist. Indeed it’s not attached to one religion or culture nor stops at the boundary of one community. Moral understanding.

    The word cloud catches that.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Apologies, posted before I was finished … But I was really, except to point out the vacuousness of the position that use of force by police and security forces has some kind of moral equivalence with terrorism. It’s a self-serving narrative that always had more to do with ham Republican “theory” than anything else. Imperfect policing does not save terrorism from its place at the very bottom of the moral pile.

  • Alias

    The line is more transparent than that. There is considerable evidence that the State was directing the terrorist organisations at the senior levels and was also protecting senior figures within them.

  • Alias

    Which, of course, just might have something to do with why violence didn’t achieve the aims of some of those organisations but did acheive the aims of the State, particularly in regard to its demands that its constitutional legitimacy must not be disputed by the Irish state or by those who regarded themselves as Irish within the British state.

  • John Ó Néill

    MU – I intend dealing with this again on Saturday. Depending on your perspective, there are quite a few ‘ham’ theories. Indeed, resistance to Home Rule, then partition, were promoted through the use and threat of violence, so, in effect, the latter at least suggests that some force does ‘produce the goods’ (although the threat of force to retain partition has also proved equally unsustainable). To labour the point that force doesn’t work, from a unionist perspective, paradoxically, flies in the face of the evidence that, for unionism, force worked. As I said, there are lots of elephants* in the room.

    Wee buns – which leadership do you mean? ONH?

    *It’s useful but I’m already tired of the elephant analogy

  • wee buns

    …looks like a parade of elephants walking down the street…

    Obviously for the SF leadership there is no incentive to have the debate. Although I would suggest they are under huge moral obligation to consider the consequences of ignoring it.

    For ONH, who believe their cause is exceptional & that the action so crucial that the odds don’t matter, I can’t see an incentive. Who would they debate with? They are held in contempt. As are éirigí who haven’t resorted to violence but are treated like moral cripples. There are big forces of dislocation at work here and deliberate attempts to alienate, polarize and humiliate, on the part of the state.

    Violence doesn’t work to achieve political goals but equally terrorism can’t be defeated militarily.

    So where does that leave us.

  • wee buns


    Realistically, the GFA is a sectarian devise designed to perpetuate the raison d’être of partition, Unionist/British supremacy through formal democracy. So the most recent wave of violence is blowback. It’s a cycle. So again where does that leave us.

  • perseus

    particularly in regard to its demands that its constitutional legitimacy must not be disputed by the Irish state or by those who regarded themselves as Irish within the British state.

    That’s not what happened.
    The Irish State freely gave up articles 2/3 as part of the GFA

    wee buns,
    where it leaves us is: the GFA provides for stable governance, and both the aims of Republicanism, and retention of the Union are enshrined.
    Unity is an argument yet to be won , and politics is the agreed way forward for any change.
    More and more the dissidents and TUV are being rejected.
    A time for optimism perhaps !

  • wee buns


    ”More and more the dissidents and TUV are being rejected.”
    …but how does this actually stop them?

  • redstar2011

    I simply dont but this line that the non SF Republicans have no support.. The establishment told us for 40 years that the Provos had no support-total nonsense.
    Now that SF is part of the establishment and has opted to accept partition, support the British Security forces etc doesnt change the fact that history tells us time and time again the Republican cause has been sold short and sadly all it meand is a legacy of continuing struggle as we leave the problem to future generations.

  • perseus

    …but how does this actually stop them?

    we can’t as such wee buns, but people are prepared now to “tout” on them,
    the swamp will be drained and the cancer exposed.

  • John Ó Néill

    wee buns – I think that the SF leadership (and other republicans) do need a public debate on this. There has been a glass ceiling aspect to community voting and someone needs to develop a coherent strategy to attract support from those perceived to belong to the other ‘community’. As I have been trying to point out – violence hasn’t achieved the desired result and has obscured and pushed out a more fundamental win – an underlying principle behind those promoting British hegemony has been the presence of a population who will suspend all other decision-making criteria to retain some connection with London (voting unionist first, policy somewhere down the line). The key strategic element (and failure) of violence as a tactic has been to detach London from its supporters here (which has not worked). Recognising that and evolving an approach based on detaching those supporters from London instead, by offering a buy-in to an acceptable policy/social/economic framework, would seem to be the sustainable route rather than kicking the can down the road.

  • wee buns

    They may be at some point forced to have the debate, when SF’s continuing legitimacy in the people’s eyes is at stake, but while riding the current moral high ground that doesn’t seem to be too threatened.
    To be so closely identified with the establishment as to have become the colonial power that nationalism resists, is to be their ever growing problem. Kicking the can down the road of false decolonization can only lead to (more) tears.
    I don’t know that SF hasn’t gotten too comfortable with its ‘story’ to begin publicly revising the fundamentals of that, although it would be the smartest route to invite the debate before being forced to.
    The whole topic is so morally polarized and politically manipulated, as you rightly say it has only served to secure British hegemony.
    However the same is true of the south after partition with sectarianism & religious identity being used by the state to undermine radical social & political movements and secure a form of conservative populist hegemony, from within which the left has not yet managed to assert itself either.

  • wee buns


    ”…..but people are prepared now to “tout” on them,
    the swamp will be drained and the cancer exposed.”

    Acts of violence, a kind of sickness, but always a product of society from which it springs, so can only be tackled by looking at the environment, causes, motives, history, leadership, social dynamic. Which is why the debate needs to be opened up but it won’t be easy to do.

  • Alias

    I don’t think either the conflict or the resolution to it supports the haughty conclusion that violence “doesn’t work” (i.e. doesn’t achieve desired outcomes) since, rather obviously, the violence achieved the aims of two of the three major protagonists to the conflict – the aims of the loyalist paramilitaries and of the British state.

    It’s closer to the truth to say that violence doesn’t work for so-called republican paramilitaries for a variety of reasons, e.g. lack of legitimacy, lack of an end game, poor strategic use of violence, poor counterinsurgency measures, a cult mentality that puts faith in dubious leadership, etc.

    The first step to changing a system is getting people to recognise that it is the wrong system and needs to be changed. Good luck with that when all of the Catholic franchisees are ‘well-chuffed’ with the current system.

  • Alias

    Typo: “…poor counterintelligence measures…”

    The example being the decision of Gerry Adams to appoint a British agent, Freddie Scappiticci, to PIRA’s internal security unit and to keep him in place for almost 20 years when standard procedure is to rotate those key positions so as to avoid the long-term infiltration that PIRA expereinced. Indeed, the hapless Gerry seems to have made something of an unfortunate practice of appointing British agents/touts to key ISU roles (Kevin Fulton, Roy McShane, JJ Magee, Eamon Collins, etc). At any rate, once that occured, the British state new everything about the structure of PIRA and also vetted its membership as the ISU has a remit to enquire into all operations that can only be countermanded by a member of the AC, and, of course, will protect other British agents at all levels within PIRA, so that was game over for the hapless volunteers.

  • wee buns

    It’s a very seductive system.
    As Bernadette said ‘It’s like a funnel’
    Prosecco Provies have too much vested to say ‘Look we made a mistake’.
    With the 26 counties having been effectively colonized by the EU and with what appears to be a gathering convoy of PIIGS in our wake, who knows what opportunities for republicanism await.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    “To labour the point that force doesn’t work, from a unionist perspective, paradoxically, flies in the face of the evidence that, for unionism, force worked.”
    Well firstly, I wasn’t saying force doesn’t work. The Republican Movement knows very well that it gets attention like nothing else, because decent people will go a long way to make violence stop. I was saying that it shouldn’t work, which is different – and that we’d all be better off if decisions were made without regard to either violence or threats of it. Non-violent people should not be out-muscled by those who resort to force, obviously. This was the main reason so many non-violent unionists struggled emotionally with the dynamics of the peace process, where violence was often repaid with political leverage. Sinn Fein had to be inside the tent no matter how ludicriously they behaved, because they used violence; the DUP did not have to be in, because they did not use violence. I supported the deal but I found that aspect of the negotiations indefensible.

    But I WAS saying it hasn’t delivered “the goods” for Republicans (in the sense of an all-island state outside the UK) and that, further, extra-legal use of force is immoral full stop – it is not to be assessed according to how “successful” it was. This isn’t some arcane point, this is Civil Society 1.01.

    As to use of force “working” for unionists, well force was threatened by unionists around the time of the Home Rule debates of course and I would regret that line that unionism took at the time. (Indeed I think the unionist case at that time was usually poorly argued). But then violence was also threatened – and used widely – by their nationalist opponents. It doesn’t make sense water to say the threat of force won partition, when both sides were applying more or less equal threats. That’s not to excuse unionist threats, just to say they were not the cause of partition as such.

    Unionists got partition because there was no getting around the demographics on the ground. When modern ethno-nationalist self-awareness awakened and grew in Ireland, it turned out there were two nationalities in the room, not one. That’s why there’s an internationally recognised, democratically legitimated border on the island, not some perfidious British scheme.

    You’re right that there is more than one ham theory in Irish politics: but you have to admit, the “single nation” theory is the big one. Unionism, for all its faults, is not the mirror image on nationalism and doesn’t do theory in quite the same way. I’m afraid nationalists have to take responsibility for the Big One Nation Myth; I don’t think we have an equivalent turkey of that kind of size.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Sorry, ignore the word ‘water’ in the 3rd para, if you got that far without losing the will to live. Random – was thinking ‘hold water’ or ‘make sense’ and wrote a hybrid.